Life in Beautiful Places

     I fell in love with the ocean when I was a child. We took trips to Virginia Beach and Ocean City (Maryland) in the summers, and I was the kid you couldn’t get out of the water.  I swam like a fish in the pool in the summers and was on the dive team briefly at my neighborhood pool.  I’ve always felt at home in the water, and as I grew older, I gravitated to the beach.  My friends and I rented beach houses for vacation in high school, and the summer after my freshman year in college (1987) I lived at Virginia Beach and made a living waiting tables and being a ‘beach wench’ who rented chairs and umbrellas on the oceanfront.  It was a fun lifestyle, but it didn’t seem sustainable or the way I wanted to live as an adult, so in the fall I returned to my sophomore year of college back in southwestern Virginia.  It was during those first two years of college that I started rock climbing (in Virginia and W. Virginia) and became close with two friends who completed NOLS semesters.  I wasn’t satisfied with the path I was taking in school, so I took my junior year off to explore new horizons.  I started working with Greenpeace in DC and then went to Wyoming to start my NOLS course

Virginia Beach at sunset

     Before the course, I had never even camped outdoors.    The next 95 days, we skiied and snowcamped in Wyoming, backpacked and hiked in remote canyons in Canyondlands National Park, Utah, whitewater rafted and kayaked in Colorado, rock-climbed and horsepacked in Wyoming.  After the course, I couldn’t stand being back in a city (DC), so I packed up my car and moved to Boulder, CO for the summer and worked for Greenpeace there.  I left in the fall and pursued a college education at an alternative school in Arizona with experiential learning.  Prescott College’s motto was “The Southwest is our Classroom.”  My education took me to many remote places.  All new students go through a ‘wilderness orientation’ hiking and backpacking for a few weeks in the Arizona forests and canyons.  I spent block classes skiing in Yellowstone National Park, kayaking around Isla Espiritu Santo (in Baja), and backpacking in the alpine tundra of Colorado.  During other block classes, I conducted a Mexican Spotted Owl Habitat Survey and a Bald Eagle Watch for the National Forest Service.  Situated in the high desert of Arizona, there was ample opportunity for day hikes, mountain bike rides, and day climbing trips.  It was incredible.  In college, I fell in love with mountains.  I also fell in love with wolves and wilderness.  I had dreams of pursuing a career in ecosystem management or wildlife rehabilitation. 

Granite Mountain, Prescott, AZ

Granite Dells, Prescott, AZ

     I was offically a student at Prescott College from 1989-1993, but I also took a year off in the middle (1990-1991) to live in Telluride, Colorado.  It was an experience like nothing I’ve had before and probably will never have again.  Telluride is a small town located at almost 9000 feet elevation nestled in the majestic San Juan Mountains of southwest Colorado.  The town is surrounded on three sides by almost 14,000 foot peaks, covered by snow for most of the year.  I worked at a bakery as a breakfast and lunch cook, and I lived outdoors like many other young people there at the time.  I was single with no kids, so it worked out fine.  I had a VW bus with a mini-kitchen inside and the top popped up for sleeping (when it was warm enough). Otherwise, I slept on the bed in the back of the bus and when I awoke in the wee hours of the morning being cold, I’d head into the bakery and quickly warmed up with hot tea and baked goods.  I worked through lunch time then had the rest of the day to hike, bike, and enjoy the scenery.  I spent my second summer there living in a tipi with my boyfriend and our five, yes five, dogs (wolf hybrids) up on a gorgeous mesa in the midst of aspen groves.  It was during my time there that I started wondering how in the world people could afford to live in such beautiful places.  There was a culture of people living outdoors there (called ‘woodsies’).  Working in a tourist town like that, the locals like me didn’t make enough money to afford to pay rent much less buy a house there.  The only people I knew who had houses had them because of family money.  They were kind enough to host pot-luck dinners and to let friends use their showers etc.  Otherwise, I showered at the town park at the public showers or at the gym where I was a member.  For that one school year, it was ok.  I loved being in such a beautiful place and was inspired daily by the beauty and magnificence of the mountains.  Words can’t describe being above treeline in Colorado.  However, I got bored and wanted to finish my education.  I also didn’t want to live outdoors for another winter, so I returned to Prescott College and graduated in 1993. I missed having a house, a hot shower, a real kitchen and bed.  From that point on, I made it my goal to work toward having the stability and comforts of home, but since that time I’ve also felt conflicted because it seems to make enough money to have a stable life and a nice home, it doesn’t always work out with living in a beautiful place.

