As the saying goes, “if you can make it in New York City, you can make it anywhere.” But what happens when you’re bored of the city that has it all? After a decade in the Big Apple, personal stylist and journalist, Natalie Decleve, knew it was time to move on—the question was, to where…?
Embarking on a soul search to find her next home, Decleve set out on a cross country road trip that forced her to compare her own hectic life with a much simpler one. Next week, she’ll traverse the Caribbean for lusher pastures, give the coast of Italy a go and finally, give California living a try with a tour along the west coast. Check back here each week to follow her journey across three countries in search of her new home.
I didn’t know where, but I knew I was going. I told my landlord I’d be giving up my dreamy, West Village apartment, distributed my worldly possessions between friends and storage, and prepared to uproot. Coincidence or universal alignment linked me with a long lost buddy who was looking for a travel partner in July. Andy, a (mostly) retired lawyer who plays banjo and climbs mountains for fun, had just returned from wrangling horses in Iceland after three months in Berlin and was bound to North America for visa reasons. Having spent most of my childhood and adult life traveling abroad or along the east and west coasts, I had an unquenched thirst to explore the country in-between. I was ready for a shift, and toyed with the possibility of relocating to California for a change of pace. But surely there must be a multitude of livable locations outside of New York City and Los Angeles where a freelance journalist/stylist could feel at home? And so, I packed up a suitcase and my road trip “essentials” (including mushroom coffee, seaweed snacks and tarot cards) and closed the door to my apartment and on New York City– unsure of when (or if) I would be back.
A California native with Belgian and Finnish roots, I began to question my decision to remain a New Yorker when the energy of the city became more demoralizing than inspiring. A decade in the Big Apple had spun a successful career, a thriving social life and a New York “family” of incredible friends. I was generally happy and yet I couldn’t shake an overwhelming feeling of restlessness. I’ve always been a travel junkie and long said that the only way I’d thrive in New York City was to get out as often as possible. However, after 11 years, not even weekend jaunts Upstate, sunny holiday escapes, an entire month in Costa Rica or adventures in India were enough to keep the sparkle of the city fresh upon my return. Desperately seeking said sparkle, I decided the only solution was to push myself out of the nest; out of my comfort zone. I needed the freedom to make a change, to actually go where the wind would blow and see where I might land. I hoped that somewhere along the way I would find what was missing from my life in Manhattan: a sense of calm, a connection to nature where people are less desensitized to the humanity on the street and take the time to breathe. Single and self-employed, I own no property and no animals and as soon as I released my lease, I found myself uniquely untethered, and my journey began.
“I hoped that somewhere along the way I would find what was missing from my life in Manhattan: a sense of calm…”
Our first pitstop was Annapolis, MD. Having gotten on the road late in the day, the charming seaside town provided a quick overnight rest on our way to North Carolina, where I had spent my high school years. There, Andy would visit his mother and I would visit some old friends–all married, most onto their second babies. Although our interactions in recent years have been largely limited to weddings or Facebook posts, my childhood friends and I didn’t skip a beat as I swapped tales of exotic travel and big-city living for lessons in parenting. I stayed with my closest friend, Erica, who seemed as happy as I’ve ever known her to be, content to care for her two, crazy-cute kids and a brand new house. She raved about the time I took her backpacking in Europe one summer and it dawned on me that she hadn’t been abroad before or since. Later, as I followed her husband and my suitcase up the wide staircase and shut the lights in a guest bedroom twice the size of my Manhattan studio, I couldn’t help but reflect on the choices we’d each made and how differently our lives had developed. Are stability and adventure mutually exclusive?
In the morning, it was down to Tennessee for Andy and me, where we stayed in a little, two-bedroom guest cottage on his family’s valley farm. Sun washed barns studded the acres of fields and a long winding river led away from the main house into the woods. We pulled up at sunset, which turned the misty mountains every shade of purple and prompted the lyrics to “America the Beautiful” to play in my head. I could feel the last grips of stress release from my shoulders and immediately knew we’d need more than a night or two in this majestic place. An hour outside of Nashville and a 10-minute walk from the nearest neighbors, I felt a million miles away from yesterday. A farmstand between the house and town supplied a bounty of local produce, and I stocked up on bright yellow squash and ripe tomatoes for a meal of summer ratatouille and seasoned corn. I plucked a bouquet of wildflowers and Andy fashioned a tablecloth from a flannel shirt. To the tune of a cricket serenade, we devoured the homemade feast from the porch swings and watched the evening mist roll in.
