I took the magnets off the refrigerator. That’s what made it real. It wasn’t signing a lease or writing the check. It wasn’t cleaning out the camper, removing our clothes and dishes, our pots and our pans. Our daughter’s toy box. It wasn’t pulling the tools and spares out of the truck or changing the oil one last time, six thousand miles from Sacramento, where I did it last. It wasn’t shopping for all the things we left behind a year ago: a washer and dryer. Beds and sofas and rugs and tables and chairs. It was the magnets.
The plastic numbers and letters came from south Florida, purchased somewhere outside of Miami in the first trembling days our trip. I bought a big tub of them. Stuck them to the front of the fridge after I’d packed away the groceries for the week to give Kiddo something to play with. She squealed when she saw them for the first time, happy at the marvel of all those colors and shapes. It was a struggle to keep them out of her mouth, at first. And later, out of my boots. We’d find them squirreled away in her bed or under it. In the silverware drawer or the pantry. Our daughter’s little totems.
We’ve been in Rockbridge County for a single busy week. It doesn’t feel like home. Not yet. It’s been nearly a decade since either of us lived here. And now, staying with Beth’s parents while we try to scrape together some semblance of a stationary life, it doesn’t seem real. Seems like we’ll throw our things in the truck and head on soon enough. Off again to the next wide, amazing place.
Being still scares the living shit out of me.
It’s so easy to fall back into the trap of where we were a year ago. Back into the mire of spending the hours of our short lives toiling for things we neither want nor need. To lose hold of our deliberate days. The great irony of where we are is that for the first time in our lives together, we know what we want our world to look like. We know we need a small house. We know it must be somewhere beautiful, somewhere that snaps the breath from my lungs when I open the door or look out a window. That we need space to spend our mornings and evenings outside, to feel a cold wind on our cheek or the warm touch of the sun on our eyelids. To hear the bluebirds and the red tails.
But we’re farther from it now than we were a year ago. Our roaming days cost us, both in dollars and in employment. I left my steady paycheck behind, and banks are understandably shy about loaning to those who work and live for themselves. As we drew closer to Virginia, I realized the inevitable truth: for the first time in nine years, we’d be renting again.
And worse, I’d have a hard time justifying the camper. It represents a sizeable payment each month, and if we’re not using it day in and day out, it makes no sense to keep it around. I made a half-hearted for sale ad. Posted it on a single forum with photos from across our wild year. Pictures of the truck in ranging and gorgeous places. Shots of our ever-growing daughter playing in the floor or clamoring up to the top bunk. It hurt to list it. To think of it gone, but if my time preparing for our trip taught me anything it’s this: be ruthless.
Looking at those photos, it’s hard to believe we came so far. That we made it. The margins seemed so narrow. The chance of something ill happening so great. Broken bones. Stitches. Crashes, tumbles, illness. A hundred thousand shades of harm. We missed it all. Came out not just whole, but improved, the three of us stronger than we were when we left. Older, too. Feels like ten years.
Virginia was our high-water mark. The meter against which all other places were measured and invariably, fell short. It is the beating heart of the Blue Ridge, and by extension, Appalachia. Not more beautiful than western Oregon, central Vermont, southern Texas, or Northern Utah, but a place that can hold its own in that crowd. I wish I could tell you what it’s like to see these hills, now after filling our eyes with the humbling spectacle of this continent. The shock of finding them stunning. The gentle arc of the ridgetops. The curve of the valleys. The whisper of the waters.
This is a place with more bookstores than Best Buys. A town with three coffee shops, none of them a Starbucks. An independent radio station with bluegrass on Sunday morning and new music the rest of the week. And our people. My father and his family. His smiling wife and her brilliant kids. Their new daughter. Beth’s parents and grandfather, too. Friends from high school. All of them here in the home we’ve been looking for.
We spent a month looking for a suitable rental online, trying to craft our new life from four states away. It’s what I did after kiddo was down or before she woke up. In the minutes and hours when I was supposed to be working. We wound up with a short stack of possibilities, and began visiting properties the day we arrived in Virginia. Left Kiddo with her grandfather and went hunting. Signed a lease by the end of the day. It happened so quickly it didn’t feel real until I found myself sticking our daughter’s magnets to our new refrigerator.
And it didn’t feel right until the day before her second birthday. Move in day. I’d made a few trips earlier in the week. Had friends and family help me shuffle the belongings we’d left in my father’s basement to the new place, but this was different. For the first time in a year, everything we owned was under one roof. It was already dark. Beth and Kiddo were inside, trying to move things around enough to give us a place to sit and eat. The moon, a muddy disc glowing through the first thin clouds of a cold front, did little to light my way. I stood by the truck. Put my hands on the fender, and hung my head. What were the odds of the thing taking us so far? Of it finishing what I started? There aren’t words enough for the gratitude I feel towards it. For what I owe our fierce and steady mule.
I filled my arms with the last of my daughter’s stuffed animals and began walking towards our new home. Somewhere in the field behind me, a coyote called out, yipping at the darkness, barking her hello. That lonesome call. We’ve heard it all over this country. It followed us. Made us feel at home in Florida swamps and in the thick of Maine forests. It sung our daughter to sleep in the Tetons with holes in our roof and our floor full of water. It talked me out of losing my mind with worry as the first snow of the year fell there. One wild dog calling to its own echo, bounced off the ridge behind us in the thin gray light of dawn. And it said then what it says now. That it’s alright. That this is good. That you’re where you’re meant to be. Home.