found drama

get oblique

on coming home to Vermont

by Rob Friesel

No burying the lede here: we knew that moving cross-country would be hard, but the pandemic threw a wrinkle into the mix that resulted in the worst social isolation we ever experienced and it was simply too much to bear. Once we were free of any obligations keeping us on the West Coast, it just didn’t make sense to stay.

That’s the short version anyway. I wrote two other versions of this before I hit publish on this one: one was much shorter1 and didn’t do justice to the experience; the other was much longer but zig-zagged between too many competing stories.2 This one still feels too long but it was also the longest two years of my life.

the word "grind" spray-painted onto some pavement along with a wavy line

Prelude to a departure

The reasons we broke camp from home are well-trodden territory at this point. The hard-but-right thing to do, and what is it they say about regretting the things you have done vs. haven’t?

Seattle — first days

I’d never lived in a big city before. Never spent much time on the West Coast. Had only just been to the Northwest at all.

It seemed foolish not to try.

The optimistic early part

In fairness, the earliest part was not all that optimistic. We were in temporary housing and the local real estate market was super-competitive for houses that were half the size of our Vermont home for twice as much and in much shittier condition.3 We spent the first couple weeks in Seattle running around looking at shitty tiny-ass houses with list prices that I kept choking on.

(“What about just renting a place for the first year?” she asked. But I was stubborn, and didn’t listen.)

Nevertheless, we tried to make the most of it.

Mt. Rainier National Park excursion (July 2019)

And/but/so we found a place that — at least for a hot minute — felt like we might be able to call home.

If we were going to live in the city, why not go for it on that long-held dream of a super-walkable neighborhood? Ten minutes up the hill to a German pub and pizza and a haircut and the corner market. Ten minutes down the hill to coffee and a gin bar and a burger joint and retail cannabis. Five minute walk (up or down the hill) to catch the bus downtown. Fifteen minute walk to E.’s school. Twenty minute walk to Ballard and its bounty of breweries. We went down to one car.4

Teaching a Boo about BIAB

I found a homebrew club to join. I started brewing again. Joined a gym. Got a Stein Club punch card at that German pub. Got a membership to an honest-to-goodness physical DVD rental store. We resumed Fondue Fridays.

Triumphant Return of Fondue Friday

Me and A. went to some shows. My parents visited. We saw a couple friends that hadn’t come to Seattle to see us, but did come see us.

It didn’t feel like home, but at this point we’d been there about 6 months so it was easy to just throw a “yet” on the end of statements like that.

I kept reminding myself how long it had taken for Vermont to feel like home. And here we were in Seattle, which we knew ahead of time was notoriously difficult to make friends in. “We just need to give it some time.”

Initiate global pandemic

The early mentions of “SARS” during the run-up to the COVID-19 outbreaks were the source of my blasé feelings — I kept thinking back to 20035 and thinking: “We’re going to get some news footage of people in airports wearing masks and this whole thing will be over in about two months.”

Fast-forward to March 2020 and the slow-motion unraveling happening around me. Amazon starts sending people to work from home. Then the other local companies. People start wearing masks. Stores have empty shelves where toilet paper used to be.

Then one afternoon, I’m walking to pick up E. and my phone vibrates in my pocket and I just knew it said “expect to keep students home from school at least two weeks”.

But as someone who was already working from home, it felt like all this was happening to everyone else.

Overnight we went from a family of four that came home to a 1,300 sq. ft. house that was cozy but serviceable, to a family of four trapped 24/7 in a 1,300 sq. ft. house that seemed to shrink with each passing hour.

School-from-home for the boys was ad hoc at best but more often it was straight chaos.

I was already set up to work from home but A. wasn’t. We’d already cannibalized one of the three bedrooms as a home office before the outbreak.6 Now we’re taking competing turns for which one of us gets to shut the door for a meeting or a quiet place to write or code.

But we were still going to try and make the most of it.

Got down to Eugene, Oregon…

Spencer Butte

…just in time for everything to shut down.

And then a “social distancing-friendly” Airbnb in Missoula, Montana…

Bitterroot River scenes

…because we just couldn’t take being in the city.

Summer 2020

Again, “not to bury the lede”: the pandemic kept grinding away, the Dipshit-in-Chief kept downplaying and mishandling said pandemic, George Floyd was murdered … oh and there were massive wildfires all up and down the West Coast.

I tried to keep up a hopeful attitude for the boys. But at a certain point it’s impossible to look in the mirror and NOT see Bill Murray’s Phil Connors looking back at you.

The pandemic wore on, and we wore our masks. The gym shut down and we had to resort to long walks around the neighborhood and/or HIITs and Pilates on yoga mats in a low-ceilinged basement. The school year ended for the boys but there was a whole lot of anticlimactic “and now what?” attached to it. We kept “going” to work — where “going” meant walking into a room of the house and shutting the door and pretending everything was normal.

Bainbridge Island (Aug. 2020)

It was very much not normal.

I couldn’t call a friend to take walks with me. I didn’t have any friends in Seattle — certainly not the kind of confidants I needed.

Even as things “opened up” a little, there wasn’t any real reprieve. People wanted to have reunions with their longtime friends and not hang out with some rando who only moved into the city a year ago. Not that we’d met anyone.7

(And this is where I’ll admit that I start feeling regret about leaving home.)

I had one reprieve. I took myself up to Bellingham for a solo relaxation weekend. That was pretty OK I guess.

But things just seemed to get worse. More tension. More stress. Literally nothing in my life felt stable.

Police murdered George Floyd. Protests rightfully broke out nationwide over the injustice, and in Seattle that also meant curfews, which freaked the fuck out of our boys who now think the world is literally ending.

