Making Room for the Mountains

When we were planning our annual week-long visit to northern Michigan this summer, the most difficult part logistically was working through our return trip. This was partly because we somewhat dreaded sharing a hotel room with two kids, and partly because we had our dog with us, but mostly it was because I can never actually picture leaving northern Michigan once I am there. When headed to the part of the country I still consider home after two decades away, I am always convinced that for once and for all something will happen that will cause us to remain there against all reason. Sometimes my imaginings are truly awful – the dramatic death of a parent – and sometimes they are routine, like running into the woman in charge of public relations for the hospital, discovering she’s retiring, and nonchalantly submitting my resume. These are my fantasies, so I don’t bother with details like the reality of putting our house on the market prior to moving, or the actual move itself. No, in my daydreaming the situation is either so critical in nature or so ridiculously fortunate that I don’t have to concern myself with real-life details, and no one would expect me to.

I have this adolescent belief that the geography of my home state completes me in some fundamental, lizard-brain like way, and growing up I actually didn’t have terribly grand schemes to move away from Michigan. For the most part, I hoped to return to Northern Michigan after some unspecified but exciting time away – not to my home town but to one of the towns on the west side of the state, like Petoskey or Traverse City or Boyne. My grandma once told me I’m meant to live on a lake, just like she was, and her remark stuck with me – to this day I’m not sure a greater truth about me has been spoken. Bodies of water have an incredibly calming effect on me and there is nothing I enjoy as much as long walks near them. Those of us blessed enough to spend time in an area that experiences a full, glorious autumn on the water – the juxtaposition of flaming leaves and deep blue waters – have seen God.

And yet, I’m 37 years old and except for a few years while Sam was in law school, I haven’t returned to Michigan. Our lives have bounced us around the rust belt and parts of the south at a somewhat alarming rate, but for the last six years we’ve remained settled in Pittsburgh, and, much like with marriage, we keep choosing to live here, over and over and over again.

For a couple of years, I thought I would have to reconcile myself to feeling homesick every day of my life but recently my longing has mutated to something less dramatic. Now, while I still have days where I miss Michigan acutely, I am growing more content with the idea that Pittsburgh might always be my home base. I’m even beginning to admire the mountains that surround us, drinking them in and the way they change in the light, the way I once did with lake Huron, lake Michigan and lake Charlevoix. My first go-around with Pittsburgh, for graduate school from 2002 to 2005, the mountains often made me feel like the world was closing in on me. Pittsburgh was an unknowable, odd town made up of one-way streets and a confusing mish-mash of tunnels, bridges and rivers, all of which prevented me from ever getting where I needed to go. And it seemed so dark, and all of us wanna be writers lived in the attics of rickety old Victorian homes with no air-conditioning and radiator heat, and almost everybody smoked, so that for three years I dreamed about Michigan’s wide open roads and endless sky, and the way the smell changes as you drive from southern Michigan to northern Michigan, to something like sun-baked pine needles and rich, dark soil.

We’ve lived in Pittsburgh for six years now, and in that time we’ve purchased a house and had two children. When we first returned our enthusiasm came close to zealotry – our stay in Michigan had made us appreciate Pittsburgh’s walkability, public transportation, accessibility to ethnic, non-chain restaurants and behemoth museums. We embraced the local sports teams and breathed a sigh of relief – we were home.

For several years, I continued to long for Michigan, even as we made concerted efforts to grow roots here. We joined a church, a gym, said yes when people asked us to go out and reciprocated requests in return. I enjoyed all of it, even while not being able to shake the feeling that while Pittsburgh had my heart, Michigan wasmy heart.

Lately though, something has shifted. I guess it’s the kind of shift that comes with time, but now my feet feel firmly planted in Pennsylvania soil. I’m less homesick and more at home, and it’s this shift that has allowed me to begin appreciating not just the restaurants, libraries, bars and book stores Pittsburgh has to offer, but to really sink into the city and surrounding area in a new way. In Pittsburgh, I have found my tribe – a network of friends at once vast and close-knit – friends who I can count on to drop off gatorade on my doorstep when my entire family is stricken with the stomach flu, friends who will take my kids if an emergency arrives (and I, in turn, take theirs, no questions asked)friends who always have a drink or a cup of coffee or a cake at the ready, whatever the situation may require. Instead of hanging out in smokey attics ruminating about Derrida I spend my time in backyards with barely tamed gardens, the laughter of children always nearby.

