Leaving Salem

selfie_large

My wife, Nicole, and I take our last picture together at our house in Salem before starting the drive to Chicago.

Day: Monday | Time: 11 a.m. | Location: Salem, Ore. | Mile: 0 | Hour: 0

It’s an odd concept, but we’re standing in our driveway and trying to figure out how to say goodbye to our Salem house.

It’s a three-bedroom, 1925 Craftsman home, the first my wife, Nicole, and I ever owned (although the bank still has most of it). We painted one room blue, added two raised garden beds in the backyard and did everything we could to prune back the overgrown cherry tree. Today I see it for possibly the last time.

Just two days ago, we watched as our possessions were loaded into a big metal box and driven away. During the next four days, we’ll travel 2,141 miles to Chicago, our new home. Our 2006 Chevrolet Colorado pickup is filled with the rest of our belongings, including two cats and a dog.

We’re leaving about two hours late, which is to be expected. It should take a little longer than planned to untangle yourself from what has been your life over the past seven years.

We do what all good Millennials do and pose for a selfie in front of the house before heading out, stopping for gas at the Shell on Mission and 25th streets and then getting on I-5 north.

***

Salem was never meant to be permanent.

I moved there in June 2006 for my final internship after graduating from the University of Oregon. With nowhere else to go, I piled everything I owned into my car and set up shop in a town I had never even visited.

My plan was to use moving to Salem as motivation to find a job. If not, I’d be stuck in this place where I had no connections and no intention of staying. Instead, I screwed up and got hired at the Statesman Journal.

Nicole joined me late the next year after she finished school. We both grew up in California and assumed we’d end up there eventually.

Little by little, we built a community. An after-work get-together here, a book club there. Before I knew it (although my wife knew it long before), we officially had moved our home from California to Oregon.

***


Day: Monday | Time: 9 p.m. | Location: Boise, Idaho | Mile: 487 | Hour: 10

Just as we leave Portland and get on I-84 east, it starts to snow. A fitting send-off as we head to a city already buried under the fifth-largest snowfall in its history.

For the past week, I almost came to tears dozens of times. Every conversation, every meal, every interaction was the last of something. The Friday before we left, Nicole’s work held a going-away party, and I almost couldn’t say goodbye to her coworkers.

On the road, that all melts away, mostly because the precipitation won’t. All the way to Boise — our first stop on the trip — the snow keeps coming down. We crawl over the Blue Mountains.

Fittingly, our Boise hosts are old friends and fellow Salem deserters. They even have a vintage map of Salem hanging in their bathroom.

For the evening, the trip still is a vacation. We’re late for dinner, but they help us to leftover steak and salad, and we talk about the coming adventure. We take a long morning to talk more and play with their almost 2-year-old son, who was asleep when we arrived the night before.

This is the furthest edge of our influence. Beyond here will be hotels and strangers, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made in the passenger seat. From here on out, we’re on our own.

***

Sometimes it can be tricky to pinpoint when a city transitions from a place you live to your home, but for us it was pretty clear: We bought a damn house.

It was a terrible idea. We were 25, I worked at a daily newspaper that was averaging one layoff a year and the U.S. housing bubble had just burst. But the government was giving us $8,000, so how could we not?

Once you realize you’re going to be somewhere for a while, you start to take longer to look at everything. You move from always figuring out where things are, to wondering why things are. Yeah, the grocery store is two miles away, but who is that guy who’s always smiling at the checkout?

This can happen anywhere, but for us it happened in Salem.

During the next few years, we grew roots; not just friends, but the knowledge and comfort that come from making a place your own. We joined boards and volunteered for organizations. We defended Salem against outsiders who couldn’t see its charms, while constantly complaining about the city’s struggles and trying to change things.

***


Day: Tuesday | Time: 7 p.m. | Location: Rock Springs, Wyo. | Mile: 925 | Hour: 32

Earlier in the day, we split off onto I-80, which we’ll take for the next 1,000 miles through Utah, Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa before it drops us off in Illinois.

