Monday, August 28, 2017

The Best Year in Years

Three-hundred and sixty-five little days. Is that all it’s been? It seems like a decade since my wife (Ella), dog (Otis) and I (Brian) left Colorado on this journey. 

Brian, Ella, and Otis
Having sunk roots in the same place more or less continuously for almost 20 years (and Ella for her whole life) we'd reached a point of stagnation, where our lives seemed hopelessly fixed.

We needed an adventure. 

Enter the travel nurse.

Being a nurse is probably a good career, but not for me. Any job where something called “sputum” has a chance of getting in my eyes is beyond my weak stomach. But Ella is good at it, and—at least on sputum-free days—seems generally to enjoy it.

One year ago today, Ella accepted a position as a travel nurse. We sold or stored almost everything we owned, crammed our lives into the space of a Toyota Rav4, and put rubber to pavement. We've been back only briefly since.

PART 1: The Mountains are Calling (Sun Valley, Idaho; 8/28/2016 to 12/23/2016)

We arrived in Idaho on a Sunday night and found ourselves in a wilderness of the strange: grocery chains we’d never heard of, references on the radio to people and places we didn’t understand. It was altogether novel and unsettling. But all-in-all the change was fresh and pleasing. I felt like I was at the brink of a discovery. 

The wilderness of Idaho near Sun Valley is amazing
Ella and Otis at one of so many lakes in the Idaho mountains
The first night in Idaho, we opted for a walk behind our new house. Otis was on edge, his tail erect, hackles raised and muzzle buried in every passing thicket. He exemplified what I felt: disoriented, anxious, and eager to learn this unknown landscape.

The next four months passed like a dream. 

Trails. Endless miles of serpentine paths gliding through alpine settings. There were so many that we hardly made a repeat footprint our entire stay. The Sun Valley area provided five mountain ranges in which to romp: the Smokies, the White Clouds, the Boulders, the Pioneers, and (most impressive of all) the Sawtooths. For alpine/mountaineering enthusiasts, it was paradise.

Hot Springs. Central Idaho is ripe with geothermal action. There is sublimity in lounging in a natural hot tub, soothing bubbles tickling up tired limbs as nature unfolds its splendor all around. Such moments are ineffable.

Snow. We skied four feet of fresh powder. These fluffy white heaps were miniature emulations of the grand mountains in which they formed. Snow fluttered, streaked or outright dumped from the sky right up to the hour we left.

When the time came to leave in December, we did so grudgingly. Our first experience living outside Colorado had proven that the world held options. There were so many places I hadn't seen and people I hadn't met. My only fear, as Idaho sunk in our rearview mirror, was if any destination after could favorably compare, or would everything after fall disappointingly short.

INTERLUDE 1: Christmas in Colorado (12/23/16 to 1/5/17)

Ignore the stress of gift buying and the pressure of fleeting morsels of time to every visiting friend and relative and the holidays are special. Family coalesces, forging memories that last a lifetime. We spent a white Christmas with our family back in Colorado, but it was doomed not to last. Our next destination was calling from over the horizon.

PART 2: Rain and Redwoods (Eureka, California; 1/5/17 to 4/24/17)

We arrived in California in the apogee of one of the worst storms in years. It was fitting that rain would usher us away three and a half months later.

We are small-town folk. While Eureka, California is a city of only 30,000, the outlying area of some 200,000 felt like a bustling metropolis compared to what we were used to. In Idaho our apartment stood in a sea of pine trees. At night we had to be cautious when walking out our door of close encounters with marauding wolves. Bugling elk sang us to sleep. In Eureka our apartment stood in sea of concrete. At night we had to be cautious when walking out our door of close encounters with meth-addled homeless. The thunder of truck engines sang us to sleep.

playing on the tallest and some of the oldest trees in the world
Playing on a redwood, the tallest trees in the world
This makes our time in Northern California sound all bad but it wasn't, not by a long shot. We lived for the first time beside the ocean, learning to glide back and forth with the tide. The musky perfume of the sea filled the air (when you stepped far enough from the urbane downtown to smell it). Waves collapsed with undulating thunder onto endless beaches. Rugged coasts and conical sea stacks provided roosts for squawking birds, and (best of all) we were surrounded by a forest of the world’s tallest trees. There were many magical moments in this novel environment. While Idaho had been like an variation of Colorado, California was something different altogether.

