Originally written for The Second Sun Project in December 2019.
There’s a verse in an old Apache Relay song that I often think of: “Home is not places, it is love.” Standing on a beach in New Zealand last month – waves crashing wildly under an endless sea of stars, distant city lights glowing softly – I was on the opposite side of the world from everything familiar, from anything that you might classically call “home.” Yet I felt peace, ease and belonging. For the first time in a long time, I felt at home in my surroundings – and in my own skin.
I’ve never had a very strong sense of place. The longest I’ve ever lived in one spot was as a child, when I lived for five years each in Michigan, Wyoming, and Montana. When people ask, I say I am from Montana – the place I spent my most formative years and a landscape I love dearly – but in truth, my soul has always felt split down the middle, parsed into fragments, unsure of where it belongs.
When I was 16, I left Montana for college in Missouri. More than one thousand miles from the life that I knew, I sat holed up in my dorm room as a lonely freshman, feeling sick of the snowless cold, missing mountains, perusing scholarship applications. Call it fate or luck or inevitability, but I found myself reading about a two-week backcountry skiing course in the Tetons with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS). I dismissed it quickly as impractical and hopelessly cold, but the idea stuck in the back of my mind and in January, I found myself driving to the NOLS base in Driggs, Idaho. I spent one night in a hotel by myself, watched the thermometer drop to negative 20, and wondered what I had gotten myself into.
Ten days of winter camping with 14 strangers turned out to be one of the best experiences of my life and a lesson in the power of blind trust despite fear. I expected to battle the cold alone, but instead I found friends who taught me silly songs about trees and who shared gooey brownies over propane flames. Discomfort was drowned in camaraderie. For the first time since I had left high school, I felt belonging, community, home.
Although change had been a constant in my life, I had seldom chosen it: I protested moving and although I had taken music trips in high school, they were all calculated risks. So far, my experiences at a university far from the familiar had only left me hollow. But there in the Tetons a switch flipped in my brain: “This is what happens when you take a chance.” “This is what happens when you open yourself to strangers.”
After that first terrifying step into the unknown, I have spent every summer taking a different chance, in a different place, doing a different job – bat research in Colorado, seal research in Massachusetts, shadowing at a veterinary clinic in Michigan, vaccinating chickens in Madagascar, couchsurfing in Europe, sleeping in the back of my car and camping in national forests in the American West, building out a van with my best friend and bumming through British Columbia, working in New Zealand. With fewer material possessions to worry about, I was forced to focus on the people and experiences that were in front of me. Through this, I discovered that I am at my best when I have the least.
In my life I have seldom “fit in.” My goals have never been traditional. After earning a degree in music, I applied to veterinary school. I stepped out of the veterinary program to add a public health degree and yet, what I find myself most passionate about these days is storytelling, science communication, empathy. I have always felt pulled in many directions: Equally longing for city streets, country roads and mountain passes. I suppose it’s unsurprising that I feel most comfortable with other wanderers and vagabonds. People who live out of their car so they can do the things they love or see more of the beautiful places that exist in the world. People who live simply and value experiences over things. People who value people.
In the summer of 2018, I was gazing up a rock face in Tuolumne Meadows on the northern side of Yosemite in California. Belaying a climber, I watched a long green rope snake from my harness out of view, up and to the left, curving over a large block of granite, and vanishing. I felt the gentle tug of the rope in my hands as I belayed, reminding me that I was connected to my partner.
But I was also alone to enjoy the view. A gentle breeze caressed my face and I smiled out at the valley of lakes stretching beneath me and at the knowledge that more beauty awaited me at the top. A quiet moment in the sun on a rock cathedral can feel like the warm embrace of a dear friend.
Home doesn’t always have to be a place you’ve been before. Love doesn’t always have to come from people.
Three months ago, I landed on an island on the opposite side of the world and drove five hours by myself to a little mountain town in New Zealand. I felt utterly alone. I was far from all I loved and knew and wanted.
But it always starts like that. All of the best experiences I have ever had, all of the best friendships I have forged, have involved stepping away from what I know and choosing to accept the uncomfortable. It has taken me a long time, but I’ve realized that home can be anywhere that I feel love and feel loved – with family or friends, but also in nature, hanging out with a stranger’s dog, or even (and perhaps most importantly) by myself.
I still get nervous before big trips.
I know that I will inevitably return a different person. My perception of my surroundings and the way I interact with them will be altered. I will no longer be the same person. Home is fleeting, but that’s what makes it so beautiful. And as long as we remain open, there will always be another opportunity to find it. Never the same, but always another.
So, my home is on the New Zealand coast, waves crashing under a sky filled with more stars than I ever thought possible, looking up at the sky and sharing awe with another human being.
It is pulling into a new town and cooking dinner on camp stoves in a beach pavilion with people I didn’t know existed that morning and who share their foraged mussels and spaghetti with smiles.
Or my skis gliding silently over fresh powder as snow continues to drift down all around, alone on my birthday on the backside of a mountain I know well. Home is a good hug. It is the smell of pine.
Home is curry cooked in a full kitchen. Home is falling on the floor with new friends because I am laughing so hard. It is anywhere that I have a belay partner. Home is one more rope length, then lazing by a mountain lake. It is riding bikes through city streets in the rain, soaked and laughing. It is people who make me feel comfortable – it is being comfortable with myself.
And someday maybe home will be in a neighborhood and on a porch where I can share a drink with my neighbors and in a community where children’s clothes are passed between families. But for now it is enough to find comfort in knowing that the café down the street has a particular kind of cinnamon coffee cake. Within myself, I have learned to find home wherever I am.