Saying Goodbye To Home

Dear Diary,

Before college, I’d never heard the question before. It just didn’t come up. But when I showed up in Ithaca, New York for college, in August, the hottest, grossest place on the planet, I began hearing the question more and more. At first it didn’t bother me, but then it got old. It got old real fast. A question that was both necessary and annoying, mainly because the answer took so long and involved too many follow-up questions.

Where are you FROM?

The reason I’ve always hated this question is that it makes me feel like a weirdo. Because the answer is so hard to explain because the circumstances of my upbringing are pretty rare. This is how the conversation always goes:

Other: Where are you from?

Self: Yosemite Village, it’s in Yosemite National Park.

Other: That’s in Wyoming, right? With all the geysers?

Self: No it’s in Northern California, like four hours due east of San Francisco.

Other: Oh yeah Yosemite! Cool. I have a friend who’s from there. He lives in Fresno. Where are you from?

Self: I grew up in the park, like close to Yosemite Falls, near the visitor center.

Other: Yeah but what town was that?

Self: Yosemite Village.

Other: So wait you lived IN the park? I don’t get it. Were you raised by, like, wolves or something? [Uproarious laughter, as if I’ve never heard that one before].

Self: [Blank stare] No my dad was the park dentist and my mom was a teacher/administrator at the Yosemite School, where I went.

Other: But what if you, like, wanted to go to the mall and stuff?

Self: We had to drive far away, normally to San Francisco or Fresno or something.

Other: Oh. MYGOD. I would have died.

Self: I know.

[Scene]

As boring as that conversation was to read just now, imaging how boring it would get after you’ve had it 1000 times. Add to that the completely obnoxious pronunciation of my name (“OAR-LAWN-DOE”), my mixed racial heritage, and my gay face, and you have one complex, irritatingly Californian situation to explain. I know it sounds right now that I’m making myself sounds super special and unique. But that’s not the word I’d use for it. The words I’d use are “weird” and “annoying.”

My childhood in Yosemite was literally a Disney cartoon. Most of my afternoons were spent running all over the woods like “Pocahantas” and then singing until a bird landed on my fingertip like in “Snow White” (Newsflash: don’t do that, don’t touch animals, don’t feed them, or I’ll come to your house and murder you). Growing up here was magical. Like in the trite way that childhoods can be magical. There is something about the combination of wilderness, California, pine trees, campfires, sandy river beaches, clear cascading water, woodland forts, and gift store candy, that made Yosemite the best place in the world to be a kid.

I loved living in Yosemite until high school, when living here meant that I had to attend school in a terrible little town two hours away by bus called Mariposa where everyone wore cowboy hats and used the word “faggot” in an unironic way (Side note: “Fag,” used ironically, is one of my favorite words ever. But it’s kind of like the “n” word. Only fags and mega allies can use it).  Mariposa was the closest town with a real high school, so it was kind of our only option aside from boarding school, which I couldn’t have done because when I was 14 I had the maturity of most 7 year olds. While the cool kids at school were drinking Budweiser at cowboy parties, my Friday nights were spent at my friends’ houses in PJs, wearing our retainers, watching TGIF. Seriously. I did this until I was 18 years old. I’m what you call a late bloomer. Maybe even a never bloomer (if such a thing exists)…

Once I was in high school, I started resenting where my family lived. Why couldn’t we just live in a normal place with a normal high school that wasn’t full of whackos? This is when I had my “ah-ha!” moment. When I realized that if I didn’t go to a fancy East Coast college I would forever be stuck in a town like Mariposa. It was at that point that I started working really hard to get the hell out of town. I joined every club and extracurricular activity possible, and did as many nerdy things as I could. I’d spend my weekends in Yosemite, working at the Ansel Adams Gallery and reading the Andy Warhol diaries, fantasizing about moving to New York upon graduating from high school. I’d move there and immediately be part of the downtown art scene. I’d be like “No thanks, I don’t need any of your cocaine this evening.” And all the cool drug addict artists would be like “Oh my god he’s so cool because he doesn’t even have to do drugs to be as cool as us.” And I, overhearing their exclamations, would be all “I know.”

My whole life was about New York when I was in high school. I was obsessed by Basquiat and the 80s. Just imagining the glamour of the Interview magazine (Sidenote: I interviewed to work there once; they were not impressed). I didn’t end up moving to Manhattan until I was out of college, but I always loved coming home to Yosemite from New York. In New York, I opted to live on the West Side. With its wider streets and mellower vibe, I like it more than the screechy East Village, full of NYU students yapping about whatever Long Island towns they grew up in. Also, the West Side was closest to California. When I lived in New York and people would ask me where I lived I’d say “On the West Coast of Manhattan, the closest thing to California this city has to offer.”

