On Moving from Chicago to Portland, OR

During the process of deciding to move I’ve had a lot of people ask why, and in almost every case, because I’m a bad or impatient storyteller, I summarize that I want to live somewhere with more access to the outdoors. This is true, but its not a satisfactory answer for how unnatural it is to move away from a comfortable life in a nice city near most of my family.

Over the last few years, I’ve read a lot of accounts of people moving away from Chicago. Away, being the operative tone, as though Chicago has wronged them. Chicago has done nothing to wrong me. It is a wonderful city with great culture, parks, and institutions. Yes, there is crime, but it isn’t where I live, work, or socialize. Yes, the weather can be awful at times, but the weather is awful in Florida and Arizona just as much of the year, in my opinion. Yes, the city and state are horribly in debt, and taxes are kind of high, but overall, its not that expensive to live in Chicago.

My reasons for moving started in some ways over twenty years ago when I started considering what it meant to be happy. This intersected in my then teenage life with all sorts of other things including an interest in Eastern philosophy, travel to British Columbia, and of course listening to grunge bands. As a young teen, I became more aware of when experiences were beyond enjoyable, and actually meaningful.

When I graduated high school my aunt gave me a Thoreau anthology that included The Maine Woods, and Walden. I read Walden at least a couple times during college, finding a lot of meaning in the ideals of a connection with nature and of living a simple life. I had a very hard time as a Freshman trying to figure out what I wanted life to mean. Such a hard time that I had what would probably be considered a panic attack and went to see a school counselor about it, though I don’t recall her being any help. I just needed to talk to someone about how I felt.

If you had known me around my freshman year of college, you’d have probably have found me to be too severe. After my little episode, I made a conscious decision, as a defense, to give up on some degree of principle, and to try and enjoy life a bit more. From a spiritual perspective, that is when I should have moved to the woods, but I was intellectually opposed to the impracticality of it. So my compromise with myself was to focus on making the best of what was at hand. This being more akin to trying to enjoy a path you are on instead of taking a new path.

After school, I had every reasonable opportunity to get a job in California, either LA or San Francisco, but I wanted to live in Chicago because that is where I knew people, and was comfortable. I wasn’t enough of an adult at the time to think or feel beyond that. I’d given up on a life in the woods because it wasn’t practical, but really, it wasn’t even on my mind by the time I graduated.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which you have likely seen before, looks something like this (from https://www.simplypsychology.org/maslow.jpg)

My retrospective feeling is that I was stuck for a long time at the belongingness and love needs level. As much as I spiritually might have wanted to do something, I didn’t have that grounding. I felt like I belonged (as in the above hierarchy) in Chicago.

In Chicago I was able to fall in love with my wife Lana, and we built a good life together. I was able to accomplish a lot over the next dozen years or so.

About five years ago, after a long time without spending much time in nature, I started trail running. I still vividly remember the first time I went to Red Gate Woods in Palos to run a 10K-ish loop. I remember the weather, my lack of confidence, and the Clif bar I ate sitting on the curb afterwards. Being out in the woods felt the same as it did when I was a kid hiking in Canada, or spending time outside in Wisconsin. Over the next few years I went for more runs in all seasons and they reminded me of how I felt in all those seasons and places as a kid. Reminded isn’t the right word to express it, it was the same feeling, connected to the same part of my memory and my spirit.

I’m not a religious person, but if I were my religion would be the brightness of snow, the texture and smell of moss, the sweet bumbling of raccoons, and the sounds of crows and cicadas. Online, I scroll right past photos of babies to gawk at photos of birds and landscapes.

On a lot of my runs, especially along the lakefront path in Chicago, I’d fall into thinking about what makes me happy. It was a koan of sorts, for a long time a question with no answer that I meditated on as I ran. Running made me feel good, but it wasn’t happiness. It crept into my consciousness over many many months that the fulfillment of being outdoors in big nature is what brought me a certain kind of peace. The next few years confirmed not just that it was true, but that Lana also found peace and happiness in a similar way.

For practical reasons we chose to move to Portland over other places near big nature. Cost of living is reasonable, the culture is good, the city is fun, and we know people there and nearby.

Chicago has a special place in my heart. I will miss the sound of the cicadas in summer, the bright, crisp February days, and driving to Wisconsin to pick pumpkins in the Fall. But I’ll make new memories in Portland and years from now will look back fondly on those things too. I’m already following groups online that I want to volunteer with, and reading about places I want to go. There are magnificent places that I can drive to on the weekend and be back to work on Monday. In Chicago, it feels like there is hardly anywhere worth going and has for a long time.

When Chicago was originally settled, it must have been beautiful. The prairies and healthy old forests that are out there are magical places, but they are almost all crowded out by crops and development.

Maybe the Pacific Northwest will be where I live forever, maybe not, but its where I’m going to try to live the best I can right now.