Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist Marie-Elena Schembri Writer, Photographer & Visual Artist

My Happy Place

My Happy Place: 3 Years in California

Marie-Elena Schembri

Everyday Magic, Calaveras Enterprise, Aug. 11, 2022

Three years ago, a dust-covered 10-foot U-Haul truck made its way from the flat lands and open skies of Nebraska to the treacherously twisting roads of the foothills—traveling across Colorado and Utah, through Nevada, and finally coming to a stop in the shade of the great oaks, cedar, and pines in the unincorporated township of Wilseyville. The truck had crossed over 1,500 miles, a trip that could be done in 23 hours and 11 minutes, according to Google, but instead took its three travelers six adventure-filled days. Those travelers were myself, my partner Brad, and our then 12-year-old miniature pinscher, Eve.

What compelled us to make that drive, you ask? It’s simple.

A therapist once told me to think of a place where I feel safe, relaxed, and happy. To picture that place in my mind, hear the sounds, smell the smells. After the practice, she asked me if I could remember that place. I could, because I’d spent decades of my life doing just that.

You might not know this, but I was born in California and didn’t move to Nebraska until I was around 7 years old. Granted, that is very young—but I grew up thinking of myself as a girl from California, and I never quite felt “at home” in Nebraska, despite its many charms (and great food!) I cherished our yearly family trip to visit our relatives in the Bay Area, where we had lived. I planned to move back as soon as I was old enough, which I told myself and anyone who would listen.

Once I was indeed “old enough,” however, there were so many obstacles—like leaving family and friends, the outrageous cost of living in California, and finishing college, and any other excuse I could think of. By then, it was “I’m going to move back someday (when I am rich).”

Still, I began visiting more as an adult and reconnecting with family on the west coast. College graduations came and went, I became more and more involved in the art scene in Omaha, and I got a great job as a photographer at a high-end jewelry store (a literal dream-come-true for this rock and gem hound with a photography degree!) Brad and I had rented a nice, affordable two-bedroom house with a big yard in a fantastic neighborhood where so many of our friends lived, within walking distance to great restaurants, music venues, and art galleries. I had an entire basement to use for making art (messes) and even built myself a darkroom. ....Yet California was always on my mind and in my heart.

For years, I bugged Brad by saying things like “when we move to California,” even though he’d spent little time in the state and was pretty settled in Omaha, where he was born and raised. Ever the pragmatic one, he also seemed to carry a healthy aversion to what would be a complete upheaval of our lives!

Somehow, though, my enthusiasm and half-joking threats that I was going with or without him wore the guy down, and we began to actually consider the move, even if only “someday.” Brad was hopeful that it could be a boon to his music career, and I was just ready to make this long-time dream a reality and get out of Douglas (county).

Fast forward to Aug. 2, 2019, when we finally managed to pack up our household—what we didn’t sell or give away, anyhow—and hit the road, me driving my SUV and Brad driving the U-Haul, both stuffed full of all of our belongings. I had given notice at my amazing job, turning down a promotion offer with tears in my eyes. I was going home.

For me, Wilseyville was always a magical, special place. I don’t have memories of visiting there as a plump toddler, but have the family photos to prove it. Coming up to visit must have been such a treat for us city kids, who were used to playing in the street or sitting in front of the TV.

Wilseyville became cemented in my memory when at a young age, my mother died, and my aunt Edie and uncle Danny took me and my sister in. We lived with them for maybe a year, give or take a few months, and it was a balm to my broken heart. I remember peering out the backseat window of my dad’s golden Volvo, thinking that we were “driving through clouds” because we were so high up. Despite the loss I had just suffered, which I couldn’t yet understand, I was thrilled to be “in the mountains” and every detail was pure magic. I was, after all, just a wide-eyed kindergartener then, full of dreams and songs about butterflies.

I didn’t know it yet, but that year I spent playing with my sister and my cousins in the trees and at the river, making mud waffles and stone soup, looking for foxes and holding yellow flowers to our chins, was one of the most transformative times of my life. Those memories are folded into the core of my being to this day. So when my aunt, who is in many ways a mother figure to me, told me I had a home here and could stay at the little red house next to theirs, the choice was already made. Luckily, my partner Brad is as selfless as he is kind and was willing to take on this adventure for the sake of my happiness, despite his wariness to live in the woods among wild animals and insects—with no wifi, to boot!

I’d tell you about the drive, the strange things we saw and felt, how we communicated with walkie-talkies using embarrassing nicknames, the flat tire and broken A.C., the playlist I made and listened to the whole way, but that was just a fraction of the adventure to come.

After a six-day drive halfway across the country, I found myself back in California, for good.

That year in Wilseyville, Brad and I made a new life amongst the trees, deer, and wild turkeys, through rolling power outages and swarms of buzzing, flying and, yes, stinging insects, hot and cold nights, morning walks and star-lit skies, hiking to the river through tangles of blackberry and poison oak, watching for mountain lions and bears all the while. I searched out and found the crumbling boards that once made up the treehouse I had played in, 30 years before. Brad and I sat under the cedar tree and wrote a song about the river, during one of the many days without power. We struggled to find jobs and never made enough money to go to the city, where we thought we’d eventually be. Instead, we spent long days walking the hills, gardening, exploring the area, and making new memories. It was one of the happiest times of my life.

Now, three years into our “California adventure,” things are much more exciting. Gas prices and wildfires are a reality we weren’t quite prepared for. Yet we both have decent jobs, and we love our cozy apartment in a historic building in downtown Mokelumne Hill. My sweet Min Pin Eve is no longer with us, but we have an 11-month-old puppy named Leo who keeps us on our toes. Life is good, if simple. It’s hard to imagine how different our lives would be if we had stayed in Nebraska, and sometimes we talk about how we miss the conveniences of that life, and our friends. Still, I wouldn’t trade it.

Once, someone asked me, “Why Wilseyville?,” in an incredulous way. The easiest, and the truest answer is simple—it’s my “happy place.”