Photo of south mountains of Phoenix

Phoenix or the Northwoods?

True story. This is both funny and sad. It should give you a glimpse into how the events of the last decade have really changed all of us; how we live, what we think, even our ideals and aspirations, and the actions that we take to achieve what we want.

I have a brother who is one year younger than me. He was raised in the Mid-west, just like me. But wound up working for a company in Illinois that transferred him to Phoenix. So he moved there. He married a gal he met in college from the Chicago area, had three children, and raised them in Phoenix where he lived for fifteen years. His first wife died and he got remarried, but that is irrelevant to this story.

He retired early because, like many of us, he hated his job. He managed a regional office for a Mid-west based insurance company. He never cared much for Phoenix so he knew that he would be moving somewhere else upon retirement. He and his wife visited us in the Northwoods prior to his retirement and decided Wisconsin was the place to move.

It was funny when they flew in for a short visit. In Phoenix, there is no water and very little that is green. They came to visit in the summer. My wife and I drove to Mosinee, Wisconsin to pick them up from the airport and then drove two hours back north to our house. They’re faces were glued to the car windows all the way north to our house. Everything was green or blue, and I mean everything; lakes and streams everywhere you looked. They thought they were on another planet.

Anyway, they made up their minds that Wisconsin was where they wanted to live upon retirement. So they flew home, sold the house, called Mayflower Movers and got out of Phoenix. But not before making one more trip to Wisconsin to find a house. They decided to build a house in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, which is about 90 minutes south of here. They built a “woodsy” looking house that they dearly loved and built it on a flowage just west of Tomahawk.

This all took place in early 2007. Life was good. The Tomahawk locals adopted them and they had more friends and recreation than they could handle. Having retired early, my brother thought he would find part-time work doing insurance consulting for a local law firm in order to earn passive income in retirement. His wife, who was much younger than he and still working, worked in customer service for a large medical insurance company. After the move to Wisconsin, she planned on doing the same thing here.

But the Great Recession had struck in the fourth quarter of 2007. The only work that my brother could find was working as a night clerk for Super 8 motels in Tomahawk. His wife commuted twenty miles from Tomahawk to Rhinelander to perform the same insurance customer service work that she had performed in Phoenix, but for half of what she was earning in Phoenix. Life was still good in beautiful Tomahawk Wisconsin. But the economy and their financial situation would get worse as the country sank deeper into recession.

They lived in their new home for about two years before both of them discovered that they were literally going broke. What to do? They decided the only thing to do was to go back to Phoenix where they could find work. Additionally, their three children and their children’s families all lived there and they were starting to miss them.

So they put their beloved Tomahawk Wisconsin house on the failing housing market, called Mayflower Movers again and went back to Phoenix to find work and an apartment. They could not get out of the Phoenix apartment and buy a new home in Phoenix until the Tomahawk home sold. Their Tomahawk house sat on the failing housing market for two stressful years before it finally sold.

The housing market in Phoenix was in complete failure. So it was easy to find a beautiful home at an affordable price. Within two weeks of selling the Tomahawk home they found a new home in Phoenix and bought it for next to nothing. It was big. So they meticulously outfitted it for entertaining family and friends. My brother stayed retired and his wife went right back to her former Phoenix employer, once again, making good money. Life was good again; but not for long.

They lived in their new Phoenix home for two very hot years. Summer temperatures easily hit 104 degrees daily. Their children and their families were very busy, as most families are when you have school-aged children. The children had precious little time to visit their parents. So my brother and his wife saw very little of their children and seldom entertained in their new home.

If you haven’t lived in Phoenix or do not know anyone who has, you wouldn’t know the following.  It’s virtually impossible to make friends in Phoenix. So even though my brother and his wife were active in their community, they had no friends. I’m serious; not a single friend. Weekends consisted of cleaning house and watching TV. In Phoenix, it’s too hot to go outside after 11:00 A.M.. So the populace, including my brother and his wife, are prisoners in their own home – as long as the AC is working flawlessly.

I didn’t believe him on the subject of friends. How could you live someplace for fifteen years and not have any friends? He told me that he did have one friend; his boss at work. They would golf together, take camping trips to Flagstaff, go fishing on a local reservoir, or just sit around and watch a good game on TV. They both loved sports. But then his boss and only friend died of cancer.

Feeling very much alone, he made attempts to make more friends. They joined a church and my brother became an usher. He shared this interesting conversation with me. James  is also an usher at the same church that my brother attended.