Getting to Yosemite from New York is kind of an ordeal: Cab to JFK, flight to SFO, four-hour drive to Yosemite, usually through snow and ice, and finally you’re here. But I always felt so glamourous on these trips. My New York life transitioned perfectly into my mountain life. A lot of people don’t recognize this, but for me there have always been a number of similarities between Yosemite and New York City. Firstly, the only type of people who live in these places are extremists. You have to be kind of a freak to want to live in such a crazy environment. Secondly, they are similar in scale. Manhattan is slightly larger than Yosemite Valley but I always found it comforting, when running around on those streets, that the big ol’ city wasn’t much larger than the “tiny town” where I grew up. And finally, both places are filled with tourists from all over the world. It’s common to hear ten different languages on a trip to the grocery store.

Yosemite has always been there for me to come home to. All those years on the East Coast, in college and grad school, and living in The City. It was always that place that I came home to. To me, Yosemite is such a symbol of California. Of untouched wilderness. Of idealism. Of moving West. Of glamourous, wild, outdoor space.

One of the main reasons I moved back to California from New York was Yosemite. I knew my parents would eventually retire from their jobs and have to move so I figured I may as well be out here, just a drive away, as long as they stayed in the park. A fact of life here is that it’s impossible to retire in Yosemite Village. All residences are for park employees, rented from the Federal Government while you work here. Thus, the minute you retire you have to go.

And speaking of the house I grew up in, it’s nothing to write  home about. It’s a humble, small, rickety house. It was built in 1929, is sort of craftsmen style, has four bedrooms, two bathrooms, and looks like a log cabin from the outside. Tourists often stopped me as I walked into my house, asking “Hey, you kid! How much to rent this charming little homeless cabin for the summer?” And I’d be like [eye roll] “No, SIGH, I live here.” Where I grew up wasn’t glamourous, at least to the naked eye. To me, it’s home. It’s a literal gingerbread  house where I had my Disney cartoon of a childhood. But to most people it will look like what it is. Just an old park service house, painted brown to disguise it from airplanes, filled to the brim with my parents’ art and objects.

I always sort of resented the assumptions people made about me based on where I grew up. Most people assume that anyone who was raised in a rural place is dirt poor. This was untrue in my case, my parents both went to Berkeley, my mom was a school administrator and my father was a dentist. These misperceptions bothered me for a couple reasons. The most obvious one being that no superficial 19-year-old wants his college peers to think he’s poor, status is still important when you’re young and obnoxious (I was). The thing that annoyed me more, however, was the assumption that anyone with the financial freedom to decide where to live, anyone with substantial capital, would choose to live in a city or a suburb, that somehow living in the wilderness was something no one with full choice would choose and the only people who lived in the woods were yokels who just somehow ended up there randomly. Which was just so ridiculous to me if you think about history. Like what would our culture be like if Thoreau hadn’t explored the outdoors? Or John Muir? Or Teddy Roosevelt? Our history is littered with people who were obsessed with nature, who knew that preserving it was important to our collective spirit. These people contributed endlessly to literature and art. And what are cities without literature and art but big shopping malls?

I guess it’s the humility of my house and my hometown that I’ll miss the most. When I went to college, I remember feeling a little ashamed of my background. The majority of the kids I went to college with were upfront about their fancy prep school pedigrees. I couldn’t compete with that. Felt like there was something wrong with me that I grew up stacking wood, reading, staring out the window at snow, going on weekend trips to San Francisco. But at a certain point this shame turned to pride. Somehow, I’d gone from being this kid who grew up in the middle of the woods to someone who magically fit into my cutthroat, competitive college. Whose grizzled perspective could only come from growing up in an extreme place.

My parents are moving to a house that is, in most ways, an upgrade. It’s the suburban house I wanted when I was 15 and just wanted to live in a “normal” house and go to a “normal” school and live somewhere where we didn’t have to drive 4 hours to go to a real grocery store or the movies. Where there is a mall and other places that normal teenagers love to go. Their new house is lovely, a 1970s modern home tucked up on a hill overlooking Sonoma County, on a country road that leads to Calistoga. It’s also twice the size of the house I grew up in.

I spent the weekend at my parents house in Yosemite putting my childhood into boxes, looking at old pictures, and laughing at how gross and stupid I was as a child (I was really dumb, like in an amazing way that’s kind of hilarious). Talking about the difference between this house in Yosemite and the house she’s moving to in Sonoma County, my mother said “This house is somewhere, my new house is nowhere.”

