Eight years is a long time to live in one place.
Now I know that statement is eliciting a wide range of responses, from raised eyebrows to nodding in assent to thinking it’s a typo and I really meant ‘eighty.’ Our military friends are the ones agreeing, fellow retirees with a wisdom borne of long distance moves and uprootings numbering in the teens or more. Those still on active duty read that statement with more wonder of what that could even possibly look like, unless you count that they moved back to a duty station where they had been previously, and then left, and then came back for a third time, so it might be possible to accumulate eight years in the same area. But you’d still have to go through the actual act of moving, so it’s not quite the same as parking your recliner in a living room and leaving it there for eight years. But with all the moves your path keeps crossing with the same people. For us, the Submarine Service became our own very fluid ‘small town.’ When you get your orders for the next job, you most likely already know someone there. Or current colleagues connect you with someone they know that is now there to help you with all the details of your move – what to know about the local schools, what the local housing market is like, doctor recommendations. You then meet new folks during your time there, and thus you build your community, which becomes geographically spread all over the world.
On the other end of the spectrum (and those with the raised eyebrows at the idea of eight years being a long time in one place) might be some of our Stillwater area friends and family. One thing I realized shortly after we moved to Minnesota in 2012 is that Minnesotans don’t stray far. At best you get a little creep across the border to Western Wisconsin, since you can literally walk across a bridge from downtown Stillwater to WI (or straight across the ice when the river is frozen). They may move away for school or early in their career, but they seem to find their way back to raise families or later. Dave is a case in point. He grew up in Stillwater, leaving at 17 for college 1100 miles away and subsequent life in the Navy that took him all over the country – and the world, for that matter, even if he was seeing a lot of it through a periscope. But he kept up with the local happenings in Stillwater through his dad, especially sports. As commanding officer of the USS MSP, he made twice-yearly trips with a handful of his crew and enjoyed showing off his hometown and other Twin Cities institutions. (Although I did notice that he did NOT ever make these trips in the winter.) He always said he wanted to go back to Minnesota when he retired, and when the job leading the NROTC unit at the University of MN came up it was pure serendipity. There was no thought of living anywhere but Stillwater, with the plan to stay after he left the Navy in two years.
Even after being away for over 30 years, we couldn’t go anywhere without someone stopping to chat, growing more frequent as he became involved in local volunteer activities. I had to shop the frozen foods aisle last so the ice cream wouldn’t melt while he chatted with his old cross-country coach’s wife in the Bakery section, the timekeeper who worked the football games with his dad in the soup aisle, his former church pastor in Produce. Thinking he was right behind me with the cart, I’d gather things off shelves only to then have to wander the aisles with an armful of cereal, coffee, and granola bars looking like I’d lost my cart only to find him catching up with a former classmate’s mother in front of a Tostitos display. Pointing out a house heavily laden with bright pink flamingos as we drove through town resulted in the comment “Oh, that’s my old swim coach’s house” and a story to go along with it. When I had California family in town and we went to the Fall Harvest Fest Pumpkin Weigh-In and Drop, my niece timed how long it took for Dave to stop to talk with someone he knew. The result? Two minutes 44 seconds when the owner of Candyland, who he knew from coordinating the Annual Lumberjack Days Parade, stopped him to say hello. (Okay, I’ll admit the owner of a candy store is worth stopping to talk to.) I couldn’t even make my own friends without him having a Kevin Bacon Moment. I hit it off with my randomly-assigned Washington County Master Gardener mentor when I was doing my MG internship. At the end-of-year banquet she was talking about her younger brother, and said something that made Dave suddenly jump in with “Oh yeah — Paul! We ran cross country together in high school” and proceed to snap a photo of us together and text it to her brother. I’m pretty sure I just thought about thumping my forehead with the palm of my hand, but there’s a distinct possibility that I actually did it.
But back to my original statement: eight years is a long time to live in one place. At least it was for us, and we now had to focus on wrapping up the Minnesota chapter of our lives. We went down to just one car in October, because I had only put in half a tank of gas in over six months. We sorted through boxes and boxes of old photos, papers, maps, Christmas ornaments, and clothes. (And I will admit, continued to find things that we wished we’d put in the garage sale.) We raced OId Man Winter to get the garden set for selling, considering that if the house sold in the winter we would have to dig stuff out from the ice. Ever try to get garden art anchors out of the ground when it’s frozen? Not fun. My infamous large pinwheel at the curb had to be cut off at ground level because I was pretty confident that if our real estate agent was going to nix my dog-on-a-bicycle-with-balloon decal in the powder room, then a faded $3 pinwheel at the front walkway was not going to fly. I insisted on thoroughly labeling all the boxes and bins because there’s no way I would ever remember what was in there in three days, much less three years. By December the place was looking pretty spartan as we focused on getting it on the market.
But that was the easy part. For we also had eight years of building our community here that we had to pack up as well. This was when the reality that we were leaving started to hit me and it was the only thing putting a damper on my enthusiasm for our plans. We continued to turn over roles in our volunteer boards and groups, feeling confident that we were leaving them in good hands because they were all people we’d been working with for years. So many things that felt like ‘lasts’: a final camping trip up at Gooseberry State Park when the colors peaked a little earlier than usual and the foliage was glorious; my sister came for her annual MN visit, and we rented e-bikes to ride the Bridge Trail Loop from Stillwater over the new bridge to Wisconsin and back over the Lift Bridge to downtown (which vaulted an e-bike way up on Dave’s Big Boy Toy Wish List); Dave organized his final Veteran’s Day Commemoration at the Vet Memorial. There was a Scarecrow Challenge among our neighbors (we lost). Mother Nature graced us with unseasonably warm weather after a record-setting mid-October snowstorm, allowing us to enjoy a final Neighborhood Driveway Happy Hour and outdoor movie after a couple of the neighborhood girls put in a special request (or several, as in daily) for Halloween, complete with costumed adults, kids, and dogs. There wasn’t much Xmas decorating at our house since we had sold the Xmas tree and ornaments were already at the storage unit, but our Roxy walks gave us a chance to enjoy the year’s extra abundance of outside light displays that brightened the COVID-subdued holidays. We were once again reminded of what a great little town Stillwater was when small businesses and individuals all came together to somehow produce a spectacular and COVID-compliant outdoor light display that brought such a festive holiday spirit to Main Street in a year when we all really needed it.
The point of all these random musings – and I do have one – is that whether it’s been a year or two or eight, it’s always the communities and the people in them that we remember the most and have the hardest time leaving. But it’s precisely because of this that we have the confidence and enthusiasm for this new adventure and challenge, taking the cumulative spirit of all that we’ve had and known along with us. Our many ‘communities’ have been focused around a shared culture and experience (the Navy, the medical systems in which I practiced), a cause (our non-profit volunteer work), activities (sports officiating, Master Gardener volunteers), or geographic (our neighborhood). In all cases, we have been overwhelmingly blessed by and are grateful to the people in all of them. We start on this journey with the knowledge of what awaits us – the Cruising Community. We’ve already tapped into it through America’s Great Loop Cruisers Associations (AGLCA) for information and advice as we plan and prepare. We’ve had coffee with people in Stillwater who have done The Loop, exchanged emails on specific topics with others, and followed blogs and forums. We look forward to learning from them, contributing to it ourselves, and are eager to get started so we can share it with all of you.
But first, we really need a boat.