Illustration by Sam Woolley

People are meant to move. We’ve been doing it for tens of thousands of years. Chasing mammoths across the tundra, chasing shiny pebbles down frigid mountain streams, chasing native people out of their homelands. Somewhere in all that traveling we learned to grow plants in rows and gather cattle into groups and squint into the same sunset vista day after day, year after year. But nobody writes hero stories about folks who stay put instead of hitting the trail. People crave new adventures, and so we must wander.

Except. The act of moving is a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad business. Trust me. Last August, the wife and I climbed into our Toyotas with two young ‘uns and two cats to move 2,400 miles, two time zones and one huge cultural shift—from the Bible Belt to the Pacific Northwest. We shadowed the Oregon Trail for a piece, but we did not die of dysentery.

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In fact, nine months after the move, we are better than we were before. Emotionally stronger, more willing to try new experiences, more physically active, more curious about the wider world. Which is the whole point of all those thousands of years of chasing. The greener grass.

This isn’t a nuts and bolts guide for how to move across the country; you’ll find that here. Rather, it’s about how to help all of the humans (and sometimes pets!) involved in the move make it through to the other side.

Trade Up

When you’re job hunting or throwing darts at a map, best to exchange a one-horse town for a two-horse town. No place is perfect, but some places are closer to perfect than others. A nearby ocean, or warmer weather, or legal weed—whatever your version of the good life happens to be—will ease the burden of saying goodbye to all that you know.

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Point is, don’t take a job as CEO of Sandy Dirt Enterprises if it means your family will have to scrape out a bleak existence in Hobbled Bronco, Oklahoma. Better to float through middle management in Pleasant Breezes, California. After all, you’re not simply escaping your former home—you’re hoping to find a better place to call home, at least until it’s time to go wandering again.

A small, illustrative detail: About a week after we arrived in Seattle, I went to the library to get a card. The woman at the counter told me I could check out 50 materials at a time. Fifty! My eyes became watery with amazement. I was already loopy from gazing at the delightful scenery and partaking in the functioning mass transit. Truly I say to you, a better existence awaits.

Master Your Schedule

Once you’ve settled on a destination, there’s the matter of deciding when to leave and how to get where you’re going. Careful people send a scout ahead, usually the spouse with the new job, to learn the lay of the land—and to make sure the gig is a keeper. The trailing family members get to pack up and say goodbye at a leisurely pace. Gamblers and idiots do all of that on fast forward, as we did. In about 30 days, there was an accepted job offer, a signed lease in Seattle, a freshly painted and recently emptied house in Memphis, and a nearby Goodwill bursting at the seams with our donations. It got so that the woman who worked there would just roll her eyes at me as I drove up.

The only reason we chose that approach was to make sure our daughter would start school at the beginning of the year with the rest of her new classmates. We figured that since we were erasing all of her friends, the least we could do was keep her from being the Weird New Kid in November. From that top priority, all other decisions flowed.

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In terms of the actual move itself—smart people with a savings account hire movers, ship their automobiles and buy a few plane tickets to get from point A to point B. Broke dummies like us, losing money on the sale of their house—thanks again for the mortgage crisis, Wall Street assholes—go full redneck. First I rented a storage unit and filled it full of all the revolting crap that would induce dry heaving in potential home buyers. Then I rented space in the back of a semi trailer headed to Seattle. Then I rented a truck and brought all of our shit to the semi trailer. It was me and the wife, shoving mattresses and couches into that dirty motherfucker in the middle of a summer rainstorm. At last, I locked up the doors, slapped the rear bumper and shouted, “Go on, now! Git!”

Then we moved ourselves. Separate cars, nine hours a day, four and a half days on the road, four nights in dodgy motels. The wife ended up toting the preschooler, who demanded the same two movies on repeat all day long. I ended up with the nine year old who cried quietly in the back seat, next to the two terrified cats huddled in litter boxes.