There is a feeling when you are in Yosemite Valley, that you are somewhere. The giant granite cliffs are a reminder of how tiny you are. The only other place that makes me feel so small, so humble, is New York, where the skyscrapers do the job of the granite cliffs, reminding you that you’re just a tiny human. I’m sure someday my parents will feel that their new house is “somewhere.” But that will take a while.

As for me, the idea that I can never go “home” again is a sad one. I’ve been talking to a lot of people about this, like anyone who will listen, just in order to hear their stories about their parents moving. Most people, when they hear about my parents moving, just say “Wow, that’s just, like, sad.” And indeed it is sad. As someone who loves home, who loves houses, who is a nester and a homebody. As someone whose career is based on the idea of home (what else is interior design but the creation of “home”?). The fact that I’ll no longer be able to return to the place that made me who I am, that I played in as a child, that I railed against as a teenager, that I came back to as a twenty something, that I loved and hated my whole life. That is sad to me. This house, which my parents moved into when I was five, is a member of our family. A family member who we will all miss incredibly, especially at times we are used to being here. Like Christmas, when we open presents and sit around the fire. Or the spring, when we come up to visit the roaring waterfalls and vibrant wildflowers. Or summer when we come up to lay on the sandy beach near Superintendents Bridge. Or autumn when we come up to see all the oak trees turn, as they have today, fluorescent yellow.

My parents house is the second “home” I’m saying goodbye to this year. The other one being my ex-boyfriend, whom I spent the entirety of the summer mourning, crying over, missing. To me, because we lived together, he was home. There were small moments that told me I was home. One of them is burned into my brain. We were sitting on the sofa, sunlight cascading through the windows and he looked at me and smiled, the warmest most loving smile I’ve ever seen, and I felt my heart come out of my chest and go directly into his eyes. I know that sounds ridiculous and crazy and obsessive, but maybe that’s because love itself is ridiculous and crazy and obsessive. And when you are in love with someone moments like that happen all the time. Those moments, collectively, are home.

We broke up in June, a few weeks before my birthday. I spent the whole summer being sad about him, wishing he would come back so that I could feel like a whole person again. My body just ached with loneliness and sorrow and I couldn’t figure out how to get out of it. Should I move back to New York just to jolt myself out of this depression? Should I move to San Francisco? Should I do something crazy and change careers? There was no way to get over it.

Except time. One day a few weeks ago I was walking through the airport when I realized my body no longer hurt from missing him so hard. My chemistry had reset. And since then, little snippets of myself, snippets I’d lost because my whole life had been about him and how much I loved him, started to come back to me. “Oh,” I thought, “I can be funny sometimes.” “Wow. My whole life is not worthless.” “Exciting things are happening for me. I have great people in my life. People that care about me a lot. I can be kind of smart sometimes.” All of these things I’d forgotten about myself came flooding back. And that’s when life started to get good again. Because when you see the good in yourself, it allows you to see the good in other people, how wonderful your friends and family are. You are finally free to be as excited about the world as you should be. Finally, I could enter my apartment, formerly “our” apartment, without feeling this giant, oppressive void, the loud, lingering ghost of a happiness that no longer existed.

When you lose one home, one that you are used to and in love with, it takes a while to develop a relationship with a new one. No one in my family is excited about my parents moving. But eventually I know we will all be fine. That we will start to create new traditions in their new house. We will go to new places we haven’t been before. We will share new experiences, different from the traditions we’ve had the past 25 years in Yosemite. And in this I think we will find that we learn more about each other and ourselves than we expect. That it will bring out new, unexpected parts of our personalities.

So as I sit here at the dining table I grew up eating at, surrounded by stacks of boxes that reach the ceiling, stacks of boxes that contain my family’s history, I can feel this version of home slipping away. The comfortable, eclectic house I grew up in is already gone, taken down, packaged up. And when the moving van comes on Wednesday, it’ll be gone forever.

Love,
Orlando

PS: If you are curious about what my childhood home and neighborhood look like, check out the Google Street View here. Look for the house with the silver Volvo station wagon out front (speaking of things I was sad to say goodbye to). Don’t forget to look up. Yosemite Falls is right up there!