John:                     “ James, it sure is tough to make friends here in Phoenix.”

James:                  “I agree. We’ve had the exact same problem for years.”

John:                     “So why do you think that is?”

James:                  “I don’t know. We’ve put ourselves out there over and over again, but to no avail.”

John:                     “ Is that a fact?”

James:                  “ Yes, we joined this church just to meet some new people.”

John:                     “ Yes, we did too.”


The conversation ended right there and they parted. My brother thought to himself, ” I’ve known James for almost a year. Nice guy and he has a wife who is a jewel. Yet, even after my confession of having friendship issues, it never occurred to James that he has a friend standing right in front of him with the same issues. I didn’t sense that he would be open to going somewhere for lunch after church or doing much of anything else in the future. “

No friends. No family. And then one of his three children and her family moved to St. Louis.

The highlight of my brother’s day M-F was taking the dog for a walk each day. I think the Phoenix dust storms were “the straw that broke the camel’s back”. It was obvious by his e-mails and phone calls that my brother was getting depressed. He called for advice and I told him to get out of there. It would take a miracle but he had to get out of that hell-hole in the desert with no friends, nothing to do, family is too busy, and you can’t go outside without risk of a coronary because it never cools off in Phoenix.

Then our mother passed away leaving each of her children a sizable inheritance. This would be the “buffer” that my brother needed in order to complete “the miracle” and finally solve his problems.

It was 2010. The recession was deep now. Wall Street had crashed two years previous and the financial meltdown was in full swing. But they had to get out of there and fast. A Realtor friend said she thought she could get a pretty fair price for their home, which they had bought for peanuts when the Phoenix housing market crashed. It took two weeks and it was sold. The miracle had started. They had two weeks to find another place to live before they had to close on the house that they had just sold.

They jumped on a flight to Wisconsin with hopes that they could somehow get their beloved Tomahawk house back. No go. So they found another home that they liked and bought it. Mayflower Movers got another call and all their worldly goods, the dog, two cars, my brother and his wife headed for Tomahawk Wisconsin once again. Life was looking better. They both agreed that that would definitely be the last time that they would live in a desert.

My wife and I couldn’t believe how quickly they got moved into their new Tomahawk home. They found a used boat, identical to the one they had before leaving Wisconsin. They bought two new kayaks, a new two-up ATV, and a trailer for the ATV or kayaks so they could haul them somewhere when necessary. A snowmobile and trailer were on the wish list.

My brother resumed his retired life with occasional interruptions to walk the dog. Actually, he became quite busy maintaining all the new “toys” and keeping them clean. His wife went back to her former Wisconsin job working for half of what she was earning at the same job in Phoenix. But life was really good. They had more “toys” than they knew what to do with. All their Tomahawk friends welcomed them back with open arms. They had to keep an appointment book to remember what they were supposed to be doing and with whom. Somehow, virtually every part of “the miracle” fell precisely into place. Life was really, really good.

All their worldly goods traveled the 1,000’s of miles between Phoenix and Tomahawk WI. four times. I lost count of how many times my brother and his wife flew between the two locations to make things happen. It probably would have been cheaper for them just to purchase a 25% ownership in Northwest Airlines.

But they are out of the desert and in Wisconsin where it is green with water at every turn of the highway. They’re happy. They have loads of friends, and little time for TV. Did they pay dearly for that luxury? You bet they did. Would any of this ridiculous story have transpired if it were not for the Great Recession? Probably not.  They would have stayed in Tomahawk, Wisconsin and found meaningful work the first time that they left Phoenix.

Remember when we were kids and life was always good? We didn’t have a care in the world. Each day just kept getting better and better. I could hardly wait to get out of bed during those years. And I have to admit that I’ve felt that way right up to the fourth quarter of 2007. I retired early in September 2007, not knowing what was on the economic and financial horizon. Nobody knew.

But this story isn’t about the Great Recession. None of us want to hear that story over and over again. This is a story about how one family triumphed despite the odds of those fateful times. Did they have to go the extra mile to overcome that which was pulling them down? Yes, many times. Did they have help?

Both my brother and I agree that this ridiculous story would not have a happy ending if it were not for my dear mother’s generosity when she set aside an inheritance for her children.  Thank you, Mom. We love and miss you.

25 Responses to Phoenix or the Northwoods?

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