PENDLETON — Mindy Arnold keeps a running checklist of things she wouldn’t like to do again, and moving cross-country during a pandemic is one of them.
Last summer, Mindy and Emily Arnold packed up their three children, two cats, one dog and two turtles into three cars to make the more than 2,500-mile journey from South Carolina to Pendleton.
On Day 1 of their move, the car driven by Tara, a family friend, was wrecked after a semitruck collided with it. Tara and their eldest daughter were safe, but the car was totaled and they suddenly found themselves stranded near Knoxville, Tennessee. They held a family discussion to consider their options, including turning around and heading back home.
But ultimately, the Arnolds decided to press ahead with a rental car to complete their convoy across the United States, avoiding further trouble besides the occasional ploy to sneak their pets into a hotel.
It’s taken time to get adjusted to Pendleton, but both Emily and Mindy have experience in small towns.
Mindy grew up in Swansea, South Carolina, a two-stoplight town of 800 that turns into a one-stoplight town when school isn’t in session. Emily’s formative years were more nomadic, but her life included a stint in Pendleton, where her family stayed after she moved on.
Mindy and Emily met in South Carolina in 2017, but started out as friends. They both worked in the health care field, Emily working as a clinical social worker, Mindy as a surgical technician and a clinical manager.
But their friendship started to accelerate into something more as Mindy battled a dangerous form of cancer. In 2019, Mindy needed surgery to remove a mass, an operation that didn’t come without risk. Before heading to the operating room, Mindy made a quick confession to Emily.
“I-love-you-I-mean-it-bye,” she said, making her declaration so quickly that it came out as one word.
Mindy died for two minutes on the operating table, but eventually made it out of surgery after she was revived. Her cancer is now in remission, but the operation still took a toll.
Postoperative, Mindy was using crutches to aid her walking when she slipped and fell. The minute she hit the ground she knew that she wouldn’t be able to walk regularly again. She now uses a wheelchair to get around.
Before moving to Pendleton, Emily, Mindy and their family made a home in Irmo, a small suburb of Columbia, the South Carolina state capital.
But they soon found themselves looking outside the bounds of South Carolina.
As a same-sex couple, Emily and Mindy weren’t sure they would be fully accepted in the South, where Emily wouldn’t be able to to take custody of the girls should something happen to Mindy and their youngest daughter, Bradleigh, was starting to face bullying at school because of her two moms.
Additionally, when COVID-19 hit, the couple saw their work hours reduced during a time when Mindy’s job was already complicated by her disability.
When they began their move to Pendleton, they ran headfirst into the city’s tight housing market. They didn’t secure a house until midway through their trip, as they traveled through Indiana.
They stayed with Emily’s family until the sale on their house went through, and although they’re now settled into their North Hill home, integrating into a new town is difficult during a pandemic.
The Arnold family includes three daughters — Sofia, 18, Elyse, 10, Bradleigh, 7 — and the two youngest haven’t been able to go to school in-person and make friends.
Emily hasn’t been able to introduce Mindy to Pendleton mainstays like a full-fledged Farmers Market on Main Street or the Round-Up.
Mindy said living in a more densely populated area allowed her to sometimes blend in with the crowd, a prospect that isn’t usually possible in Pendleton, especially when you’re a member of a same-sex couple, in a wheelchair and new in town.
Mindy is still adjusting to life in her wheelchair, cycling through three different ones as she looks for work. Mindy was physically active before moving to the chair, including a stint in a women’s football team called the South Carolina Smash. Now, she is learning how to live life in a wheelchair on the fly.
“There’s no YouTube for how to revamp your life for a wheelchair,” she said.
But the challenges of the past couple of years haven’t overshadowed the Arnolds’ joys.
Mindy and Emily were wedded in February, waiting to hold a larger ceremony until the pandemic passes.
And Emily officially completed the adoption process with Bradleigh recently, formalizing their familial bond.
Their family and their journey to Eastern Oregon might be unconventional by Pendleton’s standards, but the Arnolds are taking it in stride.
“We call ourselves the purple unicorns of Pendleton,” Emily said.