37 Comments

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37 Responses to Saying Goodbye To Home

  1. Jill

    Haha when my mom lived IN the Grand Canyon Nat’l Park, people would ask where she lived. They simply could not comprehend it.
    Me: “She lives in the Grand Canyon.”
    Other person: “In it? Like in the bottom of the canyon where people hike to?”
    Me: No, but within the park. She lives and works up there. Most tourists do not know but there’s a community up there with a school, grocery, housing, etc.”
    Other person: “Oh. I see…”

    They probably just thought she lived in Flagstaff or like you said, somewhere nearby like Fresno or SF.

  2. jaywhy4

    Haha when my mom lived IN the Grand Canyon Nat’l Park, people would ask where she lived. They simply could not comprehend it.

    Me: “She lives in the Grand Canyon.”
    Other person: “In it? Like in the bottom of the canyon where people hike to?”
    Me: No, but within the park. She lives and works up there. Most tourists do not know but there’s a community up there with a school, grocery, housing, etc.”
    Other person: “Oh. I see…”

    They probably just thought she lived in Flagstaff or like you said, somewhere nearby like Fresno or SF.

  3. Beautiful article. Thanks for sharing Orlando. Transitions always tough and wild, but they also bring good things. Here’s hoping the good things coming your way are like at an Oprah’s Favorite Things level.

  4. Marguerite

    I grew up in the mountains above the Bay Area, and went to Cornell as well. Those East Coasters can be a bit brutal; I was always pegged as a Valley Girl (wrong valley, you prep school idiots).

    I love Yosemite. This was beautifully written, thank you.

  5. Kevin Orlin Johnson

    I’m speechless. Well, I told you already. So I’m speechless now.

  6. amanda

    I grew up in Reedley and now live in Fresno. I remember hearing about you lucky people that get to live in the park and my jealousy soured! I feel lucky to be close to Yosemite, but literally being in Yosemite is a whole other level. I would love to be surrounded by the smell and the crispness in the air. I wish we could bottle that up! Transitions are tough but it sounds like you have some wonderful memories there.

  7. kati

    Lovely, lovely post. Achingly poignant, tenderly personal, inspiringly hopeful. Thank you.

  8. Lyssa

    This is so what I needed to read today. Not that I can relate to growing up in such a place like Yosemite – (I am born and raised in Bklyn, NY so I get a totally different reaction), but I can relate to wanting to leave for college and having a different name (my parents are immigrants). Yet, what touched me the most was your discussion on home and finding the good in yourself after the break up. I was just thinking to myself the other day, why did I subscribe to Orland again? Did I mean to subscribe to Emily instead? lol (Hey, I just moved too and am trying to decorate a home), but obviosly you just reminded me of why I subscribe to you. I am in the middle of possibly separating with huband and I needed to read this today. thanks.

  9. Jim Stewart

    Brilliant post. Thank you.

    >

  10. randi

    I feel very fortunate having had the opportunity to visit your childhood home and to have such beautiful memories from those visits. My parents’ moved my childhood home – where most of my memories were made – and their “new” house (ten plus years later) still doesn’t feel like home. My family and I now live in the very first home I ever lived in as a baby… I get your “nester” feelings. Your feelings of home. It’s hard to get over but you are right when you say time will heal it all.

  11. What a beautiful post, Orlando. I love that you can make me laugh and tear up all at once. My parents moved away from my hometown when I was in my 20s and I know the feeling you describe. But you’re right, you’ll create new memories and new traditions and realize that it doesn’t really matter where your family gathers, just that you’re gathered together at all.

  12. Kristal Simel

    I, too, am in somewhat a similar circumstance. We are closing up my childhood home and my parents house that they built in 1954. My 91 year old mother died a couple weeks ago. My current home is 4 hours away. When we sell the house will I ever be back there? It is the end of an era but the memories are good.

  13. It’ll take me a week to get over the fact that you went somewhere called Mariposa… You do know what that’s slang for, don’t you? 😀

  14. Cailean

    Yes yes yes you described it so perfectly. After 39-ish years my parents are getting ready to sell their house — the only house I’ve ever lived in. I want to curl up and die whenever I think about saying goodbye to it — some of it is still the same, the 70s carpet and very very 70s decorations (string art!) but I can’t imagine anyone else living in it, changing it, making memories in it…nor can I imagine not being able to go back there. I think I still will and be like a crazy freak stalker that the new owners have to have arrested. Le sigh.

  15. Claire

    So beautifully written Orlando. Thankyou for sharing. Your depth of feelings remind me of my childhood home. Mum and Dad still live there and I can only hope when they sell up my husband and I can afford to buy it off them. My childhood area was just like the Goonies minus the hidden pirate ship!!!

  16. dana

    What a childhood! Not surprised that your house would be hard to leave behind. Best of luck to you after several hard months.

