Just a Small-Town Boy

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A writer gives up the rat race and finds peace in the country

When contributing editor Joseph Hart announced that he was moving to a little town called Viroqua, we were not only sad to see him go but also worried that he would regret the decision. He was leaving behind his home and a blossoming career, after all, and it was easy to believe that his urge to slow down might be replaced by a desperate need for stimulation. Save for a few folks, such as assistant editor Laine Bergeson, most of us find that our uneasiness has been replaced with a touch of envy. As you’ll read in the following essays, Joe is thriving, personally and professionally, and is part of a growing movement dubbed the rural rebound. And Laine. . . . well, let’s just say she remains a tad skeptical. — The Editors

As a teenager in the Minnesota backwoods, I couldn’t wait to move to the city. A gawky, bookish, sometimes snob, I probably would have had a difficult adolescence wherever I lived. But it didn’t help my social standing to be one of the only kids in high school whose dad had a Ph.D. Or that my back-to-the-land family lived in a couple of cabins without toilet, telephone, or television. At school, I ran a gauntlet of hostility every day, and I blamed all my problems on the narrow-mindedness of small-town life.

At 17, I moved to Minneapolis and found the glittering glass and steel of that minor metropolis was everything I had dreamed of. I loved the way the sidewalks soaked up the summer heat; the cacophony of radios, cars, and hissing buses; the whirling, cosmopolitan mix of immigrants from Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Most of all, I liked the anonymous freedom of being alone in a downtown crowd. Urban America is rife with struggle, but it’s also egalitarian: At some level, everyone in the mass is an equal.

For the next 15 years, I had one urban adventure after another: I slung hash at a punk-rock cafe, made art on street corners, marched in protests, attended shows, wasted long afternoons in coffee shops, made good friends and girlfriends. I found my career, met my wife, had kids. I became, if there is such a thing, a stereotypical, urban Gen-X knowledge worker.

But through it all, I missed the rural life. I had felt like an outsider in my small-town high school. Living in the city didn’t annul the alienation. Among yokels, I had been a prig. Among my urban peers, I was a yokel.

Or if not a yokel exactly, separated by a philosophical gulf that I attribute to my rural upbringing. The city is a contrived environment right down to which trees are allowed to grow where. Some days I would look around at the houses and streets, the people with their haircuts and cars and jobs and worries, and I would think none of this is real. This sense of unreality is a symptom of traumatic shock, and it was that palpable to me. I missed the real: the night sky, winter air, room to roam, a sense of privacy.

City consumerism also bothered me. Urban “alternative culture” seemed defined by it. Want to make the world a better place? Buy fair trade instead of Folgers, hemp instead of Gap. I do. And I believe that doing so makes a difference — up to a point. After that, the difference between a Volvo-driving co-op Rasta and an Escalade-driving corporate drone boils down to brand affiliation. I wanted a life in which brands were irrelevant.

After my second child was born, I had little time or money to enjoy city life. In fact, I started to hate it. I was sick of looking at the litter. I was sick of traffic, an hour of anxiety just to visit a friend across town. I was sick of feeling like I couldn’t confront the cursing teenagers who made the neighborhood playground scary for my kids, sick of the low-level hostility of strangers, sick of dirty snow in the winter and a spring that smelled like dog crap instead of dirt. One afternoon I watched as my daughter, Irene, cowered in the back yard with her hands over her ears while a semitruck rumbled down the street, and I realized that it was time to get out.

TWO YEARS AGO we rolled into Viroqua, population 4,335, for the first time on a cold January day. It didn’t look like Eden to me. The north end of town is a vanilla Midwestern strip — Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, Subway, car dealerships. I couldn’t imagine that the place could offer respite from urban junk culture. Over the course of a weekend, though, this small Wisconsin town won us over.

The trip was the culmination of three years of planning. We had listed the attributes we wanted in a small town: a bookstore, a thriving food co-op, good schools, an arts community, affordable housing. Also on our list were items like quiet back yards, beautiful scenery, and nearby parks. Viroqua, an hour off the interstate, checked out. Located in the “driftless” region of Wisconsin, missed by the glaciers that scraped the Great Plains, it’s full of ancient cliffs, fertile valleys, spring-fed trout streams, and old oak stands.

Most importantly, we wanted a place to raise our children — Nate, 16; Irene, 6; and Sam, 3 — where at least some of our neighbors shared our values, while the rest would tolerate them. In Viroqua, two institutions that have shaped the growth and character of the region in recent years gave us hope that we would find these kind, kindred spirits.

Organic Valley, the largest independent organic farmers’ co-op in the nation, has lured people interested in alternative agriculture to this place. Some claim that our county has the most organic farmers per capita in the nation, and it’s easy to believe. You can find fresh, local organics at the farmers’ market and the food co-op (which will open a big new store this summer); we buy milk, eggs, and produce right off the farm.

