February 23, 2014

The Nevada chapter

"If you want to learn journalism, work for a small town newspaper."

"The sky is bluer out west."

These two ideas took hold of me 15 years ago, in my senior year of college. The first was shared by a professor, the second by my friend during a spring break driving tour of large, rectangular states. It was on that trip I declared, with the certainty that only a person in their early 20s can muster, "Whatever happens to me after graduation, I'll be OK... as long as I can see mountains."

Sometimes, an idea plants in my head and grows wildly like a weed, consuming my thoughts until it is the only possibility I see, the only reasonable course of action, even if it seems strange to others. Such was the notion that led me to Winnemucca, Nevada. I got a job at the newspaper, packed my life's belongings into a Honda Civic, and left behind everyone and everything I knew in the Midwest - except for my boyfriend, Sam, who brought his own Honda and spirit of adventure.

After a year in the dusty little mining town, we were ready to cash in our chips and move on. But pointing our Hondas eastward felt like failure. Instead, we kept moving west, drawn to Reno because its sparkling lights and movie theaters and Barnes & Noble had made it a beacon of joy on many a lonely weekend. Also, we only had $600 and couldn't afford to go much farther.

On the hottest day of the summer, we moved into this apartment, then spent the last of our cash on Blue Moon and mozzarella sticks at Chilis.

I wanted to write for the local newspaper, but I joined Sam at Intuit's job fair because I was a supportive girlfriend and there may have been free snacks. Also, my interim job as a keno runner was taking its toll on my feet and my self-esteem. A few weeks later, Intuit offered both of us jobs in the tax department. English majors filing taxes! Ha!

Something surprising happened. Not only were we reasonably competent tax reps, we liked it. I enjoyed my new workplace so much that I turned down a job offer from the newspaper a few weeks later. Sometimes, you make a decision knowing that everything hinges on it. Other times, it's just a little choice you make, and only in retrospect do you see that all subsequent events are attached to it.

For 9 years, we worked for Intuit, growing our careers as the company grew, eventually moving from our Pepto-pink building with carpeted walls into a sleek little campus near a duck pond.

Sam and I did the things that many people in their 20s do. We went out a lot. We got married. We bought a house. (The brown one, not the one with the limo)

We saw concerts, we took day trips to California, we made friends with some of the best people in the world and loved them like family. 

We had a baby.

After Evie was born, one of those growing, choking weed ideas got planted in my mind: It's time to move back to the Midwest. I wanted my baby to grow up close to her extended family. I missed the people, the culture, the cheese curds, the thunderstorms that lit up the prairie on summer nights. The idea got bigger until finally, when Evie was 2, after 10 years in Nevada, the stars aligned and we moved to the Twin Cities.

The Midwest suits us. We're non-confrontational and enjoy public radio. Sam knows how to operate a snowblower and I like to call carbonated beverages "pop." We burn in the sun and can drive a Prius in the snow and will trade a cold winter for the hard-won joy of the first warm day of spring and everything that follows.

But, a piece of us remains Nevadan. We know it's pronounced with a short "a" and cringe when we hear "Nev-ah-da." The slot machine chant of "Wheel! Of! Fortune!" is forever ingrained in our minds. We see lightning and think about wildfires.

Last weekend, Sam and I visited Reno for the first time, as tourists of our own history. 

We took an inventory of what we remembered, what we had forgotten, and what had changed.

We remembered the way to our house, and we recognized places both mundane (Hey, there's our dentist) and significant (There's the hospital where Evie was born!). I remembered that a cookie from Josef's Vienna is always worth the splurge.

I had forgotten how the world glows in an extended shadow after the sun has sunk below the mountains, but before it has set. I had forgotten how inexpensive everything is, and how a night in a dive bar is roughly equivalent to smoking a half pack of cigarettes. I had forgotten how aggressive tumbleweeds are on windy days.

We had not forgotten the people.

It's been 15 years since we moved to Nevada, 5 years since we left. Having carried those numbers around for a weekend, I can say that they're not very big. I expect that the longer I live in Minnesota, the smaller they will feel.

In the presence of friends, 5 years melts away in a single cocktail. Shared history is easy to reach, and the years in between are just enough to give us a firmer foothold in our own lives, as smarter, more confident versions of our 2009 selves. I think there's an underappreciated milestone in one's 30s, in which we might give ourselves permission to let go of some of our 20s angst and live in a more full and authentic way. Everyone I reconnected with seemed to shine brighter somehow - or perhaps that was the cocktails talking.

And somewhere, amidst those cocktails, I found another lovely quirk of time: The friendship that's so established you need not worry about when you last saw each other or when you'll meet next. We're friends. We get each other. We're part of one another's story, and we always will be.

That's why, even though the Nevada chapter is closed, I doubt that Reno has seen the last of us.

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