  17. This is so lovely. I can relate to the feelings of longing for home (even when I am there). Thanks for writing this.

  18. Dana

    Loved this post so much. Thank you for writing it and always being so honest. I love your blog.

  19. Karen

    This was such a good read. I’m so happy you blog. I grew up in California, but have yet to return. You’ve made me miss home in more ways than one.

  20. I loved this! You are such an entertaining and passionate writer. And I am amazed that you grew up in Yosemite! My favorite trips while I lived in the Bay Area were the ones to Yosemite, and I still brag to this day that I climbed up the Half Dome (hah, did it again). It’s sad that you have to leave, but like you said, it’s time for a new home!

  21. This was such a lovely post. I just finished reading a book about Randy Morgensen, who grew up in Yosemite too. It sounds idyllic.

    I grew up in a house overlooking the sea in Scotland, and my parents still live there. For a long time I couldn’t imagine how I would ever cope if they sold that house – it would feel like giving away my childhood. But now, my mum is very ill and unlikely to get better, and it’s looking like the house will be sold sooner rather than later. And you know what? It turns out it’s not the house that I’ll miss. Home in the deepest sense comes from people, not places, and losing those people is a million times more painful (as you write so eloquently about).

    Thanks for writing this.

  22. Lori

    This was beautiful. The house that I grew up in, the house that my parents still live in, is the house in which my mom spent her teenage years as well. It is old (part is as old as the 1700s, the other is from the 1800s) and it needs a ton of work. It’s a monster to maintain. I resented it as a kid. But now… now it is one of the loves of my life. I keep thinking about how one day, mom and dad are going to have to give it up and I won’t be able to keep it. (My commute to work would be too insane to move in.) It absolutely breaks my heart to contemplate it. So basically, I know how you feel. There’s a song by Miranda Lambert called “The House That Built Me,” and the first time I heard it, I sobbed. Give it a listen.

  23. This was such a lovely post. I just finished reading a book about Randy Morgensen, who grew up in Yosemite too. It sounds idyllic.

    I grew up in a house overlooking the sea in Scotland, and my parents still live there. For a long time I couldn’t imagine how I would ever cope if they sold that house – it would feel like giving away my childhood to strangers. But now, my mum is very ill and unlikely to get better, and it’s looking like the house will be sold sooner rather than later. And you know what? It turns out it’s not the house that I’ll miss. Home in the deepest sense comes from people, not places, and losing those people is a million times more painful (as you describe so eloquently).

    Thank you for writing this.

  24. Jen

    This is absolutely beautiful. You’re such a talented human being. Thank you for this.

  25. OAR-LAWN-DOE, that was uber-ly awesome and beautiful…

  26. Michele

    Lovely post. Thank you.

  27. carl

    This is so beautiful. I’m in the moving on process as well, and I wish I could say how I feel the way that you do. And I died when you said that you’d murder me if I touched or fed the animals.

  28. I am sitting here in tears but I am smiling! I am only just now starting to see the sun after my boyfriend of five years (from New York) unceremoniously broke up with me in March. I could relate to your words and how you were feeling from your own experience and only just this week, after a much needed trip to Sydney, I realized life does go on and I am going to be OK without him.

  29. Beautiful piece of writing!

  30. Sarah

    As a homebody super obsessed with my childhood and nostalgia, I get it. Beautiful writing. Wishing you well as your “home” takes a new form.

  31. This is an amazing post, so heartfelt and honest and wise. As a native Californian, so much of what you’ve written resonates with me. I visited Yosemite when I was very small, but didn’t really “get it” until I stayed in Curry Village for a few days at 19. And then it became my favorite place on the planet (so far). I knew park rangers and other people lived in the park, but it never occured to me that a whole family could live and grow up there for so long. You’ll always have that amazing childhood. What a precious gift. Good luck to your parents, and to you in the days ahead.

  32. oh man, my eyes are welling up in tears,
    I expect that your parents will have many more years of happy memories in store for them in Sonoma,
    and that you will find “home” with another loving soul, you have such a good heart

  33. I just had to comment, even though plenty of others have already articulated it for me. This. is. gorgeous. Lovely writing. And I subject I’ve only recently come to relate to. Thanks for sharing.

  34. Maria

    Watching the snow outside my “big city” window and remembering the snow falling in the dinky, population 1500 town I grew up in. My soul is full knowing there are others living this dual life, and what a grand life it is

  35. Sarah

    I’ve loved you since you and Emily’s show and am finally making my way through your blog. This post was lovely. Thank you for always sharing your personal experiences. You’re definetly not the only one who feels like this

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