It was uncommonly easy to find myself at home in the Pacific Northwest. After forty years of wandering in other countries and the US, I knew intuitively that it was where I wanted to plant myself even though I had no roots in the area. The land and seascapes lure me outside most days to walk where I can keep mountains and water in view (when the weather permits). It feels fundamentally grounding to be an integral part of something bigger here.
My partner and I were raised on the east coast and lived in Baltimore, Bethesda, Atlanta, and Santa Fe together before his work took us overseas. Packing our belongings and leaving family and friends to move to a foreign country was an onerous undertaking. We did it six times in twenty years, bouncing between east and west Africa, Europe, and America so he could do AIDS work while I wrote and raised our children. The last post overseas was Geneva, a quaint city and springboard for sights throughout Europe.
For me, it was a harder place to call home than Tanzania or Ivory Coast where we’d lived with our children. In our sprawling apartment complex by Lake Geneva (the French call it Lac Leman), most of the tenants were foreigners like us who spoke other languages and weren’t open to outsiders. The needs of my children—in their early twenties by then—and aging parents often drew me back to the US on short notice. I was torn between two continents, always an outsider even if we did get to travel to a dozen countries and tick off a bucket list of sights in the four years we spent in Switzerland.
When it was time to move back to the US, I lobbied for Seattle. It had the main features we liked about Geneva—proximity to lakes and mountains and decent public transportation—and we had close friends in the area. I had visited the friends a dozen times over the years and gone hiking in the Olympics and Cascades with them. It was those landscapes that enticed me, along with the prospect of indulging a sense of adventure. We could go off in any direction on weekends to hike in the mountains, swim in a lake, and explore a new town or island. Taking ferries to the Olympic Peninsula and nearby islands always feels like a forced transition or passage from the daily grind to otherworldly places with the promise of something new.
The years in Cote d’Ivoire and Tanzania had been full of adventure, too. We’d done a half-dozen safaris and trekked across the Ngoro Ngoro Highlands with our kids, and climbed some of the highest peaks in east Africa including Kilimanjaro and Meru. Aside from stunning landscapes, we had witnessed pervasive poverty and disease and lost friends and colleagues to AIDS before life-saving medications became available. The most meaningful aspect of those years abroad were the connections we made with people we encountered in other countries. Yet it was always clear that we were temporary sojourners far from our native soil.
Upon moving to Seattle, we settled in a leafy neighborhood where I could walk freely and talk to neighbors in a common language without being earmarked as a foreigner. I only realized how important those things were to me after returning to this country. I made new friends while volunteering at day shelters, teaching English to language learners, and joining a community group; and in the shade of a massive cedar tree, I was eager to garden again. It was uplifting to learn that Seattle was a city of readers and writers, actors and activists, bikers and hikers. I like the unpretentious atmosphere where people don’t seem to care about one’s pedigree or profession. You can show up at almost any restaurant in hiking boots and no one bats an eye.
I try to ignore the fact that we’re surrounded by big military complexes with advanced weapons systems, having Joint Base Lewes-McChord to the south and naval bases in Bremerton and Whidbey Island within striking distance of the city (gulp); that the noise of airplanes heading into and out of SeaTac seems incessant at times, and that I-5 is a nightmare if you want to leave the city on Friday and return on Sunday. The wilderness with all those massive trees is still out there, also within striking distance of the city and close enough to raise my sights.
In no other state that I’ve called home has the great outdoors been as imposing and accessible as it is here; not in Maryland or Ohio (where I went to college), Georgia or New Mexico. Well, maybe in New Mexico, where we did a lot of hiking and camping during the two years we lived in the land of enchantment. Those vistas have captivated artists past and present, from Georgia O’Keefe and DH Lawrence to the myriad painters, potters, sculptors, and jewelers who display their work in Santa Fe. Yet on a recent visit to New Mexico, it was almost an eyesore to gaze at so much arid earth; formidable scenery to be admired but not embraced.
Perhaps it’s an act of will as much as an intuitive choice—to settle down in the Pacific Northwest with its intense greenery, lakes, and forests. I still marvel at the vast stretches of water around us every time I board a ferry. And when we traverse the North Cascades, especially in autumn as Oregon Grape and blueberry bushes turn scarlet shades and larch trees an ethereal yellow, I can’t imagine foregoing the chance to walk in such splendor again. The sense that we’re part of something so much bigger is why I choose to make my home in these singular environs.
Terry Repak has worked as an investigative reporter, an editor, a television producer, a research fellow, and a free-lance writer. Her volunteer work has included teaching English Language Learners and assisting at homeless shelters in Seattle; tutoring students in primary schools in Tanzania; serving on the boards of the Corona Women’s Society, The International School in Dar es Salaam, the Professional Women’s Network in Abidjan, C.I., and giving civics classes to amnesty applicants. Her travel memoir, Circling Home: What I Learned By Living Elsewhere, is available from independent bookstores now.