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The Call of Home

A young woman starts a new life far from the familiar and finds out that home isn't a matter of where you've been, it's where you are.

By AMY FISCHER
© St. Petersburg Times
published March 9, 2003


LONGVIEW, Wash. -- It's been almost five months since I've seen a cockroach. Or a fire ant. Or a mosquito, for that matter.

At the end of October, I shoved my books, couch, wine glasses and bicycle into a 17-foot U-Haul truck and drove almost 3,000 miles from Inverness to Longview, a small, southwest Washington industrial town on the Columbia River, where my first full-time job as a newspaper reporter awaited.

My parents helped me with the seven-day jaunt. Dad drove the U-Haul, and Mom and I took turns driving my car. My two sedate beagles nestled against each other in the back seat. Pepe, my restless, lean, black dog, preferred to stand with his paws on the armrest between the front seats so he could alternate between whining in my ear and resting his chin on my shoulder as I drove.

Our daily goals on the road quickly became clear: finding cheap gas to fuel the U-Haul, which got 10 miles to the gallon, and deciding where to eat lunch, which we negotiated by walkie-talkie. ("Marge and Lisa calling Homer -- there's a Perkins coming up at the next exit.")

Putting an average of 500 miles each day on the odometer, we soon left behind the sticky South as we headed north and then due west. We bedded down in Motel 6s, both for their affordability and their lax dog policy, spending the night in Chattanooga, Tenn.; St. Louis; Hays, Kan.; Laramie, Wyo.; Ogden, Utah; and finally in Pendleton, Ore.

Florida's humidity and scorching sun seemed to exist in another lifetime after we drove past the endless snow-dusted prairie in Kansas, Colorado and Wyoming, struggling in vain to clear the ice from the windshield and side windows. Tater, one of the beagles, sat with her nose pressed to the window, watching the white fields fly by, keeping to her post even when the frosted glass was so opaque there was nothing to see.

Pepe seemed particularly miserable in the cold. I'd brought him back from the steamy Costa Rica tropics two years ago as a starving, stray pup, and now he minced fussily through the snow in his pink sweater with his ears back, clearly wishing he was sprawled on a hot sidewalk in his native home, watching iguanas strut past.

Having lived in the tropics and subtropics my whole life -- first Guam and then Florida -- I am learning of things winter. I have seen my first snowplow. I understand that Colorado's snow fences -- miles of tall, rickety-looking slats -- keep snowdrifts from sliding onto the roads. And I now know that rabbit footprints in fresh snow look like exclamation points, punctuation marks that my baying beagles clamored to track into the brush at sunrise in Laramie, Wyo.

A long road behind

When we finally drove through Portland, only 45 miles of our journey remained. Strangely, after six full days on the road, suddenly I found myself wishing we weren't done yet. I was apprehensive about seeing the little house I'd rented sight-unseen. I was nauseated at the overwhelming nature of the life change ahead. I was starting over, taking a new job in a strange town in a state in the opposite corner of the country from family and friends.

My parents stayed in Longview for five days to get me settled and assure themselves that they'd done all they could to get me on my feet. They took my car in for a tune-up and bought me a used washer and dryer. Dad assembled my new bookshelves and hooked up my computer, and Mom helped me unpack and hang curtains.

When my parents flew back to Florida, after reminding me to get a Washington driver's license (I still haven't) and tell my car insurance policy folks I'd moved (haven't done that, either), I was alone -- and elated. Now I could begin my new life.

I'd worked hard to get here. After spinning my wheels working a number of dead-end jobs for six years after completing my bachelor's degree at New College in Sarasota, I spent three years in graduate school at the University of Florida, working toward a master's degree in mass communications. While a student, I wrote for the Gainesville Sun but couldn't get on as a full-time reporter after I graduated in December 2001 because the company had a hiring freeze.

I began waiting tables and cooking at a popular lunch bistro, pulling in less than $200 a week, wondering what I was going to do when I could no longer defer my $60,000 in student loans. I was depressed. I hated the thought of uprooting myself from Gainesville, one of Florida's shadiest, hilliest towns, to move somewhere hotter, brighter and flatter elsewhere in the state.

But I knew I was running out of time: At age 30 and with a master's degree, I couldn't continue to expect my parents to keep digging me out of my financial holes for much longer.

Gainesville wasn't panning out, and the only other place I'd ever wanted to live was the Pacific Northwest. I did not think I could endure another Florida summer's choking heat and blinding light. The thought of gray, misty, chilly weather appealed to me: no greasy sunscreen to make my skin break out, no sweating through silk blouses, no chance of heatstroke if I wanted to go for a jog at noon in the 40 degree temperatures.

When I was 19, I took a road trip with friends to Olympia, Wash., and spent a summer living with four others in a two-bedroom apartment on the Evergreen State College campus. We lived a hundred yards from a path leading through the forest, out to a rocky beach on Puget Sound. I thought Washington was the most beautiful state in the whole country, with its craggy, snow-capped mountains, lush forests of enormous trees and cliff-lined Pacific coastline. I told myself that someday I'd come back for good.

Reminders of home

It's the little things that remind me I'm not in Florida. The mutant trash cans parked in the muddy alley behind my house are a hulking 300 gallons. Squirrels are fatter and bolder here, scrabbling halfway down a tree trunk to lunge menacingly at my frantic beagles leaping below. Driving through shopping center parking lots at night is trickier here: Halogen lights don't flood every inch of asphalt as they seem to in Florida, and I find myself double- and triple-checking to make sure my headlights are on in the dimness.

