Hot! Returning to the Happy Valley

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Two weeks ago Marc and I took a trip up to Massachusetts and Vermont.  After spending five and a half years in Massachusetts’ Pioneer Valley while I was in college, I found myself quite nostalgic at the thought of going back to a place that was so formative for me.

Marc walking through the Hampshire College campus.

I hadn’t been back to the Amherst/Northampton area, sometimes humorously referred to as “The Happy Valley” by residents, in almost four years.  Marc and I finally had the right combination of time, money, and serendipitous schedules to take a long weekend in New England, and so we did: two days in Massachusetts, two in Vermont.

I should note that this was not my first time back in the area since graduating; on the contrary, I spent quite a bit of time visiting friends who were still in school during my nomadic post-college year.  However, working in South Korea and then moving to the Washington DC area, as well as the realities of “real life” have made visiting more difficult since then.

Going back to your old university is one thing, but visiting the general area with a fresh set of eyes is another bag of cats altogether.  When I was in college, I absolutely loved the area.  It was extremely liberal, very accepting, had lots of older and historical homes, was very rural, and had a lot of what most people would consider “New England charm”.  It seemed a bit expensive, but I always attributed that impression to the realities of a college student budget.  While I lived there, I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.

Some of the sheep on Hampshire's farm.

Having now spent a few days back in the area after so long away, I find that my opinions have changed a bit.  Matured, you might say.

First of all, while certainly cheaper than the DC area, the Pioneer Valley is still considerably more expensive than your average rural New England small town region.  It has a lot to do with the college students and their disposable income, but it is something of a turn-off for me when considering it as a potential residence.  Speaking of residences, while those older and historical homes are definitely still a draw for me, I never realized just how many of them have seen better days.  Older homes need a lot of upkeep, and college students don’t exactly have a lot of time, money, or energy to maintain them properly, so they have suffered.  The area is more liberal than ever, which I still very much appreciate, but it has an edge that I didn’t notice as a college student; the attitude seems to be more of a “believe XYZ or you’re a racist/misogynist/etc asshole” than what I have seen in equally liberal Vermont, whose attitude is more along the lines of “don’t oppress me, I won’t oppress you, and we’ll all get along”. It feels a bit more in-your-face, and maybe the passive-aggressive DC attitude has rubbed off on me, but I prefer to not feel quite so coerced.

It was great to see my friends Kate and Sam, and it was good to finally show Marc my alma mater, Hampshire College, a place that had a lot to do with who I am today.  However, it was also helpful to realize while area may have been the perfect place for me at one point in my life, I have changed and grown, and there are now other places which I think would suit me better.

My visit made me realize that while it’s still a great area, my nostalgia had really added a shine that wasn’t there.  Everyone tends to idealize their college years, and I’m no different, but I had no idea just how much I also idealized the region itself.  It was good to see the reality of the place without the foggy lens of my memory.  I will definitely go back again (in fact, I’ll be there in April for Patriot’s Day), but my visit made me realize that I’ll probably never live there again and that it’s for the best.

I’m still going to miss the sheep.