The most beautiful place I’ve ever been is the top of a mountain in the Austrian Alps. It was Easter Sunday 2001 after a rain storm. A group of us were in Austria for 18 days doing construction work on a church in the valley below and took a windy drive up, up, and up into the sky to have lunch at a country inn that rightfully belonged in a fairytale.
We were literally enveloped by clouds. I felt as if I could reach out and touch heaven with my hand. The physical and metaphysical worlds merged to a degree that I’ve never experienced before or since. Perhaps it was the altitude.
Men were dressed in lederhosen and women in colorful dirndls. There was homemade cheese, speck, and plenty of beer. Way too much beer for the Austrians. One man fell off his bar stool, hit the stone floor with a frightening thud, and was up drinking again before we fully comprehended what had happened. Our group was teetotaling, so we simply drank in the moist, clean air and the breathtaking sights. Those were intoxicating enough. It was the kind of place about which tourists say, “I could live here.”
I’m not sure I said that, but I did inhabit the moment, as I have many others like it when I’ve immersed myself in the particular beauty of a place. Whether I’ve been in Paris, or on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington, or in the hill countries north of San Diego or San Antonio, I’ve given myself over to the charms inherent in every bit of earth I’ve traversed.
And each time I’ve come home to the Jersey Shore knowing more deeply than before that I am of this place. I’ve never known it more than when I lived in Southern California. Although I learned to appreciate the subtle beauty of the desert and the chilly, relentless undulations of Pacific ocean currents that flow south from icy arctic waters, I always felt as if I was stationed there, like a soldier waiting to go home.
In places like San Francisco and the Oregon coast, I was more at ease. Perhaps it was the climate. Perhaps something more. I noticed, for example, every time I traveled north, that middle-aged men and women dressed like grown ups instead of teenagers. A small thing, but one that speaks.
Southern California is a lovely place to visit, I like to say, but I wouldn’t want to live there and I did for six-and-a-half years. Perhaps if this or that awful thing hadn’t happened, or if my children were younger when we moved there rather than in high school, I’d feel differently. But really, I’ve come to the conclusion that some of us are undeniably of a place and when that is so, no place else will ever entirely do.
So when my son Gabriel died there in 2008, we knew---my husband, our younger son, and I---that we would not bury him there or stay there ourselves any longer. I knew that I wouldn’t begin to fully live again until I came home. This wasn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy, but a deep realization that we’d given our western adventure more of a chance than it ever deserved. It was time to return to the love of family and old friends, to food that is familiar, to ocean currents that push warm from the Gulf Stream to cool you off on days that drip with humidity, and to winters whose winds whip off the river, or the bay, or the ocean and smack you in the face to tell you you’re alive, even when you don’t feel like you are.
About once a month I travel into New York City to cover a story or to attend a journalism event. Sometimes I take the train, but usually I drive. I love New York nearly as much as I love the sandy soil that blows from Sandy Hook to Island Beach State Park. All my senses light up there and I sometimes wish I could simply walk up a set of apartment building steps at the end of a stimulating day and step back into that electricity every morning.
But then I’ll drive home, usually late at night. I’ll maneuver through the frenetic haze of traffic on the turnpike and feel my shoulders relax as I cross the Driscoll Bridge and ease onto to the Garden State Parkway. (If there’s a more well-maintained and manicured bit of highway in America than the GSP, I’ve yet to drive it.)
When I reach the quiet of Mantoloking Road in Brick, I envision my chickens asleep in their coop and the grey-green Atlantic just across the bridge built by the company that employed my dad for much of his life. The peace that washes over me then banishes any lingering thoughts of city life. I’m glad New York is right there within reach whenever I want to take in its pleasures, and gladder still that I can leave it behind and come home to this.
Today I went for a jog. Down Mantoloking Road toward the beach, but zigzagging through neighborhoods along the river. I stopped at bulkheads to stretch and sip water, as I always do, and thought to myself, as I always do, how lucky I am to live in this place, to be of this place. To hear it’s silence in winter and share its riches in summer.
It’s not a small thing to love where you live and to know that you’re home.
When I lived in Southern California, people would say, “Oh, you’re from Joisey?” “What?” I’d reply until I understood what they meant. Then I learned to moderate my accent, to say woter instead of wauter and coffee instead of cawfee. Gabriel would tease me and call me a sell-out. He resisted all such accommodations, as did his brother and father. Now California friends tell me I've got my accent back. If Gabriel was here, he’d tell me he is proud of me. He’d say I sound like myself again.
*Thanks so much for reading my column. This will be my last for now. It’s been a great joy to write for hometown readers. If you’d like to keep up with my work, you’ll find it archived at ChristineAScheller.com.