In Defense Of Small Towns
Look, I get it. You lead a fabulous urban life, you’re only friends with beautiful people, and you live within walking distance of thirty quintillion bars and restaurants. That’s cool, but we’re not here to talk about that. We always talk about that. Instead let’s consider some forgotten places, wide places in the road that people don’t even drive through because they’re miles from anywhere.
The city’s draw is understandable. You have things that I want too: things to do besides eating, places to eat besides Subway, diversity, friendships based on something more than close proximity, less time spent in the car… I don’t have those things right now, but won’t pretend my town of 1,300 deserves to be passed over because it’s not hip enough to be a beacon for fresh graduates and kids with questionable haircuts.
It’s not even my town, not really. On Facebook I claim Columbus, Ohio as my hometown, but I feel as at home there as any place I lived during my tumbleweed childhood. One place is as good and bad as any. You just have to know what to look for.
Here is what I know:
I voted at a place with no indoor plumbing and shoved my votes into an actual ballot box. I learned after questioning numerous friends that yes, this is as primitive as it sounds.
Some of my closest friends own livestock. At a party this summer I climbed in and out of a pop-up camper to pee in a field five feet from the pigs, fifty feet from the goats. Keep your wine and cheese tasting parties, this was one of the best nights of my twenties so far.
It’s awful when farmers advertise “Obama bumper sticker removal” on signs pounded into the ground by the side of the highway, but at least there’s something to read between the phone poles and trees.
Remington, Indiana is where King Remington, protagonist of the fantasy novel I started when I was 10, got his name.
As kids my sister and I bought cigarettes for our mom at a convenience store 10 miles outside of Columbus. I still regret being too shy to let the clerk sign my cast when I broke my arm.
This is painted on a handmade sign in Grandy, Minnesota: Save Our Post Office.
In high school we used to drive to Duluth at midnight and watch them lift the bridge for boats to come into the harbor. Duluth was the best place back then, but now I know there is no best place.
I like to eat burgers at a deserted bar in east central Minnesota. My favorite of the 100 burgers on the menu is smothered with cheese and topped with tater tots. There are barn doors on the bathroom stalls. The bartender is endearingly shy.
It is hard to find a Taco Bell in Iowa.
I haven’t yet been to Pole Cat Crossing, Wisconsin, but I’m convinced it’s the best place on the planet.
I bought coolant at a gas station in Reliance, South Dakota three summers ago, then spent four hours stuck to a leather seat with the heat blowing full blast so the car wouldn’t overheat again. The question of where the gas station clerks buy their groceries has ignited more than one Google Street View session since. Can Los Angeles evoke the same slack-jawed wonder?
Just because rent is cheaper doesn’t mean people somehow have it easier. If jobs are scarce in the city, they’re scarcer here.
Marvin worked at a factory until he could retire. Now he orders the same thing at Dairy Queen every day. The kids who work there like that he cares who they are, so they care about him too. I know you don’t want to work at a factory. Neither do I. We think we deserve better, but some of us are going to work at a factory. It’s okay.
I do plan on leaving. People always leave places like this. But there’s nothing wrong with staying behind. We all know someone who stayed behind.
Things move slowly here, but the changes feel bigger when they come. That girl you once knew, the one who sat behind you in 10th grade English? Who every day wore a hairsprayed ponytail with two strands left out at the front? She stayed behind, she and the son she had soon after high school. Life is hard, but she’s never felt so loved before. Would she find belonging elsewhere? Her high school best friend went to a big university after graduation. Every day she does new things and meets new people, but the basic structure of her life is always the same. Is it so bad to live more deeply than you do widely?
Even if I plan to leave, it’s not because I’ve given up on the pine barrens and endless marshes. It’s because I want to keep collecting places just as I’ve always done. Your location is part of who you are, but it’s not who you are. Sprawling metropolises and unincorporated villages crackle alike.
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If you’ve been looking for a chance to say something then this very well could be it.
I wish to God I’d had a list like this when I was 23.
Answer phones better than anyone else has answered phones before. Relay messages so brilliant, they bring people to tears. Turn the coffee run into the choreography of Swan Lake. Become best friends with every intern and every underling and every taxi driver you encounter.
I remember taking the pen and notebook from that woman outside the courtroom, flipping to a clean page in the book, and writing, JESSICA IS SAD in big, bold, uncoordinated letters. “My sister is going to be a good writer someday! Look at how nice her lines are!”