We concluded part one of our journey having less idea of where we wanted to settle than when we started, despite one of our stated goals having been to start nailing that decision down. Instead of winnowing the field of potential endpoints, we expanded it.
Consequently we planned a few winter weeks away from home in front-running destination areas – auditions more or less. The first was Bend. At some point Tacco and I realized that we were looking hard at ski towns and envisioning season passes and play dates on the hill, yet 2 of our 3 kids had never skied, with the 3rd having only done it one day, many years ago. Moving into our shiny new ski town and discovering that our kids hated skiing would be a buzzkill, to say the very least. So we planned a ski week, and opted to do it in Bend as we’d been impressed with it in both summer and fall, but figured winter might be the true test.
The second trip we planned was two weeks in New England, renting houses in Portsmouth, NH and Portland, ME, with me flying a few trips from there to get a feel for going to work without having to commute to work via plane. Since I’ve been an airline pilot, I’ve never had the pleasure of driving to work and back.
We rented a house near the river there for the first week in February and jumped on a plane to Portland.
Bend is tricky to get to. There’s an airport, but counting on standby flying via connecting flights on airlines other than my own didn’t sound prudent or fun, so we rented a minivan for the week and made the 3 hour drive across the Cascades once we arrived. As tends to happen, our initial five or so plans crumbled due to external factors, with the net effect being a very late arrival in Portland and my mainlining caffeine to keep me alert for the drive over the mountains. We didn’t see much – me due to darkness and the others due to slumber.
Here’s an overview of the geography, by the way. I think when most people picture Oregon, they picture green, wet Portland and the Willamette River valley (and maybe the coast), which is basically the upper left corner of this map, bordered by the Cascades in the East and Eugene in the South. Bend is outside of that, and quite different in many ways.And here’s a more close-up satellite view. The distances are short — downtown Bend to Mt. Bachelor is about twenty miles. And it’s pretty easy to see the color difference between the wet (west) side of the Cascades and the dry (east) side. Bend is more or less high desert, with the associated climate, but with lots of ponderosa pines, juniper, and volcanic rock.
Our third visit started strong yet again. More great food, world class local beer and cider, walks along the river… while I preferred the summer vibe with bikes and water toys everywhere you turned, this was still entirely decent. Better than decent.
That said, the ski aspect of the week started sketchy bordering on disasterously. A family ski week from long distance is an expensive proposition no matter how you try to mitigate it. After hours of online searching and several phone calls resulted in lots of information that didn’t help us, we opted for an essentially un-discounted 3 of 5 day ski pass for everyone, a 5 day ski rental for the kids, and day-by-day half day lessons for the three of them. For this we spent far more we than did for our (very nice) rental house, with no guarantee of enjoyment. What’s more, the weather looked to be uncooperative. It had been a particularly mild Winter in Bend, and the snow on Mt. Bachelor was more akin to what you would normally see in late April than the dead of winter. The temperatures for the week were forecast to hover about ten degrees above freezing, with the possibility of rain. This was not skiing weather. Still, it’s pointless to stress over that which you can’t control, so we chose what we thought would be the best three ski days out of our week and rolled with it.
Our first ski day saw us teetering on the edge of fiasco. As anyone who has ever taken kids on a first-time ski outing can attest, the best way to ensure that they hate skiing for life is to put them on the mountain in bad conditions on day one. Often weather alone is enough to ruin them, but throw in a few more unfavorables and you’re effectively doomed.
First of all, we were inside a cloud. Literally. Zero visibility and damp damp damp. The snow surface was icy, and there was neither snow nor clearing in the forecast. Not auspicious.
Secondly, we spent about an hour in the buy-your-tickets area. Despite having pre-purchased our passes, their computer wasn’t playing along and Tacco made her way through three employees, the first two of whom had to throw up their hands and ask for help. Having worked in a lift ticket office in the past, Tacco was calm and understanding the entire time, but the kids became increasingly less serene. Thereafter came the rental experience. It went as well as could be expected, but putting ski gear on kids for the first time is always going to be a little bit fraught.
After we emerged at last, we found that we had about 45 minutes prior to the beginning of the afternoon lesson, so I decided I’d put on my ski instructor hat and show them the absolute basics. Side stepping, edges, duck walking, getting up when you fall… Let’s call that strike three.
I knew this was a bad idea. Everyone knows this is a bad idea. You let the ski instructor instruct your kids. Duh. And yet… I still did it. Within 15 minutes I managed to get all three kids splayed on the snow, completely frustrated with me, skiing, life, everything. Keeper was muttering about how many actual minutes this ski day would take so that he could count down how much longer he’d have to endure the torture.
This is how we left our kids with the instructor.
We took off to catch a few runs in a futile attempt to make the cost of our lift tickets worthwhile.
Visibility got no better on the mountain, and the best we could possibly do was pick our way down at a crawl. I tried goggles on, goggles off, sunglasses on, sunglasses off, sunglasses under goggles (the sunglasses are Rx, so skiing without them puts me at an immediate disadvantage acuity-wise)… everything either fogged up or got so covered with tiny water droplets that they became useless. I ended up mostly just going bare-eyed and rubbing them a lot. And did I mention it was icy?
Then the rain began. Lightly, but rain nevertheless. Strike five. Or six. At this point it was tough to tell how many strikes, but the whole endeavor took on sort of a zen aspect to it. Almost relief. We were not going to be a skiing family, we would not live in Bend, and we were now free to calmly forget about the money we had spent here and just enjoy the rest of the week without any expectations. Being inside of a cloud while wearing a helmet and goggles and a big jacket makes going zen very easy, incidentally. Your world seems very small.
