5 Places That Are My Home Away From Home

I consider myself a homebody, somebody that doesn’t necessarily like to leave home let alone be gone for long periods of time. As a child, I can quite distinctly remember my older sister kicking me out of the bed we shared at my grandparents house to the floor with nothing but my pajamas to keep me warm because I couldn’t stop sniveling about wanting my parents to be back home.

It wasn’t necessarily cruel, it was just tough love on her part but a lesson that has taught me well. No amount of tears will take you back home, back to your bed, back to your animals or back to your family. Learning to take deep breaths, conversing with God, and writing were how I would overcome it on other trips as I got older.

Throughout the travels of college basketball and life after college, I have been thankful for the ability to write and record the stories of my adventures. I always do so with a pen and a journal, picked specifically for that trip and, maybe some day, you’ll get a copy of those entries right here in this blog! The best trip that I have ever blogged was my trip to the United Kingdom with my sister and Randi & Warren Clayton Johnson.

Maybe it was the challenge of having other writers on the trip, hell bent on providing a good written tale of their own, that challenged me, or the amazing trip that my sister planned just had TOO MUCH good content (is that such a thing?). But, it is, hands down, one of the best ones and I go back to read even now, just over a year later.

There have been five places that have changed my life in their own way. Each of those five places hold a culture, a community, a group of people and a group of experiences that have change my life for the better. In fact, almost all of these places have had such an impact on me that I have considered (and still do) moving there!

Hawaii

I remember the first trip that I took to the islands. I was probably eight years old and the only things I remembered was almost drowning while trying to tell my grandpa who was walking along with me about the fish that I was seeing. Being older, obviously he knew those fish were there, and probably laughed until he squealed at the sound of me gargling saltwater out of my nose!

Jokes on him though – I figured out how to talk through the snorkel tube so he got my gritted teeth monologue of all things underwater for the rest of the trip!

Another standout from that trip has to do with how seriously I take every word of every person. My grandfather told my sister and I to get our heads out of our books and games and look around. If we weren’t joining in the car conversation, then we should be looking at the beauty that is Hawaii.

That’s when I decided that Hawaii was beautiful and the first thing that I saw was the Hibiscus flower – the state flower of the islands. Absolutely mesmerized, it was nothing like the flowers of the United States and I quickly dubbed it my favorite and, to my loyalty today, it is still my favorite flower.

The other standout is just funnier, so I have to share. When my grandfather asked where we wanted to eat lunch my sister responded with the only place she’d eat, “Subway!”

“We can’t eat at Subway!” He said incredulously, “We can’t eat American food in Hawaii!”

That comment still makes me chuckle whenever I pass a fast food restaurant chain on the islands!

We got the opportunity to go on a family trip to the islands in 7th grade. Older and more athletic, I was ready for adventure and time with my grandparents who would spend a few months out of the year on Kona. First we stopped at Pearl Harbor in Oahu for two nights and the gravity of the seriousness of the deaths that occurred in Peal Harbor broke my heart. Riding the small boat out to the memorial, I actually felt nauseous about the ocean spray that was flying up and misting my face. The only thing that I could think of was the people who had died, whose bodies were still below, decomposing and hitting my face. I thought I was going to puke. I thought my sensitive heart was going to break!

Then we headed to Kona for five days, an adventure of a lifetime as we snorkeled, visited the black sand beach, ate chocolate stuffed malasadas until we were sick to our stomach, and boogie boarded until our bellies got rashes! We went on a hike in terrain that looked like the television show of Lost, close but not close to where they actually filmed it. It was the “last big family trip,” as we were told before we went and I was making sure to make the most of it.

By the time we left Kona I was home sick for my animals and my bed. We spent just a few nights on Maui but it wasn’t the tourist attraction that it is now. In an attempt to do something while we were there, we went out whale watching and we got to see humpback whales as they raised their calves.

An absolutely memorable experience, those times of being outdoors and happy would lead me to always have a fond memory of the place. And it surprised no one more than me that when I finally went back to the islands, it was to Oahu of all places!

It was late fall of 2010, when the rains were hitting sideways and my dad’s constant battle with the driveway happened every morning and every night – long before he realized he could strap a leaf blower to the front of his four wheeler and shorten the task by 80%. We were off to the Hardwood Classic at the University of Hawaii with my basketball team.

I had my first serious boyfriend and the time and my heart ached to leave him, which makes me laugh now as we were long distant anyway. It made me realize that the amount of miles do make a difference when push comes to shove, but I was thankful for his friendship because I found myself left behind by my team on the first day of exploring. I did homework and talked to him, confused as this wasn’t the Hawaii I remembered.

What I remember most about that trip was when we went up into the mainland via a connection of our Coach Campbell who had played college basketball there himself. He was quite the local celebrity, going on the news station and giving interviews – I was very proud that he was my coach and that he had this opportunity to come back.

