Chicago was a curve ball.
In the winter of 2014, after returning home from my Peace Corps service in Lesotho, I took a non-profit job in Washington, D.C., and relocated to the nation’s capital. As a wander lusting youth, I had long hoped to end up on the East Coast, and there I was, in the transient city of people trying to go up. It was less glamorous than I had pictured. Half of my monthly salary went to rent, and outside of the few fellow former volunteers I knew, it was hard to make friends. I couldn’t tell if it would just take time to adjust, or this wasn’t the place for me.
Not long after I started my new job, I received an email inviting me to apply for a public affairs position with the Peace Corps regional recruitment office in Chicago. They had used the non-complete list (which all returned volunteers are eligible for up to a year beyond service) to find former volunteers who also happened to have journalism experience. It was a short list, but my name was on it. I applied for it and didn’t hear much for weeks. As I was struggling to find a home in D.C. and get my footing at work, Chicago was a daydream. The city was bigger and closer to home. Not only was the job more aligned with my interests, but I was struggling with the transition home after service, and being close to the Peace Corps community, was alluring.
In talking with a friend over coffee in D.C., she said, “I think you just need to go somewhere and settle down.” I had lived in D.C. for a few months, and I could already tell that this was not the city I wanted to put down an anchor.
The offer for the Peace Corps job came, and in June 2014, I landed in Chicago with just two suitcases. A taxi took me from Midway Airport to my new apartment on the northside. As we snaked our way through rush-hour traffic on Lake Shore Drive, I stared out to Lake Michigan. I live here now.
Chicago was to be the setting in which I redefined my life, after having left home and gone into the Peace Corps. I came here hoping to build the life I always knew I was capable of.
As a South Dakota native who grew up in a town of 13,000, it had long been my dream to live in a bustling city, and the urban life suited me. I spent my first year in Chicago mainly overwhelmed by the never-ending list of events and things to do. I started volunteering, went to a weekly meditation group, joined a book club, and said yes to any social invitations. I spent the weekends reading the Chicago Tribune and going to the beach. I went for runs along the Lake Shore Path. After work, I walked through downtown, taking in the big buildings, fast-moving crowds, and ever twinkling city lights.
While that first summer in Chicago involved a lot of cheap red wine and binging 30 Rock, by the second, I had made the city a home. I was no longer living with a roommate but on my own in a small studio. I had a budding social life (mostly friends made through my job at Peace Corps and other Peace Corps connections) and one of my best friends from Lesotho was moving back to the city. I was going to musicals and happy hour and concerts in Millennium Park. I was training for the Chicago Marathon and had gotten into storytelling on stage. And, I had recently started dating someone (non-Peace Corps), my first real relationship in eight years. When traveling or back home, pride rose to my voice when I said, “I live in Chicago.”
Throughout time, I changed jobs and eventually decided to leave the communications world to go back to school to become a therapist. I stayed on the northside, only living in two neighborhoods. I married that guy, and we adopted an anxious hound mix. I went to weddings, held babies, and attended goodbye parties. I learned to navigate parts of Chicago without Google’s help, and ran up and down some of the city’s main arteries. I could join conversations when people said, “Oh remember that café that you used to be on Thorndale and Kenmore?” Eventually, I clocked enough years in Chicago to out-pace any other place I had lived, outside of the town in which I grew up.
I had settled down, finally. I became a Chicagoan.
If my arrival to Chicago was unplanned, my departure was intentional. After struggling professionally for a few years, my husband wanted out of the city. He decided this not long after I started a three-year master’s program, so his hopes of leaving had to wait. But, once I graduated, we would go. I owed that to him.
At times, I didn’t want to go and wondered if I could convince him of staying. I couldn’t imagine giving up the long runs along the beach and the nights among the sparkling city lights. However, we’ve had a lot of setbacks the last few years, and it was easy to blame it on the city’s harshness. We struggled to stay afloat financially, and too many late-night trips on the CTA after class gave me severe anxiety when taking public transportation. When the pandemic came, we were stripped of all of the things that make city living enjoyable. Instead, we were paying gobs of money to live on top of other people. Chicago had been a home and had given me so much, but it was time to go.
For months, we had discussions about where we would go next and settled on Minnesota. It was close to family, and we could live in my brother’s basement until we were settled. My husband looked for jobs in the Twins City, but nothing materialized. I, too started, to look for positions but was overwhelmed. Something didn’t feel right.
Then, my husband heard about a job in Casper, Wyoming through a good friend. Because the job was in higher education, the hiring process moved slow. For months, we didn’t know when or where we were moving, only that our lease ended on July 31.
When the job offer in Wyoming came, everything fell into place quickly. I got a job, we found an apartment, and all the little pieces of moving lined up. We moving to somewhere smaller with less hustle but also a place that was quieter and more affordable. After several years in the city, we both wanted a slower pace of life. Just like how everything came together when I moved to Chicago, this, too, felt right.
A few weeks ago, I went to The Loop to run errands. I hadn’t been down there in months because of the pandemic and spending the last year working and taking classes online. While many people are still working remotely, many have returned to the physical office, and downtown had a familiar, if lessened, buzz. I completed my tasks with a bit of time to spare before I needed to be at work. I used that time to wander, just like I often did after work when I first moved to the city. On my way to the Riverwalk, I walked past the first building where I worked, the one for that Peace Corps job that brought me to Chicago. Seeing that façade again made me cry. That job changed my life. It gave me many of things I have today.
As I continued on, I thought about some of my favorite memories of living in Chicago: attending live tapings of “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” in Millennium Park; running the Chicago Marathon and feeling the intense support of the crowd; walking in the Chicago Pride Parade days after the U.S. Supreme Court declared gay marriage legal in all 50 states; singing “Go Cubs Go” in Wrigley after a Cubby win; Chicago Architecture Foundation tours with friends and family; afternoons in the Chicago Art Institute’s members’ lounge; dinner parties with new and old friends in small, quaint apartments; summer night walks in tree-lined neighborhoods, trying to get glimpses of others’ décor styles from open windows; the first day of spring when the entire city comes out to celebrate winter’s passing; annual holiday trips with my mom, sisters-in-law, and other family; sunny afternoons at the beach; telling personal stories on stage; and countless nights that reminded me of how grateful I am to call this incredibly city home.
Then, I got to my favorite part of the city—a stretch on the Chicago Riverwalk that stares up to the Tribune Tower and the Wrigley Building. I thought about all the dreams and hopes I had when I first arrived, and all the amazing blessings I am leaving with. I spent seven important years here, and while I know it was time to go, I will miss this city. I will likely write love letters to Chicago for years, as it will take time to truly understand its imprint on my life.
There, in my favorite spot, I could proudly confirm that here, in Chicago, I lived a very good life.
Goodbye, Chicago. You will always be home.