I used to slide on my sunglasses religiously every time I stepped outside, but I don't even bother to carry them in my purse these days. I can count the number of times on one hand that I've seen my shadow on the sidewalk, and when the sun pierces through the gray haze for a rare few minutes, I actually turn my pale face to the sky to feel its warmth.

Another reminder that I'm not in the South: No one, and I mean no one, speaks with anything remotely resembling a Southern accent, with the exception of one Longview fire battalion chief who just moved to Longview from Georgia. I spoke with him while writing a story about a fire, and when I heard his drawl, as thick as hot tar, coming through the phone line, my eyes filled with tears. The chief told me he's been trying to learn to talk like everyone else here, but somehow they still seem to know he's from the South, he said. I told him he sounded great to me.

My little two-bedroom house turned out to be perfect for me and the dogs, chiefly because it is one block away from Lake Sacajawea, the town's central park. Before work every morning, I leash up the dogs and we walk the trails around the lake's tree-lined perimeter. It took me several weeks to finally shake my deeply ingrained habit of scanning the water's edge for alligators and allow the dogs to drag me down the banks in pursuit of ducks and the scent of the never-seen beaver.

When I arrived in early November, the ash, elm, redwood and maple trees still were resplendent in the fiery colors of autumn, but now the branches are bare and stark against the chalky sky. Spring is making its first appearance slowly with the pale-pink, gumdrop-sized blossoms on the plum trees planted along my street.

I am entranced by the daffodils and tulips that are pushing through the dirt in every yard, flowers that the locals regard with the same casualness that South Floridians view hibiscus, but which until now I'd seen only cut and arranged in vases. A true change of seasons is a marvel for me to witness, having never before experienced a distinct cycle of spring, summer, autumn and winter.

Walking at the lake, I can see plumes of smoke rising from Longview's paper mills along the Columbia River. Some days, the air smells like spoiled milk, but I seem to be the only one who notices. The town is at sea level, but drive just an hour or so and the mountains come into view: Mount St. Helens, Mount Hood, Mount Rainier. Ninety miles to the west is the Pacific Ocean, wild and cold.

Setting up a new life

Although Seattle is only 130 miles north of Longview, it might as well be as far away as the moon. People head south to Portland for entertainment, shopping and fine dining, and little of the city's hipster scene has penetrated the working-class culture here. Longview is a town hard-hit by Washington's economic downturn, and the county's unemployment rate is among the highest in the state. Many people are poor, the suicide rate is alarmingly high and use of methamphetamines and heroin is rampant.

All of which makes good fodder for a journalist on the lookout for a story with teeth.

A week after arriving in Longview, I started my job with the Daily News. I was hired to cover education, which I find ironic, given the amount of trouble I stirred up while doing my hitch as a Citrus High School student in the late 1980s. (I graduated in 1990.) Now I spend a lot of time in high heels and a black wool overcoat, talking to school bigwigs about policies, budgets and curriculum.

At the first school board meeting I covered, during my second week on the job, I sat at the press table feeling like a fraud. I fought to stay focused and make an attempt to understand the oblique education gibberish the administrators used. But by the end of the meeting, my notebook was filled with portraits I had drawn of the school board members and superintendent, and I scurried out without a story, my head down and face red.

Happily, things have crystallized for me since then. I can speak comfortably about topics that four months ago I would have tuned out because they were so beyond my scope of interest and understanding. I feel at home in the newsroom, talking shop with reporters, swaggering to the vending machine, swiping my magnetic door-entry card with a flourish, not feeling inadequate and incompetent when my editor asks, "So, what's on your plate today?"

I've finally reached the point in my job history where I actually look forward to going to work. It's a good place to be.

Things are going well on the job front, but the problem with vowing to make a fresh start and "do everything right this time" when you move to a place where no one knows you is that you bring yourself along. I was able to sustain my facade of the demure, mysterious, intellectual, classy career woman for perhaps three days at work before my vivacious, brash, straight-shootin' self crumpled up that facade and stomped on it.

When I laugh hard, I snort. I'll tell anyone within earshot how my date went last night. When my underwear rides up, I tug it out without looking to see who's behind me. I think the Anna Nicole Smith Show is hilarious. I don't open my bills until the late notice arrives. My expensive coat is sprinkled with dog hair.

Making friends outside the office has been tough. My work schedule leaves me with little time for classes or socializing during the week, but I've been visiting old friends in Portland and Seattle on weekends, giving me a much-needed recharge now that I'm so far from those I love.

When the loneliness and homesickness creep in, I bake cookies and mail them to loved ones. I make a zillion phone calls, write letters and e-mails, and the distance can shrink to nothing. But sometimes even technology can't soothe the heartache that comes with being so far away. My little brother's wife gave birth to their first child last month, and nothing can ease my sense of loss at not being there to hold little Clara and celebrate her arrival, surrounded by family.

When I get despondent, I remind myself how satisfying it is to have had a dream, made a plan and followed it through. Four years ago, I was waiting tables in Sarasota. I had no job benefits, my income was wildly inconsistent, I was drinking away my tips, and my self respect was in the toilet.

Now I have my own house and a job with benefits that more than covers my basic expenses. But most importantly, I have gained a sense of purpose. A feeling of hope. I ask myself: If I made it this far on gumption, what else can I do?

-- Amy Fischer can be reached at dognose_2@yahoo.com

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