Occupation: Community Volunteer
Family: Husband Eric, daughter Emily
How did you come to live in Hickory?
I'm actually born and raised in Poland, and my family immigrated to America when I was 10 years old in 1987, during the Communist era. My family came to New York City, and since then I’ve moved around a lot. I went to high school on Long Island, went to college in Rochester, New York. I moved for my first job to Boulder, Colorado, then moved for my second job to Mobile, Alabama, where I met my husband and started our family.
My husband is an airline pilot, so we have the flexibility of living anywhere we choose. We started scoping out places for us to settle and raise a family. He mentioned western Carolina and brought me here on a scouting trip. I fell in love with the area, how beautiful is it and all the outdoor opportunities and recreation. A friend of ours from Asheville suggested Shelby or Hickory, so we drove out to Hickory and looked at each other and said, "Yeah. I think we can do this. This looks like a nice place to live." We decided to rent, just to try it out, and about a year into that we said, "Okay, we'll buy a house, and we'll commit." That was 13 years ago.
Was there any particular reason he was drawn to western North Carolina?
The outdoors, the beautiful scenery. He likes the mountains and quickly got me to appreciate everything living in the hills has to offer.
What is it about Catawba County that makes this place special and appealing for you, compared to all the other places you’ve lived?
It’s beautiful and there are just so many options. There's so much that I can do right here in Hickory, and it's so easy to access other opportunities around and outside of here, whether it’s going to Charlotte for some cultural event, going off to the mountains for outdoor recreation, or going to the airport and flying anywhere else.
Your husband is a pilot, but you've got the travel bug too. When did that start for you?
I guess I've just grown up traveling. When I was growing up in Poland, we would often take family vacations. We would hop in the car with our camper and drive to different countries. Being in Europe, it's so easy to go. I wonder if it relates back to that. I definitely have a wanderlust and an itch to travel, and it's itching really badly right now. It's been a while.
What are some of your favorite places to travel?
I think the most incredible thing we've ever done was our trip to Africa, where we went on safari. That was an extended family trip with my husband's side of the family. It was incredible. We went to Victoria Falls, and from there we went on safari and then we went to Cape Town in South Africa. It was just unreal, that part of the world. In addition to that, Japan, the Caribbean, Europe... We go back to Poland. We've probably gone back to Poland 6 times or so since I’ve been in the U.S.
A lot of our travels have just been the kid, me and my husband. In the last year, we've made it a mission to visit national parks. Within the last 12 months, we’ve been to 10. We just did Yellowstone.
As a pilot, does your husband get burned out on travel?
Well, we definitely had a disconnect there. Early on, I realized that when he comes home he just wants to be home. He wants a home-cooked meal, and he wants to sleep in his own bed. When our daughter was little, I would have the opposite mentality. I was like, "Yay, he's home. He'll finally take me out. We'll finally go sleep in a hotel." That's the last thing he wants. I learned it’s about giving him a couple days to decompress before we go. I think that’s why hiking became a thing for us. It’s been a nice compromise for us, being home but also being out somewhere.
There’s a big outdoors culture here because we're so close to the mountains. Do you feel connected to that, or is this more of a solo pursuit for you?
For a long time, it was a couples thing that my husband and I would do together. But more recently, it's become a solo thing. I've ventured out hiking alone with my dog. It’s something that I used to be a little bit afraid of, a little bit nervous about. I quickly realized that I feel very safe and okay in that space by myself.
Hiking takes me to a completely different world. It just takes me out of the everyday and helps me see how big and beautiful the world is. It helps me put things in perspective. The clouds are still moving, the world is still turning, and everything's okay with the world.
Even with my husband and our daughter, it’s always been a side-by-side individual journey. When we hike, we're together, but we're on our own journey. We connect more within ourselves than we do with each other out on a trail. I definitely feel in my element when I'm out hiking.
