Ever since I first left my hometown, I’ve been longing for a reason to return. But economic realities and social stigma make moving back to a small-town rural America feel like going backwards—giving up.
By age fifteen I was eager to get out and my family helped make it happen. As much as he loved where we lived, my father was never shy with his criticisms about it, and he ushered me into the world with great enthusiasm. In our family, the idea of success involves leaving. It turned out to be a double-edged sword: the more “successful” I became, the harder it was to come back.
I vividly remember coming home for the first time. I was now sixteen, returning from a year in Mexico as a study abroad student. My time away had been full of adventure and growth, but the experience of coming home was at least as powerful. I remember a soft, humid breeze on my face and the intoxicating complexity of the forest air. I remember the perfumed and earthly energy it carried—the essence of that place. I was overcome with emotion, and understood home for the first time.
Such a euphoric, profound, communion with place is like falling in love—it may happen just once, if ever. It’s the “strike of lightning” that binds us. So overpowered and inspired are we that we might commit ourselves for the rest of our lives. But I was just sixteen and even as I discovered this profound connection, the pursuit of education—and then of meaningful work and raising a family of my own—pulled me away.
Nonetheless, I kept my eyes on the endless sea of fresh water, the plump deer, and the fertile farms of Northern Wisconsin. That was my home landscape; the flora, fauna and climate beckoned me back. The more I lived elsewhere, the more I realized that I am of the dappled light through deciduous forest canopies, the freezing bite of freshwater lakes, and the rich smell of wet soil on a spring morning.
Perhaps that is why after twelve years, I still couldn’t call Colorado “home.” These past years in Boulder have been defined by my work. And in spite of resisting it, I became accustomed to the ease and materialism of an urban life. With so much time spent in virtual realities—indoors, in front of a screen—I felt divorced from starlight, birdsong, and rushing water and, in turn, disconnected from myself and my family. I always knew that eight hours a day in front of a computer was no way for me to live. It cauterized my soul, and alienated me from the sensuality of a life closer to the earth. Nonetheless, I found myself doing just that, and struggled mightily to find balance in an urban professional lifestyle. As time passed, my search for an exit quickened. But how to leave it all behind?
And then COVID happened.
When it hit, we heard about waves of fear and stress coursing through our global communities. But my response was something else. I was relieved that the rat race had come to a screeching halt. A numinous force had miraculously thrown a wrench in the cog of the great machine, parking the bulldozers, tankers, and jets, silencing the freeways. In no time at all, the world shut down. Wildlife surged back into our communities, parents were at home playing with their kids in the yard. Neighbors were checking in on each other and spending more time outside.
My work had been in international education. Within a matter of weeks, our company closed its doors. But it was a crack in the system opening up and the light revealed a chance to return to a deeper relationship with the natural world and foster a lifestyle of greater integrity.
With the great clearing offered by COVID, my family and I began to reimagine our lives. We experienced both fear and excitement as our life in the city was upended. Could a pandemic catalyze a shift in our society and in our family to a healthier, more harmonious way of life? Certainly such a cataclysmic change would involve loss and sacrifice, but it promised too the possibility of meaningful transformation. By the end of March, I found myself sobbing in the living room of our 93-year-old landlady. Against all official recommendations, she insisted on hugging me.
And then, my wife and I packed our things, loaded the truck, and drove home to Wisconsin.
I always imagined that if I moved back home, I would bring the great gifts of the world on my back to share with my community.
For the past four months we’ve been living on a screen porch without running water or electricity. The mosquitos are horrendous, and we get wet when the driving rain and gusty winds of summer thunderstorms roll off the bay. At night, the sounds of wolves and rodents alike keep me awake alongside the uncertainty of our future. In the morning I struggle against 40-degree temperatures to get out of bed. I’ve taken a job milking sheep and working at an apple cidery. One day a week, I log. Gone is the security of a steady income and sense of purpose found in a reliable job.
But I feel alive in a way that I have not over the past decade in the city. The sunburn, bugbites, calluses, and fresh strawberries make me feel human again. Nuanced, subtle details of this place—the smell of the soil, the leaf-filtered light—stir a lifetime of memories. It is a sensual and soulful experience and it’s what sustains us now. Anticipating winter, we’ve rented a berry farm overlooking Lake Superior with a century-old farmhouse tucked into the woods. Somehow, it feels romantic enough to keep this adventure alive through the endless gray, cold months that are coming. Out of the darkness, we’ll write the next chapter of our lives, one that commits to a deeper relationship with a landscape that is home.
Simon Hart was born and raised on a traditional homestead on the South Shore of Lake Superior. In his teens and early twenties he lived in Mexico, Taiwan, Guatemala, and Costa Rica before settling in Boulder, CO where he has worked in global experiential education, creating programming that allows young people to foster a more profound connection to self and place. Since COVID, he has moved back to Lake Superior to begin the next chapter of life.