From where I’m sitting, I can see the edge of an adobe garage, the glint of late-afternoon sun off a pickup truck, a red-pebbled driveway giving way to a broad expanse of pinyon- and juniper-dotted desert. It’s a distinctly western scene, and rightly so. I’m on another east-to-west road trip, stopping at my mother and stepfather’s home outside Santa Fe, New Mexico, for a brief respite.
My boyfriend and I drove here from New York. Yesterday we were in Norman, Oklahoma, and tomorrow we’ll head to Phoenix, Arizona. The next day we’ll reach our final destination: Southern California. Because I’m moving there. Yes, after barely more than three months back in New York post-Colorado, I am going west again. Uprooting again so soon has given me a bit of geographical whiplash, but no one who knows me has expressed the least bit of surprise.
Maybe it’s because this is not the first time I’ve moved to the West. It’s not even the first time I’ve moved to California. After college, I got my dream publishing internship and hopped on a plane to San Francisco. I spent a year there, learning the unglamorous process by which a seat-of-its-pants literary magazine gets made, working a part-time retail job, and jumping from sublet to sublet as I kept opting to stay a little longer. When I moved back to New York for graduate school — my first time boomeranging back east — I felt like the game was up, like my improvised California life had been some kind of magical interlude before my real real life began. Which, in a way, it was.
Yet I never seem to mention San Francisco when I talk about my relationship with the West. My time there feels separate, part of a different story from the one I tell myself about the deserts and mountains I’ve fallen for in Utah, New Mexico, and Colorado. California has its own complicated mythology, one that overlaps with the broader western myths but also carries its own distinct flavors: seasoned with Hollywood glitter and the salt of the Pacific Ocean, California is the freewheeling lovechild of western rugged individualism and urban coastal culture. It’s full of echoes yet like nowhere else.
But what I often forget about my time in the Bay Area is that many of the defining questions of the past decade of my life, questions that had started to churn through my mind during my early visits to the desert, took on color and shape there.
In grad school, I worked and reworked an essay I’d begun in San Francisco about the idea of being a geographical transplant. (One version opened with a scene at the clothing store where I worked, in which a young customer from Kansas observed, “There are, like, so many implants here.” She meant transplants, but she wasn’t fully wrong.) In classic MFA style, I sought explanations in the etymology of the word “transplant,” the way it had first applied to plants, and later to organs and, around the same time, to people. “The meaning that began to occupy my mind after I arrived in San Francisco,” I wrote, high on a steady intake of Joan Didion, “was added in 1961: ‘person not native to his place of residence.’”
When I return to that essay now, it strikes me as slightly scattered, sentimental to the point of syrupy, and more than a little naive. But it’s also weirdly prescient. All my ideas about the West, about what draws people to places, about my swings across the country, are rooted in the questions I began to probe then. What does it mean to call a place home? Why do we live where we live? What lures us elsewhere, and what makes us stay? And as I wrote then: “How do you adapt when what you thought could become a long-term settling place turns out to be just one point on a boomerang trajectory back to where you started?”
Moving this time feels, in some ways, like any other life choice, a change only as momentous and ordinary as it is: a job offer, a relocation, another round of rifling through apartment listings. I’ve finally sloughed off some of the romantic ideas that fueled my past moves; I no longer expect going west to change me fundamentally, to make me my most independent self, to let something bloom in me that couldn’t grow anywhere else.
But going west still feels like an opening — the opposite of the trip that took me back to New York from Colorado, which I experienced as a closing up of space as the landscape shrunk back down to eastern proportions. Now, once again, I am driving into wider spaces, big sky, everything on a different scale. Driving back east after my year in Colorado felt like culture shock, but this isn’t that at all. It feels like breathing a little deeper and slower, like relaxing into a sigh.
It feels like relief.
For just today, I’m staying put. After several days on the road, Eamon and I are taking this day to rest. Stopping here feels appropriate, not only because there’s family to see and dogs to pet, but also because I have a history of looking to New Mexico as a place where I can collect myself and return to neutral — desert landscape as blank slate. It feels right to pause briefly here on my long trip to the other coast, to watch as winds whip furiously through the tall grasses and the swirling dust blots all the mountain views, to live another transition across these broadening days.