Growing up in Washington State, I was convinced my mother and stepfather were ascetic monks disguised as law-abiding citizens. Everything about our house in the woods—its dirt driveway and wood-fired stove, the rickety doors that were forever creaking and driving us all mad—suggested an extension of pioneer society, a devotion to hard work and self-denial accompanied by a general mistrust of modern comforts. My family didn’t seriously invest in electric heating until after I left for college (during winter, I was forever walking around like the little brother in A Christmas Story, wearing roughly 20 sweaters and weeping about not being able to put my arms down), and our shower usually had only 30 seconds of hot water per day. My mother was forever banging on the bathroom door, ordering us to get out of the shower and stop wasting precious natural resources.
This lifestyle became especially troublesome once I entered high school. Living in a largely affluent small town, most of my friends enjoyed accordingly cushy lifestyles: palatial homes, unlimited heat, fancy refrigerators that dispensed pompous quantities of ice and filtered water. Such modern conveniences seemed impossibly luxurious to my untutored experience, more akin to the advanced technologies of science fiction than reality. To this day, I haven’t quite gotten used to the idea that a house can actually have more than one bathroom.
It’s important to note that my family wasn’t necessarily poor. My parents worked hard and made a decent living, and I enjoyed plenty of privilege. It’s just that both my mother and stepfather prioritized a radical simplicity, and they saw no reason to invest in flashy materialism. Of course, I was too young to appreciate this philosophy. More than anything, I wanted to be far away from my provincial lifestyle, presiding over a swanky party in a distant urban high rise, saying sophisticated things to sophisticated people and gesturing at expensive, avant-garde paintings with clinking tumblers of Scotch. And the heat would be on, even in June.
As I grew older, my desire to leave the Northwest grew stronger, and my teenage years were accordingly dominated by an anxious restlessness. Since there was never a real possibility of running away before finishing high school (other than a brief moment of insanity during my junior year in which I considered moving to Ireland to become a shepherd), I satisfied my wanderlust by piling into a cruddy car with my brother and sister for late night drives down the backroads of Crescent Valley. Under the cover of darkness, we stole out of the house, plugged our clunky iPod into the cassette player, and drove through the forests surrounding our home. It might sound like a boring pastime, and it probably was, but you have to remember that we lived so far away from civilization that we were genuinely overjoyed when our town finally built its first department store (it was a Target, for your information, and it sold bargain blue jeans for the low, low price of $19.99). We never talked during these drives, preferring to sit in silence and dream of adventures to far-off lands.
If adult life hasn’t yet given me the swanky apartment I imagined (or even a half-decent bottle of Scotch), it’s certainly given me the opportunity to travel. In the eight years since I left home and wandered away from my family, I have moved exactly nine times. I’ve slept on beds, air mattresses, friends’ couches, and (on one particularly memorable occasion) the floor of an abandoned chateau in the French countryside. I’ve bummed around from one odd job to another, working as a painter, a writer, a tutor, and a library assistant. On the road, I’ve waited in airports and train stations and bus shelters, zigzagging my way across Europe and North America without much rhyme or reason.
The funny thing about traveling is that it’s never as glamorous as it seems. Bombarded by social media pictures of millennials traveling to exotic locations, it’s tempting to think of traveling in simplistic, idealistic terms. “I need to find myself,” we think, “I need to figure myself out,” and then we jump on airplanes and fly to Italy and find that we’re still miserable and confused and lost, even while taking smiling selfies in front of the Colosseum. Whenever I’ve been in transit, wandering the streets of Venice or drinking coffee in Paris or driving the long dusty highways of West Texas, I haven’t thought much about adventure or excitement. Like Odysseus wandering ancient oceans, I think about home, about the quiet rhythms and ceremonies I grew up with.
When I’m on the road, I’m never in Dublin or London or Boston, and my gray hairs aren’t multiplying and my back isn’t aching. I’m always sixteen, and it’s Christmas, and I’m still chopping wood in the forests of Washington State. I’m losing myself in the rise and fall of the axe, the crack of the logs as they split down the middle, the howling of my dog running through the fir trees. Night falls, and it’s time to build a fire, and my family gathers around the crackling stove to tell each other stories, to remember why my stepfather can’t abide the smell of eggs sizzling in a skillet or how my brother snuck onto the school roof to smoke cigars and watch fireworks on the Fourth of July. And then I wake up in the wee hours of the morning, and it’s snowing over the spires and domes of Edinburgh, and somehow I’m still the same person I’ve always been.
Moving isn’t about running away from something, not really. It’s about remembering an older, simpler part of ourselves that’s been lost in the white noise of adulthood. And, while there are many houses in the world, many spaces that we choose to occupy, there’s only one home, one place that really grounds us when we’re on the road and wondering who we are. Sometimes it just takes many years to find it.
Author’s Note: This summer I’ll be starting a PhD program in English at Washington University in St. Louis, and this will be my last blog post for Pickett Street Properties. Ansley Clark will take over as Pickett Street’s blog writer starting next week. Many thanks to Margaret and the whole Pickett Street team for letting me write nearly 80 posts on real estate, mortgage, Seattle, and Northwest living.