Day 1: Island bound, in search of a big life

We had been looking at photos of Kwajalein Atoll for six months, so when the airplane approached the runway, I recognized the features my family and I had been zooming in with Google Earth to see: the characteristic U-shape of the island, the square tide pools dug by the Japanese in World War II, dome homes, coconut palm trees.

A light drizzle dripped on our faces when we exited the plane and climbed down the steps to the runway. No protected jet bridge tunnel to a gleaming glass and chrome airport on this two-square mile spit of coral. Instead, we walked across the tarmac in the tropical mist, taking in the low, cement buildings, probably painted tan or maybe even white, but with red rust dripping down the sides, the result of a constant salty ocean breeze on the iron supports for the roof.

With the drizzle and the low clouds, the island seemed off somehow, not the same as the photos and videos I had devoured online. The colors were drab versions of the cerulean and jade I expected. I was suddenly hesitant. For six months, I had anticipated this moment with confidence, maybe even arrogance. I am independent. I am adventurous. I am self-sufficient. I can do this.

My sanguine style was slipping a little, a crack in my enthusiasm for this move that I had pushed to make. My husband Jake took a trip to the island for work in October of 2017, and when he came home, he described the best snorkeling of his life through clear as glass water. He talked about an island covered in thick foliage shaded by palm trees surrounded by sapphire blue ocean and emerald green lagoon.

“If we ever have the chance to get you and the kids out there,” he said, “We should do it.”

If we ever have the chance to get you and the kids out there, we should do it.

The start of an adventure

Two weeks later, the opportunity came. Jake called from his office to tell me that we could sign up for a job in Kwajalein that would start in the summer of 2018.

I tell people that we thought about it for a couple days, but we didn’t, really. He signed up for the job that day, and out of our view, beyond our earshot, a boulder of checklists and visits and phone calls and paperwork loosed itself and began tumbling our way.

In February, I turned in a two month notice at my job and talked with our landlord about getting out of our lease a couple months early. “We’ll miss you, but we’re really excited for you,” they both said.

In April, we moved everything out of our house. We shipped a few things to Kwaj, and we put the rest in long term storage. We moved into a 33-foot camper. I worked through the middle of May, the kids finished their school year a week later. In June, they went to Space Camp and we took a long trip through Kansas City and across Nebraska to visit family and friends. In July, we sold both our vehicles, we put the camper in storage, and we visited more family and friends from Kansas City to Nebraska to Fort Collins and Denver. Then, on July 25, we hopped on a nonstop flight to Oahu.

On Oahu, we had a four day layover. “Let’s make this layover a vacation,” we said.

The rolling boulder of tasks, errands, visits, hugs, tears and packing that had been chasing us to Kwajalein slowed down, a brief reprieve. I took a long walk on the beach. Jake floated with our daughter Nora for three hours, and our son Brad turned his feet wrinkly bobbing around in the hotel pool. We took in a luau and visited the USS Arizona. We paused.

Paradise Cove luau
On Oahu, we donned our tourist gear and took in as much of the island as we could handle.

Still, by July 29, the day of our Kwajalein flight, we were eager to see our new home. Jake’s job there would last two years, long enough to settle in to the rhythms of the island and explore every nook and cranny. We met a couple other families from Kwaj waiting in the terminal, and Nora was quickly off playing with the girls.

At the counter, with our suitcases on the scale, the airline agent explained that we were missing some paperwork and would not be allowed to board. Since the flight was on a Sunday, we couldn’t get the paperwork until offices opened the next day, Monday. Crestfallen, we asked for a supervisor to confirm that decision.

“I’m sorry sir,” the supervisor told Jake, “but we can’t change our regulations. You’ll have to come back for the next flight with the right paperwork.” He even showed us the regulation, highlighted in bright yellow.

I’m sorry sir, but we can’t change our regulations. You’ll have to come back for the next flight with the right paperwork.

