When I was 19, I took my first trip west. As I flew over the Rocky Mountains, I peered out the window in complete awe with tears in my eyes at the sheer beauty of the snow-capped peaks below. I had never seen anything so majestic, and instantly my view of the world and it’s infinite and varied landscapes expanded.
Last year, almost two decades later, I flew to Denver for the first time, saw those looming peaks from below, was instantly taken back to that tear-filled moment in the air. I immediately felt like that wide-eyed kid with a world of possibilities in front of her, and also daunted by the massive climb I knew was ahead of me. I spent just 48 hours there, working out some matters of the heart with a man who I needed to leave behind, and fell in love with the city that held that moment for me. I said goodbye to an important part of my heart’s story, commemorated it in ink on flesh, and felt like I was reborn in the shadows of the Rockies.
Just over a year later, after one of the wildest, most trying and transformative years of my story, I returned to Denver to launch a new company with my business partner, Sarah, who I had lived with during that first fateful trip to Bali. I had entered Sarah’s home as a stranger, a tag-a-long with my girl Kim, but throughout the world-shifting experiences that Bali seems to always provide, coupled with the tragic experience of my dad’s death while there, we walked away as forever friends. Sarah, who had been bouncing around the world for several years working and exploring, was one of the greatest inspirations for this nomadic life that I chose to embark on in the following months. At this year’s start, we got to talking about our symbiotic business skills and the lives we dreamed of living, and over the course of a one-hour phone call, we decided to go into business together. Soon after we joined forces with two other phenomenal women, both of whom at different times during the year had entered the very same Bali home as strangers just as I did, and as our story went, left as close friends. For the entire first half of this year (and why I haven’t been writing save for a handful of posts) we built Flauk together, a full-service women-owned and operated digital agency that helps people launch businesses through coaching, branding, copywriting, web design (me!), and digital marketing. After 6 months of tireless work we knew we were ready to launch to the world, and so Sarah invited us all out to her home to meet for the very first time in real life (we’d all lived with Sarah, but never met each other- and Sarah and I hadn’t seen each other since I left Bali in a shroud of mourning), put the final touches on our plan, and let our baby bird fly out into the world.
And as it just so happened, Sarah was living in Denver for the summer.
As I returned to Colorado, I immediately felt the feeling I had the year before as I touched down. Breath. Ease. Home. It’s a hard feeling to quantify, but it was there knocking at my brain as I took the train into town gazing once again upon the snow capped peaks. We spent the week reconnecting, working, and planning the future of our company. On the Friday before I was set to leave, we were booked to attend Creative Mornings, a breakfast lecture series for creatives with chapters all around the world. I had been looking forward to the morning during the previous days as I had tried and failed to attend at the chapter in Raleigh, North Carolina but could never get the stars to align with my schedule, and was excited to get out and meet fellow creatives, network for our business, and get inspired – that is until my alarm went off at 6am. I snoozed. I fought with myself. I didn’t want to go. I was sleepy. But as I snoozed the second time, that inner “you always know the right answer” voice started nagging me You must go. Get up. It’s one of those things I’ve learned to listen to when it happens, especially since it only comes across my brain a handful of times a year. So I got my ass out of bed, put on big-girl clothes, and went.
