My Turn: Moving Back East; Heading Back Home

The human-resources recruiter at the hospital in western New York was confused.

"You live in Las Vegas now?" she asked.

"Yes, that's right," my wife said.

"And you're moving here?"

It was not the first time my wife, an emergency-room nurse trying to set up interviews for a new job in a new city, has had to explain herself. Perhaps the time of year explains the recruiter's confusion—she was probably buried under a late-winter blizzard, dreaming of our sunny weather. Thousands of people move to Las Vegas each month. No one moves from the sun belt to the snow belt. No one, that is, except us.

I'm also surprised about our coming move. Born and raised in Buffalo, N.Y., I spent my first 18 years trying to leave. My hometown was too small, too predictable and too boring, filled with similarly small, predictable, boring people. Each summer vacation, when we visited my father's family in Oregon, I dreamed of permanently moving out west. I was drawn to the sense of optimism and the broad Western landscapes. Back east I felt doomed to the opposite; gray, snowy winters that seemed to never end. My mother's family had lived in Buffalo for nearly 150 years, and no one ever escaped.

When college came, I grabbed my chance, went to school in Milwaukee (far, but not too far), got married (to a girl from Michigan, not Buffalo), joined the Air Force and didn't look back. The few friends from high school I kept in touch with all moved away: to New York City, Boston, California. In the military I met many others from my hometown. All told the same story of the desire to escape. We joked that Buffalo was a better place to be from than to actually be.

In the past eight years, I have lived in South Dakota, New Mexico and Nevada, and seen the world—Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Kyrgyzstan. The strain of constant deployments has taken its toll on my family, and my Air Force career is now drawing to a close, which means we can decide for ourselves where to move.

My wife and I made a list of priorities. After years of brown landscapes, we longed for trees, grass and water. We wanted to move east, and north; someplace with four seasons. We liked the idea of a university town, where we could get our Ph.D.'s and maybe teaching jobs later. Our new hometown needed to have affordable housing—the boom of Las Vegas had left us barely able to afford a too-small house there. Also on the list were good schools for our three sons, and easy access to their grandparents. Plus rolling hills for cross-country skiing for me; a body of water for kayaking and sailing for my wife. After eight years of following my job, we wanted to follow our life.

As we brainstormed our list of towns to move to—Burlington, Washington, Albany, Minneapolis—nothing seemed quite right. Finally one day my wife said, "Stop being so stubborn. You know Buffalo has everything that we're looking for." But I worried I would be judged a failure for moving back. Did it mean I couldn't hack it on the "outside"?

But the idea of making my old hometown my new address began growing on me. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that moving back will hold benefits far eclipsing our meager list. My sons will get the chance to grow up with not only their grandparents, but great-grandmother, great-great aunts and first, second and third cousins. They'll get to hear family stories about their grandfather, a firefighter, who put out a blaze in the church his grandfather built. My sons will go to my old high school. These ideas suddenly held meaning. Marriage, fatherhood and deployments to the worst areas of the world have given me a perspective I was too self-absorbed to see before. I took for granted a large supporting family and sense of community history most people don't have. I appreciate it only now. But I understand that I am not settling for an easier road, but rather making an active choice to believe in the place my immigrant ancestors poured their lives into.

I am learning to be less defensive when admitting I am moving back home. I tell people we thought objectively, and Buffalo just happened to have all the things we were looking for. When I tell my high-school friends I am moving back, they say "good for you," as in "you're braver than I." When I tell my military friends from Buffalo, they say they have seen too much of the world to move back to that small, predictable, boring town. I tell them I have seen too much in this world not to move home.