Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Where We Belong, Prelude, Part 1 of 5

Prelude, 2009-January 2017

A year ago Katie and I drove up to our cabin in Wrightwood, CA -not for the usual Friday-Sunday weekend trip -but rather the final drive out of a city that we had grown increasingly unaccustomed to. Before I delve into the true reason for this four part series of blogs on our first year of living in the mountains, I'll share our perspective on why it became necessary for us to make this move from traffic to trees, from apartments to alpine.

How did this happen?

Katie and I were textbook working professionals/ultrarunners. We trained hard early in the mornings, went to work at high stress jobs in advertising and engineering, checked the high country webcams at lunch, came home exhausted and famished to feast on frozen pizza, planned out road trips for the weekend, and rushed out of the office every Friday afternoon into a wagon packed with food, sleeping bags, and running gear. If we didn't get on the 405 before 4 PM on a Friday, there was rarely a kind word said until we escaped the clutches of LA traffic and were streaking across the state towards the trail head we had dreamed of since Monday morning. Though we both were making decent money, we were so hungry for picturesque "runscapes" and epic training routes that we ended up spending most of our money traveling as far as we could in the 60 hours we had each weekend.

Canyonlands, worth the drive

When my sedan began to require maintenance in excess of it's net worth (I still can't believe people don't want to pay more than four grand for a Volvo with a mere 169,000 miles on it), we began looking at the next car that had decent gas mileage and could sleep two people comfortably in the back of it. Though we acquired Mister Volvo Two, a V50 wagon that we could fold the seats down and sleep in the back of, we soon realized that our lifestyle was wearing us out more than a few hours of sleep could repair.

Mister Volvo Two

I began looking at cabin prices in Wrightwood and found that mostly intact cabins started at around $150,000, and incessantly talked about them with Katie on our usual sleep deprived trips. One weekend, we had driven through particularly bad traffic and made it up to Lone Pine at midnight. We awoke around 7 AM to prepare to summit Mt. Russell, and though I could not complain about the amazing sunrise or the gorgeous view out the back of the trunk, I couldn't stop complaining about how tired I was and how much better the frigid morning could be if for once we could drink coffee inside a warm cabin. We actually spent a good two to three hours gawking about the prospects of waking up in the mountains in an actual a bed, making a hot breakfast, jogging from our door to a trail head, having an amazing run, and then... TAKING A HOT SHOWER!!!

Katie, busy appreciating my thoughts on cabin life

This isn't to say that dirtbagging isn't a good time, or that we weren't ever going to camp again, but after years of trying to do everything, we were at a breaking point. We couldn't just quit our jobs because of student loans and other responsibilities, we couldn't stay home on the weekends and not get deep into the backcountry, and we couldn't defy the space-time continuum and find any more hours to sleep or any closer trails that we loved as much as the San Gabriel High Country and the greater American West. We were pros at our jobs and wearing ourselves out because we never gave up on work or running. By the end of 2014, after six years of working long hours and playing even longer hours, we had successfully broke ourselves. So, in December when we found our dream cabin at the start of the Acorn Trail, we were beyond excited to be Wrightwood weekenders. We had finally earned a bed in the pines!

Typical Monday during the "We're breaking ourselves" phase

From 2015-2016, we spend most weekends at the cabin, and loved every second we got to spend in Wrightwood. We annoyed our coworkers almost every Monday with stories and pictures of idyllic weekend getaways, but we also became even better workers and runners because we were not constantly haggard and sleep deprived. We both believed that our cabin was an investment, and that our 30 year mortgage would be finished just in time for us to retire at the cabin. When we arrived each Friday evening, we were ecstatic and joyfully bounded inside to make dinner and watch DVDs by the fire. When we left on Sunday Nights/Monday Mornings, we were depressed, but told ourselves that along with the millions of other people headed into work, that the city was a necessary evil, and something that we had to survive to pay the bills to enjoy our cabin.

Our first night in the cabin! It was cold!

Our new weekend life included this, follow by a hot shower

Katie and I still went on some amazing trips: to Europe, Colorado, Oregon, Washington, Yosemite, Mammoth, Zion, Moab, Montana, etc. etc. but we would always be excited to come back the next weekend to the cabin. It was no surprise that when we got married on Memorial Day in 2016, we chose Wrightwood as the venue. As the saying goes, "first comes marriage, then comes Dominic with the existential crisis of how to raise a child in the city without going completely insane and becoming a shell of his former self." Katie and I began having hard talks about whether we'd have to sell the cabin to buy a severely overpriced condo in West LA (for those wondering, a decent two bedroom in a good school district is no less than 700k). We tried to fathom raising kids in the city, and leaving the mountains behind to pursue our jobs and be good parents, but we (un)fortunately had our dream cabin and couldn't bear the thought of selling it. 

Married in the Pines

I would often spend my lunches at work watching the Wrightwood webcam, and in-between daydreaming of running on Blue Ridge, I began to notice that the town wasn't empty in the middle of the week. At the main stop sign in town, cars would pile of 5-7 deep during "rush hour", and file through fairly regularly. The gears in my mind slowly turned that in these cars, were people, and though some of these people might be retired, most retired people don't drive during rush hour for no reason. Perhaps, just maybe, there were jobs nearby, and these people were actually working nearby and LIVING IN WRIGHTWOOD! I raced to Google maps, zoomed in on Wrightwood, then began clicking around in the desert to the North, looking for any signs of life and/or engineering work. The power of the internet was about to have a life changing effect as I suddenly found "General Atomics" in Adelanto, a mere 35 minute drive from Wrightwood. Clicking over to their employment page, I gave myself more credit than my resume deserved, and began applying to all engineering leadership positions I could find. Flight Operations? Yeah, I've flown on planes. Fuel Systems? Sure, I pump my own gas. I submitted my resume, and then eagerly checked my e-mail... for the next 4 months. 

Eventually, in November, I got called in for an interview for a Fuel Systems Supervisor position. Again, did I know what a pilot valve or a jet pump did? No, but I had pumped my own gas, and had never been terrible in interviews. Much like two years before, I giddily talked Katie into the dream of spending more time in the mountains, and with her support, I.. eventually got the job after a month of interviews!!!

Suddenly our plan of retiring in Wrightwood became an immediate reality and we were making dozens of trips to Goodwill preparing for our move. Were we really ready for this drastic shift from mind-numbing traffic to shoveling 20" of snow to get in the house? Were two LA yuppies really ready for months of freezing temperatures, no Trader Joe's within 45 minutes of us, no hot yoga studios, no Acai Bowl cafes, no gastropubs, and no bougie coffee shops? Would I actually be good at the job I barely got, and would Katie be able to find freelance work? The most important question of all was, would we actually be happier? Were we in love with all the charms of Wrightwood because we always came up with a cooler of our favorite food, and never had to be away from our friends for more than a few days? 

My first day at GA
Katie continued working remotely for RPA for a few months, I dove into an engineering field I had no clue about, and we snuggled tight to keep warm at night and convince each other we weren't alone. At ages 30 and 33, we were struggling to start over again, free of traffic, but also free of all the creature comforts and friends we had taken for granted for the last 8 years.


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