Love Walks In
We arrived early, checked in, and went to sit in the cafe until we were allowed in. Within seconds, my head nearly snapped off my neck at the sight of a purple-tee-clad volunteer walked by. If you had to craft a man that, by looks alone, was my perfect being – it was this guy in spades. (My friend Tom had predicted I would fall in love while in Menver, as he so lovingly called the city crawling with big sexy mountain men that had ever been my type. At this moment I began to believe he had psychic powers.) That inner voice that got me out of bed? I wanted to give it a legit full slow-clap standing ovation. I knew immediately: I needed to know this man. I needed to kiss his face and meet his family and have his babies and grow old with him (ok, maybe that came later but that’s pretty much the best way to describe how much he made my heart flutter). I immediately went into action-mode, super (not-at-all) casually wandering the art gallery right smack up next to the entranceway where he was checking people in, stealing glances at him during every stealth chance I got, hoping he would notice me while not noticing that I was staring at these art pieces far longer than they warranted. Once we were ushered into the space, half-listening to the people I was speaking with, I had my eyes peeled for him at every moment, and caught glances here and there, but he was busy buzzing around setting up for the event. At one point, I walked to the bathroom, even though I had no need to pee, because the route was long and filled with possibilities of casually bumping into him. Which I did! But, as we approached each other, we exchanged a simple lock-eyed good morning and smile that shook my boots so much that I panicked and quickly kept walking, missing my chance for an actual conversation. Soon after the speaker began, and throughout his talk I tried to concentrate but all I could think about was how I was going to somehow muster the guts to speak more than one word to this man before my time was up and he was lost to me forever. I vacillated between extreme bravery and pure fear. At one point, my nerves even had a stern talking to my brain and told me to stop being so boy-crazy, that there was no way his insides were as beautiful as his outsides, and that I didn’t even live there and was only in Denver for three more days so what was the point of talking to him anyway! By the end of the speech, I was exhausted, and resigned myself to leaving it all up to fate – if I saw him on the way out, great, if not, c’est la vie.
At the end of the talk, my team rushed to leave and I followed, but I spotted him just feet in front of me, standing with his arms draped over the remaining coffee carafe aside a big bowl of grapes. So I took a deep breath, steadied my nerves, made a beeline for the grapes, took one red and one green, popped the green in my mouth, used the red as a stress ball, and mustering all the bravery inside me, looked up to find him looking right back at me. (Super smart plan, having my mouth full as I utter my first full sentence to the dreamiest man alive, but I managed to swallow and come back to earth to steady the rainbows and fireworks that were running through my body as he spoke.) He asked me if it was my first time there, as he hadn’t seen me before. I immediately went into full panic mode that he would instantly write off the possibility of marrying me, an out-of-towner, soI told him that while I actually didn’t live in Denver but in North Carolina, that it was just a temporary thing and was looking for a new home town. When he asked Why North Carolina, I relayed my quick highlight-reel 4-sentence summary of leaving Los Angeles, the death of my dad, the journey to be a nomad, the travels to Bali, and finally Mexico and the snake, murder/suicide, and the witch trying to kill my dog. His reaction? Wow, you should write about that. My response? I actually did. He asked if he could read it, so I gave him my blog. We then chatted briefly about ourselves and I really tried to pay attention to the words leaving his mouth but his smile and the depth behind his eyes had my heart doing backflips and my knees weak, so I took a deep breath, got bold, and asked him if he would mind showing me around his city that weekend. He agreed, I think a little surprised, I gave him my number, and walked out the door.
Meanwhile, while all this was happening inside my brain, it turns out that he had noticed me immediately too, telling himself that he was not leaving that day without meeting me, consistently putting himself in my line of sight as well. And, what I didn’t find out until he confessed this later on, was that when we passed with the initial hello, he spotted my name-tag, and since he had access to the attendee list, found my Creative Mornings profile and while the speaker was presenting he proceeded to do some social media sleuthing. So before the fateful grape bowl talk, he already knew I was living in North Carolina before my panicked words came out of my mouth.
And little did I know, grape or no grape, he was going to stop me before I walked out that door.
Falling in Love on Mountains
Two days later, he picked me up for what ended up being a 36-hour long date. As we drove through the winding roads to reach the top of a mountain, we spoke about things that usually are saved for weeks or months into a relationship, not minutes. His openness, vulnerability and deep emotional intelligence was captivating and unlike anything I had encountered before. How quickly powerful connections can develop when two people are both willing to be so raw from the very start, it was truly something to behold. We spoke about our twisting paths of past loves, career struggles, families, friendships, pain and triumphs. We talked about our hopes and dreams for the future, what we wanted from a relationship, how we’d raise children, what we worry about as roadblocks, and what life would look like as nomads traveling and working around the world. By the time we reached our destination I already knew I had met a mirror of my soul, a safe space for my heart, and a match on every level. I knew, without a shadow of a doubt, that this was the man that I had been working so hard to prepare my heart for.
