Visiting Thomas Hollowell ’00
Steve Charles—The biographical blurb on the back of Thomas Hollowell’s new book Allah’s Garden says he grew up in tiny Gessie, Indiana, population 94.
That’s not exactly true.
Thomas’s house is just north of the railroad tracks—tracks where his father was nearly killed one day when a diesel locomotive slammed into his Chevy Blazer and tossed it thirty feet off back into the corn fields.
And that area Thomas lives just north of tiny Gessie, with its single meandering street morphing from weathered pavement to gravel halfway through “town,” that section where Thomas and his identical twin brother Terry grew up in a small house with a view of the sun rising over the fields—is called Dinktun.
“When we were kids, there used to be a sign with that written on it,” Thomas, now 31, tells me as we amble down his long gravel driveway, the “Main Street” of Dinktun. (He wants to make sure I get the name right so he spells it out and I write it on my hand.)
So Thomas Hollowell, who just published a book about his adventures in Morocco and the captivity and eventual release of a doctor imprisoned in the Sahara for 25 years, who runs a travel company there, who was almost jailed in Marrekesh for kissing a beautiful woman when he was a Peace Corps trainee, didn’t grow up in Gessie, population 94, but Dinktun, population—well, as Thomas and I walk down his driveway on this peaceful Tuesday afternoon, we’re it. (Not counting his mom and stepdad, who are taking a nap in the house.)
I’m here to interview and photograph Thomas “in context,” in his hometown, the day before he’s scheduled to speak to 150 kids at his old high school. After getting taking a few shots of Thomas with the official sign of of the town of Gessie (complete with two antique plows), we walk over to the place where Thomas and Terry so many hours and days growing up in this town that is really just a big neighborhood——a concrete pad bordered by chain link that serves as the town basketball court.
“You know, Terry and I built those backboards last year,” Thomas says as he shoots around and I photograph him. "And those rims, those rims are from Wabash! From the old Armory. We saw them after they’d been taken down and asked Chick Clements if we could have them, and he said, ‘Sure, we were just going to throw them away.’”
So a little bit of Wabash athletic history now resides in Gessie, poplulation 94.
A neighbor woman calls out to Thomas, volunteers to take all her kids’ toys off the court where she’d moved them to clear off her lawn for mowing. I tell her the toys kind of add to the shot, she offers again, then realizes I really do want the toys to stay.
“79,” she yells to Thomas from her yard, and he explains that she is referring to the record he set for most consecutive free throws on the town court. The record he set during another visit home last December.
“It was almost dark, and this huge full moon was coming up as I started shooting,” Thomas says, then flashes a grin I’d see a lot of that day. “I didn’t know if I was going to set a record, or become a werewolf, so I just kept shooting!”
On this peaceful, gorgeous afternoon (temperature about 70, no humidity, light breeze, bright sky), its hard to imagine Thomas, who seems so in his element here, as a world traveler who lives in a desert country and just completed a book about a part of its history many of its native inhabitant know little about. A writer who will also have his guidebook to Ireland published next year.
But Thomas says he likes to have a lot going on. When not researching and writing, he keeps up the website for his book and the travel company. For his book launch party at at the sheik Idlewild Books in New York, he did much of the pre-event publicity (much of it non-traditional, through online social networking). He and Terry now compete in triathletes (even though they live thousands of miles apart, Thomas says the twins rarely go more than three months without one visiting the other). And the more he talks, the harder it gets to imagine him growing up in Dinktun, but he seems totally at ease here, too.
“When I come back sometimes there’s a sort of culture shock,” Thomas explains. “But the real shock comes when you go to a place like New York, where I just was, to Gessie.”
He talks about the house he lives in Ifrane, the beauty of the place, his interactions with the people, the friends he’s made, and especially Fazia, ‘my girlfriend and almost fiancée," and you can see he’s a man of both small town and cosmopolitan natures.
“I mean, it’s not exactly like I feel here in Gessie (Dinktun), when I look out on this field and know I’m home,” Thomas says, talking on his porch now and trying to describe the beautiful Moroccan city of Ifrane where he now lives and gesturing toward the corn fields and the two angus cattle grazing nearby. “But when I open the door there and look out, I do feel at home there. You could say I’ve found home.”
It gets me thinking about this work of finding home. I grew up in the desert Southwest, but after 30 years in Indiana, I feel unexpectedly at home on the jungle-like banks of Sugar Creek in high summer. Yet any time I return to the mountains and brown desert valleys of Arizona and New Mexico I feel a rush of memories and a sense of being where I belong.
Maybe it’s the same with Thomas and his green Indiana village near the Wabash bottomlands and his view from the high mountain city of Ifrane. To feel at home in two places, when some folks never feel at home anywhere, seems a gift. Or perhaps neither place is truly home, the place of rest and memory. Maybe that’s part of the dual nature of folks like Thomas, of many of us.
Anyway, I asked Thomas to consider following this “finding home” thread in the piece he’s writing for the next issue of Wabash Magazine.
For now, you can read more about him and his latest book here.