Once, long ago, a male acquaintance said to me, “You’re constantly reinventing yourself.”
He was being critical.
I took it as a compliment.
I’ve never been one to stay on the traditional or expected path. I prefer to stretch, explore, learn, and grow.
Change can be scary, but overcoming hesitation and fear is a great way to grow and build confidence.
I’m now in the midst of yet another life reinvention: becoming a Vermonter. Although to be clear, I’ll never be a true Vermonter because I wasn’t born here. But I aspire to see and learn as much as I can about this state so I will know it as intimately as I came to know Idaho during my previous reinvention.
I have some catching up to do, so fair warning: a long post with lots of photos follows.
The Slow Farewell
I had lots of time to pack my stuff and prepare for this move. I wrote earlier about the waves of nostalgia I rode as I sifted through so many things I’d hung onto over the years. Some I kept, some I donated, some was discarded. On my own, I boxed and bagged everything I could. Then, on the morning of Saturday, July 3rd, five very good friends showed up to load it all into a shipping container that had been parked in my driveway for a couple of days. With friend Rick in charge of deciding what went there, everything fit in 12 feet of container space, truly a marvel of spatial engineering.
My buyers loaned me an air mattress to sleep on until I departed on Wednesday, July 7th. Using an old lawn chair, the only piece of furniture left behind, I set up office in my bedroom closet for three days.
I tried to maintain a semblance of normalcy for the boys, with morning walks and evening play time in the yard after the hots days cooled off. They knew something was up and were anxious, sticking to me like Velcro, fearing I would leave without them.
The morning of July 6th, I watched the shipping container with most of my worldly goods depart. I was told it would arrive at my new home in Vermont in about three weeks.
On Monday, July 12th, after six long days on the road, the boys and I arrived at our new home in central Vermont. Relief was my overwhelming emotion. The boys quickly claimed the lushly green back yard by peeing on shrubs and trees.
What a journey. Three thousand miles, across most of the upper portion of the United States, though many states I’d never visited before.
Leaving Idaho was bittersweet, as I expected. Two encounters the morning of our departure made things lean toward sweet: I received two wonderful goodbye hugs.
First, my 80-year-old neighbor Leonard, who has lived on the road named for his family all of his life, saw me loading my car as he walked by with his mini-Aussie puppy, Abby. They came up the driveway to say goodbye one last time, offering a hug and seeking reassurance that we’ll stay in touch. “You’ve been a good neighbor,” Leonard said, and from him, that’s high praise!
A few minutes later, the boys and I left our house for the last time. No turning back.
I stopped briefly on our favorite road in the valley to let the boys have a walk before a long day in the car. That done, we drove up the road toward the interstate to head north for Montana where we would catch I-90 east, following it all the way to Vermont. Up ahead I saw Jim at a pasture gate beside the road.
Jim is a second or third (not sure) generation rancher in the valley, in his 60s or maybe 70s. He keeps cattle year round on pastures adjacent to where I often walked the boys, pitched hay onto the snow for them all winter. Over the years, we frequently waved hello and shared several conversations when time and circumstances allowed. Jim was fine with me parking where he keeps his equipment (and junk) in winter, when there wasn’t anywhere else to park because of snow. What I especially appreciated about Jim was that he would keep his dogs in his truck if he saw that I was walking the boys, making sure there were no negative encounters. That’s a rare degree of consideration, in my experience.
I stopped and got out of my car to say goodbye. I hadn’t told Jim I was moving; he was surprised. We chatted a bit about why I was leaving, how the area is changing, faster than any of us would like. I thanked him for his consideration regarding the dogs. Jim gave me a warm hug goodbye, and wished me well.
I’m certain my political views are at the opposite end of the spectrum of those held by Leonard and Jim, but we never let that interfere with our common bond as humans living in a landscape we love. And dogs; we all love our dogs. In my experience, dogs are a quick way to cut through the social and political clutter and find a way to bond with others.