You see, I was in the BAAC Core class requirement for my degree that term. It was an Anthropology class where we studied the parallels of history and music. We had, ironically, just finished a section on Hawaiian culture which left me with a distaste for any song that attempted the Hawaiian language or was a spoof on it. I had also learned the significance of my relative, Elvis Presley, and what the islands meant to him. I learned about the hatred for tourists and the disrespect for Hawaiian culture, the gang violence, and more. But what I got to experience was an amazing moment, after we were done practicing at a Boys & Girls Club when we got to play some games with the local youth. I’ll always remember that and I hope they do too!

And it was in the islands that I stopped and began to turn 180 degrees from the dark hole that I had fallen in, all in thanks to a sports psychologist God had planned for me to run into and a best friend and roommate – Katie Figoni. My grandfather had fallen down at the Kona Roping Club Rodeo, injuring himself pretty bad, and so Fig and I rushed off to the islands via a road trip to Oakland Airport to stay with them and help them pack up.

Rising before 6:00 am every morning, eating breakfast before rushing to the snorkeling beach, and then heading off to lunch and another adventure was what my soul needed. Prior to getting on the plane, I had hit “send” on the email resignation of my time as a collegiate basketball player. I had terminated my lifelong dream of playing college ball and maybe professional ball. I had terminated the only future that I had ever pictured and worked for.

I was in a very dark place and I had been wallowing there since February when I had made my decision. I was miserable and battled depression so bad that I worried I would seriously harm myself. Going to the islands seemed like a great getaway but I was also worried. With injuries attacking my body from every angle, I wasn’t sure if I would even be able to do anything as my knees constantly buckled and dropped me to the ground – hard.

The islands, with their warm weather, ohana feel, and salt water healed me physically. It rested my joints and tendons, weary from hours of training and work. The ripe fresh fruit and healthy stir fry nourished me from a life of proteins, protein powders, and weight gainer shakes. The ocean – it may have healed me most of all. I could swim pain free.

That trip made the islands the number one home away from home and, when Fig and I had a falling out, it seemed the right place for us to finally reconvene in our amazing friendship. I am forever thankful for that moment!

If I were to move to Hawaii, I would be on Kona, assisting with a cattle ranch and promoting for the sustainability movement in their food chain. I hope to continue to visit there many times in my life and hope that God continues to bless those amazing islands.

Alaska

The rugged landscape of Alaska, the thrill of the last frontier, and my childhood dream of being a pioneer, all seemed to call to me. From the books I would read about gold diggers, trappers, and miners that ventured to the lands thrilled me.

Was it still the same? Do they still travel by dog sled?

As I got older, I realized that those figments of my imagination weren’t necessarily true but I still loved the stories of the Iditarod and Balto. Few things ever change and I found myself crying my eyes out just a few weeks ago watching the story of Togo on Disney+.

Throughout high school, I was recruited heavily by both the University of Alaska, Anchorage, and the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. I met with coaches and players when the played Western Oregon University, just south of me, but on the weekend I was supposed to plan my official visit, I found myself being invited to be on the team for Oregon State. I opted for my home town school.

But something about Alaska weighed on me and every time I heard that a player or a person was from there, I would ask many questions. I remember each person individually, they were all so interesting. Specifically I spent a lot of time asking questions of the young Inuit who would play pick up basketball with us, laughing over his tales of bringing his sled dogs to college and getting a huge ticket for speeding through a school zone when giving them exercise with his sled on wheels.

As I tried out for Miss Rodeo Oregon, I was blown away by the young lady who was the current Miss Rodeo Alaska who was auditing our pageant for practice before the Miss Rodeo America Pageant in Las Vegas. Laura was originally from Alaska and I firmly believe she is an angel put her on earth by God himself. She is the first person to ever grab my hands and pray for me with her whole heart and I will never forget that feeling or the awe that I had for her.

After winning the title, Alaska was the only place I wanted to go. It wasn’t the rugged place I expected, it was so much more than that! I had fun on my trip and, while I won’t go into much detail since you can read it all here, I was blown away by the community and the uniqueness that was the last frontier.

A hardy group of people, they face death almost every day in ways that we don’t even worry about anymore. From bears to moose in the rut, to BEARS and more – Laura was always packing and always ready. I felt very safe in her care… except when I thought I was going to slide my four wheeler into a mud bog and die in quicksand like my 4 year old fears always said I would!

I enjoyed the rodeo experience, the community, the food, and the beauty!

It was with great excitement that I went back just three long years later for the wedding of the young lady that I had watched get crowned the first time that I was there. Shyanne was a beautiful bride and I was so thankful to meet her new husband in person, to see how fun and full of life he was as he tore up the dance floor with us – it’s been one of the most joyous weddings of all time!

