New Years and the approaching midpoint of our housesitting term seem justification enough for some reflection. Nearing the merciful end in 1979 of the chemical engineering curriculum at the University of Illinois, I told a headhunter in a letter that he should assume I’d live nowhere east of the Mississippi River. Though I’m sure he consequently joined the ranks of the many baffled by my so-called priorities, he helped me secure a nice job offer in Missoula, Montana. I turned it down, deciding instead to enroll in two-year graduate school. Four years, a severe economic recession, and a graduate degree later I ecstatically accepted a job offer (with an annual salary 25% less than I’d been offered in Missoula) in Germantown, Maryland, a suburb of D.C. and a good piece east I reckon of the Mighty Mississippi. I lived and worked in the D.C. area for eight years, then in 1991 pulled up stakes, again with my sights set westward. For months I toured the Pacific Northwest, Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, Idaho, northern California, and, as a side trip, Minnesota. (While in Port Angeles, Washington, I felt a tug from a, I imagined, wild and exotic Vancouver Island just a ferry ride away, but couldn’t’ spare the funds for the fare.) Though in love with the grandeur and self-reliance of the American West, I chose Minnesota, for reasons I cannot explain well other than perhaps I’m a Midwesterner at core. The Mississippi River winds through the Twin Cities; in symbolic honor of my 1979 pledge, I made sure to live west of the River--if only by a few miles--until marriage’s pleasurable compromises resulted in a move back to the east side.
Why am I thinking about this stuff now? I’ll be aged 52 years on my next birthday, and I wonder whether I should want to fulfill my long-held desire to live in The West “before it’s too late.” By that I don’t mean before I’m dead, but rather before my joints freeze and my only remaining interest in geography is the location of the nearest bathroom. Nanaimo is about as far west of the Mississippi as one can get in habitable North America, but “laid-back” seems more applicable to Vancouver Island than “self-reliant” (not that there’s anything wrong with that J ). There is grandeur and beauty aplenty here, that can’t be argued, but the similarities to the American West more or less seem to end there, which is not necessarily all--or even mostly--bad. It just is.
Living, even for two months, in a city of 80,000 instead of a large, auto-centric metropolis has helped me realize I’m getting sick of being near 3 million people all the time, even if they are Minnesotans. It tends to clog things up and make simple tasks--like going anywhere--regular nuisances. The slightly cool winters in Minnesota haven’t bothered me, but there’s a reason Arizona and Florida overflow with old folks transplanted from cold climates they once tolerated if not loved. But Minnesota and the Twin Cities have much going for them--beautiful and plentiful parks and lakes, tremendous cycling infrastructure, two city downtowns each with a distinct appeal, Mannings Bar, the longest active streak (dating to 1972) of any U.S. state not voting for a Republican presidential candidate, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, ice fishing, Pig’s Eye beer, to name a few. There’s no other U.S. metro area in which I’d prefer to live; I’ve been very happy with the choice I made in 1991.