From Philly to Fly Fishing
An Easterner’s Move West
After graduating college, I fell into the trap of thinking that big cities held the answer to a bright future. I convinced myself that cities had the connections, jobs, and opportunities I needed to propel my career and give me a shot at my own American Dream. It took five years of big city living to realize my mistake.
The growing desire to escape grew harder to ignore each month I called a city home. And finally, while in Philly, my desperation led to action. I began making weekend trips to the closest mountains with increasing regularity. The seven-hour, one-way drives to the Adirondacks were attempts to convince myself I was living in a mountainous state.
While living in Houston, Texas, I continued the practice of weekend escapes. Twice a month, I drove 10 hours to Big Bend National Park just to spend some quality time in the Lone Star State’s Chisos Range—that’s equivalent to the distance between Manhattan and Myrtle Beach.
Escaping the city or finding green space within is a not only a consideration, but a necessity for many Americans like myself. As cities continue to sprawl, more concrete commuters look to local parks to fill their lungs with fresh air and run their feet through the grass. But for some of us, local parks offer little relief to that nagging call for outdoor adventure—especially if you’re living in the super metropolis that stretches from D.C. to Boston. While there are some areas to escape to out east—the Adirondacks, Catskills, and White Mountains, to name a few—they are few compared to the West.
Indeed, there’s a noticeable difference in distribution of public land in the U.S. For example, in Utah, Nevada, and Idaho, over 70% of lands are public, compared to New York’s 37%, Pennsylvania’s 16%, or Maine’s 6%. This is due to a variety of reasons, but mainly because the East has a higher population density and more arable land, and to the fact that the concept of public lands didn’t emerge until most of the East was already in private hands. In light of this difference, you can see why it’s so hard to find remote public areas along the East Coast.
On one of my many long drives back to the city, I began to seriously consider the unthinkable: “Why not live in the mountains?” It would certainly save me a lot of time driving and gas money. Philadelphia is a great city, but what it boasts in history, art, and food, it lacks in natural beauty, outdoor sports, and above all, majestic, snow-capped mountains. You can only run up the steps of the art museum in Rocky’s footsteps so many times before you start to want more. As an Easterner, the West always seemed more of a fantasy than a real place. But, the seed had been planted, and I began to look west for opportunities.
In the late 19th century, conservationist John Muir inadvertently invented a slogan that has become iconic today. He wrote, “The mountains are calling and I must go.”
This sentiment has resonated with many more people than myself. Modern migration maps continue to show a slow and steady population shift from east to west, especially among younger generations. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2016, seven of the eight fastest growing states were in the West.
While western states are enjoying a population bloom, the East continues to experience outbound migration. Comparing Idaho’s 73% inbound to that of New Jersey’s 63% outbound population change in 2018 is just one of many statistics that paint that picture. Or, look no further than the quarter-million who moved to Colorado between 2011 and 2016. That’s like the population of Albany, Harrisburg, Atlantic City, Trenton, plus a few more small towns relocating to one western state within five years.
But why go through all the effort of packing up your life to move west? The chance to live in a place that offers open space, solitude, natural beauty, and undomesticated serendipity, to name a few reasons. While remarkable natural areas in the East exist, the American West offers these essential amenities in abundance.
My Chance to Go West
After weeks of searching for the perfect job, I finally got a call from Backcountry while at work and ran into the nearest stairwell. After the call ended, I double-checked that I hung up the phone, echoed an expletive through the empty stairwell, and broke into an impromptu jig. Seconds after receiving the news, I had made up my mind. After spending my fair share of time in the ever-expanding, East Coast cities, I followed Muir’s words and proudly jumped on the passing bandwagon (more accurately a bandsedan) in a pilgrimage spearheaded by millions before me—the move west.
Four years after graduating college, I teetered on my fourth career change. This wasn’t just a job switch—not only had I held four different titles, but four distinct careers in four states, no less. Working as a policy analyst, an account manager at an advertising agency, and a technical writer (and sometimes builder) for a robotics company taught me the benefits of shrugging off the fear of the unknown and just going for it.
So, never having visited the area, I doubled down on my “just go for it” attitude, and had the East in my rearview mirror before the end of the month. In reality, there was no decision to be made. My answer came instinctually. Much like a warbler migrating for the winter, I knew precisely where to go. The news didn’t shock anyone, and though my family was sad that I was once again leaving the state, they understood.
Alex shouldering his bag on the Henrys Fork Trail to Kings Peak, the highest mountain in Utah.
Out West at Last
As soon as the mountain shadows licked my car, I grabbed my backpacking gear, fishing rod, and boots, and blazed off in the direction of the nearest summit. I went from the streets of Fishtown, Philly to fly fishing in pristine mountain creeks in less than a week.
Could it be real? A solid week of daily excursions to the mountains was enough to reassure myself I wasn’t living in a dream—I was living the dream. I began to rapidly tick bucket-list items off, bagging peak after peak throughout the Wasatch Mountains, picking up rock climbing, and exploring everything between the Bonneville Salt Flats and King’s Peak, the highest mountain in Utah.
Now, each time I leave my apartment or office, the mountains are there, looming over me. My seven-hour journeys to the mountains are seven-minute drives. And after each adventure, when I return to my apartment in Salt Lake, the mountains never fail to send shivers down my spine. The feeling is similar to seeing the Manhattan skyline, or standing at the summit of my first 14er—a feeling of awe, pride, and genuine surprise.
This is a feeling that rarely lasts longer than the first few novel months. But, as the weeks pass, the feeling hasn’t faded. My mind, try as it might, refuses to believe what my eyes are seeing, and sends adrenaline through me as if to say, “Watch out, something doesn’t seem right.” But everything is all right. I am finally among the mountains.
Alex Moliski is a writer at Backcountry. When he’s not typing, he’s exploring the country, climbing, or backpacking somewhere remote. See more of his stories at Switchbacks.us