California always seemed more an idea to me than a place. Born in southern Illinois, I’ve lived most of my life in the particular rhythms of the Midwest. Baking heat and cicadas buzzing in summer, deep chills and an eerie stillness in winter. I moved to Chicago, the Second City, for a job at the city’s number two newspaper. That’s where I met Molly, an irresistible being from a place called Sebastopol. Wait, is that Russian?

At the time, I knew Sonoma County mostly as a brand of cheap leather dress shoes. But hearing a west county native talk about the beauty and culture of her home was intriguing. I visited briefly in fall of 2016, then again last summer. I was blown away. A few weeks after the October wildfires, we drove across the country from Maine to start making a life on the other coast.

Click through the gallery above to read what's most surprised me about life in west Sonoma County.