Finally underway, I didn’t lollygag once on the highway. No sightseeing stops. The boys and I were on a mission to get to our new home and we had lots of ground to cover. Besides, it was incredibly hot the first two days (daytime temps in the upper 90s F), so each rest stop was quick: a short walk for the boys to pee/poop followed by my quick visit to the restroom as they waiting in the quickly-warming car, windows down. Gas stops were equally quick.
We covered ground quickly those first two days, driving 80+ mph most of the time with no traffic on wide-open four-lane freeway, but we were always fighting a headwind so my car’s cruise control wasn’t happy on uphills with the air conditioner running. Gas mileage suffered. Vistas were comprised of wide open spaces, mostly brown and treeless but a few wildflowers blooming.
I marveled at the distant mountains throughout eastern Montana and a small sliver of northeastern Wyoming where the Bighorn Mountains still had some snow on their upper peaks. South Dakota (first time there for me), was surprisingly rolling and green as soon as we crossed the border and lasting to about Sturgis, site of the annual motorcycle rally, which in non-pandemic times brings some 500,000 visitors; I can’t even imagine. From Sturgis to our second night’s hotel in Sioux Falls, the landscape was pretty boring, except for one large rest stop in South Dakota.
From Sioux Falls to Cabot, my memory gets hazy. Days were long, always too many miles and hours in the car, but thankfully shorter than the first two days. Temperatures got cooler the farther east we went. Terrain became flat (Minnesota) or gently rolling, usually green with grass, crops and deciduous trees. Mostly I focused on driving and, at the end of each day, finding and settling into our hotel for the night, hoping there was a decent spot next to the hotel to walk the dogs. Some mornings I even slept in an extra hour or two.
The general itinerary:
- New Meadows ID to Billings MT, 700 miles, 14 hours.
- Billings to Sioux Falls SD, 660 miles, 12 hours.
- Sioux Falls to Madison WI, 435 miles, 8 hours.
- Madison to Perrysburg, OH (passing through Chicago, IL), 385 miles, 8.5 hours.
- Perrysburg to Albany, NY, 590 miles, 10 hours.
- Albany to Cabot, VT, 180 miles, four hours.
Some observations along the way:
Rest stops (or lack thereof): In Montana, South Dakota and Minnesota I encountered the rest stops I’m used to out west: well signed along the highway, plenty of advance notice including an indication of how far it is to the next rest stop if you choose to bypass the one coming up. They offer clean restrooms, maybe an historic marker, and an area for pets. In contrast, Indiana, Ohio and New York have Travel Plazas which combine a truck stop, gas station, convenience store(s), chain restaurants and (often) Starbucks, with large restrooms, all in one location. Very big, busy places, with pet areas hit or miss. It’s convenient to get gas and have a rest area in the same location, but…omg, the people! I felt like I was in an airport terminal at each stop. I kept thinking, “Covid-19 super-spreader area!” with few people wearing masks; statistically, based on U.S. vaccination rates, at least half of the people should have been masked, and all of the kids. Despite being fully vaccinated since April, I didn’t linger in these places. Side note: Minnesota had the best dog-friendly rest areas, with lots of grassy areas for them and poop bag dispensers always stocked.
Traffic: I didn’t want or need a reminder of how much I hate big city traffic, but I got one driving through Chicago on a Saturday morning. Stop and go. For miles. I can only imagine what it’s like on a weekday.
Making matters much worse, my bladder was full. There were no easy-access places to make a pit stop for miles as one approaches, drives through, and leaves Chicago. No gas stations. Certainly no rest areas or travel plazas. Clearing downtown Chicago, speeds picked up but still no bathroom options in sight and no signs for an upcoming travel plaza. Then I spied the golden arches of a McDonalds so I took the exit, only to discover at the bottom the McDonalds sign saying “See you in the fall” because it was undergoing major renovations. Noooo!!!! Screaming internally, I eyed shrubs next to nearby houses, not sure how much longer I could hold it. I was in physical pain, my bladder ready to burst, my back aching with protesting kidneys. Thankfully I spied a Burger King a block away, parked, and dashed into the restroom. The pain from my full bladder was so bad – even as I relieved the pressure – that I broke out in a full-body sweat and almost vomited. Five minutes later I felt okay enough to return to the car and continue our journey.