As we stood high above the clouds, as he held me in his arms against the cold, he told me that he had read my latest blog post. You know, the one where I tell pretty much the entire history of my modern dating history. When I tell him I’m surprised he still wanted to go out with me knowing all of the not-so-pretty details, he proceeds to tell me that reading it, my vulnerability and depth, made him want to meet me more. Swoon. And then, PLOT TWIST, he tells me about when he got to the part about the guy Perry, that he paused and realized that HE KNOWS PERRY. Turns out, his best friend Marshall from growing up is Perry’s best friend from college, and Perry and Dave spent a week together in Mexico at Marshall’s wedding just over a year before. He even pulled out photos of the two of them snuggled on a beach together. I immediately flipped out at how small and wild this universe is, and Dave suggested we record a video of the two of us for him, and so we did, and when I sent it to Perry right there from atop the mountain, I appended it with: I think I’m going to marry him. Mark my words.
(Mark my words, friends.)
We proceeded to slowly snake our way down from elevation and stopped for a moment at this breathtaking lake among the peaks. As we stood beside the very mountains I had only seen from above and below, the mountains that marked my arm, the mountains that contained such power in my heart, we kissed for the first time, sealing my fate, and I knew this would be the last first kiss of my life.
We continued on to spend the perfect day together, winding our way back down from the chilled air above the pines to the heat of Denver. We drank beers, ate junk food, and listened to a live band at a small town biker bar. We walked around a lake, sat on a park bench with the sunshine on our faces as he told me about his dream to start a business that helped men strike the balance of strong and soft, mindful and wild, masculine and sensitive…and cuddled with puppies. We hung at a park for a jazz concert and picnicked with some of his closest friends all the while staring googly eyed at each other, hand in hand. As we lay on a blanket in a park, surrounded by such incredible humans and the vibrancy of a thriving city, I was reminded of how much I had been desperately missing a life like this, a life and activity and connection and community I used to have in LA but chose to leave behind in hopes of something greater.
I felt full to the brim with happiness and completely, utterly, at home.
Our date continued until he drove me to the airport the next night, after midnight walks around the quiet city, a night wrapped in each others arms, a morning exploring Red Rocks, a day exploring each other more and more, an evening meeting more of his friends watching the sunset over the lake. As we snaked through the check-in line at the airport, we shuffle-stepped in an embrace, tears in our eyes not willing to let each other go for a moment. At security, we said our goodbyes, him urging me not to be sad, that his tears were happy ones, and this was not the end but the beginning of something special. He handed me a journal and told me to read the letter he wrote inside on the plane, and as I did, I knew that he was all in too, that I would be back in his arms again, and that I would write our story on the pages inside.
Long-Distance Love and a Big Decision
Two incredibly long weeks later, I was back in Denver, where we spent two weeks together falling deeply, madly, this-is-it in love. We experienced what our daily lives would be like together; we crafted our plan for a life of traveling, growing, and exploring together; I met his parents and more of the most important people in his life; we discovered that his friend worked with my dad back in Detroit and knew me when I was a kid (WTF, right?!?!) and I met her and all swapped stories of him back in the day; we climbed an epic mountain, braved a hail storm, and said I love you with overwhelming emotion for the first time at the summit; and in the end, we decided that beginning September, when I had to move my things out of my subleased apartment in LA, that we would move in together in Denver.
This was both the easiest and the most difficult decision I have had to make on this journey. I have spent 9 months here in North Carolina with my family, and while it has been incredibly difficult for me in many ways, it was beautiful in the gifts that it gave me with my family. My mom and I have grown closer than we have ever been, getting to truly know each other as humans, becoming friends rather than simply parent and child. We have had a blast in so many ways, and the time together has helped both of us grow and heal in leaps and bounds. I’ve been able to spend more time with my brother and sister-in-law, and truly get to know my two young nephews who I’d only met a handful of times before they could form full sentences. This closeness, this connection with my family that I had been so far away from for over 15 years, was something so wildly special and important to me that I couldn’t fathom actively making the choice to move across the country again. But, I knew that I was not happy in every other aspect of my life here. The contrast Denver provided in such a short time was striking. I felt alive again, I was inspired by the friendly and open community and the entrepreneurial spirit and restaurants and events and activity of the city, I found happiness again in the mountains and the outdoors and the open land, I found familiarity in the West Coast-ier vibes and chill energy. And I found love. And that love was on board for the nomadic life I dreamed of crafting, and able to do it with his career, so I knew that we could come back to NC for longer periods of time, changing the way visits home were experienced and softening the blow of leaving. I was terrified to tell my mom, deeply sad to leave my family again, but I knew in my heart of hearts that I had found the elusive “home” I had been searching for and that there was simply no other choice for me than to go.
