How an outdoor nut finds his place in a new and unfamiliar city.

Why do we use the terms OUT west and BACK east when referring to the respective sides of the U.S.? I’ve found that friends who haven’t spent any significant time on the East Coast will still put the word “back” in front of it, as if they are referring to their long lost homeland. Maybe this terminology dates back to the frontier days, when every prospector and explorer `originated from the Eastern U.S. in one way or another, and the further west you traveled, the further “out” into the unknown you found yourself. Wherever the terminology came from, the prepositions definitely carry some weight. Out west tends to invoke visions of adventure, freedom, risk, and reward. Back east, on the other hand, can suggest a step back into conformity, security, and safety. For a New Englander living in a mining turned ski town in Colorado, just hearing the term “back east” could stir up feelings of anxiety. As someone who knew they would inevitably move back to New England at some point, I feared that it would mean forfeiting my adventurous, outdoor driven lifestyle in exchange for a more predictable and “normal” life. Does moving somewhere completely different mean your lifestyle has to change too?

Wildflowers and lingering snow in the mountains of southwest Colorado. (Photo: Chris Keeler)
Wildflowers and lingering snow in the mountains of southwest Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Chris Keeler)

After years in our little town in Southwest Colorado, it was finally time for our move “back”. Cue feelings of uncertainty, excitement, and heartbreaking conversations with close friends. My girlfriend and I sold most of our stuff, packed the remaining essentials into (and onto) our Subaru, and began planning our route across the country. We had decided it was time to move back to New England to be closer to family, the ocean, and opportunity.

Leaving such a magical place was difficult and very emotional. A 2,500 person town nestled in a box canyon at 9,000 feet seems like something out of a fairytale, and in many ways it was. World class skiing, mountain biking, hiking, and fly fishing were a short walk or drive away. Forty miles from the nearest traffic light, it’s a place where “real world” issues seem to dissolve into the background as soon as you approach it. A place so intensely beautiful and bright that the word psychedelic is hard to avoid when describing its look and vibe. That being said, the hardest thing to leave wasn’t the views or the wilderness access; it was the people. By the end of my time there, I had developed a group of friends that knew each other so intimately, and cared for each other to an extent I had never experienced before. Connections were formed and solidified on the hill, on the river, and in the desert. We learned each others strengths and insecurities. Our individual lingo and senses of humor melted into an effortless and hilarious language of its own. Everyone was an expert in one activity or another, and was always more than happy to teach a friend in their field of expertise. Gear was lent out without a second thought, and any new or unfamiliar outdoor experience was available on a whim.

The author fly fishing "back east" on the coast of Maine. (Photo courtesy of Chris Keeler)
The author fly fishing “back east” on the coast of Maine. (Photo courtesy of Chris Keeler)

When I talk so fondly about where I used to live, people often ask me why I left. The answer is tough to put into words. We left because we felt in our gut that there was something more for us waiting outside of our little snow globe. On top of being so far from family and the ocean, we felt that in order to grow in the ways we wanted to, it was time to go. A tough realization to come to, but a gut feeling we had to listen to. After visiting Portland, Maine for the first time just months before, we felt it held the perfect mixture of professional opportunity and wilderness access. We loved the scene too. There seemed to be a focus on good food, good music, and recreation. What could be better than that?

Chris Keeler fly fishing for stripers on the coast of Maine.
Going from the Colorado mountains to the northeast Atlantic coast involved “some definite culture shock.” (Photo courtesy of Chris Keeler)

A lot of day to day things became easier after moving to the city. The nearest affordable grocery store was now 5 minutes away compared to 90 minutes. There were cheap and tasty restaurants all around us, and our family was now a quick two hour drive away. Other things became more difficult. Wilderness was no longer a one minute walk out the back door, and close friends no longer lived across the street. Portland is by no means a sprawling city, but in comparison to our previous life, it sort of felt that way. It’s amazing how such a small buffer of urban development can make the woods feel so far away. For me, the added separation has proven to be a much larger barrier than anticipated. Sure, the ocean is right in our backyard, but without proper ocean gear (kayaks, surfboards, wetsuits, etc.) it is much more challenging to get out there and explore, especially without a group of friends with loads of gear to borrow from. Don’t get me wrong, Maine is a huge state covered in wilderness, but knowing exactly where to go wasn’t easy.

When we first moved here, there was some definite culture shock. As a fly fishing guide and an avid snowboarder out west, most of my conversations with friends had to do with fishing, riding, or something similar. When chatting to someone new in Portland, the chances are much slimmer that they will want to talk for an hour or two about brown trout and snow conditions. People have a way more diverse set of interests, which is honestly very refreshing. It feels good to be out of the little mountain bubble and in a place where people dedicate themselves to all sorts of pursuits. That being said, I still found myself itching for a friend to talk about my passions with, and better yet, to show me around a little.

Chris Keeler with a striper on the Maine coast.
The author lands a striper–not something that’s likely to happen in Colorado. (Photo courtesy of Chris Keeler)

Trying to meet new people in the middle of winter, while attempting to save the little money I had saved up after the move was tough. But just as die-hard fans of a given band tend to sniff each other out in a crowd, the same can be said about outdoor enthusiasts. Eventually, we began to meet friends and acquaintances who were just as keen to get after it outside as we were. Those friends introduced us to their friends, and soon we knew a handful of people with the same passions as us. New doors began to open, and new adventures became accessible to us. Conversations about brown trout turned into conversations about striped bass, and people still wanted to talk about snow! All of a sudden, I started to feel that same excitement I had felt when we first moved to Colorado. The possibility of learning new skills and exploring new places became real and tangible.

It became clear that although we had moved “back east”, it was not a step backwards at all. Given a little time, we would be able to form meaningful and exciting relationships that would lead to valuable experiences and adventures. Sometimes in order to grow, you have to deliberately put yourself in new and uncomfortable circumstances and know it will work out. I guess the lesson I would pull from all of this is: if you feel in your gut that you need a change of scenery, whether that be out west, back east, down south, or up north, just go for it. New friends, new jobs, and new experiences will fall into place. And as hard as it is to leave a group of close friends, sometimes you have to move away to fall in love with them all over again.

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