In 2015, my husband Brian and I quit our jobs, sold our house, and left our life in Seattle, Washington, in search of a new home. We’d spent years trapped in a never-ending cycle of long commutes, longer hours, and seemingly shorter weekends to afford our life in this beautiful part of the world and now sought a place where we could afford to make career shifts; I wanted to be a writer and we wanted to open an art space. As with most journeys, this adventure did not land us anywhere near where we expected.
Our decision to take the Great Beahan Adventure was born of a conversation that was deteriorating into an argument. We were in the car, arguably one of the worst places to have a fight, discussing our current quality of life. I’d recently left my full-time job to pursue an MFA in creative writing. Our budget was stretched tight, but I was both challenged by and smitten with my work.
Brian, then working as a sales manager for an art supply company, was envious and hankering for his own game-changing shift. But he was our primary breadwinner and we didn’t have enough nest egg to float.
So, there we were, in the car brainstorming. I threw my hands in the air in frustration. “Fine. Let’s sell the house. We could live abroad for a year. Or travel around the country looking for a new place to live.”
Brian is notoriously slow to make decisions but that day he responded immediately. “Okay, let’s do that. Let’s sell our house and go find a new place to live.”
This scheme—to sell our house, put everything in storage, pack a suitcase and our lab/bird dog mutt, Emmett, into our Mazda CX-5, and drive around the country looking for a place to live—was surprisingly easy to execute. Seattle was one of the hottest real estate markets in the country. We knew the sale of our house would finance a year of traveling around the country. The idea was conceived in April, the house went on the market in mid-May and sold in 48 hours, and just like that, we were homeless. We were on the road in mid-July.
Where do we go? How do we plan for an indefinite road trip?
Lots of lists. We decided on criteria for the cities we’d visit and made checklists of items to assess while we were visiting each community: Is there a good coffee shop, bookstore, sports bar? How long would it take to get to a hiking trail? How diverse is the community, and how integrated? Could we find work? How hot were the summers? (I really hate the heat.) Would it fulfill my desire to get away from the bustle of city life?
The prevailing opinion from friends and family was that we were looking for a unicorn: a medium-sized town with all the amenities of a major city and stunning natural beauty, at clearance-rack prices. “You aren’t going to find everything on that list,” my dad said. “You’ll be in a place and it will just feel right and the checklist won’t matter.”
We narrowed the list of cities to a few top contenders—Bellingham, Bend, Missoula, Boise, Duluth, Ann Arbor—and figured if we hadn’t struck gold by the time we reached the Midwest, we’d tackle the eastern half of the country.
Lessons from the Road
Once on the road, we realized that our lists were crap. You can’t prepare for everything and, frankly, all the planning had landed us with a pinched schedule as we worked toward preconceived outcomes—the same brain-space from which we were trying to escape.
A few weeks into our adventure, wildfires broke out in the eastern Washington town where we’d planned to spend several weeks. Suddenly, we were staring down most of August without plans. But instead of being more stressed, there was something freeing about being forced to let go of our schedule. We let the wind carry us north to Nelson Island, British Columbia; through the Columbia River Valley and Bend and Sisters, Oregon; down the Mendocino coast to Petaluma, California; and back. When hotels were booked, we drove to the next town. We found ourselves at out-of-the-way KOAs and mom-and-pop motels so frightening we slept in sleeping bags instead of under the covers.
The freewheeling created a shift for us. Instead of the road trip being a job, it started to feel like an experience. We were forced to be more present in the moment and less focused on the future.
I wrote this in my journal at the time:
This is not a vacation. A vacation is a trip in which you seek to worry about nothing, think about nothing, and simply find a sense of peace and tranquility to revive you. A trip is something else: it is an excursion to find something that you aren’t even certain you are looking for, a willingness to surrender to the unknown in hopes of finding something—internally or externally—that will change your life. We can’t authentically go on this journey and plan it so much that we preclude the discovery.
Before departing, my biggest worry was that we would run out of things to talk about. We were accustomed to never having enough time together. Now we were going to be together all the time. What if we realized we were really boring or, worse, that we weren’t compatible?
On top of all that was Emmett. It didn’t take long for us to learn that road-tripping with a dog—even in the summer—is not easy. Accommodations are limited and restaurants without outdoor seating are out of the question. More importantly, the lack of routine is hard on dogs. Emmett, an easy-going pup, started growling at strangers and snapping at other dogs.
Eventually, we all fell into new rhythms. Emmett and I resumed our running routine and Brian sniffed out local coffee shops and breweries. After a while, all three of us were able to read each other with incredible intimacy. I knew by the way Brian held his shoulders that he was tired of driving. Emmett could sense when we were ready to hit the road and leaped into the car without prompting. Rather than running out of things to talk about, we discovered the beauty of knowing each other so well we didn’t need to talk.
Along the way, I kept thinking about what my dad said about “just knowing.” I tend to make decisions from my gut, but as we made our way into the Mountain West, my gut wasn’t talking and our checklists had proven inconclusive. It seemed as though everyone was right: we were looking for a unicorn.
As summer began to wind down, I started to think about the risk we’d taken. We’d never be able to afford to buy another house in Seattle. What if we didn’t fall in love with a place? What if we picked a city and it didn’t work out?
The precise moment our car felt more like home than anywhere else came 58 days into our journey while we were driving east out of Boise. The highway stretched out before us, arching through flatlands and into foothills before disappearing into the folds of the Sawtooth Mountains. Emmett settled onto his bed, his head perched between our seats. This car was the only space that was ours.
It would take another 54 days until someplace other than the car felt like home. It happened while visiting friends in Northeast Minneapolis for a long weekend in October—a pit stop on our way to Duluth, then Madison, and on to Ann Arbor.
Even as our friend listed off all her favorite things about the Cities—the parks, bike paths, Midwestern friendliness—we were skeptical. After all, on paper, the Cities were everything we were trying to get away from: big, with lots of highways and lots of people. But the idea simmered in the back of our minds.
The Twin Cities surprises started when we visited the area’s art centers and breweries. We ate good food and sampled great beer. We walked Emmett through amazing parks. We are both originally from Missouri and felt at home with the open chattiness of Midwesterners. Perhaps that’s what made things suddenly click. Whatever it was, the Twin Cities felt comforting to us after 112 days on the road, and by the time we checked out of our Airbnb three days later, we’d signed a lease on an apartment in Northeast.
We’ve been here for three years. We bought a house and opened the art space we’d dreamt about. I am able to write and teach workshops full-time.
When we visit, Seattle still takes our breath away with its beauty. Then we look at the price of real estate, spend an hour on I-5 trying to get across town, and someone puts beet aioli on Brian’s burger and he reminds me that best burgers are in the Midwest. And then, we come home.