Three weeks later, Dave came to North Carolina, where we kicked off the straight-from-the-airport trip to Creative Mornings Raleigh, in honor of our first meeting. Throughout the trip he met my family and a couple of my best friends from LA who are now living here, explored the state where we would be spending part of our lives together, beaches to mountains, and savored every moment we had together. Where I knew I could seamlessly fit in with his people, in his world, this confirmed what I already knew – that he could seamlessly fit in with mine. My nephews adored him, and called him by the incredibly Southern name: Mr. Dave. My mom loved him more than I could have wished for- telling me she has never seen me so happy in her life, has never met someone so perfectly matched for me (she tells everyone how I somehow have found a male version of me), and felt so much better about me leaving with him. She gave her blessing for all that was to come and was just as sad when he left as I was. It was beautiful and more than I ever could have hoped for, and It brought me the final piece of peace with my decision.
We said yet another tearful farewell at an airport, but this time, the next moment we would see each other would be the beginning of our lives without goodbyes.
Learning to Love Again
Along my journey of love, as you read in my last story, the hopeless romantic in me nearly died a thousand deaths, yet somehow I still believed that true love was real. That there was someone out there for me that simply just fit. Someone that was waiting for me to exist too. That THIS story would happen, someday, somewhere, somehow. When I wandered upon Dave on that fateful Creative Morning, the reasons behind the pain and struggle and love and loss all made sense, and I finally understood what they mean when they say when you know you know. He is my person, my champion and confidant, my partner in every sense. He is the man I’ve wrote about in lists and manifestation journals, the man with the unique combination of qualities I had almost given up on the possibility of existence in one body, the man who inspires me to be a better woman, the man that lights me up in every way. In our relationship, with his love, I feel free, cherished, respected, desired, and loved at every turn and it has been the most empowering and beautiful experience of my life. I have been pinching myself since we met to make sure I’m not dreaming, to make sure that this concept of a human I wrote about, this man I thought I just may be asking the universe too much for, is actually real.
That said, it hasn’t all been unicorns and rainbows and easy going for me. The weeks between being together in the same city, and even some moments when we are together, have been really fucking hard. It’s been a long time for me since I’ve been in a long-term committed relationship – my post-divorce love life has been dramatic and relatively unstable and inconsistent at best. Learning how to exist in a pair again is mostly like riding a bike, but I want to ride a sexy slick city bike this time around, not the basic beach cruiser I was on the last time, and that takes a lot more intention and work than just gliding along on a mediocre ride. In addition, the long-distance thing has made me realize that I still have some serious abandonment issues from my past that shape my reactions and emotions when I’m feeling disconnected from him, and I’ve had to work really damn hard on healing them while we’re apart so I can show up as a healthy partner when we begin our life together. And even though I’m never left wondering how he feels, because he approaches our relationship with such intention, thoughtfulness, and care and always tells and shows me, in every love language in the book, how much I am loved- my past wounds, especially the one from Matt blindsiding me, still rear their ugly head every once in a while. Sometimes I get triggered and am convinced that this is all too good to be true and Dave is going to wake up one day and change his mind and walk out the door and flee to Mexico like Matt did. I worry he’ll meet someone cooler and younger and hotter and date her at the same time as me and then pick her instead of me and run off with her to Puerto Rico like Ryan did. I spiral and think that I’ll get to Denver and it will all fall apart once we’re actually in the same place and we’ll fall into the pitfalls of ordinary life and because I jumped in too quickly I’ll find out later that it is a horrible fit like my marriage and I’ll wind up sad and alone in a strange city with my tail between my legs. I often get completely overwhelmed with how much I love him, at how incredible our relationship and connection and communication and love is that I freak out thinking one day I’m going to wake up and see it actually was all a dream, because it can’t be this easy, this beautiful, this free. I tremble that he’ll have some deep dark secret identity that I’ve somehow missed like in the he’s-too-good-to-be-true and is actually gay/a serial killer/zombie plot twists of movies and novels. Hell, it was really hard to even write this post because of all the voices telling me Don’t put it out there into the world, what if it crashes and burns and he leaves and you look like a fool?
