"Why do we live here?" We asked each other this question over ten years ago. Susan and I had recently returned from yet another trip to Moab, Utah. A small desert town surrounded by red sandstone mountains on the edge of Arches National Park. Susan was showing me some Moab properties she found for sale on the internet, dreaming about retirement. Truly dreaming, we had a two year old daughter at the time, and it would be another year before her brother was born. Retirement? We were just getting started. In Washington, DC, we were living a yuppie life. We had a senior, well-paying job at our respective companies, money for travel. Extra money for gadgets, toys. A nice, modest house on a semi-urban street. We were bored with it.
Each visit to Moab reminded us that we prefer open-space and small towns. Our hobbies were running, biking and hiking. Our friendships were tired. The only thing holding us back from moving away was fear – and jobs. Moab is remote. Hours from any metropolitan area. A continent away from our families and friends. Once a bustling mining town – uranium, primarily – now it is essentially a tourist destination. Not the sort of place to capitalize on our managerial careers. Not the kind of town to raise a family.
"So, why do we live here?" Before we had kids, DC was our playground. Great restaurants and bars, gyms, cultural activities. Rock creek park, a giant swath of nature in the middle of the city was a mile from our house. But with a toddler, it was all simply annoying. The noise, the crowds, hunting for street parking to go to the grocery store, driving to the suburbs to shop for anything else -- to use a decent library or go to a swimming pool. Going for a bike ride was like an urban war-game. Certainly not relaxing. Plus, the mosquitoes were intolerable. Asian Tiger Mosquitoes. They are truly demons. Out all day, eight months of the year. Ten minutes in the yard watering our garden would result in a dozen bites.
Looking at a map one evening, we were searching for a Moab-like town closer to DC. My job was flexible. A tech firm, we all communicated with instant messaging, even to the next office. It wouldn't matter if I was down the hall or two states away. But if I wanted to keep my job, I needed to maintain a presence in the office. My boss telecommuted from Los Angeles. He came to town for a week a month. Slept on the office floor, showered in the building's gym. It seemed pathetic, unsustainable. Rather than a week a month, I was planning on a day or two per week. My new home needed to be drivable from DC. Three to four hours max.
Moab is our center. The place where we feel at peace, whole. A secular dude-ville in the middle of Mormon country. A mecca. For hikers, bikers, and unfortunately 4X4 enthusiasts. A completely unique landscape. A geological oddity that exists no place else on earth. Undulating sandstone flats, towering "fins" of rock. And arches, thousands of them. Natural gaps formed in the rock. They create an arch of stone. The town is a mess. Nestled between two ridges, it is a meandering strip. If zoning exists, it isn't obvious. A haphazard splatter of commercial, industrial and residential abutting each other in coexistent tolerance. The irony is hard to miss. Natural beauty adjoining man-made blight.
Our map-quest was challenging. Many of the likely candidate-towns quickly dismissed. Asheville, NC? Too far. Mountain towns in West Virginia? Already turned into mini-DCs. The Delaware shore? Not really the life-style we were seeking. Eventually, we noticed Gettysburg, PA. Practically in our backyard. Less than two hours away, maybe a bit more in rush hour. An unlikely choice. Certainly not dude-ville. Conservative. Aging. Overweight. Yet, it had many of the attributes that appealed to us about Moab, and some extras as well. Small town, largely blocked from sprawling growth by a national park. Long vistas. Open-space. Runnable, bike-able. A family-town, well planned, too.
When Susan and I met, we each harbored an interest in living in a small town. We were both fans of the TV show Northern Exposure. It featured the interwoven and (figuratively) incestuous relationships in fictional Cicely, Alaska. A disparate cast of characters. Each celebrated for their flaws as well as their strengths. Relationships formed out of proximity. More like family than friends. And amenities? One restaurant, doubled as a bar. One grocery store, one radio station. You get the point. City life offers choice. And choice, at times, can be stifling. My friendships, all left over from college or from my adult soccer team. Everyone the same age, college educated, working professional jobs. Shared interests, backgrounds, race. A metropolitan area of five million people and I'm hanging out with clones of myself.
Last week, we were in Moab again. This was our sixth or seventh visit. It is a pain in the ass to get there. We fly on Southwest with credit card points. Undesirable flights into a less than ideal airport. With Southwest, our choices are Denver or Vegas non-stop and then a 6 hour car ride . Or Salt Lake with a Chicago layover and then 4 hours in the car. This trip to Moab, we brought our kids. We opted of the shorter drive and longer flying time. Still, it is a full day of travel. Longer and more complex than going to England or France. This was Sophie's third visit and Eli's second. But neither of them can remember being there before. Just what they've seen in photos. Perhaps kids catch their parents’ energy and interest, or maybe Moab is really that awesome, but as our trip was winding down, Sophie asked "Why don't we live here?"
While not Northern Exposure's Cicely, Gettysburg certainly offers a small-town experience. If you don't know someone, one of your friends will. Personality quirks are accepted, sometimes respected. Everything in my life is within a five-mile radius of my house. My job, my friends, shopping, library. We know our neighbors. Because Susan and I work at the town's primary community center, we know pretty much everyone. Every road is bike-able. Miles of running trails start at my back door. Obviously more than one restaurant, more than one grocery store, but the choices are pretty limited. It can be frustrating, but it is also freeing. My son Eli's friend "L" is from Namibia. Last year, "L" and his mom spent the whole summer there. Upon returning, "L" was complaining that the United States offers too much choice. Too many options. Too much stress. He missed the simplicity of his Namibian village. Like "L", we see limited choices as a positive. Make do with what you have, keep it simple.
The draw of Moab is strong. Every visit helps cement the feeling that we are going to retire there. The landscape, the desert, the rock. It appeals to us aesthetically. The hiking, without parallel. If there is a deal-breaker, it's the car culture. Tourists in RVs. The 4X4 crowd. Dune buggies. Lots of revving engines. Macho-men (and women). But it is a short walk to silence, to beauty, to that undefinable Moab-aura that sinks into our soul and gives us peace. And as near as I can tell, no Tiger Mosquitoes. At least not yet.