Toll Roads: Through Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and New York, I-90 is a toll road. Toll booths appear randomly, with scant notice or instructions for those unfamiliar with them. Illinois toll booths were unmanned with no way to pay by cash/credit so…you just go through. I suppose I’ll get something in the mail based on my license plate. (Update: there’s a website for paying after your trip.) As I entered Indiana from the west, signs instructed me to “Take a ticket” at the toll booth, which I did. At the east end of Indiana, I paid $9.50 to a nice woman in a booth. Soon after, upon entering Ohio, I took another ticket, and when I excited I-90 to get to my hotel for the night (in Perrysburg, OH), there was a booth at the end of the exit where I paid $5.50 before getting on the road to my hotel. Quite a system. Annoying. Slows progress. But better than what I remember from my youth when, to pay for the newly-constructed floating bridge across Lake Washington, everyone had to go through a toll booth and pay something like $0.35 per crossing, creating huge bottlenecks.
Speed Limits. Out west, they’re generally high (65 on two-lane state highways; 70 or 80 on four-lane state or interstate freeways) so drivers tend to observe them. Eighty seems plenty fast, even without traffic. The farther east we got, the less meaning speed limits had. By the time I was driving through Illinois, Ohio and New York, it was clear than five-to-ten miles per hour over the speed limit was standard, regardless of traffic. Even the semis were speeding, passing cars observing speed limits. It was safer keeping up with them then to be the vehicle holding up traffic. Having lived so long in Idaho, I’d forgotten about crazy, aggressive drivers who weave through traffic at alarming rates of speed (Ohio and New York especially). Once I crossed the border from New York into Vermont, I felt relief – people were once again adhering to speed limits and there was no traffic, just rolling country two-lane roads.
Vehicles: In Idaho, large-size pickups are the standard vehicle. Next in number are Subaru wagons, followed by other small SUVs. Given winters and backcountry roads, one needs AWD and clearance. By the time I hit Minnesota I started seeing cars, i.e. two- and four-door vehicles that aren’t SUVs and have only front wheel drive. All sorts of models I didn’t recognize. And hardly any pickups.
Weather: Our last long day on the road (Day Five), from Ohio to New York, we had rain the entire way, alternating between drizzle and downpour. This was so novel, starting from Idaho, with its extreme heat and drought, wildfires raging, a place desperate for rain. My windshield wipers haven’t worked so hard in years! Each rest stop walk with the boys left us rain-soaked. I didn’t have a jacket with me, just a fleece vest, so my sleeves and pants would get wet, making for a clammy drive. I approached our last night’s hotel, in Albany, NY, in the dark in a serious downpour, with everyone else on the freeway speeding, regardless of weather. So stressful. I managed to find our hotel – on Wolf Road J – by pure luck, although I had to call the front desk to get directions the last two blocks.
Dog-friendly Hotels: The good news is that traveling with dogs is much easier today than a decade ago. Lots of hotels are dog-friendly now. They vary on dog policy, even within a particular chain, so it takes some research to find the right ones. Sometime there was no extra fee for dogs, other times I was charged a fee per dog. Many hotels had a weight limit for dogs – 30 or 40 lbs or less – so obviously they didn’t get my patronage. (Confession: twice we stayed in a hotel with an 80 lb dog weight limit. Conall, when last weighed, was 100 lbs, although as I always say, “It’s all fur.” What I learned, though, is that the front desk person never asks to see your dogs, and there’s no reason they ever would while you’re staying there since they tend to put dog people in rooms near rear access doors, so the weight limits are really meaningless.)
Radio Stations: Idaho’s radio stations offer mostly country or pop music. Country music was a constant offering on this trip, including here in Vermont, but what surprised me was the sheer number of religious stations in the Midwest – Minnesota through Ohio. I frequently let my radio scan for stations, always hoping to find the local NPR station or failing that, enjoyable music. In Montana and South Dakota there were few choices and the country stations seemed to all play from the same short playlist. That changed as we moved east, however. I just didn’t expect to hear so much religion – both talk and music. And conservative political talk radio. Glad I had my Mp3 player.
