Three years ago, we found out we’d be moving 100 miles south for my husband’s new job. We loved where we lived and didn’t want to leave, but when you have three kids (ages 5, 3, and 1) and enjoy eating daily meals and paying bills on a regular basis, you go where the work is.
House hunting in the rural area was a trip. As longtime city dwellers, we were surprised at the features in some of the real estate listings: wood stoves instead of heat pumps, septic systems rather than city sewer. Wells (I pictured myself pulling up a bucket like Ma in Little House in the Prairie).
Another snag: Pretty much the only homes within our price range and within the school district we’d fallen in love with were located way out on the end of a peninsula, around 10 miles from the nearest highway. School was about to begin, and we’d heard rumors that the local school wasn’t accepting out-of-district kids, so we pounced.
We found a great deal on a rambling one-level house that fell well below our price range. It was within walking distance of a sandy saltwater beach. How bad could it be?
Scratch that. How awesome could it be? A beach, towering evergreen trees, starry skies, silence, deer wandering by. Friendly neighbors. The promise of playdates and movie nights and bonfires. A real-life free-range childhood for the kids.
And at first, it was awesome. I’ll never forget the morning we drove up with a carload of cardboard boxes just in time to see a mother deer lead her fawns out of our yard. The massive animals calmly passed within a few feet of us without so much as glancing.
“Holy shit,” I whispered to my husband. The kids were in awe.
That first summer was a blur of happy memories. We walked to the saltwater beach whenever we pleased to make sandcastles and play with baby crabs and geoducks (they have got to be the most X-rated animal in the world) and listen to the seals snort at the end of the dock. The kids rode bikes down the middle of the empty street and made friends with the neighbors. A pair of ducks fell in love with us and would come up to the door quacking to let in the house.
We picked enough blackberries from the bushes that grew everywhere to make a crumble pretty much nightly. I got used to glancing outside only to lock eyes with a deer who was staring right in the window. We saw a fawn shortly after it was born. (“I was practically her doula!” my neighbor said happily.) And I loved to pull up to a herd of deer, roll down the window, and ask, “Want a ride?” The kids cracked up every time, while the deer all but rolled their eyes at us.
But the school year hit hard. The lazy, sun-drenched beach days and relaxing bike rides were a distant memory. It was cold, dark, and rainy. And I drove the hell out of my minivan. Ten miles didn’t sound like a lot until I did the math and realized dropping off and picking up the kids from school meant driving around 40 miles a day. (My poor toddler logged so many car hours listening to the Beatles that he learned all the words to “Blackbird” before he turned two.)
Even past the first 10 miles to the highway lay everything we needed: another 10 miles to my favorite grocery store; around seven to a tolerable store. (The tiny stores on our peninsula never really had what I needed, except maybe a tiny bag of sugar for five dollars in a baking emergency.)
As time went on, I had the disconcerting realization that I am pretty damn high strung and easily stressed. I got sick of it all: starting to bake, only to realize I was missing some dumb ingredient vital to cookies or banana bread; going to grab a Coke/beer/bagel only to realize were out; making less-than-delicious lasagna out of Greek yogurt because the nearest ricotta cheese was a 30-minute drive away.
A disorganized shopper at best, I became the queen of off-the-cuff food substitutions: string cheese on pizza, mayo in cake batter, cottage cheese in smoothies.
I put more miles on our minivan than a person ever should—preschool, sports practice, gymnastics, and Girl Scouts were all 30 or 40 minutes away. Normal family activities—a friend’s birthday party, the zoo, a movie in the theater—translated into huge drives. We got good at eating dinner in the car—if you can call a slice of gas-station pizza “dinner”—familiarized ourselves with the cleanest public bathrooms in the area, and became pros at killing time in town between activities.
Killing time. It was all about killing time. A parking lot with wi-fi, a park, the mall, the bookstore, Target (where I’d always emerge $100+ poorer). I didn’t realize how ingrained this routine had become in our lives until my then-4-year-old son, upon seeing the Barnes and Noble sign, asked, “Mommy, does this mean we’re killing time?” I sent my husband frustrated texts regularly (“Did you seriously eat the last yogurt and not buy more?”) and drank more wine in that first year than I probably have before in the rest of my life combined.
I’d never realized before how much I truly need to be around people. Though I used to joke, “I need to go live on an island” when I felt stressed out by social interactions, the actual act of living on an island (technically a peninsula) nearly broke me. My real-life interactions seemed so rare that my Facebook friends had to pick up the slack, receiving more than their fair share of my photos and pithy comments and stories about the kids that—let’s face it—are probably pretty much only funny to me.
To compound that, working from home while living on the end of a peninsula is pretty much the worst combination imaginable. Though I had been freelancing for years, I suddenly missed working in an office. I wanted to argue about grammar face to face with a copy editor and meet co-workers for margaritas after work. I even missed the meetings (sort of).
Meanwhile, I worked to the sound of the dog’s collar jingling and the refrigerator humming. Sometimes I jumped when the mail carrier knocked on the door. When a client would message me that she was leaving for lunch, I’d ask for details: Where? With whom? What are you going to order? Weirdo alert.
I started to feel like a jerk. I was snapping at the kids, feeling annoyed at friends, and scrolling through social media feeling jealous of everyone who lived near stores, bakeries, soccer practice, coffee shops. “I can’t take stay here much longer,” I told my husband almost every day. I went to the doctor to talk about my stress level and maybe even get some meds, but the visit turned into a 30-minute lecture about how we should move closer to town immediately.
“I have a friend who lived out there, and she felt so much better when she moved closer in,” my sweet doc said, barely suppressing a shudder. “This is just not a particularly healthy lifestyle for you right now.”
Last summer, a pod of orcas visited our peninsula beach. We saw them three times, and I’ll never forget it. The kids and I stared silently at these majestic creatures while they swam by, and a tiny part of my soul screamed, “How could we ever leave here?” I love the sandy beach and the deer and the quirky middle-of-nowhere neighborhood characters: the man who takes evening walks with a parrot on his shoulder, the guy who walks his ferret on a leash, the people who put up more holiday decorations than anyone ever.
But then I went home and felt awful yet again. Felt desperate for the life I’d lost, heartbroken for everything I was missing. And a few weeks later, we did it: We put our house on the market.
I have no idea what the future holds for us. Sometimes I don’t know what our ideal home even looks like. I don’t regret these past three years, but I can’t say they’ve been particularly easy. My husband is worried we’ll look back with regret, that we’ll miss this kind and tight-knit community, the serene lifestyle, the idyllic childhood for the kids that is practically an advertisement for free-range parenting.
We may never walk to a sandy beach for the afternoon again, never see a majestic orca swim by or get within arm’s length of a deer. I worry for the kids; I know moving won’t be easy for them. I worry that we’ll end up somewhere we don’t like and my husband, though he probably won’t say it, will be disappointed in me for wanting to move. And I wouldn’t blame him one bit.
But I’m ready to go. I’m ready for whatever life brings—and more than ready for civilization.