IT WAS A summer Saturday, right in the middle of that languorous stretch when it swelters even at dawn, but is not hot enough to quiet the buzz of cicadas from droning on past dusk. It was humid, and Dickson Street was swarming with revelers glistening alongside their sweating pints of beer.
I was introducing a friend from out of town to some of my favorite downtown haunts: We had crepes for dessert while shielding our ears from the warning horn of the A&M Railroad Shuttle Train passing beside Arsaga’s at the Depot. After running into some classmates from my high school, we meandered our way to the Walton Arts Center and through its rose garden, where we were stopped by a woman who’d directed a theater production I’d acted in as a child. We passed by George’s Majestic Lounge in time to be hailed by some friends who had an extra ticket to that evening’s bluegrass show.
“Wow, you know everyone!” my friend joked as we stood on the patio and people-watched. “I bet you can’t go anywhere without having at least five conversations.”
There was some truth to that. I was born and raised in Fayetteville and graduated from the University of Arkansas alongside several students I’d known since kindergarten at The New School in Fayetteville.
In addition to being on a first-name basis with most everyone under the sun, growing up in The Natural State meant spending weekends floating your choice of rivers and camping beneath black oaks and loblolly pine trees. It meant hiking to Kings River Falls and spending the day crawling under the waterfalls and lounging on the surrounding limestone and dolomite bluffs. It was rock climbing at Horseshoe Canyon Ranch or crystal hunting in Eureka Springs. It was late-summer-afternoon barbecues and lightning-bug-catching evenings and keeping watch for shooting stars while trying not to scratch swollen mosquito bites.
Losing both of my Arkansan-bred parents in 2012 made me re-evaluate most aspects of life, key among those the definition of home. I knew then, and still believe now, that Fayetteville will always feel like home, but there’s a certain iteration of “bless your heart” that grows tiresome when heard while perusing the produce aisle at the IGA or picking up photo prints at Collier’s. As much as I love that small-town feeling of community, there came a time when I wanted to blend in with the crowds a bit more. I felt pulled to hide in the vast shadows of Western mountain ranges and to see what the rivers outside of the Ozarks had to offer.
Santa Fe sits at around 7,200 feet, and its climate is known as the high desert. It’s an unusual corner of America with a rich Hispanic and Native American cultural tradition, with many families able to trace their roots back hundreds of years. “The City Different” was founded in 1604 and is the oldest U.S. capital, and as such, lacks the rigid grid structure that so often characterizes urban planning. The streets are basically paved donkey trails. All the houses are surrounded by walls, and neighbors seem to generally keep to themselves.
As an only child in Fayetteville, I spent my days knocking on the doors of various neighbors, who would welcome me in and entertain me with cookies, knickknacks and trumpet playing. No one brought any Jell-O molds when I moved to Mesa Verde Street, nor did they seem to want mine. On one occasion, I asked for the best bike path to the city square. I was bluntly corrected: “It’s called the Plaza.”
But I did make friends there. One told me she had been “born there all her life.” Her boyfriend asked mine how old he was when he first stabbed someone (we learned that he’d been 14). Even more shockingly, we learned they had never been up to the Santa Fe Ski Basin in the neighboring Sangre de Cristo Mountains—just a 30-minute drive from my casita near the downtown Plaza. I thought about my adventurous Arkansan friends who had scoured close to every inch of the surrounding rivers, hiking trails and climbing trails. They never would have missed a chance for adventure in their own backyard.
It didn’t matter how much I pretended to withstand the heat of red or green chilies with practically every meal, nor the number of silver bracelets with turquoise embellishments I wore—I wasn’t quite blending in as quickly as I had hoped. I attended yoga classes and patronized art galleries on weekends, became a regular at the bar on the ski basin, but I continued to feel “you’re not from around here” vibes from the locals.
I used to think my story and the loss of my parents caused me to stand out and attract too much attention when I was back in Arkansas, but now I think that was mostly in my head. I left the South to fit in more and ended up standing out. Redefining home by leaving it behind has forced me to reflect deeply on even long-standing beliefs and really ask myself why. It’s an ongoing journey, rediscovering what core values I want to continue living by and what no longer serves me.
Maybe I don’t exactly fit in anywhere anymore. Maybe that’s a good thing. Thomas Wolfe said, “You can’t go home again.” But someday I plan on doing just that, and living on the 20-acre farm my father left behind. Maybe I won’t fit in as well as I used to, but that’s OK. It took a long time before I allowed myself to say “y’all” outside of Arkansas. I saw it as a giveaway to my identity, to prying questions about kin or my past. But the truth is that it is the best way to address a group, and it feels like home—and whatever its definition, home is a good feeling.
Grace Gude is a software engineer in Denver, Colorado, where she develops websites and teaches other people to do so, too. She loves exploring the Mile High City with her fiancé, Frank, and their spoiled pup, Chili.