The boys were troopers throughout the long journey. Finn especially, always eating, never complaining. Conall was visibly stressed and lost his appetite early in the trip, rarely eating from the first day, even when tempted with food that otherwise he would find enticing. He drooled so much the first two days; after the first day I tossed the towel I put down to soak up his drool, it was so wet with no opportunity to wash or dry it. Each day he drooled less, adjusting to the routine, but his lack of appetite was another reason to get this trip done as quickly as possible. Thankfully they both slept soundly each night, allowing me to get much-needed sleep.
As I write this, on Sunday, July 18th, my furniture and household goods are in the shipping container friends helped me load in Idaho. The container left the day before I did, and is currently somewhere in Pennsylvania. It may arrive by the end of this week, or the start of the next at the latest, at which point the real job of setting up house begins. In the meantime, my Vermont friends retrieved the house keys from my realtor (the purchase closed while I was on the road) and hid one outside so I could get in whenever I arrived. They loaned me a cot and Therm-a-Rest mattress for sleeping (I brought sheets and a blanket), two camp chairs and tables for sitting and relaxing, and had a bottle of wine, an opener, a glass, and lots of vital reading material (road and trail maps!) waiting on the kitchen counter for me. Amazing friends.
Quickly discovering my cell carrier (Verizon) was useless at the new house, I immediately switched to AT&T (four bars at the house) and am now able to access the internet by using my phone as a hotspot. Sweet! I can stream videos and music. I’m typing on my laptop (desktop is in the shipping container) while standing at the kitchen island. The boys and I love our house and yard (which desperately needs the attention of my lawn mower but it’s in the container); there are apple trees and raspberries as well as flowers blooming beside the house, all beautifully landscaped. We are slowly exploring our new neighborhood and I’m meeting some neighbors and key townspeople, like Diane the postmistress, Tim who delivers the mail, and Kathleen the librarian. There are lots of small adjustments ahead for all of us, but then, that keeps life interesting and provides me with blog fodder.
As reinventions go, this one is right up there with my move to Idaho in terms of a leap of faith. In Idaho, I didn’t know a soul, I just knew I liked the terrain, climate and rural setting. I had my house built and while that was a stressful undertaking, I knew what I was getting. This time, I bought a house I never stepped foot in with issues that need addressing, in a state I’ve never visited, but with friends helping me choose the locating and making me feel welcome. Many would say the risks are too great, that I’m being foolish. My view is that life is nothing but a series of risks that should mostly be embraced (after thoughtful assessment, of course) rather than feared.
As a song lyric goes, “I’d rather be striving than static.”*
So far? It’s all good. No regrets. I think the boys are happy, too.
Reading the news this morning, about the western US and Canada on fire and suffering the impacts of severe drought, I feel as though I got out just in time. Those are climate risks I was no longer comfortable taking. As I type, it’s raining here in Vermont, and that actually makes feel like home. The precipitation and the vegetation the rain supports is much like that of western Washington, my birth state where I spent my first 48 years. It’s different, but similar. Memories rush in, good memories.
*The song is Shattered & Hollow by First Aid Kit on their Stay Gold album (2014). Singing along to this and a few other albums on my Mp3 player helped keep me awake toward the end of each long day of driving.
Feature photo: day lilies blooming at my Idaho house days before our departure. In the 1990s my father dug the bulbs from the yard of his family homestead outside Independence, Kansas, and planted them at his home in western Washington. After I built my home in Idaho, he dug again and handed me some bulbs to plant in Idaho. They thrived, and were in full bloom as I packed to leave. The couple who purchased my Idaho home have assured me they will dig up and mail me some of those day lily bulbs this fall, and they’re already setting aside columbine and lupine seeds from my wildflower garden. The day lily tradition my father started will continue, helping me feel connected to him. So you can imagine my delight, driving through the state of Vermont for the first time and seeing day lilies blooming everywhere – in landscaped yards and in roadside ditches – as if to say, “Welcome home. What took you so long?”