The Pleasant Ridge Waldorf School, one of the only rural Waldorf schools in the country (and the first Wisconsin school to offer an organic hot lunch), will celebrate its 25th anniversary later this year. I didn’t know much about the 85-year-old Waldorf curriculum before I moved here, but I knew the school attracted a lot of people like me who want their lives to harbor more meaning and passion than the American imperative to “work, buy, consume, die.” I’ve grown to value the school’s commitment to art and creativity, and to what Waldorf pedagogy calls “the whole child” — physical, spiritual, and intellectual.

It was when we visited Pleasant Ridge, where the students all seemed so capable and poised, that we met Paul and Paula Grenier, both chiropractors, and the ad hoc ambassadors of Viroqua. Paula struck up a conversation with my wife, Anne, during the school assembly. Then she whisked us off to their house in the country. They fed us, answered our questions about Viroqua, and then kept an eye on our kids while Anne and I hopped into their hot tub under a brilliant January moon. There, beneath the stars, we made up our minds to move to this place.

What we didn’t realize then was that in Viroqua, such encounters are typical. Back in Minneapolis, we had terrific friends. But our visits were penciled in. Social life — the essence of community — got scheduled around work, soccer practice, and the daily grind. Here, social life simply materializes. Picking up the kids from school turns into an afternoon at the playground, which turns into a shared dinner, which turns into a bonfire.

This palpable sense of community extends to mutual assistance. When we showed up with our moving truck, we were met by a dozen strangers who helped us bring the boxes in. (Last week, I helped move my fifth piano.) One of our neighbors caught pneumonia last winter, and within days a food brigade had been organized to deliver supper — for several weeks. My wife and some other mothers with preschoolers meet weekly to share housework.

This social life is the essential difference between city and small-town life. In the city, “community” meant neighborhoods, the city council, the news and issues of the day. My friends and neighbors fit in somewhere, but the primary collective structure was the polis. Here in Viroqua, the primary collective structure is, well, us — my circle of friends and neighbors, held together from year to year by a thousand shared moments.

WHEN MY FAMILY MOVED to Viroqua, we joined one of the most significant population shifts in recent history. Demographers call it “the rural rebound.” Rural counties like mine have been losing population since the Civil War. In the 1970s, that trend reversed for the first time. Interrupted by the 1980s farm crisis, the rebound resumed during the 1990s and continues today in spite of recession and war.

Demographers like Kenneth Johnson at Loyola University point to a number of reasons for this shift. Manufacturing jobs are returning to small towns. Retiring boomers are flocking to recreational zones. Urban professionals are taking their work anywhere they like, thanks to the Internet, fax machines, FedEx, and higher speed limits. Finally, there are many people who see the promise of life in the country as not only a personal boon, but also a model for a sane future. The Fellowship for Intentional Community, which publishes an annual directory of co-ops, cohousing, communal living arrangements, and so on, now reports the highest number of forming communities since the late 1960s.

Within the larger rebound are several types of growth patterns. Small towns near a city are becoming outer-ring suburbs. They retain some individuality but are slowly being swallowed up by parking lots, big-box retailers, and McMansions. Others, like Viroqua, lie far from the interstate and the city. These places often have natural beauty and seem to be specializing in an interesting way. Ashland, Oregon, with its Shakespeare festival is one example. Fairfield, Iowa, home of the Maharishi University, is another. A third type of small town is not growing at all. According to Johnson, these towns rely on the traditional rural jobs of farming and mining. In fact, while more people are moving to the country, fewer Americans are actually farming than ever before.

Instead, they’re taking jobs in manufacturing or, increasingly, bringing traditionally urban professions along for the ride. Our neighbors are a typical sample. Next door are a welder and a truck driver. Across the street a retired tobacco farmer resides (for years, tobacco was our county’s cash crop). Down the block live a violin maker, a homeopathic nurse-practitioner, a graphic designer, and the editor of a regional New Age newspaper. Widen the circle a bit, and you will find several software engineers, innumerable carpenters, massage therapists, writers, musicians, artists, psychologists, and doctors. (Most of us would smile at this catalog of careers, though. People here say they’re not making a living, they’re making a life.)

In Viroqua, the influx of newcomers has had a profound effect on the social and economic life of the town. One woman who grew up here, now in her 40s, told me that when “hippies” first started moving here in the 1970s, they were met with hostility — and sometimes with baseball bats. Today’s migrants, who often bring money and jobs into the community, are welcomed. Twenty years ago, as one local puts it, downtown was an empty canyon. Today, the brick main street operates at full capacity, with a jewelry store, two drugstores, a dance studio, a smoothie shop, a restored 1920s theater, and many offices, including my own. An auto showroom has been converted into an indoor market.

Of course, the rural rebound has its downsides. As agricultural land gives way to suburban tracts (and sumptuous timber-frame retreats) and the highways fill up, some worry that newcomers will destroy what attracted them in the first place: rural charm and a clean environment. And the physical incursions may be matched by a kind of cultural imperialism on the part of some urban refugees who look on their new environs as little more than a pretty painted backdrop to their movielike lives.