We have pursued waterfalls for a long time. We've actually made it a challenge to see as many waterfalls as we can here in western Carolina. So we've seen over 150 waterfalls just in western Carolina and have since branched out to Tennessee, the Virginias, South Carolina and even north Georgia in our pursuit of waterfalls. I have a map in my office where I've pinned all the waterfalls we've been to, everything from the ones people have heard of to some that don't even have a trail and you have to bushwhack through the woods to get there.
You're involved in the community, and you’re transitioning from a job you held for the past seven years as publisher of Macaroni Kid. What are you up to now?
I was thinking about this on my way here, about the journey I've been on since leaving Macaroni Kid. I think when I ran Macaroni Kid, I was “making.” I was really into helping to make this community thrive, be connected and fun. Since leaving, I feel that I've moved on to the “living” part that all of the effort I put into the making kept me from being able to enjoy. Now I get to really live it, and it's awesome.
From the beginning when we first moved here, I've always tried to find opportunities where I can volunteer. I've continued on that path for the last 14 years. I still volunteer here and there through different organizations in the community. Classroom Connections is one that my family is very committed to by helping provide school supplies to teachers. Beyond that, I am trying to find something I would be passionate about to commit my time and energy to. And if I can marry my desire to serve and give with my passion for nature, travel and the outdoors, I think that would be the ideal thing. So I'm on a quest to find that.
It sounds like most of your free time is spent outdoors.
Yes, yes. We enjoy everything from hiking to kayaking to biking. My husband is very big into motorcycle riding, on dirt bikes. When my daughter was five, Eric came home from work one day with a motorcycle in the back seat of his sedan. For our five-year-old! He said, “This is Emily's bike.” She has been learning to ride and getting better at riding over the last nine years.
I also have a bike. We do a mix of gravel and street riding, as I'm in the process of getting my motorcycle license and getting comfortable with those slow turns.
Was learning to ride a motorcycle intimidating for you?
It was intimidating for me. Especially as a perfectionist, I want to get things 100% right, right from the very beginning. Riding was something that really frightened me. The first part was just getting over that fear. I finally realized that this can marry Eric’s passion for the motorcycle and being out on the open road and our passion for the outdoors. We can just ride to these beautiful places and have that connection together.
Eric does trail riding. He’ll ride on single track on a motorcycle, which I quickly learned is not something I'm interested in. The wide gravel roads are our compromise. It is wonderful to hop on the Blue Ridge Parkway or the back roads of Wilson Creek, see the beauty on two wheels and feel the wind in my hair.
It sounds like it’s become for you all the things you imagine about riding a bike through the countryside – the wind in your hair, the beautiful scenery, sense of freedom, all of that. That whole “Easy Rider” image.
The easy rider came over time, because in the beginning it was nervous rider. And, “When is this going to be over, because I'm really scared!” But now it's becoming more of the easy rider. And it’s helping Eric slow down, because he's a speed demon adrenaline junkie - airline pilot, motorcycle rider, SCUBA diver. When we can find that happy compromise in speed and location, it really is a nice bonding experience.
Where do you think your love of the outdoors came from?
I have thought for a while about that, and just recently on a trail it hit me. We would go foraging for mushrooms as a family when we were growing up in Poland; aunts, uncles, grandparents together in the woods picking mushrooms. We would come back to the house and sort the mushrooms and cook them, and it was always such a bonding experience. I wonder if that's where I developed my passion for the outdoors.
You mentioned earlier that you’ve been back to Poland several times.
Before we were married, my husband and I went together and he asked my grandfather for my hand in marriage. Since then we've gone back as family, and also just me and my daughter. It was an especially great trip to Poland with my daughter when she was around the age of 10. It really hit me that that was the age I was when I left Poland. And there I was, almost at the age of 40 with my ten-year-old, re-experiencing my childhood memories through her eyes at that age. That it was a momentous visit.
What was everyday life like growing up there?
We lived in the center of town in a fairly large town in Poland. I remember playing outside a lot. My mom didn't work, and we always had good home-cooked meals. I remember playing in the playground outside and my mom yelling, "Come for dinner!" when my dad would come home from work. It was different because there just wasn't a lot available to us.