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If you have the means, I highly recommend the opposite of what we did. Yes, I got to see Wyoming for the first time, and yes I got a few chuckles out of the road signs warning of dust storms. Sure, the rock formations in Utah are pretty and the burned out grasses of eastern Oregon are shocking. But there’s a reason those landscapes are mostly empty of people. Keep them empty of you and buy some dang airplane tickets.

Break Their Hearts Quickly

The night we told our daughter about the move, she howled like a wounded animal and ran out of the room. Then she ran back in, to scream at us and sob, vowing to remain behind. She was old enough to realize that she’d soon be looking her last at many friends and relations, but too young to realize that she’d shortly meet new friends. Seattle is just about as far as you can get from most of the rest of the country. There’s not another major city farther north, unless you count Sarah Palin’s rootin’ tootin’ frontier. We might as well have been telling our daughter that we were moving to Mars.

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It’s best to get this scene over with as soon as possible. Kids can tell when something is off, and they’ll fill in the blanks with ideas more dire than reality. And once you’ve broken the news, you can begin to fill in specifics that will ease their minds. Here are pictures of some houses we like—which room should be yours? Yes, I’m sure the kids there have also heard of Harry Potter. Of course, we’ll bring the cats with us. Sorry, your brother has to come too. 

Likewise, tell your friends and family right away. After all, this is your brief chance to live the life of a celebrity. Everyone you love will gnash their teeth and rend their garments, and understandably so. You are announcing the departure of your scintillating company. Their souls ache, knowing the sunshine of their lives will shortly be snuffed out. Consider throwing yourself a goodbye party. When your lovelies have cried an ocean, throw those deuces and hit the road.

This is how you will appear to an outside observer. Inside, you will be racked with guilt and anxiety. You will experience the urge to vomit several times a day. You will break out in cold sweats. You will be convinced that you have made a horrible mistake by trading all that you know for loneliness and despair. But they don’t have to know that. Keep it to yourself and bathe in their adulation. Does that sound sociopathic? Perhaps. But isn’t it worse to moan and weep, What the hell am I doing? Your friends and relations will scoff and think, This was your decision, asshole. Buck up.

All For One And One For All

Also known as: Us Against The World. Rally Time. Memphis Vs. Errrbody. (OK, maybe a heartless example, given the locale we left.) Shortly, all that you own will disappear from view, cubed into cardboard, stacked into a large truck, rumbled into the twilight. The place you kept your stuff will no longer belong to you. Its rooms will echo. Its bold paint colors will be muted into inoffensive beige. The familiar will slip away, bit by bit.

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Family unit, hear me now—you must reach out, hands touching hands, and give a great, enthusiastic Whoa Bundy!

You are a team, held fast with an unbreakable bond—unlike Russ and KD. When one of you is filled with despair, the others will gather to hug it out. When one of you boils over with frustration, the others will speak soothing words. You will cry together, smile together. Strangers await you, and before you can make their acquaintance you will have reacquainted yourself with those you hold most dear.

Everyone on the team has a role. In our case, the kids were expected to mostly watch endless television while I plastered, sanded, repaired and painted the entire house. The kids were further expected to keep their dirty fucking hands off the beautiful, clean walls! When I wasn’t painting, I was packing. If I was awake, I was sweating — despite the central AC. My wife stayed at the office as long as possible, keeping that bread rolling in so that we could afford to fill the gas tanks on our incredible journey.

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You must stay stuck together once you arrive! Here again, everyone has a role. I highly encourage one grown-up to be in charge of soft landings for little people. Someone needs to cut the crusts off sandwiches, make the walk to school twice a day and arrange playdates. Someone needs to establish a new routine, adapted to the new place. Kids can’t do this on their own—an adult needs to help them. That’s been my role for the past nine months. I found storytimes and swim lessons and soccer practices and hiking trails and art classes and music teachers and shuttled the ankle biters around town. They’re now fully adjusted to this new place that doesn’t feel so new anymore.