By the time we reach our hotel in Rock Springs, Wyo., it’s about 7 degrees. We find the tailgate of the truck has frozen shut — and we have a cover locked over the back. We won’t be able to get to our bags until we reach Chicago on Thursday.

Every spot in the parking lot is taken up by large, white pickups, all bearing the logos of energy companies. We assume their tailgates are still working.

Venturing into downtown Rock Springs, population 24,047, we find a craft brewpub and a bicycle coffee shop. Reminders that there are cool communities in unexpected places.

***

About 45 percent of current Oregonians were born in the state, compared with a nationwide average of 58 percent (three-quarters of Michigan and Louisiana residents were born there). In Salem, it’s about half.

That means a lot of interesting people come to the city every year, but it also means a lot of people without strong connections to the area. It was true for us, and as we’ve found recently, true for a lot of our friends.

Slowly but surely, our community chipped away. We lost people to Texas, Florida and Idaho. As much as one can love a place, it’s the people who make it home, and those relationships were drifting away.

Eventually we found ourselves open to change if it found us. Which it did almost immediately.

In December I applied for and was offered a job by another Salem expat living in Chicago, a city I had never visited.

Even with exciting change coming, we could barely let go. We started the process of telling close friends over dinner and drinks, resigning from jobs and boards, and finally announcing it on Facebook, the most official thing one can do today.

With every conversation, it became clear how much Salem had become part of us and how hard it would be to ever live anywhere else.

***


Day: Thursday | Time: 7 a.m. | Location: Lincoln, Neb. | Mile: 1,619 | Hour: 68

Walking our dog outside of a hotel in Lincoln, Neb., I see the sun rising in the east. Soon we start driving toward it for the last leg of our trip. Oh my god, Nebraska is flat and straight. What have we done?

By 5 p.m., we’ve made it to Chicago (and paid every toll in the state of Illinois). An hour later, we’ve traveled the last mile to our apartment. We break into the back of the truck. What have we done?

We go out for a celebratory meal at a Mexican restaurant down the street, but almost don’t make it because the wind and near sub-zero temperatures make it unbearable. What have we done?

***

It could have been any town, but for us it was Salem. The place we lived when we got married, where we bought our first house, where we put up our first Christmas tree. Salem was where we grew up, if not where we were raised.

The city will always be a part of us. The things we learned and friends we’ve met will influence us for the rest of our lives in ways we never anticipated when we moved there.

Salem snuck up on us, in the quiet, unassuming way it does a lot of things. There may not be a lot of times when the city wows you, but the little moments add up to something greater.

***

train_crop

The stop for the "L" train (for elevated) in our new neighborhood in Chicago and my ride to work every day.

Day: Friday, two weeks later | Time: 8 a.m. | Location: Chicago, Ill. | Mile: 8 | Hour: 1

We’ve reset our counter. Chicago is home now, on paper if not yet in our hearts. My commute into downtown for work is about eight miles and takes a little less than an hour, though I’m getting a lot of reading done on the train.

Walking in to my office with one of my new coworkers, Salem comes up and I mention it’s home to about 150,000 people (well, 157,429, but who’s counting?*)

“Really? Wow, that’s small,” she says.

When we describe our Oregon life to Chicagoans (Nicole worked as an urban farmer, we picked berries constantly in the spring and summer, we can’t live without a CSA), they tell us we sound like an episode of Portlandia.

We’re still searching for what our new life will be, but whatever it is will be influenced by our past, and I’m happy with that. I want to bring the values and experiences we built in Salem and Oregon with us wherever we go from here.

We tried to give back to Salem while we lived there because we felt it gave us something in return. Now we get to spread those ideas somewhere entirely new, and that’s exciting. And terrifying beyond belief.

*The United States Census Bureau

Chris Hagan is a web producer at WBEZ in Chicago and a co-founder of Salem Is. He recently removed himself from the “Editors” tab on the website.