Telluride, CO

Main Street in Telluride, CO  I worked at the end of this street on the left at Gregor’s Bakery and Cafe

     My first child, Sierra, was born just one week before I graduated in 1993.  Her dad still had another year of school to finish, so we stayed in Prescott until he graduated and moved to Durango, CO to start our lives as a family.  He had a job as a river guide, but it didn’t last.  I hit rock bottom and was forced to take any job I could get to make some money.  I worked at a movie theater and then as a waitress.  There were no professional jobs in my field (environmental studies) and since I had developed a case of chronic back pain, being an outdoor educator was no longer in the cards for me.  Our marriage quickly dissolved, and I moved back to my mom’s house in Virginia and spent the next four years living in her basement, working for Greenpeace again in DC and then getting my master’s degree in education.  Still feeling claustrophobic living in the suburbs and working in the city, I moved again, this time to Reno, Nevada to chase a boy and be near the Sierra Nevada mounatins and Lake Tahoe.  Chasing a boy is never a good idea, as was evidenced by our quickly dissolving relationship, but I did meet my husband there  at a gym in Reno.  I worked as a teacher and made just enough money to support me and Sierra and live in an apartment.  We left Nevada in 2001 so Joe could go to law school in DC. 
     I spent my 20s adventuring and exploring, and when I got back to Virginia and got back in touch with some of my high school friends and went to the ten year reunion in 1996, I will admit I didn’t like the story I had to tell, and I felt jealous of my friends who had spent their 20s in school and working and had nice houses to show for it.  They might have felt jealous that I had all those amazing experiences, but at the end of the day, they had nice houses and comfortable lives, and I was still struggling in that department.  So, my priorities shifted somewhat then.  I wanted nothing more than to get married again, have more kids, and to secure a stable life in a nice home. 

Reno, NV

     Joe provided all that for me.  He excelled in law school and got a big firm job when he graduated.  I was finally able to be a stay home mom with our son Thomas when he was born in 2004.  We had a townhouse in the DC suburbs but were bursting at the seams with five people living in 1800 square feet.  That when we decided to move to Texas so we could afford a big, single family home.  His law firm was a Texas based firm, so he was able to transfer and since then he’s moved to a smaller, medium sized Texas based firm.  We were able to buy twice the house (3500 square feet) for less than what we sold the townhouse for.  I stayed home with Thomas for six years, and I finally feel stable and secure.  But, like the saying goes, money doesn’t buy happiness.  I still feel like something is missing, and when I go on vacation I feel like a whole different person.  I think what is missing is the feeling I get from being in a beautiful place.  Dallas, Texas is not really known for being a beautiful place.  It’s flat, and there is no ocean anywhere nearby.  There are lakes, but I don’t like swimming with snakes and other grody critters that live in muddy brown water.  The closest thing I get to communing with nature is seeing the beautiful sunsets and appreciating the pretty (man made) pond down the street from our house and riding my bike on the (paved) path that follows the creek across our town.  In those moments, I feel some of the same emotions I’ve had in the past with the wind going through my hair and the hot sun on my skin.  The trees are pretty, and the skies are pretty.  The schools are good and our house is nice.  Joe’s job is good.  However, it shows me that as far as my experience goes, it’s awfully tough to have both-a good job/nice house, and the opportunity to live in a beautiful place. 

typical view of a neighborhood pond in Texas

     Because of all my aches and pains and (16) surgeries, I’m not longer a hiker, climber, skiier, horsepacker, whitewater anything-er, or mountain biker.  All those things were checked off the list of things I can do because of physical reasons as well as economic reasons.  Living in a beautiful town usually means living in a tourist town.  Jobs are mostly service related and they are seasonal.  I have a family now and have worked hard to provide basics like food, shelter, clothing, health insurance, cars, car insurance, and of course all the extras that kids want/need in their lives.  I can still swim, though, and so our visits to the ocean are the highlight of my year.  I swim in the pool at the gym year round, but there is an entirely different feeling that comes with being near the ocean.  After a 13 hour drive to get here (Destin, FL), I’m amazed at the transformation that takes place inside my head as soon as I step foot on the beach.  The colors are amazing (white sands, clear turqoise waters, and powder blue sky).  The breeze blowing off the beach takes me to another place.  It’s salty and sandy, and being in the ocean and looking at the horizon where the sea meets the sky humbles me and reminds me how small I am and how big the earth is.  It reminds me of my place in space, and my spirit feels renewed.  But it only lasts seven days…hence this blog post. 

Perspective:  Use it or Lose it!

     People live here. There are houses and schools and stores. People do get to live in beautiful places.  I just don’t understand how to make both things possible in my life.  It seems like I’ve had to choose one or the other-living in a beautiful place or having a nice home for my kids.  I chose the latter and continue to choose the latter, but that wild woman inside me sure misses feeling close to nature and the passion and exhilaration it stirs inside.  I am thankful that at least I am able to reconnect with this beautiful place even though it’s just once a year.  Maybe I will be lucky enough to retire near the ocean and be that salty old lady who lives to be 100 and still goes to the beach.  It seems like the best way to live-having provided a nice life for your kids yet staying inspired, at peace, and in awe of the natural world.


4 comments on “Life in Beautiful Places

  1. I feel the same way Susanne! I feel like everything is in harmony when I'm near the water (ocean or lake) or in the mountains. And I definitely feel the same way about Dallas. However, I AM grateful for the opportunities living here has brought to our family. We are blessed indeed. I daydream almost constantly about the day when we can either move to the mountains or move to the Caribbean so we can offer catamaran tours. I love being out on the water!Thank you for sharing your thoughts!Veronica

  2. Pingback: ZTA Mom’s weekend | Susanne's World

  3. Pingback: I love DC | Susanne's World

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