Nearly 30 years ago I temporarily vacated my job, my apartment, my family and my relationship with my girlfriend. With my friend Doug Conarroe, I set out on a month-long quest to find the perfect place to live my life.
I don’t know if I ever admitted it out loud at the time, but my personal goal was to pick the perfect place to settle down and craft an existence based on my 22-year-old understanding of my “identity.”
Doug and I set out in his Toyota one morning in late summer down Interstate 25 from Boulder through Colorado and New Mexico. We crossed Arizona westward on Interstate 10 and followed Highway 1 most of the way north up the West Coast from San Diego to Vancouver, then picked our way back east across British Columbia, down through Montana and Wyoming and finally home to Boulder. We saw about 1,000 longitudinal miles of the Rocky Mountains not to mention the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Bernalillo, Organ and Franklin Mountains, the Superstitions, the Chihuahuan Desert, the Sonoran Desert, Death Valley, the San Francisco Bay, the Puget Sound, Vancouver Island and Glacier National Park. We camped out on the beach at La Jolla and in an Oregon downpour. After nearly a month of wandering around Doug and I both grew tired of the road and we headed south from Kalispell, Mont., in a hurry to get back to Colorado. A Montana state patrolman saw us bombing down the opposite side of a divided Interstate and wagged his finger at us.
I decided I would settle down in Taos, N.M., for life, and I almost did. I lived there for most of the 1980s and discovered that the place really did reflect my identity, until my subsequent identity as a husband and father dictated that I find a locale where I could make a little more money.
My family and I lived in seven other far-flung places trying to meet that goal – but that’s another story.
The runner-up in my 1981 search for a home base was Marin County, California. I thought – and still think – that San Francisco is the most beautiful city in the world. I love the grassy hills and the steep shoreline, the fog and the sunshine, the expanse of the Pacific Ocean and the surrounding mountains, vineyards and quaint little towns.
I spent last week in Tiburon, one of those quaint little places, on business. I stayed in a hotel on the waterfront. From the hotel deck you can see straight across 18 miles of San Francisco Bay to the city skyline. Angel Island is less than a mile away. Mount Tamalpais towers over the opposite side of town. Commuters thread back and forth to the city in cars, on bicycles and by passenger ferry. In 1981 I thought the place was groovy. I still think so. It’s transcendently scenic, the air smells sweet and the weather is therapeutically friendly to the human body.
But I had to get out of there as soon as my meetings were done. I took a late flight home Friday and got in around Midnight. The cows needed to be fed.
Saturday I was on the tractor moving hay in the parched 14-degree Kansas frost with a smile on my face.
I have business interests that take me back to the Bay Area often. Friends and associates there are frankly skeptical of my chosen lifestyle, toting hay and chopping ice on the Great Plains. I could, in some alternate universe, have been sipping a cappuccino on my deck in Tiburon or Sausalito or Mill Valley Saturday morning.
But I’m certain that I was happier on the tractor that day.
Kansas was, of course, not on the itinerary of my scouting trip back in 1981. I was not considering a future on a Midwestern farm. I’m pretty sure that I would have recoiled from the thought. At the time I had some snobby ideas about mountain scenery.
Kind destiny eventually introduced me to the tallgrass prairie, which now smells sweeter to me than Colorado pine trees, the Taos sagebrush or Marin County’s eucalyptus-scented mist. Kansas smells like home.
Doug and I spent time with lots of friends and acquaintances on our tour of western North America. The people along the way taught us various ways of appreciating the places they lived: stoking a juniper fire on a cool New Mexico morning; enjoying a nice bottle of wine in California; hiking a brushy trail in Montana grizzly-bear country.
Maybe the most important lesson of the trip came from seeing various people engage, in passionate ways, with their environments. Overtly, people often seem to be saying, “See, this is why I live in this terrific place.” But more to the point, they are demonstrating HOW to live a terrific life in that particular place.
I set out to find an ideal locale, back when, but I was lucky enough eventually to discover a great lifestyle. Whoever you are and wherever you live, that’s more valuable than the zip code.