With an impatience for car rides, I knew I’d need to keep my hands busy with so many hours on the road. I picked up sewing supplies and my own vintage denim and tossed it in the car. Now, settled into a valley with no distractions besides the setting sun and the sound of Andy’s banjo, I started a denim embroidery project I never thought I’d make time to undertake–until now. One day I was so hooked on embroidery that I didn’t notice the great sky overhead beginning to change, until the clouds illuminated the kind of silent electrical storm that’s notorious in the south. It wasn’t long before winds kicked up from every direction, scattering my multicolored threads across the lawn, forcing me to set aside my passion project. I joined Andy at the edge of the deck and we watched, speechless and slightly damp as the sky unleashed a merciless dose of rain, thunder and lightning. If it were a Nicholas Sparks story, this would be the part where Andy and I turn to each other, electrocuted by the energy around us (the boating scene in The Notebook comes to mind). But I am not Nicholas Sparks, and our quirky relationship remained platonic, even as we discovered that the power had gone down, leaving us to finish the evening with a bottle of red wine by candle light. It felt dreamy to play house in a cottage in the woods, but I knew I wouldn’t last more than a week in such quietude. I love a big open sky, but I also love the entertainment and the diversity that comes with a city. The monotony of full-time country living would sentence me to a life of pure misery à la Kathy Bates.
We rejoined civilization in Memphis for an indulgent 24 hours filled with Beale Street BBQ, dueling pianos and vintage shopping. My first impression of the town was that it felt a little touristy, a little dirty, and just too little for me. We finished with a nightcap at a haunted brothel-turned-juke joint called Earnestine & Hazel’s, once frequented by legends like B.B King, where we heard jazz that would haunt me with or without astral spirits. But despite the magic of this Memphis moment, I couldn’t see myself there for long. This city had soul alright, but it didn’t have mine.
“I could feel the last grips of stress release from my shoulders and…I felt a million miles away from yesterday.”
Next stop? New Orleans, where the haunting continued. There, the sweltering 90-degree heat and 100 percent humidity was enough to make anyone hallucinate. Thankfully, some fellow New York expats welcomed us with mint juleps and a swimming pool to cool our jets. Friends of Andy’s, Paul and Sarah, had shifted their successful careers as a fashion photographer and interior designer from the Big Apple to the Big Easy years ago, and never looked back. The couple’s majestic restored mansion was just down the street from my own homey digs at the Henry Howard Hotel in the bustling Garden District. Real or imagined, a jazzy soundtrack trumpeted through my head as I wandered the lush streets in search of the best seafood (Peche), vintage (Little Flea) and juices (Green Fork) to undo the damage of Nola’s free-flowing booze. Hanging out with Paul and Sarah meant house parties filled with whimsical southern characters, and fanciful afternoons spent poolside choreographing dances to Abba songs. Seeing the city through an insider’s eyes opened mine to the possibility of life after New York. If all of these wickedly smart, hilariously spirited personalities found inspiration here, couldn’t I? Unlike everywhere else we’d seen, the energy of New Orleans felt like it could sustain an easily bored city dweller like me. I loved the romance of the old southern mansions, the mystery of the bayou and even appreciated the sultry heat that seemed to make everyone just a teensy bit…mad. I thought of the Kerouac quote “the only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live…the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn burn…” Could New Orleans be my new, New York?
The thought lingered with me as we began the long, hot drive to hunt for topaz in Mason County. Thanks to a “what the heck’s in Texas?” iPhone Google search, I decided on a whim that we should do some digging for buried treasure on our way through the big a** state. Sadly, the intense heat thwarted our exploit and the topaz ranch owner asked if we had a death wish, suggesting we try back in the fall. We may not have found the type of gems we came looking for, but we did find Fredricksburg, a tiny metropolis in Hill Country with a mystical Enchanted Rock, charming bed and breakfasts and a surprisingly elevated food scene (read: crab curry at Vaudeville). We packed up for Marfa, the desolate yet cosmopolitan oasis originally noted for unexplained “Mystery Lights” reported in its late night landscape, and later made famous by Donald Judd’s modern art foundation and a roadside Prada “store.” Quirky boutique hotels like the Thunderbird play off of desert kitsch, and a modest sprawl of independent retailers offer curated wares for visitors from the art and fashion scene at prices to match. We happened upon a film festival weekend that drew Angelenos and New Yorkers alike, meaning long dinner waits and overheard conversation about competitive Soulcycle while sauntering past giant tumbleweeds.
