Update: Why I Moved Home to the Mountains & What’s Next

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Where I am now (in Montana!), why I’ve left Chicago, and why you’re suddenly seeing posts about plastic-free products on this blog.

Almost every year around the end of summer, I write an update post. Maybe it’s the back-to-school vibes that make me feel like this is the time for taking stock. And putting things down on paper always make things make sense. In 2019, I called my post “a whirlwind year,” and wow did I not know what was coming in 2020!

And yet again, it’s time to clarify what’s happening, which continent I’m living on, and my plans for this blog, which has a whole new name and look since my update last year.

Last year at this time, I’d just finished my sustainability degree in Milan and had been working in France, which was lovely and allowed me to live in Grenoble – a gorgeous little mountain town in the Alps – for a few months. But I was anything but settled. Between working full-time in an office and taking the six-hour train trip back and forth between Milan, where my husband was still living, and Grenoble every other weekend or so, I hardly had time for this blog anymore. (In fact, I only wrote one post while living in France, and it was about toilet paper.)

A colorful mountain behind a small town in the French Alps. ©KettiWilhelm2020
Exploring the much smaller mountain towns around Grenoble.

So I wrote that post explaining the crazy hectic year, and how we had decided, out-of-the-blue, to move from Italy/France to Chicago. It was a career move for Emanuele, but also a sort of cultural exchange experiment, too. While I’d lived mostly in his country for almost three years, he’d only visited mine. And it’s been an experiment in culture shock for me, too. I hadn’t lived in the US for five years, and never in a big city here.

Little did we know what kind of experiment 2020 would turn out to be! And since then, of course, everything I wrote and all of my plans have changed.

We landed in Chicago in May and were nomadic for a couple of months until moving into a furnished apartment. Then, of the nine months between getting “settled in” (relatively speaking) and the pandemic really changing life in the US (in mid-March) I only spent about five months at home in Chicago.

Instead, we took advantage of the chance to visit family in Atlanta, travel with my uncle in Alaska, go back to Italy and Portugal at Christmas, and spend a lot of time bopping around the Midwest for the first time.

A beach near Juneau, Alaska, covered with a thin layer of water reflecting the mountains behind it on a bluebird day. ©KettiWilhelm2020
Alaska! Still on my list of trips to write about… it’s coming, I promise.
Looking down an alley in Porto, Portugal, toward the Church of Santa Clara in the mist. ©KettiWilhelm2020
A favorite snapshot from my two-day stop in Porto in January – was this really just this year?
A statue, a Christmas tree, and lots of beautiful lights in a small town plaza at dusk in Italy. ©KettiWilhelm2020
I’m so glad to have spent the holidays back in Italy, now that I don’t know when I’ll be able to return.

I wrote about Detroit and Indianapolis, but hardly experienced normal, residential life in Chicago. Although maybe, I thought, being a travel blogger, I’ll never really be a “normal” resident of anywhere, one who isn’t gone every other week.

Until the doors to everywhere else slammed shut, and instead of traveling every other week, we were locked in our small apartment on the 28th floor.

It was shocking, frankly, to go from never being home to not being allowed to leave.

A dark, cloudy spring day seen from a Chicago high-rise apartment. ©KettiWilhelm2020
Spring 2020 looked mostly like this from my apartment.

Like everyone else, my carefully laid plans for 2020 evaporated. They included another trip back to Italy, of course, and a lot of exploration of the Americas, after so long away. Mexico and New Orleans were all planned out as blogging trips. And Brazil was in the works for my 30th birthday, which was swapped out for Puerto Rico, which was swapped out – for the first time in years – for my own hometown Montana.

Luckily it was safe enough to carefully travel a bit from Chicago by then, and in Montana we could enjoy a backyard and grass and a view of the mountains – more welcome than ever, after three months cooped up in our city apartment.  

As soon as we got here, we thought “Why don’t we just stay?”

Chicago hadn’t ever felt like home to me – more like a strange, long vacation in a new city. Even though I wasn’t there long enough to really get to know it, I was there long enough to see that I hadn’t fallen head-over-heels in love with it, either. Don’t get me wrong, Chicago has a lot going for it – truly world-class architecture that I love walking around gaping at like the tourist I am, a great restaurant scene, and multi-layered music culture, to name a few positives.

Kayakers on the Chicago River on a bright summer day. ©KettiWilhelm
A beautiful summer day in Chicago. (Summer 2019.)
Skyscrapers seen from an architecture boat tour of the Chicago River. ©KettiWilhelm2019

But maybe these are things I’m okay enjoying on an occasional city-break. Since I love to cook, prefer being in nature to being at a concert, and can work from home, maybe I don’t need to live in the big city.