Northern Michigan provided a rather cold place to vacation this summer, and the chaos of two little ones on such a long road trip didn’t make it necessarily easy. On the second day of our drive back to Pittsburgh, as the Ohio turnpike carried us east of Cleveland toward Pennsylvania, instead of tensing up as the rivers grew wider, the bridges higher, and the slow build of the Appalachians began, I found my shoulders lowering, and I began breathing more deeply. This had always been my physical reaction in the past to driving into Michigan so to find it happen on the reverse course was shocking – it also forced me to look at the landscape with new eyes. Steam was swirling off the rivers like tufts of fireless smoke while the mountains, shades of jade and emerald emerging from the distance, beckoned. In the matter of just a hundred miles or so I would arrive in the city so artfully hidden by these early hills, driving into the land of rivers, bridges, steel pride and my loving tribe. A small part of me budged that day, making room for the mountains that surround me, allowing room in my heart for two homes – and it has been expanding ever since.

6 thoughts on “Making Room for the Mountains

  1. I loved this! I grew up in southern California and now live in Minneapolis. When I was in CA I thought I would always be in CA, I never wanted to be anywhere else, I loved the mountains and the ocean far too much. I wanted to leave, to explore, but I always planned on being back. But when my husband (also from CA) moved to Minneapolis 20 years ago within a few months we fell in love with the place. In spite of that we for years talked about perhaps moving farther east one day. About 2 years ago that chance came up and we looked at each other and both agreed, no way. We are staying in Minneapolis. We love the big sky, the seasons, the people, the culture, we love who we are here. I sometimes miss the mountains but I find I don’t miss the ocean at all which surprised me. When I leave to go visit family in CA I know that feeling of coming back you describe and it makes me happy.

  2. Someday, I need to go east, just to see. Your mention of mountains caught me, because I love mountains, but when I realized you meant mountains there, it seemed so strange. I know. There are those things called the Appalachians, and probably some others. But I just haven’t a clue.

    Questions of “home” became more interesting when I began pondering where to be buried, a couple of years ago. Even though I prefer cremation, I don’t want to be scattered around — a place seems better. But where? Iowa, where my family and roots are? Texas, which is home now in a way Iowa never was? Hard to say, but it’s strangely fun to ponder such things — precisely because it helps to clarify so much in life.

  3. I think about this subject all the time, and especially because I’ve reached that point in my life where I’ve lived away from my hometown longer than I lived in my hometown. Most recently, I returned home for a family funeral and came home completely homesick. It resulted in me sitting at the kitchen table with my husband in tears talking about what I missed and the choices we’ve made since. I don’t regret those choices, but it doesn’t change the fact that I miss home a lot sometimes. My mom says being homesick is a good thing – it means you have a lot of wonderful memories and what could be better than that? Still, at times the feeling can be overwhelming. I am comfortable where I live now and it’s likely to be my home for many more years. But there’s always that little tug on my heart.

  4. Stefani – “we love who we are here” – that’s so terribly important and actually very enlightening. I love who we are in Pittsburgh as well, although I’m not sure it’s a sustainable model a few years down the road. I think we do want more green space and cleaner air for ourselves and the kids…and yet I’m rooted here now. It’s so confusing! Shoreacres – you’ve traveled so extensively I’m surprised you haven’t been east often! I’m not sure how the Appalachian mountains compare to the Rocky’s but did you know Pittsburgh is considered the one true “Appalachian” city? Jen, oh, I get equally as homesick. I think it’s especially hard in a place like Pittsburgh because it isn’t a transient area – almost everyone we know has their ENTIRE family here and has for generations. I think it would be easier in a way to live farther from home in a place like research triangle park or D.C. where it’s more the norm than here…

  5. Being from suburban Detroit I get this oh so very much. I still call Michigan ‘home’ yet I call California ‘home too. For the longest time I felt guilty each time I called Michigan home. Then I would feel guilty calling California home.

    Thank you for reminding me we can have more than one home. Both true to ourselves.

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