One of Life's Forks

Alas, three months passed as they always do (quickly) and the time came to decide on our next destination. We stood at one of those proverbial forks.

Ella was offered a travel position in Santa Barbara, California, a beautiful ocean-side city known for exquisite beaches and a vibrant economy. But on a whim Ella had a applied for a full-time, year round position in Seward, Alaska, a tiny town embedded in the rugged Alaskan mountains. We had always wanted to live in the far north. Neither of us had expected to hear back from Seward, but one day, after she'd already accepted the position in Santa Barbara, the call came:

We were wanted. In Alaska.

The choice could be distilled to this: Santa Barbara would be easy. Housing would be found and paid for for us. It was a short, three-month commitment. But although it was a beautiful place, Santa Barbara was not our dreamland. In many ways it was not much different from where we had just been. Seward, on the other hand, would be rugged, committing, and far from our families. Contracts would stipulate we had to spend a full year at least. It was risky. We would be on our own. But Alaska had been a dream of ours and this was our chance. The biggest thing holding us back was our fear to take a risk. And that is never a good reason not to do anything. 

Alaska...we are coming.

INTERLUDE 2: The Great Road Trip (4/24/2017 to 5/11/2017)

The memories of our 18-day journey from California to Alaska will always be fond. The Oregon coast. Washington's Olympic Peninsula. Seattle. The Inside Passage. The Yukon. So many amazing places, all of which entirely new. As I detailed much of this trip in an earlier blog post, I won’t go too deeply into the story. We saw some of the most beautiful sights the western United States had to offer. This road trip was a journey within a larger journey. It was the type of adventure I will recall fondly for decades. It was, however, only a prelude to what is likely the climax of this life-altering (and ongoing) bildungsroman.

PART 3: The Last Frontier (Seward, Alaska; 5/11/2017 to ?)

Alaska mountains and ocean in one sight
The boat harbor in Seward, Alaska. This is nearly 2,300
miles from Glenwood Springs, Colorado as the eagle
Alaska takes its official nickname “The Last Frontier” for a reason. Much of the state is brutally rugged and remote. Wildlife exists much as it always has. Blue glaciers tumble from cuspid mountains. Moose and brown bears plod across hundreds of miles of unfettered wildlands oblivious to the trials of the modern world. In terms of size, Alaska would swallow the United Kingdom, France and Germany combined, yet is home to a mere 700,000 people. 

In a sense, Idaho and California were merely training. The sparse wilderness of central Idaho provided a functioning warm-up for the behemoth scale of Alaska. The coast of Northern California acclimated us to the rhythm of the ocean.

After three and a half months here now (roughly the same amount of time we spent in both California and Idaho), Alaska had proven to be everything we hoped and more. I understand the addiction of this place. Life at the edge of the map has a way of reminding you that you are alive. It is a slice of a time long past.

I am excited to experience the full cycle of a year in this place and learn the lessons it is willing to teach.


As the eagle flies we are 2,288 miles from where we started. We are our past selves, and we are not. I imagine myself a year ago and I picture someone cloistered and naïve. I see a truck spinning its wheels in the quagmire. I was halfway up a mountain stranded on a narrow ledge. Above it was too steep to climb and below too risky to retreat. This year was the foil, the glider that lifted me away. Circling in the sky, I think I understand that this mountain has always had many faces, and infinite variations to the top.

I have come to think of this long adventure as “the Search for Home.” The whole point, after all, was finding the place to settle down. Buy a house, start a family. Where will this home be? Idaho? California? Colorado? Alaska? Somewhere else? The question lingers….

For now, there can be no doubt: it was the best year in years.

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  1. Great blog Brian, I am glad the adventure worked out for you and the family. Travel and moving about when you get the chance cannot be underestimated as a must do part of life.

    1. Thanks Cindy! It really has been the best thing we've done for our professional and personal lives. I can't wait to see what's around the next corner!

  2. Thank you for sharing your amazing adventures.