And once we had experienced our neighborhood in lockdown (first because of the pandemic, then because of long-overdue civil rights protests and the Chicago police department’s violent overreaction to them) it felt stifling to stick around.

So we flew from Montana back to Chicago, packed up our apartment with its thankfully few pieces of furniture that we actually owned, threw it all in storage and came right back to the mountains.

A long view of the tree-covered mountains of Glacier National Park, in Montana. ©KettiWilhelm2020
Back in my beloved mountains, hiking in Glacier National Park.

In the meantime, my parents are downsizing and will be moving to smaller house, so it’s good that we’re here to help them. And while it’s been painful to think of selling the beautiful home that my mom designed, my dad built, and I grew up in, it’s also been a stroke of luck that at least I’m spending this period of total uncertainty here, revisiting my childhood home while my parents settle into their new one.

And that’s where we are now – living in my hometown, in the house I grew up in for most of my childhood. Feeling endlessly grateful that we can work remotely. And spending weekends hiking in the mountains, and contemplating what could possibly be next in a situation that doesn’t allow for any kind of planning – especially any planning that would involve crossing an ocean. But even deciding on a new city here in the US is still out of the question, and going back to Chicago feels pointless right now, when our main goal is still to avoid other people as much as possible.

It’s the opposite of the travel-first lifestyle that has been the past several years of my life… it’s actually anti-travel. Not that it’s such a bad thing at all. (And considering we’re still in the middle of a pandemic in the US, I’ve been lucky to be able to find a silver lining, instead of just focusing on surviving.)

While it’s been strange to take such an unexpected break from traveling and from writing about travel, all this time at home has given me the chance to work on other goals for my life and for this blog.

Those including living more sustainably in everyday life, and writing more about those sustainability choices. I’m also working on becoming more of a minimalist (a bad minimalist, so far).

Having things in storage in Italy, Chicago and Montana is a reminder of what a burden excess possessions can be. I want to be able to live simply, both to have a more sustainable lifestyle by consuming less, and to be more free to travel. So for anything new, I’m focusing on quality over quantity. And for the things I already have, I’m trying to keep only what I use or really love – everything else gets sold, donated, or recycled.

And I’m finding ways to have less to recycle, too.

I’ve been passionate about the environment for years, and in grad school I studied how recycling is really an inefficient, band-aid solution to a much bigger problem – the problem of creating too much single use stuff that has to somehow be gotten rid of.

But now that I’m living in a rural area where so little is actually recyclable, it’s doubly clear that relying on recycling isn’t a real solution. Seriously, local recyclers here only take #1 and #2 plastics, and only if they’re translucent, and there’s zero curbside recycling – you have to drive to town to deliver all your recyclables to different collection points.

Unfortunately, a lot of places in the US are like this – where recycling just isn’t an option.

So being here in Montana makes it obvious how terribly ineffective it is to rely on recycling, instead of stopping the production and consumption of all this waste at the source.

That’s why I’ve been writing posts about “zero-waste” and plastic-free swaps for everyday items – including shampoo and toiletries, but also cleaning products, which are about as far from travel writing as you could get.

A cup of coffee outside on table next to 3 zero-waste shampoo bars for a photo shoot, with a forest in the background. ©KettiWilhelm
My Montana work mornings this summer: Drinking coffee and taking glamour shots of shampoo bars in the back yard. No complaints.
But to me, this all feels related.

Producing less waste, simplifying my routine, buying less, and having less unneeded stuff at home or in storage – all of this is freeing me up to be able to travel more and pollute less, for the next adventure – whatever and where ever that may be.

(And I’ve already got some big ideas for the next adventure… if you have any guesses for what it is, drop them below!)

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    1. Thanks, Paul! It’s certainly a good spot to hunker down. And we might move back to Chicago again, it’s just… very hard to predict right now!


  1. It feels really nice living in the nature. During the isolation perid, I was staying in the counstryside for 2 weeks, not enough at all! I found there are so many things could be explored but I had to go back to Shenzhen…Wish ONE DAY I can be like you live freely in the Nature, and try to use our own way to preserve the precious. Of course one day visit you in Montana, hiking, road trip, have a coffee in your court yard…..hahahah:)

    1. Oh absolutely, Alice! I would love to do a road trip with you – actually two of them: one in Montana and another in Sichuan!

      I’m glad you at least got to spend some time back home in the countryside! I was just looking back through my pictures from that trip to visit your family and all the gorgeous places we went. Some day I’d love to go back!

      I hope you’re staying well, Alice!