On our daughter’s first day of school, we were excited and anxious. She was too. She came home grinning. She’d already made a friend. And so it went, day after day. The whole class wanted to know more about the kid from a faraway land called The Delta. Also, we got lucky with location. The house we rented is within walking distance of her school. That means she can walk to friends’ houses for playdates. Where before, we had to drive to a prearranged location for a predetermined amount of time, now her friends can join us for a trip to the library, or the donut shop, or the playground—just because it’s Tuesday and it’s sunny. Serendipity has entered her life.

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Her younger brother changed, too. In Memphis, he’d been unsure about preschool. A little weepy at drop-off. Ready to tell anyone from cashiers to waiters, “Yeah, I don’t like school.” Then he got to watch his sister make friends. She would burst forth at the end of the school day, begging to stay late so that she could run around the playground with classmates. He tagged along on those impromptu play dates to the donut shop. Suddenly, he wanted to go to school, so that he could make friends also. In Memphis, his sister’s friendships had existed his entire life. They weren’t made. They just were. Here, he watched them being formed and decided he’d like to give it a try as well. And after a couple weeks at his new school, he’s just gotten an invitation to a superhero birthday party. There’s a super stoked tiny Batman in my house.

Go With The Flow

The unexpected will happen. Perhaps a tree will fall in your backyard the day before an open house. Maybe your shitty directions will send the movers across a rickety bridge. Our spin on the wheel of misfortune landed on “pet death.” Our oldest cat, who had accompanied us on five previous moves, looked around, noticed the preparations and thought to himself, fuck this, I’m out. He might have died anyhow, but he definitely died on purpose to avoid the move. Joke’s on him, though. We brought his ashes.

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On the road, we endured minor annoyances—unannounced toll roads had us scrambling for loose change, and one of the remaining cats, who had hardly meowed in her life, took to yowling through the night. There were near disasters, too. A bicycle half wiggled out of its carrier and nearly went cartwheeling down the Colorado interstate. And our son nearly drowned in a motel swimming pool. That’s one I’ll see in my dreams forever.

I had carried dinner back from the local greasy grub house. The kids were swimming, and the wife was sitting at one of the tables near the edge. I sat down opposite her, thereby blocking my view of the pool. As I looked down at my food, our boy was walking from my wife’s right, behind her, toward the water. There was a small splash. I looked up. He had not emerged on her left side. I jumped up and ran, in what seemed to be dream-like slow motion. He was standing in the water, at the edge, looking up for help. His nose and mouth were under the surface, his eyes just above it. I lifted him out, and we cried together. That’s all I remember of Idaho.

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No matter how perfect your plans, something at some point will take take a big steaming dump all over them. The only successful response is to take life as it comes. Shake your head at your blind bad luck and roll up your sleeves to wrangle the new reality.

Explore

Now you’ve arrived. Boxes fill the new house. The murmur and buzz of a new neighborhood fills your ears. A striking new sunset vista warms your face in the evening. You can relax. The journey is over. No, motherfucker! It’s just beginning!

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Get a buss pass and a zoo membership. Join some groups on MeetUp. Bring fresh-baked cookies to your neighbors and chat up the parents at after-school pick-up. Find out what fun things there are to do around town—and then go do them!

Don’t get lost in the weeds of hanging pictures and arranging closets all weekend. Don’t disappear into the hardware store vortex. Go outside and do some adventuring. It’s good for you, and it’s great for the kids. They always want to know what’s next. Give them something enjoyable to experience, and you’ll help ease the longing for what’s behind them. Look for activities that emphasize the positive differences between your new two-horse town and the one-horse town in your rearview mirror. Go to the beach, hike up a mountain, attend a rodeo, wander through the fish market—just do something you never could have done at home. Or, what used to be home.

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And once you figure out what’s awesome about your new town, you’ll have ammunition to begin the real work: convincing all those folks you left behind to start chasing your tail lights.