I also got to take my handsome boyfriend with me! His aunt and uncle lived in Anchorage and welcome’d us with open arms. There hospitality helped make this trip so amazing – allowing us to take their jet ski’s out on the lake until almost midnight on the fourth of July! They also set us up with friends to go halibut fishing where we got to bring it all home!

The food was wonderful and the scenery was amazing when we could see it but the entire state was under intense fires. It was hotter than I could ever imagine from the heat and the smoke – poor Joe I didn’t think would survive it! But he did and he also found as much love as I did in the state and my friends there!

My Miss Rodeo Washington Macy LaValley and the beautiful 2016 Miss Rodeo Alaska Shyanne Shebler.

I constantly think about moving to Alaska and what my life would be like there. I get cold so easily I think that the winters would be rough but the toughest would be my inability to just drive to other states to see my friends. I would also miss the competition and the opportunity for competition down here in the states, as well as my basketball teams. So maybe it’ll be a place that I constantly visit throughout the future?

New Orleans

I had always been intrigued with the south, wishing I was a southern belle like they were depicted in all my books and movies. I wanted to be a classy lady with a big home who entertained guests every week with my fancy parties and so much more. I think had this vision of the plantations being like Pride & Prejudice, just the American version.

Then I began to fall in love with Cajun cuisine and then Disney had to torture me even more with the release of Princess & The Frog! It was to my dismay that two years after ending my basketball career that they announced on their schedule that they were going to New Orleans for a tournament right before my birthday.

I wasn’t the only one disgruntled about it, so was my old teammate Alyssa who had graduated the year after me. Working in the hotel system at the time, I used my employee discount to book us a hotel in Louisiana and away we went to the tournament. While the hotel wasn’t that close to the location we wanted to be, it turned out to be for the best and took us on one of the wildest adventures to date – you can read more about this in my blog from the time here!

One of the things that I loved the best about NOLA was the community spirit and, most especially, the Christmas spirit of Papa Noelle. The traditions and community that they had built with their wooden pyres, lit before Christmas Eve mass, was all so inspirational to me!

Idaho

I had felt some peer pressure in 2016 to be “best friends forever” with my Miss Rodeo Idaho – a pressure unintentionally put on us by the camaraderie of our state titleholder predecessors. I don’t know why I was so anxious, however because, as soon as I met Heather Skovgard, I was blown away. She’s smart, intelligent, a fabulous dancer, a mentor, a teacher, a philanthropist who went to South America with her engineering program, and a God-fearing Christian. While our friendship grew throughout the year, I felt that we got the closest during the Pendleton host week, traveling throughout the Oregon country side and guilty laughing when my driving on the winding coastal mountain range roads made our good friend Miss Rodeo Montana car sick!

I was also working for the cattle industry in Oregon at the time, so I took the time to head east as often as I could to get an on the ground feel for our target audience on that side of the state. As a part of that, I found myself attending more and more events in Idaho and, even now, I will sneak over for the Snake River Stampede, to visit Heather, and see my photographer friend Thomas Duncan!

There is something about rural Idaho that warms my heart – again with an emphasis on community. While I don’t express strong political affiliation with any party, I am more conservative when it comes to farming and ranching. It is almost refreshing to be in Idaho where you are not constantly being attacked for raising crops or animals.

Scotland

Driving through the moors of Scotland in the fall of 2018, I was caught off guard by this absolute sense of home that I felt. I don’t know where it came from but it was the same feeling that I have experienced to some degree in each of the places that I have already listed. There was just something refreshing about the countryside, the people, and the culture!

I had just found out that the only real heritage I had in my family (thanks Ancestry.com) was German and Scottish. Being tall, brown haired and brown eyed, I had lived my entire life on the oral history that I was 20% Native American. When we found out that we were, in fact, 0% Native American, I was at a loss! Who was I? Where did I come from?

You don’t realize how much those questions can impact you until you don’t know the answers or the answers that you once took for fact are debunked. My sister is blonde haired and blue eyed and, for our entire childhood, we had always said the famous line, “Nicole has the German, Katie has the native!”

While we discovered that clan Helvie had had a kill order placed on them, banishing them to the New World, I couldn’t help but laugh at how we didn’t seem to be wanted anywhere! But the fascination that I had with the Scottish countryside, the Gentleman’s Gun Clubs, the Scottish Fashion, and the folklore and history sparked a reading frenzy in me that is still going strong. In fact, you could say it has become worse as I have gotten totally entrenched in the television show Outlander!

While I don’t know if I could ever find myself moving out of the U.S., exploring Scotland, incorporating their fashion, and maybe a hunting lodge if I win the lottery some day are all in my future plans!

In conclusion, if you have made it through this lengthy blog post, I can’t help but ask if you have other places that feel like home?

Places that you never would have expected but continue to hold your heart, memories and mind? Let me know in the comments below what they are and why they’re dear – I’d love to put them on my future travel lists!

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