Like many of us on the slicing edge of midlife, my husband, Dan, and I had long fantasized about finding the perfect place to retire. One day we were considering an oceanfront place in Belize; the next, it was a high-rise condo near a concert hall.
We’d launched both our kids from the nest some time ago. But we couldn't seriously consider making our lifestyle fantasies a reality until last summer, when Dan and I were simultaneously set loose from office settings and could work from home, virtually.
It was a heady thought: We could live anywhere in the world with an Internet connection and cell reception. (As open-ended as that sounds, those two requirements did rule out some of the more exotic possibilities, like the converted barn in Bulgaria we found on House Hunters International.)
As we weighed the pros and cons of our more realistic options, we hit on the one thing that rang all our bells: summer camp. Dan’s happiest childhood memories are of many summers at sleep-away camp on the California side of Lake Tahoe. And while Dan was horseback-riding, swimming, boating and hiking year after year, I was 2,000 miles away, performing in the band at Interlochen Arts Camp, deep in the northern Michigan woods.
As adults, we found that visiting anyplace remotely alpine could spark a sense of well-being. And when we’d share stories of campfires and kayaking, we both felt the pull of living simply in a home with a screened-in porch dining room, in a town with bears on all the commercial signage.
We wanted to bring the things we loved about life in the woods into our daily lives: no traffic jams; no neighbors blowing leaves too early in the morning or partying too late at night; no missionaries or pamphlet peddlers at our front door. At summer camp, life is simple: You wake up in the morning, inhale the pine-scented air and worry about nothing greater than whether to have pancakes or French toast for breakfast.
One spring day, while traveling in California, we found our perfect spot: bucolic Big Bear Lake, in the forested mountains just east of — and 6,750 feet above — our home in Los Angeles. We returned a few times. Dan and I loved walking along the lake shore and quickly discovered favorite restaurants (grilled trout!) and shops (handmade quilts!). We did yoga under the stars and devoured delicious cupcakes while gazing out at the Eye of God, a white-quartz hill that overlooks a meadow in the valley below.
But this wasn’t a good time to sell our house, so we decided to rent it out and sublet a house in Big Bear. We’d revisit our arrangements when the lease was up in six months.
In L.A., we’d been living in a cute cottage in an off-the-beaten-track canyon for more than a decade. Dan is a California native, and I’d been a resident since leaving the Midwest to go to UC Berkeley in the late ’60s. We have a great circle of friends, who look after each other’s homes and pets when anyone’s away. And our little dog, Lucky, has a front-row seat at the window, where she watches all the comings and goings and has a different bark for every person and pet that passes.
We love it here. But it’s not summer camp.
Staking Out a New Home in the Woods
Our interactions with people on the mountain were uncomplicated and casual: the ice cream scooper who’d help us choose between Rocky Road and Triple Chocolate; the ponytailed older guy who rented us kayaks and told us where to get the best coffee in town.
Dan, who plays classic rock guitar, was given a standing invite to jam with a local band, playing for free beers on the sunlit patio overlooking the lake. I read every book in our cabin and caught up on my journal-writing. We looked forward to seeing our new friends at the farmer’s market and getting turned on to new hikes that only locals knew. We were living our dream of being carefree, simple and serene.
As the half-year mark approached, little reminders of real life started to creep in. The warm breezes became icy-cold blasts, and we had to layer on clothing and abbreviate our walks as days shortened. Then the band’s regular summer gig ended, and the musicians retreated into their mundane winter lives of retail sales and snow-plowing. I strained a ligament doing yoga, and, if I’m being honest, was growing uncomfortable with some of the class’s cliquey dynamics.
The fantasy really began to unravel when a new person moved into the condo kitty-corner to us, and — would you believe it — started partying until the wee hours and revving his snow blower at the crack of dawn. The final straw came in the form of a missionary zealot at our door, who had trudged through knee-deep snow to save our souls.
In terms of natural beauty, Big Bear still beats even my lovely Los Angeles canyon. But stay in any place long enough and the complications of real life will eventually intrude on the fantasy.
Once I realized that, the question became not where I could go to escape the annoyances of living, but which annoyances I ultimately minded the least. When the moment came to decide whether or not to renew the Big Bear lease, Dan and I were once again in synch. We rushed down the mountain and back to our busy and complicated life of neighbors, friends, L.A. traffic and even that noisy leaf blower.
We’ve abandoned the fantasy of finding the ideal geographic home. But interestingly, a bigger dream has come to take its place. I now aspire to arrive at the “perfect place” in my life, to be the kind of person who lives simply, finds beauty and has an abiding sense of well-being wherever I am — without having to go anywhere at all.