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No Shortcuts on the Road To the Right Place

LIVING in a town where the elevation exceeds the population, every mailing address is a P.O. box, and four digits constitute a phone number is my idea of success.

I've lived plenty of other places. In fact, I planned it that way. I've tried living in a Midwestern farming community, in a railroad town, in a university city, and in large metropolitan areas on three continents.

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I've lived near mountains, plains, oceans, major rivers, and small streams. I've lived in arid climates and in humid, rainy ones. At different times, my various homes have been the sites of tornadoes, earthquakes, blizzards, and minor floods.

And this was all necessary for me. Ever since I was young, I have believed that there is a special affinity between people and their immediate natural environment. I believe that where we live affects how we live and how we perceive our lives. I have worked with people who defined their reason for living in a place in terms of the job they held. If they made good money, it was a good place to live.

My job is important to me, too. All my adult life I've been a schoolteacher and I love it. Yet, there is more to my life than my work. In the overall package of happiness in my life, a sense of place in the world is one of the crucial contents.

Just as each person has individual preferences in food, television shows, friends, and spouses, each of us has a preference for the place that is right. That's why I spent my first few years out of college looking around.

I learned that I like the energy of a city but eventually feel lost in the rhythm, a tiny part of something too large for me to comprehend. I learned that I like to visit the ocean but after two or three days the novelty wears off and I'm ready to move on. I learned that even a short time in the desert is enough to suit my tastes. And I learned that although I like the vastness of the plains, the breezy expanses of the grasslands, it is the rugged granite spires, the icy glaciers, the lush alpine meadows , and a special little woodsmoke town in the northern Rocky Mountains that have made me know the feeling of home.

It often happens that when one finds something one has looked for over a long time, in glancing back, the route to that object seems obvious and direct, but while searching, that same route seems chaotic.

So it was with my search for place. However, this search was different. I wasn't looking for misplaced car keys or the twin for the only sock that would match the pants I wanted to wear that day. No, in this search there was no specific object, no defined solution. I sensed that I would know the place when I saw it, but that's a pretty vague assignment to give oneself.

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In retrospect, there were clues along the way. First, there was the scorching August afternoon in Kansas when I was helping the baseball coach drag the field for the evening game. We were soaked in sweat, the rich dust caked on our hair and eyebrows, running black rivulets down our faces. We completed the final pass, turned off the choking tractor, and sat on the visiting players' bench, feeling as if we would melt into the cracks in the wooden slats.

I stretched out on the bench, my arms dangling one on each side, and let my head roll to the left. I could see the wheat field behind the ball diamond and other green fields beyond that, stretching westward toward a far-off horizon. I imagined that somewhere in that direction there were mountains, cool and clean, that could relieve the heat and dirt of that moment.

A shower and glass of lemonade removed the image of mountains from my mind until a year or two later when our English teacher assigned a story from our textbook. It was an excerpt from Maurice Herzog's "Annapurna," the account of a French team climbing the Himalayan mountain by the same name. I read about their cold campsites, the struggle to climb the unknown peak, and finally the successful ascent and the storm that left Herzog with frozen toes and fingers, unable to walk or care for himself. His compa nions helped him down, and he lived to write a tale so gripping that I found myself imagining what it would be like to be wrapped in a thick parka, steel crampons strapped to my boots, an ice axe in my hand, walking with Herzog in the storm.

It was such a foreign vision. Living on the Kansas prairie, I had never even seen a mountain, let alone one of the magnitude Herzog had described. But, perhaps that was when the seed was planted in my mind.

Or maybe it was on a family vacation to Colorado. That was the first time I saw a mountain, and I remember driving the winding roads and the odd sense of being trapped, the claustrophobia that a youngster from the prairie feels in the deep mountain valleys. The mountains on that trip seem blurred in memory, but I can clearly see myself standing on the bank of a cascading stream, listening to the white water roaring over the rocks. Across the stream, granite cliffs and pine forests covered the mountain. I

stood alone and silent, until my father yelled that we were leaving. I turned, picked up one stone, and put it in my pocket. Back in Kansas, that stone, although I never showed it to anyone, was special. It was part of a mountain.

I didn't go to the mountains again until several years after that. By then, I was in college, and one of my high school teachers asked me to go on a backpacking and fishing trip in Wyoming. I went, and the week was paradise, a glimpse into my future.

Still, I wanted to see other places, so I traveled around the United States, to Europe, and throughout South America. It became clear to me that when I was in the mountains, whether in Peru, Switzerland, or elsewhere, I was far happier than in any other geography. That knowledge helped me direct my search for a teaching job, and when I found it, I knew it was right.

I'm sure I'll travel again.

I'll probably even daydream about living other places and might even move one day, but for now, this small town in the Rockies is home. I haven't mentioned the town. That, like my search, was planned. If I say the name, someone might try to shortcut the search for place, hoping to save a little time, effort, or money. That would ruin the whole process. This town is perfect for me, but it might not be for someone else. Even if it were, how would he or she know without first having seen the other places? T he search is what really matters. That's when the memories are made, when the realities of life are learned. If I had never found this town, my search would have been worthwhile. I'm fortunate. I had my search and have my home, a double success.

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