I was hiking through dusty desert shrubbery on the outskirts of Reno, Nevada, when a lizard dashed along a rock before freezing, in classic lizard fashion. In addition, his tail end was missing, blackened, and he was rather plump for a small reptile. As someone who lives in this part of the country, I see my fair share of lizards, but this one stood out because I had found him a week earlier, blackened tail and all. Then I wished him luck with regenerating his tail, and I smiled at him. After moving to Reno almost nine months earlier, during the height of the pandemic, I finally met my first new friend.
The decision to move out of New York City was particularly popular among those who moved during the pandemic. There are now so many “Zoom towns” that we find it hard to account for all the changes we have caused in some places. Increasingly, newcomers to Lake Tahoe are from the Bay Area. Tahoe’s real estate prices have risen by over 15 percent, and locals have become increasingly concerned about the “Aspenification” of the area, according to an Outside article detailing the changing demographics of the area.
I didn’t intend to be part of a trend, and I didn’t make this move to fulfill some long-held dream of leaving the city. It would have been possible for me to leave New York long ago as a freelancer for 6 years. My city life became untenable during the pandemic, and seeing the world in lockdown changed me fundamentally, allowing me to figure out the connection between my happiness and where I lived.
Back in 2006, if you would have told me that six years later I would live in northern Nevada, hike these mountains almost every day, and swim in the Truckee River or kayak on Lake Tahoe, I would have told you, “No way.”. “I am not like that.” I grew up in Manhattan, and I felt I was destined to live here forever. My experiences with nature have been alien and frightening as a certified city girl. My mother, who is Australian, would visit Sydney frequently, but I rarely went into the ocean. The tides and waves frightened me. Getting wet made my hair frizzy and wild, and I was concerned about getting salt water in my eyes and mouth or even drowning. I would read a book in the sand as my mom and sister splashed around in the Pacific Ocean.
My plan to move to any other place other than New York was not seriously considered after I graduated from college in Ohio. In order to become a professional writer, I believed I needed to be there. By becoming successful, I felt better. This was a bourgeois concept I immediately bought into. Working, reading computers, and drinking dominated my life. I had an objectively good life, but my anxiety and depression from childhood cast a shadow over everything. Despite living in a city with millions of people, I felt like my life was confined to the city.
I cut out drinking and I fell in love in 2016, which helped me inch closer to happiness. Once I became sober, I was able to figure out what I actually enjoyed doing. It made me want to bake and cook, and it also encouraged me to go outside more. The move I made to live with my boyfriend led to my newfound love of the outdoors. Even though he was excited about all New York had to offer, he still longed for the lush forest to which he had grown up in Oregon, full of hiking, cycling, and greenery. We rode our bikes around the city at his urging. The first place we checked out was the park by the sewage treatment plant, a surprisingly charming nook in comparison with the rest of the city that actually smelled okay. It was a new sense of calm to sit in a bench among the trees and look out at the creek dividing Brooklyn from Queens in silence.
I began to wonder if there was a future for me in the woods, or at the very least, in the suburbs.
We’d take the train to Long Island or along the Hudson River on weekends in quest of less metropolitan outdoor activities. I began to wonder if there was a future for me in the woods, or at the very least, in the suburbs. I was frequently reminded of a line from the 1981 film My Dinner With Andre, in which the titular character describes New York as a prison “built by the inmates themselves, and the inmates are the guards, and they have this pride about this thing they’ve built…”, implying that everyone has lost sight of the fact that they are imprisoned in the first place.
Then the epidemic struck, and I couldn’t help but feel like I was trapped in my costly condo. But I also detected a whiff of liberation. All of my justifications for needing to live in the city had vanished suddenly, and I began to truly question all of the unwritten rules I had followed my whole adult life: my worth is determined by my financial and professional success. To attain it, I need to live in a major urban area. Prioritize your work over everything else. What if life is actually a lot more straightforward? I questioned myself. What if the most important thing is to walk outside every day and make dinner for the person I care about most?