Just keep it together, now

We turned our backs on the flight and stumbled back out into the Honolulu heat, tracking down a rental car, reserving a new hotel, calling a taxi to get us there. The boulder started hunting us again.

Pasting desperate smiles on our faces, we braved the hotel pool and I ordered a stiff but cheery Blue Hawaiian drink. We ordered room service and went to bed early, but I tossed all night, thinking over the what-ifs of the paperwork. The next morning, we tracked down everything we were missing for the flight and had it in hand by 9 am. Our next flight to Kwajalein was in the wee hours on Tuesday, so we had another full day to enjoy Oahu.

“Must be hard to be stuck in Hawaii,” our friends told us on Facebook.

We watched Hawaii Five-0 reruns on Netflix. Is that enjoying Oahu? We only left the room once the rest of the day – to pick up our udon noodle takeout in the lobby.

Are we there yet?

Tuesday morning we boarded a flight to Kwajalein, no problems. The Oahu sky was bright blue, the water beside the runway was turquoise, lapping gently on the sand. The plane rose in the sky through fluffy clouds above deep blue ocean and white tipped waves. We flew over open water, a vast land-emptiness for miles and miles, hour upon hour. We crossed into the future, from July 31st to August 1st, with no announcement, no fanfare.

And finally, we circled through low, drippy clouds over Kwajalein, a fishhook dangling from a circle of coral islands forming the atoll.

aerial atoll
An atoll from the air – not Kwajalein, just snapped during our flight. The white outline is the coral left behind after a volcanic island sank.

We landed, I climbed down the stairs, the rolling boulder caught me, and my brave smile began to slip. For the first time, I acknowledged the enormity of what we had done, moving 6,700 miles to this pile of coral and sand where we are strangers. I staggered, gripped my son’s hand a little too tight. Saw his grin. Thrust out my chin and strode forward.

Welcome to Kwajalein

Across the runway, through the drizzle, I saw a small crowd. Two small boys jumped and whooped behind a fence, yelling greetings to another young passenger on the flight. The crowd laughed at the youthful enthusiasm, but they were all looking for us. A woman shook my hand, introduced herself, placed a shell necklace around my neck. “Welcome to Kwajalein!” she said.

The next woman also greeted us warmly and pulled us into the refuge of the dry building. The woman we’d met at the terminal before our failed flight was in the doorway, waving warmly.

Ten, maybe 12, people were waiting outside the tiny airport in the light rain to greet us. After brief introductions all around, a kind stranger and a new neighbor insisted on bringing dinner to our house. One of the men told us about setting up our internet and phone before we arrived. They’d even arranged for the shipment that we’d sent in April to be delivered to our house in a few days. Two men loaded our luggage in a van and drove us to our new home, assigned to us by the job Jake will have on Kwaj. We found the fridge and pantry stocked with enough food to get us through a couple days, a coffee maker and some dishes out on the counter.

“It’s what we do here,” they said. “We have to take care of each other.”

It’s what we do here. We have to take care of each other.

We made the beds, furnished with the house, with borrowed sheets and blankets that someone had in bags on the mattresses. A neighbor brought a broom. We found bikes by the door – a necessity on a small island where we can’t drive a car. Phone numbers on sticky notes with offers to help took over our fridge.

“Call us anytime,” they said. “If there’s anything we can do to help, please ask.”

Someone dropped off a DVD player with a few movies to watch.

“Just until your things get here,” she said.

Finally home

Overwhelmed by the kindness and friendly smile of everyone we met, I watched the boulder of anxiety roll by. Later that evening, I filled a plate with green beans and chicken and rice casserole, eyeing the chocolate bundt cake the woman had left on the counter for dessert along with her friendly and warm advice for adjusting to the island life.

Chocolate Bundt Cake
I couldn’t turn down this gesture of warm welcome.

Comfort food with comfortable conversation from a community that cared for us before we even arrived. Belly full and heart even fuller, I climbed between borrowed sheets and drifted off to sleep, finally at home.