I was spending a week in Wrangell-St. Elias National Park–a combo of a backpacking trip into the mountains and a hotel stay in the town of McCarthy. Solo travelers aren’t necessarily the norm in McCarthy so, after a few nights at the bar (because that’s what you do in McCarthy), the bartender grew curious.
“Where do you live?”
“Well, my stuff is in storage in New Jersey…”
“Hey, my stuff is in storage in New Jersey, too.”
Having that in common with a guy who was spending the season in McCarthy tending bar in between Antarctica seasons at McMurdo shifted my understanding of myself. Instantly.
Just like that, I knew that I was, if not a seasonal worker, becoming a seasonal mover. Not a snowbird; I tend to chase cooler temps. My wandering up to that point (like most people, a week or two for vacations or work trips) had always been spurred on by place instead of weather. Sun worship always burns me (literally). And now I was at the beginning of what I knew would be a long stretch of living here and there or wherever. I didn’t own a car yet (I had rented one for the summer) but I knew that purchase was coming soon. After 17 years living in NYC, I was a year or so into my new life as a New Yorker who no longer lived in the city–though I still had a stockpile of cranky and, thanks to Vonage, my 212 phone number. I was spending the summer in Alaska and had already started to dream up my where’s next?
The wandering continued for a couple years. On the road (please excuse the Anne of Green Gablesness of this but … ), I felt a kindred spirit with long-haul truckers, campsite hosts who popped around the country in their sizable RVs, and gift shop workers and guides at National Parks. We were not a people who stayed put. We learned how to keep up with friends and family from … wherever. I bought fingerless gloves so I could type at campsite picnic tables until my computer’s battery fizzled out. And I formed even stronger bonds with long-time friends who had also taken up wandering and started new friendships with others who lived the same way (though most I only know online–we’ll meet when our paths cross). In emails, tweets, text messages, and Facebook posts, we all filled each other in on campsites that had ocean views, coffee shops with good WiFi, and, at times, commiserated about things we weren’t supposed to complain about because, as others said, we were all living the life. (Really, I don’t understand that phrase. Living the life. So odd. Anyway …)
After that first full summer in Alaska, I bought a car, spent a winter in Nashville, went back to NJ, took a seven-month road trip (NJ to AK and back again) with an extra-long hurricane-related stop in Nashville, stopped in Jersey again, flew back to AK for most of March, drove to Nashville and Savannah for most of April (or was it May?), went to Ireland for a month, and then went back to Jersey for the summer of 2013.
In late August, I drove off again. To Alaska. To stay put for a year.
It was a real move. Not a for-a-few-months move. A year. Or, at least, that’s the plan for now. The longest plan I’ve laid out since moving out of NYC in 2009.
Though I was excited to stay put in my beloved Alaska, I felt I had betrayed the lifestyle I’d been living for the last few years. I felt I was giving up some of the connection I had with those who were going to keep going. It felt kind of awful. I love that 300 miles no longer counts as a real road trip for me. It’s an errand. I love that I’ve become a person who thinks a spur-of-the-moment drive from Astoria, Oregon to Ogden, Utah to kayak on the Great Salt Lake seems reasonable. I love meeting people in the parking lots of rest stops and taking the time to learn something about their lives. I’ve met a lot of good people in parking lots.
I tumbled it over in my mind again and again during the 5,000-mile drive to Anchorage. As I crossed Pennsylvania and Ohio and Indiana and headed up to to NE Illinois to visit my brother, sister-in-law, and nieces, and crossed Iowa and South Dakota, where I stopped in the Badlands to eat chili and look at up at the stars with two of my favorite traveling friends, Valerie and Ayaz. And then headed up into Montana and into Canada, where I clocked kilometers in Alberta, British Columbia, and the Yukon. And, finally, into Alaska. On that last day, I drove nearly 700 miles. I was ready to stop. I was ready to start doing my bouncing around within Alaska’s borders, to go even deeper into this place I’ve loved for the last decade.
But that doesn’t mean the discomfort has stopped. Some days I feel anxious about the staying put, about having a cable bill in my name. That’s when I remind myself of all I want to see and do here. And, most of all, that no place needs to be permanent. Really, not knowing is what makes me most comfortable.