ANNIVERSARY Countdown (Count-Up?)

Today is Friday, March 7th, 2014. We were married 986 days ago, on June 25th, 2011.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Domestic Expats

Arcata, California has long held a very special place in my residential roster.  I had barely moved there in the summer of 1994 when I knew, almost immediately, that I was at home.  The fog clinging to the heavily forested mountainsides; the view from the living room window across the entirety of town and down into Humboldt Bay; the array of small shops lining several blocks of downtown.

That feeling has remained during the ensuing years.  I've never felt as "at home" in any place since my childhood house on Lemuel Street in Muskegon.  But, although the feeling of home-ness never left, I did.  I was in pursuit of academic work; I'd finished my Ph.D. in fall 1996, but continued to sell furniture for another full year as I looked for a job.  Every Thursday, I'd trudge up the hill to the Humboldt State University library to get the brand new copy of the Chronicle of Higher Education; and every Thursday, I'd walk home empty-handed.  It wasn't that furniture was bad; it was that I had my eyes set on a different prize than could be obtained in Humboldt County.  Although I had lots of experience in social research and in community study, I had a Ph.D. in Architecture, and that confused almost everybody.  Certainly there's no way to get a job in Sociology or Geography or American Studies; it's as though you're on some crazy game show, looking among hundreds of doors for a lock that your key will open.

There were THREE positions listed that year for faculty lines in Turf Grass Management... but I digress.

Anyway, I went away in January 1998.  I came back for a month in 1999 to do the research that became my second book; I came up again in 2002 to visit that same young man as he continued to go nowhere.  And I went back a third time in August 2010, with Nora, to attend the wedding of my friends Neoma and Ben.  Neoma had been in the high school where I did my first major research; now at 31, she had asked me to return for her wedding, and I had gladly agreed.

Nora and I flew in to San Francisco, and drove up the coast.  The Sea Ranch Chapel.  The Surf Motel.  Glass Beach.  Mendocino.  The Drive-Through Tree.  The Humboldt County Fair, and the ranchers in the tavern that night in Ferndale.  The Rose Court bed and breakfast in Arcata, where we stayed for six nights.  Ice cubes at Ramone's made of coffee, so that one's iced coffee didn't dilute as it melted. (I have never seen Nora as happy before or since as she was when ordered iced coffee and the counterwoman said "with ice cubes or coffee cubes?")  The Cypress Grove cheesemakers.  The outstanding Native American museum hidden within the schlocky gift shop of The Trees of Mystery.  An unending week of (re)discovery.

It was a beautiful wedding, under two huge redwoods in a campground near Patrick's Point.  And that night, when we got back to our B&B, I proposed, and Nora accepted.  Without that trip, this blog might never have had a reason to come into existence.

Last week, to my surprise, I got a phone call from the new editor of the North Coast Journal (formerly of Arcata, now in nearby Eureka), asking if I'd like to write a cover story for them.  Their staff writers were swamped with local investigative work, she said, but she'd had an idea for a feature article, and when she pitched it to the staff, a couple of them recommended that she call me.  The hook:  to talk with people who had loved their lives in Humboldt County, but who for one reason or another had had to depart.

As the saying goes, that hits pretty close to home...

So I've spent much of the afternoon lining up my first four interviews:
  • A law-school student at Syracuse who had gone to high school on the local reservation, now pondering whether to try to start a law practice in Eureka after graduation;
  • A musician who had reached the peak of the local music scene, and left last year to try her hand at the big time;
  • A young woman I'd barely met while doing the book 2 research and don't know well, now living across the state but still feeling as though Arcata was her home;
  • A young man who left Humboldt right after high school, achieved a long array of undergraduate and masters degrees (and is now considering a Ph.D. or Ed.D.), and has returned to Humboldt but isn't sure he can make a life there.
There really is something about that landscape, and the city of Arcata in particular, that has magical qualities.  There's a lot of poverty, a lot of drug use (and not just the marijuana that provides the county with most of its economic support), and a lot of rain... but those flaws notwithstanding, I've never experienced anything like this place's ability to draw one's devotion.

So tomorrow and Monday, I get to talk with four other domestic expatriates, to try to figure out what it IS about that place that's so deeply satisfying while simultaneously offering so little economic or career opportunity.  As the editor said while recruiting me, "I think of it as a story of unrequited love... a place that these people loved deeply, but that wasn't able to love them back in the ways that they needed."

Middletown Springs is a lot like that (at about 1/20th scale).  The people who are there are there for good; but there aren't four spare nickels to rub together in the whole region.  Most of our friends who live there are able to do it by virtue of retirement funds or inheritances or divorce settlements, not by money they have to pull out of the air month by month.  Like Arcata, it's a wonderful community held within a stunning landscape; like Arcata, it loses many of its younger residents to opportunities elsewhere.

"How ya gonna keep 'em down on the farm, now that they seen Paree?"

"Go West, young man."

The geographer Yi-Fu Tuan wrote a book called Cosmos and Hearth, in which he argues that the natural arc of mankind is from the cultural limitations of home and hearth to the "cosmos" of the cosmopolitan.  Certainly that's been true in America, where the vast majority of us live within metropolitan spheres of influence; worldwide, it was only recently that half the population has become urban, a proportion rapidly increasing.  And while there are benefits of finance and of artistic exposure and of cultural diversity, there is also loss.

I wrote a haiku many years ago:
The road has been no friend to me.
It has more often led away than toward.

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