Taking a cue from the tumbleweeds, we rambled on in the morning landing just two hours south in Terlingua, Texas. Here, we found what we’d been seeking: the kind of otherworldly experience made possible by a loosely planned road trip. Unlike Marfa, Terlingua is a veritable ghost town–a mining community from the 1880’s that’s been largely since abandoned. An almost post–apocalyptic landscape conjures images of Mexico, Mad Max and Mars; with vintage car shells scattered amongst pueblos and teepees. The proximity to Big Bend and the Rio Grande is to thank for Terlingua’s limited tourism, so we were surprised to find a handful of decent restaurants and the underground cave bar Kiva, where we sipped prickley pear cocktails and hid out from the desert sun surrounded by dinosaur bones. None of these tiny Texas towns were in consideration for more than a visit, but discovering them amidst what I’d expected to be a barren stretch of the drive reminded me to expect the unexpected. Late that night, I stumbled out of our picture-perfect, two bedroom adobe pueblo for a moonlit meditation on the deck. Staring out at the illuminated desert landscape, I let the stillness sink in. But we weren’t still for long, in the morning it was off to New Mexico.
“…We found what we’d been seeking: the kind of otherworldly experience made possible by a loosely planned road trip.”
When initially planning this trip, it was the painted deserts of New Mexico and Arizona that beckoned me to the road. I’d viewed the rest of the journey as a bonus, so expectations were high when we crossed the border into New Mexico. As we climbed north, evergreens replaced succulents and we were relieved from the oppressive heat of the Southwest. Coming from what felt like the ends of the earth in Terlingua; Taos was a bustling change with multiple areas of commerce. That, juxtaposed with Alpine hiking and valley hot springs near the Rio Grande, plus some of the country’s best snow skiing make for an incredibly livable situation. So livable in fact, that off-the-grid homes are common here, and a huge community lives on their own utilities in “Earthships” in the surrounding High Desert. Having always been a hippie in heels, the draw of living a truly sustainable lifestyle was tempting. Staying at the Artisan Inn at Casa Gallina, I got to play at a life where I plucked freshly laid eggs and greens at will from the garden behind the house. I played Simon and Garfunkel on repeat. I took hammock naps and Tulsi tea breaks under the willow tree. I wore an embroidered, vintage mumu with no shoes, allowing the dewy grass to soak the souls of my feet as I collected garlic scapes and bushels of broccoli. But as I considered a healthy lifestyle in Taos, the same question arose:Who would be my friends here? And what would I actually DO with myself when I wasn’t pretending to be Joni Mitchell?
Finally, it was time for Sedona, the land of magnificent red rocks and energy vortexes. Legend has it that Sedona’s imposing mountains emit electromagnetic energy said to amplify health and insight, as proven by the gnarled Juniper trees twisting out of the ground nearby. Dozens of books have documented wild occurrences accredited to Sedona’s unique cosmic energy and thousands of visitors flock to the rocks for vision quests of their own. The town caters to these zen-seekers and it’s hard not to feel jaded by the plethora of crystal shops and psychics promising to “unlock your true potential.” Despite the majestic beauty, the homogenous Disney-ification of it all deterred me from considering Sedona for longer than our three-day visit. But it didn’t stop me from mapping out the “most powerful” vortex sites and planning to hike them all. In the end I made it to two: Bell Rock and Cathedral Rock. Keeping expectations low and my mind open, I spent hours climbing and sitting on the terracotta colored earth.
On my final ascent of Bell Rock, I brought my tarot cards and pulled from the Vision Quest deck I had lugged around for this specific moment. With my butt planted firmly in the rusty dirt, I closed my eyes and pulled Son of Air, Three of Earth, and Fire of Completion. A quick reference to my book revealed the meanings behind each one: Son of Air claims “a restlessness and inner conflict that may spark a temptation to fulfill the ego or seek clarity”, Three of Earth: “Growth. A breakthrough. Creativity in new aspects of your life.” Finally, Four of Fire: “Completion. The end of one cycle and the beginning of the next. A successful conclusion and positive beginning. Harmony.” Chills ran up my spine as I read the descriptions despite the heavy heat. Overhead the clouds threatened to break with a storm, signaling that it was time. Time to descend the mountain, and time to go home–which perhaps, I’d find on my next trip to the Caribbean.