Oh and right around that same time? Wildfires. And more wildfires. The West Coast was covered in smoke. My ten minute walk to the corner store became downright hazardous.

spooky orange wildfire smoke skies

Something had to give.

Not all changes are enough

Seattle was not for us. We had wanted it to be. We tried. Perhaps under different circumstances, it could have worked, but it was clear now that that wouldn’t.

But we couldn’t leave. We had obligations that kept us bound to the region for at least another year.8

But at the same time: the pandemic felt like a “no end in sight” kind of situation and how the fuck could we just stay put?

movin' out (2020)

So we left Seattle; rented out our house and found a place in Bellingham. “Start fresh? Kinda-sorta?”

Bellingham's got sunsets

Only sorta.

It was a soft-reset at best. Not having any friends in Seattle made it easy to move to a different city in Washington where we didn’t have any friends. Schools across Washington being fully-remote for the foreseeable future anyway meant that all four of us were free to go (more or less) wherever we wanted. Bellingham at least felt more our speed, like there was some breathing room.

It wasn’t enough though.

It is safe to say that we were all depressed. All of us lonely; all us isolated. Even trying to have a phone call or a Zoom chat with friends back East felt like a Herculean effort with the three hour difference.

But it was worse for the boys, and I struggled as I watched them go months without any real social interaction. H. satisficed with Minecraft and Discord and we filed that under “something is better than nothing”. But E. had even less than that: what friends he had made in Seattle were now a 90 minute drive South and their parents were all being extra-cautious.

By the time we got to Thanksgiving, I felt like everything was coming apart.

Laughing in the dark

Like I said, we felt trapped in Washington — bound by obligations that we just needed to ride out. I was in a dark place, but I’d found a good therapist to help me navigate the worst of it. Going into 2021, I felt like it was just going to be an encore of the previous year, but I also told myself that the best way to deal was to try again to take advantage of some of the West Coast things we’d come out here for.

So I took the boys to Olympic National Park.

Olympic National Park vacation (2021) Olympic National Park vacation (2021)

And Joshua Tree.

Joshua Tree National Park

I bought a mountain bike and rode the shit out of whatever trails I could find.9

Galbraith Mountain (first time!)

We sought out the kind of wilderness that doesn’t exist back East.

Barlow Point

Turns out, I was just trying to convince myself that it was worth staying.

Prelude to coming home

At the end of July 2021, I came back to Vermont for the first time in over two years. I brought the boys and we made our rounds, seeing the friends and the places that we missed so much.

"Oh, Monkton sunsets!"

The homesickness came crashing down around us in a way that feels impossible to put into words. When it’s been two years since you’ve seen a familiar face… Over a year since a laugh came easily… Since you could sit down and just feel peaceful for even a few minutes.

Calling it “homesickness” feels wrong. We were in our place and with our people. There was a sense of belonging and peace and ease that I hadn’t felt in two years. The sickness wasn’t about home — it was about the dread of leaving it again and wondering how long it would be before I could have that feeling of place.

I didn’t want to leave. And it broke my heart to hear H. ask me so nonchalantly: “Why don’t we just move back?”

As if it were that easy.

The decision

But what if it was that easy?

As soon as we arrived back, we got to talking about it. The obligations tying us to Washington were met. We could leave if we wanted. What point was there in staying?

At first I was overwhelmed with the mere question of it. How fast could we line up housing from 3,000 miles away? Could we line up movers? How much stuff would we need to get rid of before that became affordable? Or do we drive a truck ourselves? The school year was starting imminently — what would it take to get the boys enrolled? It felt like too much.

But the thought of staying also felt like too much. Every day was like hitting the snooze button on the parts of my life that mattered.

Sure, to move back would be expensive and stressful but then we would be home. The thought of staying put felt like a kind of perverse inertia. Every reason I could think of for staying turned into “sure but I could come back on vacation for that”.

And so, despite it feeling like an impulsive decision, we mustered every ounce of the energy we had left in us and did it. We made the long drive home to Vermont.

Even putting down this story, it’s hard to convey what that isolation was like. I’m changed by the experience. I return home as a different person, with a clarity and focus about the things that are important to me, but also some deep scars. I’m not instantly “better” just by returning to this place, and I have some hard healing left to do — but I know that I’m loved here, and I know that I can find peaceful moments here.

It’s good to be home.

  1. May as well have been a tweet. []
  2. Some of them are worth telling but it was too much all at once. []
  3. And when I say “super-competitive” I’m talking about going up against same-day cash offers on places where escalation clauses are getting people $40-50k over the list price (sometimes even more!) while the real estate agents don’t even bat an eyelash. “That happens all the time.” Get (and I can’t emphasize this enough) The Fuck™ out of here with that shit. []
  4. After all, A. could take the bus downtown and come October, I was full-time working from home. []
  5. Was it 2003? When was that? I think of SARS as this singular and distinct phenomenon, but then I hear “COVID-19 is the syndrome from SARS-CoV-2″ and I’m like “now I don’t know what to Google to fact-check my timeline!” []
  6. The boys had never shared a room before and although they were cool about trying it out, I think we all knew early on that it would be a dodgy proposition. []
  7. I had afternoon homebrews once with a nearby member of the club I’d joined and while it was better than nothing, it also wasn’t what I needed. I missed my friends back East, and I needed them more than ever. []
  8. Pro-tip: those re-location expenses are… not cheap. Think twice about accepting such a thing as part of your comp package. What’s your freedom worth? []
  9. Which in Bellingham is a lot of trails. []

About Rob Friesel

Software engineer by day, science fiction writer by night; weekend homebrewer. Author of The PhantomJS Cookbook and a short story in Please Do Not Remove. View all posts by Rob Friesel →

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