Observations: Leaving home (Part 1)

Published on: March 26, 2014

Cory Ricker and Jonathan Hurst worked hard and managed to pack our lives into a 17-foot U-Haul truck, something I was in no shape to do. Cory can be contacted at Photo Mitch Traphagen

Cory Ricker and Jonathan Hurst worked hard and managed to pack our lives into a 17-foot U-Haul truck, something I was in no shape to do. Cory can be contacted at Photo Mitch Traphagen


I  placed my hand on Brenda’s hand, and we just talked. I had known her for 13 years; she was my boss and my friend. I learned over the course of our friendship that her instincts were almost always spot on; she was amazing that way. Her heart was good and was always in the right place. She was a wonderful woman; a good and compassionate person who truly cared for things — even things beyond those that favored her personally.

I was wondering if I was losing my mind, but I chose not to share that concern with her. She was beyond such insignificant quibbles with life. I told her that I had just spent way too much money on a new camera body, something we both knew my salary could not possibly justify. But I tried to justify it, thinking that in an era when newspapers have declined to the point that they are using iPhone photos on front pages — something that has only furthered their decline — the new camera would provide a boost for both the paper and me. Despite that she was dying, the newspaper was still important to her.

But it wasn’t the newspaper that mattered at that moment. I mattered to her.

“If there’s one thing I’ve learned through this, you have to do what makes you happy and then don’t worry about it,” she said in her wonderfully gentle tone with a warm and ever-so-slight trace of a southern accent.

A few days later, she was gone.

He said, Bill, I believe this is killing me, as the smile ran away from his face. Well I’m sure that I could be a movie star if I could get out of this place.
— Piano Man by Billy Joel

I don’t believe that I could be a movie star. But I’ve always dreamed of accomplishing something in life that supersedes my life. Being a writer is a dream, an often stressful and sometimes disappointing dream, but a dream, nonetheless. I am blessed to be able to make a living with words and photos. And it was The Observer News that made that possible for me — and it was you, the readers, who made it possible. I am, and shall remain, eternally grateful to you.

I don’t know how many words I’ve written for this newspaper since joining it in 2001, but I’m sure it is over a million. That is more than 10 books, and most all of those words disappear in the small fraction of time known as a week. That is far more words than I could possibly expect anyone to read. Over the years I’ve tried to shake things up and change my voice from week to week, but over the course of a million words, I worry that I am becoming a droning monologue in a monotone.

If there is anything I have learned in more than a half century of life, it’s that there is nowhere on the map that deserves the name Nirvana. Nowhere is perfect, every place has problems. That is as true of Florida as it is anywhere else I’ve ever been. It is attitude that makes all the difference. The chances are good that merely changing ZIP codes won’t change any unhappiness you may have — the grass isn’t always greener, it’s just different. The best you can do is to find a place to call home where you feel at home. Perhaps a place that offers something to push you on in life. Because life isn’t over until it’s over, and a quest to see what is beyond the horizon should last to the very last breath.

There is a great deal of generosity and compassion in South Hillsborough. As much as things have changed, people still do look out for each other in this corner of the world, just as they did in whatever you may define as the “Good Old Days.”

There are so many people who give of themselves to make things better for others that I could fill this newspaper with their names and stories. To the greatest degree possible, I’ve tried to do that and always with the support of the wonderful people for whom I work. They are among the generous and compassionate, too. They take being a community newspaper seriously — we all have joined in a mission to promote and advance our communities. This is a good place to work because we are encouraged to do good work.

One of the first things Michelle and I loved about Florida was seeing what were to us, as recovering Minnesotans, indoor plants growing outdoors. I also loved seeing four-foot-tall birds walking around. And, of course, coming from the cold, white North, February was an absolute joy. August, not so much, but it was doable, all things considered. I loved the sunrises and the sunsets. I loved the palm trees and the warm breezes. I loved the people in all of their colorful glory. Florida brought me happiness that I’m certain I could never have known in Minnesota, despite that the Land of 10,000 Lakes is also a wonderful place to live. More than two decades ago I remember sitting on the end of a long, rocky pier in Two Harbors, a small town on the northern shore of Lake Superior, and looking south over the huge lake, wondering what was over the horizon. To me at that time, I saw Florida.

I’ve lived more of my life in South Hillsborough than anywhere else on earth. This place, to me, is home. It is a really good place to call home. But I’ve found myself falling into a routine that I don’t believe to be good for a man my age. It’s time to shake things up. In the past few months I have lost a dear friend and had a wakeup call in the form of a minor health scare. Life changes and life goes on. Yet how it does that is up to each one of us.

As much as I love South Hillsborough, as much as it has become my home, I’m still just young enough to wonder what is over the horizon, to allow myself the time to see if I can get tired of a new place, a new life, an entirely new experience; perhaps somewhere that the book I’ve always thought to be inside of me could come out. But in order to do that, I need to get out of this place.

In 1870, Henry Traphagen was elected mayor of Jersey City, New Jersey. New experiences are good, yes, but there is no need to completely reinvent the wheel. I think it’s time to find out what Henry saw in that place. If I’m lucky, it will feel like home.