But at that age you probably didn't know any different anyway, right? Was it a good life?
It was a good life. The hardships that were present, I never really felt. My parents did a really good job of giving us a comfortable life and making things fun. We visited often with family and friends. We took vacations to different countries. Even though we couldn't stay in fancy hotels, we had our camper and found our own off-the-beaten-path locations. But that was exciting, and it was really, really fun.
What's your bucket list for travel? It seems like you have already filled several buckets.
My bucket's overflowing.
What’s left on your bucket list?
Australia. Definitely. And Alaska. We just realized that my husband has been to all the states except for Alaska. In my quest for checking things off, that would be a good one. I think I'm missing maybe four or five states, Alaska being one of them. The other ones aren't nearly as exciting, like Missouri and Arkansas. I'll do them because I'm all about checking it off.
Knowing you, I'm sure you will find some fun stuff to do while you’re there.
I have this joke with my husband where we say, "We'll never be this close." I have the tendency when we travel to try to cram in as much as we possibly can, because there are so many places to visit that we might as well just do it once and do it right. I think when we did Yellowstone, we covered 1600 miles in one week.
After you visit a place, do you feel like you're done with it? Would you say, "Well, we've been to Utah, so I really don't have a desire to go back now," or does it spark your desire to go back and see more?
That's a great question. I always have the desire to see more, experience new things, wherever that may be. I like the story of when we first emigrated from Poland to America. We had seen the movies. We were coming to New York and we expected there to be the skyscrapers and the street paved in gold. We came with certain expectations. Meanwhile, we arrived in Jamaica, Queens on trash day. The car stopped in front of an apartment building with bags of trash piled up on the street and it was dark and really sad. I wonder if that's where my quest for new experiences comes from, from what it was like at age 10, not knowing the language, leaving behind my extended family, and moving across the sea for opportunities with that quest for what lies ahead. I think that's probably why I tend to want to go for new experiences, see how it compares to my expectations. I like the quest for something different but have found that you can visit the same place twice, have completely different experiences but still find commonalities; you can find the familiar in a new experience.
Is there anything you'd like to add?
We’ve talked a lot about travel, and I really want to make sure that we cover the fact that I love living here. Even being home is an adventure. It's very easy where we are to find something exciting each and every day, be it the events that are hosted across our community or finding a new hiking or biking trail or a new waterfall. There's a lot to do that I really enjoy taking advantage of.
And as much as we come and go, it’s really meaningful to say that I’m from here. This is the longest my husband and I each have lived anywhere and I especially feel settled here. Connected. Rooted. I like knowing where to go, how to get there, whom to call, running into familiar faces out and about. It’s a real sense of contentment and belonging.
I've really come to appreciate everything there is here, how awesome this community is. I think that was why I made the decision to make living a priority, because there is so much available to me that I just wasn't allowing myself to take advantage of, to be present to.
What’s next for you?
I still haven't found where I think I'm meant to be next. I want to be useful and purposeful. But sometimes I realize that your purpose comes in these little moments too. Sometimes it's just a little interaction that you have with a friend who needs you on no notice, or a stranger you run into. Those things are meaningful, too.
My husband asked me not to commit to anything for a year, knowing that I have a tendency of letting things take over my life. It’s been interesting, because the things I would have jumped into early on made sense but are not necessarily where I think I'm meant to be.
I think it ties into what I said before about doing my deepest thinking on the trail. It makes me realize that, on the grand scale of things, there's a whole world out there. A world of possibilities and opportunities, and any challenge you face will pass. The world will still turn, the clouds will still move, and the sun rises and sets every day. And it's okay to just take it one day at a time.
It's striking that you have that real heart for service and you really want to give your best. When you touched on the idea of making living better, you were very focused on making. You felt that you were lacking that living side of things, and you’re now getting back in touch with living to the fullest. It seems the next step for you, once your heart finds it, is going to be better, because it'll bring both of those things together in a way that makes your heart sing. And that is worth waiting for.