My spectacular departure from New York City came together quickly. Our lease was coming to an end in June 2020, and our landlord wanted to increase our rate. We weren’t sure where we wanted to travel, but the West beckoned. We considered Hawaii (too far away) and Oregon (too close) (too dreary). “How about Reno?” says the narrator. One night in May, I said. It was inexpensive, gorgeous, and we had previously enjoyed a nice vacation there and at Lake Tahoe in 2017.
It was a little haphazard and definitely rash. We took a chance on a mid-pandemic trip to select an apartment and make sure we loved it while remaining continually veiled and bathed with hand sanitizer. In the middle of a worldwide health catastrophe, Reno felt as right as a place could feel. The flashing lights of the slot machines in the casino hotel where we slept upon our arrival reminded me just enough of Times Square, which helped. I was more excited than scared, and I had a feeling that staying here would help me learn more about myself. My boyfriend and I recognised that we were fortunate to have positions that allowed us to work from anywhere in the world, and we were delighted to be able to take advantage of the new trend of working without an office.
Our first several months in Reno weren’t exactly easy. We didn’t know anyone and didn’t know how to drive. At first, my outside activities consisted of bicycling to the nearest grocery store every other day and hiking the dusty, rocky hill that was within walking distance of our apartment. During my weekly driving lessons, I began to connect with this magnificent desert that is now my home through the window of a beat-up Toyota. The pandemic worsened, and we were once again imprisoned inside our flat. This time, though, our flat was larger, our rent was more inexpensive, and we could see the most spectacular view of the Sierra Nevada mountains if we strolled down the street. There were a few hitches to iron out, but for the first time in my life, I was no longer in New York and had no regrets. I was able to save over $1,000 per month on rent and other living expenditures. I was no longer under any obligation to work hard for freelancing work. I had faith in my capacity to forge my own path.
The life I’d pictured for us in Reno—with weekend visits to the lake and everyday hikes in the desert—became a reality once I finally acquired my driver’s licence in December. We have three excellent trailheads within 10 minutes of our condo, and even better ones within 15 to 30 minutes. We can travel to Lake Tahoe in about 45 minutes, but part of the enjoyment is the drive itself, which takes us through the mountains and through beautiful pine trees on a winding section of I-80. Sure, I miss New York’s fantastic bagels, sushi, and pizza, as well as my family and friends, but I prefer living here. Reno, which was named one of Outside magazine’s Best Places to Live in 2019, offers me apparently endless opportunities to be in nature, which I didn’t realise I needed until recently.
There has been a lot of research done on the psychological benefits of being outside. Multiple studies have compared the dispositions of those who had just taken a walk in the forest to those who had just taken a walk in the city centre, finding that forest walkers had lower heart rates, better moods, and less anxiety than city walkers. But it wasn’t until I started experiencing it on a daily basis that I realised what this meant for me. I feel less anxious when I’m outside because it allows me to let go of myself. When I go on a trek, I don’t look at my phone—I don’t have service half the time anyway—and I don’t think about the news or what’s going on in my career. Instead, I’ll be on the lookout for any new animals (recent sightings include a rattlesnake, a few marmots, some adorable little chipmunks, and a horny toad). Maybe I’m listening to the Truckee River rushing by. If Ronald Reagan were still alive, I’m probably talking to my partner about what his favourite reality show would be. When I’m outside, whatever profound or profoundly ridiculous thing I’m thinking or talking about is irrelevant. The main thing is that I get a break from my internal monologue, that irritating negative self-talk, and the millions of minor fears that haunt me every day. The consistency of these experiences is what makes life so enjoyable here. It goes beyond the brief respite provided by a relaxing vacation in a beautiful location.
It’s not that leaving the large metropolis made my life perfect or that my sadness vanished overnight. I’ve gone from having a large family to having only one person to rely on, and aside from the big lizard, I haven’t made any friends yet—though I want to do so soon. Living in Reno, on the other hand, has taught me a lot of wonderful things about myself: that I have the freedom to go wherever I want, and that I never have to feel trapped in one place; that nature should be a part of my daily life, not just something I can enjoy on vacations; and that work is not life, and that professional success has little to do with personal fulfilment. I’ve discovered that I enjoy swimming, that I can conquer my phobia of cold water, and that I don’t mind getting my hair wet, no matter how frizzy it becomes when it dries.