But then, I breathe, and remind myself that he is not Matt. He is not Ryan. He is not a 22 year old jumping into marriage before he knows himself. And he is most definitely not a gay serial killer zombie. He is uniquely and beautifully Dave, and he is real and here to stay. He is a grown-ass evolved, incredible, wild-hearted, and self-aware man who is ready for real-deal love and won’t run and change his mind on a whim because he has done a mountain of the tough work to get right here, to be able to show up and be the partner he is to me, to know what he truly wants and needs – and it just so happens that what he wants and needs is me, just as I am. And while what I am is most certainly not perfect, it may just be that I am perfect for him, just as he is absolutely perfect for me.
And then I remind myself of how far I’ve come, and that what I have become is someone that is enough, someone who deserves a badass partner, and someone that is worthy of great love. I am reminded of the time about six years ago when I went to a Chinese healer (who was brought into my life by a crazy set of circumstances involving a foster dog, will save that story for another time), and after a long, emotional, and enlightening session he posed the question:
Stephanie, would you want to date you right now?
I said No, emphatically and without hesitation.
He replied When you can say yes to that question as strongly as you just said no, you will then know you are ready for great love.
And wouldn’t you know it, this past year is the first time since then that I, time and time again, have answered an emphatic Yes without hesitation. I finally, truly, madly, deeply, am comfortable in my own skin and love who I have become. I no longer am that unsure, unformed woman who is scared to speak up and unable to communicate, who always puts her needs second, who really doesn’t know who she is or what she wants and needs, or who can’t stand tall in her truth. I have done a mountain of tough work, just as Dave has, to grow and learn from the experiences of my past so I do not repeat past relationship patterns, to heal wounds, to learn from my mistakes, to find the truth of my heart, and to discover what I need to prepare to be a present and healthy partner for whenever my person arrived in my life.
And finally, I remind myself that just because he finally arrived, it doesn’t mean that every last fear-driven voice or belief or issue would just magically vanish at the exact moment he walked into my life. It turns out that the tiny leftover shards still shaking around in my heart just need a little more attention, love, and final moments of healing. Healing, it seems, that can only happen within the context of the beautiful, safe space that exists when one is truly loved.
So, with that, a few days before he touched down in North Carolina I knew I still had some things standing in the way of letting myself truly love and be loved. I sat down for 6 hours, meditated, and faced some some long-held beliefs I knew I needed to let go of, and tore down the final bricks of the steep strong walls that I had erected in self-protection over the years. At the end of the day of communing with my shit, I wrote this little note to myself in order to actively contradict every old, stale, ugly belief that I was still holding on to, and still read it whenever I am acting out of fear or going down the rabbit hole of doubt:
I get to be happy.
I get to have a family of my own.
I get real love.
I get the fairy tale.
I deserve it.
It will stay.
It will love me back.
It won’t disappear.
This blog has taken a twist, as life does, and has become more about the journey between travels abroad rather than stories of the places themselves. This journey has found me a new home base. It has added a permanent character to the story. And while I’ll be taking some time to settle into a new city and create our new home together before we jet off to another country on a nomadic adventure, we’ll still be taking many mini adventures around Colorado in the meantime. I’ll share our plans and chronicle our trips because Colorado is really, really amazing and you need to go. And I’ll continue to share our story, the story of our love, unfiltered and as real as I can muster, as we navigate creating a new life as two digital nomads, and hopefully, inspire the belief in all of us that if you’re patient and do the work, fairy tales do, in fact, exist.