I, unsuccessfully, tried to escape Ogden city for the first time in 1994. I didn't make it far -- Salt Lake City and the University of Utah. And I didn't stay away long -- one academic year. Alcohol, marijuana, and other consumables pushed me home, along with the failing grades that come with getting high every night.
Tail tucked firmly between my legs, I finished my schooling at Weber State University, and this return to O-Town saved, at the very least, my professional life and was the best decision I could have made at the time. I got a good education from good people at a good school.
But I knew the second I walked out of the Browning Arts Center with my diploma in hand that I would never live in Ogden again. I needed out. The gritty downtown, the smell of the dog food factory, the lack of any decent nightlife, the family-centered feel of everything, were just some of the things that I hated about my hometown, so in 1999, I left again, this time, in my mind, for good. My schooling and career took me to Kansas, to Ireland, back to SLC, which was NOT Ogden, to Illinois, back to SLC, to Tacoma, Wash., and back to Kansas.
It was our time in Tacoma that changed our world. We had left SLC, left a house in Sugarhouse, mortgaged up to our ears, having bought it right before the bubble burst and spat debt on us for six years to come, and left Utah for the fourth time. We just had no connection to SLC and felt out of place and stranded in a city we didn't understand or care to understand. SLC, the first city in Utah, gave us no real love. Of course, we had friends and family that we loved and missed, but we wanted a connection with a city, and SLC gave us none. Ogden was not an option at the time.
In Tacoma, we found that connection that only the grungy streets walled in by the water of the Puget Sound could give us. For a time, we longed to live in Seattle, even looked for apartments, but the rent was exorbitant and the warmth we felt from Washington's second city, not present. We loved the walkability of the downtown, the rising art scene that had been pushed out of Seattle by the high prices of rent and the "hello" from restaurateurs who knew our names. We could walk around the gentrifying downtown of Tacoma in one short evening and head home, just a short drive, and know that we hadn't emptied our wallets during our time out. The water wrapped its arms around Tacoma, the city that most Seattleites try to forget and avoid, but if they just looked a little deeper they would see a true authenticity that rises from a city growing out of its grittiness.
Life and death moved us out of a city we thought we'd never leave and to Kansas in 2012, the longest year of my little family's life so far -- my wife and son and me. When that year ended, we had real choices. We could stay in Kansas, we could move back to Tacoma, or we could move back to Utah. In May 2013, we came back to Ogden for my nephew's graduation from St. Joes, we left our young son with my parents who had been relegated to see him once every couple months for the first two years of his life, and my wife and I went out alone in my hometown.
We went for a walk along the foothills and were caught in the glow of the purple mountains at dusk. We drove past the Dinosaur Park and thought about our young son's love of all things that ROAR. And we stopped at TONA downtown for dinner, had many glasses of wine, and walked 25th street, pointing out all the new restaurants and galleries and clubs that had been born so recently.
A very familiar feeling swept us up, the feeling of the gritty city that we had fallen so in love with in Washington, the loveliness and authenticity of a city rising from second city status, rising with art and food and dinosaurs beneath the drastic beauty of its rocky mountains. Our decision became easy. What we had never found in SLC, we found in Ogden, but it took us moving to a city just like Ogden, but of a different name, to realize what we wanted.
As I write this, I sit in Kaffe Mercantile on 26th street, a very cozy joint, just blocks from my high school and our very affordable house near the mountains, their arms wrapping around our city.
My son has his family, and I have my home, one that I needed to leave to really love.
Johnstun is an award-winning essayist whose work has appeared nationally and internationally in journals and magazines such as Creative Nonfiction Magazine, The Chronicle Review, Label Me Latina/o, Prime Number, and as a regular contribution to The Good Men Project. He has an MA and an MFA in Creative Writing, and his set of essays Tortillas for Honkies and "Other" Essays (Unpublished) was recently named a finalist for the Autumn House Press 2013 Award in Creative Nonfiction. He is currently finishing up a book about the birth defect Cranioysynostosis (forthcoming from McFarland in 2014.