About an hour into the two-hour lesson we decided to ski to the bottom to check in on the kids, just for “fun.” At the bottom we found three empty pairs of skis sitting in the snow. “Ah-ha, they broke the instructor.” On a whim though, I poked my head into the yurt where I figured they’d be sitting, half hoping they wouldn’t see me so that they couldn’t cry for mercy and beg to be taken back to the car. Instead what I saw was the four of them (kids + instructor) sipping hot chocolate and chatting happily. Huh. “Oh hey dad, we’re just taking a break!” Oooo-K. The instructor met my gaze without a “please help me” look, so I quickly told them we’d see them in an hour and headed back out. They weren’t skiing, which threatened to destroy my serene state with images of how expensive that hot chocolate they were drinking would turn out to be, but I swiftly brushed the thought away and joined Tacco to attempt another few runs. Or “runs,” as it were. Whatever. Sunk costs are sunk costs. The kids would hate skiing but at least they weren’t miserable right at this moment, and I was free to more or less enjoy my last bit of adult time on the mountain while pondering where else in the country we might want to live.
We returned to collect the kiddos post-lesson ready to concede defeat, grab a warm drink somewhere, dry off and get toasty, and figure out what we’d do with the remaining ski days we would clearly not be using. What we found was something entirely different. I don’t use the word “miracle” lightly, if at all. But SOMETHING went down. All three kids were happily making turns on the small ski-school area’s slope, laughing, waving at us, and asking if we were coming back tomorrow and if not, could we please please please?? Wait, what?! “Skiing is AWESOME Dad!”
[insert sound of needle scraping across record here] Wow. Wow! What just happened?!?
So that’s how the rest of the week went. Though it didn’t snow, the sun came out on the mountain for the remainder of our time and the conditions were Spring-ish, with icy mornings giving way to softer afternoons. The kids took two more lessons each and did extremely well. By day three Keeper went all the way up the mountain with us and skied down some intermediate slopes with no problems. Firebolt did almost the same, and will be ready to join us next time. And Woodsprite is raring to get back out there.
But it was even better than that. The kids fell in love with Bend. I did not expect this. Even if we discovered that they enjoyed skiing, I had anticipated resigned neutrality at best. Not so. Even Keeper, who, ever since we started this adventure in July has held fast to his “I do not want to leave Maryland, but if we absolutely have to, then I’d be OK with xxx… maybe” sentiment, surprised us with “I want to move here right now!” The biking, the neighborhoods, the skiing, the river, the restaurants, the weather – hit hit hit hit hit hit.
It was odd to find myself in the position of being the least enthusiastic family member, given that I’d been the one intrigued by Bend’s possibilities for the past ten years or so, before anyone else had even been there. I still had concerns about the commute to work and the unnecessary time away from home that would impose upon me and the family. There’s no getting around that. Fortunately I was able to meet up with a friend and ex-squadron-mate there (one of only two people we know in town), who now flies for Southwest and commutes to Oakland. We’re fairly like-minded and in a similar life situation, so I value his take on things. What I expected him to give me was a list of pros and cons that was pretty balanced in the aggregate. What I got instead was the story of how he worked through that list, to include making the decision to move back to California and going so far as to fly the family out there with the intention to buy a house there, only to discover almost immediately that they were crazy to move away from paradise and flying right back. Basically he was overwhelmingly positive, and made the case, which has always been compelling to me, that loving where you live is more than worth any minor inconveniences involved in being there.
I’ve made that decision again and again throughout my life, trading ease and convenience for quality of experience. When I lived in the Pensacola area for flight school, I rented a house near the training base in Milton, having been convinced (or maybe spooked) by several stressed-out students that I needed to be close by and have zero distractions if I was going to succeed at this. It was miserable. Milton was, that is. It took a late-night beer-fueled conversation with good friends in a similar living situation for us to conclude that that reasoning was antithetical to our natures and that we would all be better served by living on one of the Pensacola area’s pristine white-sand beaches, even if it meant a 45 minute commute (it did). We moved with only two months left in Pensacola and it became two of the most memorable months of my life.
When I was based in Whidbey Island I was told by several fellow Navy folks that I emphatically did not want to live in Anacortes to the north and should instead stick to the Navy town of Oak Harbor because I wanted to be close to base and did “not want to deal with that bridge!” (Deception Pass bridge, which spans the gap between Fidalgo and Whidbey Islands).
Anacortes is the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, and contrary to being something to “deal” with, the Deception Pass bridge always gave me a peaceful sense of separation between my home and work lives. The occasional pods of orcas that frolicked in the water beneath it didn’t hurt either.
I could keep providing examples, but my point is that every time I hesitated and went through this same sort of calculation, I ended up making the decision to take the route that was more inconvenient but provided greater personal rewards, and every time I’ve looked back, I’ve been completely convinced that I made the right call.
I think that might be where we are with Bend. Right now it’s a 90% solution, and for the first time we all seem to have a “this feels right” sense that has been heretofore lacking. The kids are all in, Tacco is, let’s call it 94% in (she graduated in ’94 and USNA types are weird about their graduation year… heh), and I’m almost there. We may have found a home. I’m certain there will be days when I’ll be stuck in commuting hell, missing soccer games or forcing Tacco to cancel commitments because I’m stuck in San Francisco or LA. But, theoretically at least, we’re good with that. It does indeed feel right. Now to find an actual house within our home.
Oh, and by the way, we ended up canceling the New England trip. The more we looked at it, the more it now seemed pointless compared to the time and expense. Sorry New England, you’re gorgeous and we may have carved out quite a life in one of your small towns with me happily driving to and from work, but it looks like Bend may have swooped us.