Size matters - life in a small town
Updated: Aug 20, 2020
While on a deep dive through the wrinkly grey matter of my brain the other day it occurred to me that for the biggest slice of the last 40+ years I’ve lived in small towns. Now that’s not a record for anyone, and it probably doesn’t matter to a lot of folks, but it does shape who you are and what your outlook on life in general is. As my friend Bill used to remind me, “the world looks different according to where you sit” and for the vast majority of my adult life my chair has been in the rural, western United States.
What constitutes a small town you might ask? We probably all have our own definition(s). For me - population in and by itself doesn’t necessarily determine a small town but if it did I guess my cut-off would be at about 5,000 people. A couple of other indicators I tend to use is number of stop-lights in a town, distance to the closest Walmart, and how long it takes you to shop for groceries. Both Arco, Idaho and Baker, Nevada had zero traffic lights when I lived there, Enterprise, Oregon had a half of one (a blinker at the intersection of two highways), and Moab, Utah - my home for the last 20+ years had just one traffic light when we first moved here. All four towns were, and remain, at least 100 miles from the nearest Walmart and only in Moab have I learned to time my grocery shopping with the goal of getting in and getting out as fast as possible. Everywhere else that was virtually impossible as you tended to know everyone in the store, and it was as much a place to catch up on all the local gossip and news as it was to buy your groceries. And don’t even ask about going to the Post Office - in general the heart and soul of any small town.
I imagine that in time I’ll write a blog entry on each of the towns that have captured most of my life since the late 1970s - but those are for another day - this one details just my general observations that seem to be almost universal about life in a small town. Of course life changes all around us all of the time and much of what I write about harkens back to a day before online shopping, online anything for that matter, and certainly pre-pandemic. While I’ll not say that the cyber age has ruined small town America - it certainly has changed it - as it has no matter where you live.
So then - what’s different about living in a small town?
You lose your anonymity pretty darn fast and that can be both a blessing and a pain in the ass. There are times that you may feel like you live in a fish bowl and that everyone knows ALL of your business ALL of the time - and chances are they do. The flip side of that is that unless you’re the grouchy old asshole down on the corner - people care about you and if you’re in need for something they help without being asked to - actually, even if you are the grouchy old asshole people will help in times of need - we’ve all learned to take care of one another.
We stop in the middle of the street in our cars to talk to one another and nobody behind you seems to get pissed off about it - they know that you’ll finish up as quickly as you can and that next time it could easily be them doing the same thing.
Deals are still consummated with a handshake and you can depend on it. Nothing is more effective than personal references and nothing will kill your business faster than a shady deal somewhere. We also understand that if you have some sort of service scheduled and someone else in town has an emergency, that you get delayed - that’s how it should be.
Our sense of time came be somewhat casual - often I’ve heard it described as “valley time” as many of the small towns in the west are geographically situated in valleys (duh). Valley time was best described to me many years ago as “if you leave your home or office or wherever at the time the meeting was to begin, you’re on time”. Now I just wasn’t raised that way - I was taught to arrive at least 5 minutes early. For many years I served on an advisory board here in Moab that only one other member must have had the same sort of upbringing - we always ended up with at least 10-15 minutes to shoot the shit by ourselves as we waited for others to show up.
Our sense of direction can be just as casual as our sense of time - oh, to be certain we understand compass points as well (or likely better) than a city dweller - but our directions tend to be landmark based - something like “it’s just past the Wheeler place - right after you cross the little creek - bear to the right and then head North - ya can’t miss it.” Them damn phone apps got nothing on us.
You have to get used to abbreviated conversations at times since we do tend to all know what’s going on with everyone - or at least we think we do - the following would be typical:
Bud: Did you hear about…
Jed: No shit - hard to believe.
Bud: Yup - but I figure it will work out.
Jed: Yeah - it did last time.
Small towns may seem cold and stand-offish when you first arrive - and trust me - being someone who worked for the Federal government I had to prove up every single time we moved to a new one. The folks are not unkind - they’re not uncaring - they’re just fiercely independent and fighting like hell to preserve their towns. They just need some time to learn who you are and what you are about - after that - you’re family and you’ll likely never meet better people anywhere.
You may be family but you will never be a local - doesn’t matter how long you live there - if you weren’t born there you can’t possibly be a local. My friend Don Cammack who was the owner and publisher of the weekly newspaper in Arco, Idaho for almost 50 years before he died. He always titled his weekly column “Ramblings of a Newcomer” as Don had not been born in the Lost River Valley - even after nearly a half-Century he was not a local.
One way to tell that you have finally been “accepted” in a small town is to drink coffee with the boys - (sorry if that sounds sexist - sometimes girls are welcome but they generally don’t waste time so freely). Every small town will have a cafe somewhere that the boys gather - usually at a round table and often in shifts - to drink bad coffee and solve the world’s problems. Depending on where I was living at the time I learned that it was important to understand what the hell the calf futures market was even about and where they were trading - what wheat was going for in the commodities market - or what that fool Rush Limbaugh had talked about on the radio.
I spent my career working a secure government job with a guaranteed paycheck - that often put me in a small percentage of folks in town. Those of us that had the ability and wherewithal to spend time serving on volunteer boards tended to be the same people on all of the boards. More than once I can remember being at a meeting for one organization where all of a sudden we found ourselves discussing an issue for a different organization - it works - we got all the business done as best we could.
High school sports are a really big deal - especially boy’s football - it’s hard to understand if you grew up in a place with either no high school (too small) or more than one high school. The sun rises and sets around football from hell week (pre-season torture practice) until the team is eliminated from the hunt for the State championship - it dominates every conversation and drives every schedule.
Don’t get me wrong - I love cities - I love the food and the entertainment and the architecture. I love the ethnic neighborhoods and there is no way one can get by without trips to the big city, although online shopping has certainly changed the frequency of such trips. Still - for specialized health care, major transportation hubs, exotic dining, or just to “get the hell out of Dodge” every once in a while I love my city time - every minute of it - almost as much as I like seeing the welcome sign on the highway when I get back home.
peace be with you - Hendo.