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Messick journeys home through "Compass Lines"

John Messick reads from "Compass Lines" at Kenai Peninsula College on March 30.
Riley Board
John Messick reads from "Compass Lines" at Kenai Peninsula College on March 30.

After decades of traveling the world, John Messick is learning to have a home.

Messick is the author of “Compass Lines,” a book of essays published this Spring. At a recent book talk at Kenai Peninsula College, where he also works as an assistant professor of writing, Messick read some of the stories from his adventures abroad, and some about Alaska.

In his own words, “Compass Lines” is a chameleon of a book.

“This is the first question you get when you write a book, when it comes up in a conversation: ‘Oh, you wrote a book. Great. What’s it about?’ And I have given, I think, a different answer to everyone who has asked,” Messick said.

If he’s talking to flannel-wearing guys hanging out in a welding shop, Messick said, he’ll say it’s a book full of hunting and fishing stories. To others, he might say it’s a book about ethics, or about home.

Messick wrote “Compass Lines” with the help of a Rasmuson Foundation grant, which he won last year. The money helped him cover the cost of childcare as he finished putting together the book, and promotional costs that came after publication. The book was printed through McCarthy-based publisher Porphyry Press.

Thursday’s launch party was a celebration of that years-long process. Messick began the reading with the story of his first home in Fairbanks, where he lived with a soon-to-be-ex girlfriend and a yard full of trash. Then his reading widened out, to travels in South East Asia — where he drank a marijuana milkshake — Northern Canada and even Antarctica, where he worked laying cable for a physics research project.

Messick said “Compass Lines” is meant to be political.

“I hope that I can, at the very least, make everyone angry, in talking about those politics,” he said.

Courtesy of Porphyry Press

Messick learned that travel was more than adventure while working at the U.S.-Mexico border, picking up trash left by people crossing the border for the Bureau of Land Management. In arid southern Arizona, he collected the discarded remnants of the lives of migrants — piles of Pedialyte bottles, baby shoes and prayer cards — all while surrounded by guards armed with assault rifles.

“I stood transfixed, by a swath of possessions that had no way to hide,” he read. “Here, miles from anywhere, it felt as if I had stumbled into a void, a scene so gruesome it made me nauseous. A place caught between an awful ending and a sad beginning.”

Messick charts in his book how, as his travels progressed, he began to learn about the value of stillness. Eventually, he settled in Alaska.

“In the following year, during the early days of the spring thaw, I found a seasonal job in Alaska,” he read. “In late summer, I loaded as much stuff as I could fit in a car and moved north permanently. In the years since arriving here, I find fewer and fewer reasons to leave.”

Here, Messick became a husband and father, which he said radically altered his perspective on travel, movement and adventure.

Messick spoke about his longing to feel like he belongs in Alaska, and also offered a tribute to the late Alan Boraas — the legendary KPC professor who passed away in 2019. He said Boraas taught him how important it is to spend time in a place to have a true relationship with it.

“I have embarked on quest after quest to address problems created because I wasn’t willing to simply be still,” he read. “I am still learning to be homesick. Perhaps it matters less what we do than it matters how we connect with the place that we choose to do it.”

“Compass Lines” is available at River City Books in Soldotna, the KPC bookstore, and online through Porphyry Press. Messick has upcoming appearances in April, including a talk at Writer’s Block in Anchorage on Friday, April 14, a talk at Fireside Books in Palmer on Saturday, April 15, and a signing at Tidal Wave Books on April 16.

Riley Board is a Report For America participant and senior reporter at KDLL covering rural communities on the central Kenai Peninsula.
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