I try to remember that I will essentially be a guest in Viroqua for at least the first 10 or 20 years of my residency — maybe my whole life. As such, I want to honor the specific cultural heritage of the place I’ve chosen as my home. I want to invest my time making my community a better place for everyone. That means supporting levies for a school my children don’t attend, buying from the local hardware store instead of going for cheaper prices at Home Depot, pitching in at community events, and helping my neighbors when they need me.

I even drove a car in the county demolition derby last year. As much as anything, it was an act of ambassadorship — a hand extended across the internal geography that divides my urban refugee friends from my local friends. It was also a strangely unifying experience for me. For once, my country and city selves felt aligned. Better still, I took second place in my heat and won a hundred dollars.

FOR MUCH OF HISTORY, urban life symbolized all that was sinister and immoral in America, while the countryside promised a utopian idyll. Thoreau’s description in Walden of his escape to a cabin on the outskirts of Concord is the classic expression of this complex polarity between wilderness and society: “While civilization has been improving our houses,” he writes, “it has not equally improved the men who are to inhabit them.” In recent history, however, Americans have taken a dim view of small-town life. From Sinclair Lewis’ Gopher Prairie to Garrison Keillor’s Lake Wobegon, small towns occupy a symbolic placeholder for all that is smug, ignorant, and paranoid about our culture.

Not long after moving to Viroqua, I saw a series of events that seemed to confirm this negative view: When word got out that a gay couple would be speaking at the public school’s annual Diversity Day, a group circulated a petition opposing the event, and the school board voted to cancel it. It was a low point for the town. A white supremacist group picked up the story and praised the school board on its Web site. Jay Leno mocked the decision on The Tonight Show. The whole episode reminded me of why I had fled small-town America.

What happened next renewed my faith. Within hours of the vote, a new petition that favored the gay speakers gathered twice the number of signatures from residents old and new. Others raised money for a full-page ad supporting diversity. In short order, the school board reversed itself, and the gay couple was allowed to speak.

But a more important outcome illustrates the unique nature of small-town life: The controversy divided not strangers, but neighbors. And so a band of residents (including my wife) came together to keep the conversation alive. The group, which still meets today, includes both a lesbian and a local evangelical minister who believes homosexuality is a sin.

The fact of the matter is that neither Thoreau nor Keillor get it quite right. Both reduce the country to a kind of parody opposition to the city. It’s my firm conviction, though, that if you spend five minutes talking to a rube, you’ll discover a sophisticated intelligence and rich emotional life. Spend five minutes talking to a member of the urban intelligentsia, and you’ll find a rube.

In other words, each of us has the same capacity for openness and intolerance. The controversy over the gay speaker could happen anywhere — city folk wear blinders, too. In fact, for all its diversity, the city’s segmented society makes it easy to stay in your own circle and to dismiss those with whom you disagree. Our lives here are so intertwined that we’re forced into deeper relationships. Here, someone you disagree with is liable to bring you a meal when you’re sick.

LAST FALL I WENT with my family and two others to gather apples at a nearby orchard. The trees were heavy with fruit, row upon row. The sun turned the orchard into an ocean of light. A pileated woodpecker patrolled our progress. One had only to reach out a hand to find it filled with warm, sweet fruit. Our children played together under the trees, eating apples. Later I made quart after quart of applesauce.

This day has become emblematic of my reasons for living here: all the gifts the planet has to offer, all the warm time spent preparing food and eating it with good friends and their children — friends who will be here next year, children who will grow up together and learn country ways.

Above all, moving here has allowed me to make room for these experiences. And I’m more convinced than ever that this is life as I ought to be living it. What don’t I do in order to have time to gather apples in the fall? I don’t read the daily newspaper — an omission that would have scandalized my urban news-junky self. (But I stay informed and send letters to politicians and editors.) I don’t worry about my career. (But I write every day and am more intensely engaged in my work.) Ultimately, I try not to worry about much of anything. That leaves me plenty of time.

Sure, there are moments when I miss my old friends, my old life. I miss the neighborhood bar where I used to take my work to drink and think, where I was a familiar face, nothing more. Sometimes I even miss the smell of heat coming up from the sidewalk.

But I’ll trade all that for life with this circle of near and dear — for a bottle of country wine, a slice of Allison’s cheesecake, a soak in Paul and Paula’s hot tub, a sip of Bjorn’s goat milk, and for all of us together, around my kitchen table, while our children play in the back yard.


If you’re thinking about a move to small-town America, the following resources are a good place to start:


Moving to a Small Town: A Guidebook to Moving From Urban To Rural America (Simon & Schuster) by Wanda Urbanska and Frank Levering

Finding & Buying Your Place in the Country (Dearborn Trade) by Les Scher and Carol Scher

The 100 Best Small Art Towns in America (Avalon Travel) by John Villani

Almanac of the 50 States (Information Publications) edited by Edith R. Hornor

The Encyclopedia of Country Living (Sasquatch) by Carla Emery

Web Sites

Renewing the Countryside: Resources and links for making the leap to the country. www.renewingthecountryside.org

American FactFinder: Fast access to census data about small towns. www.factfinder.census.gov

Realtor.com: Online searching of MLS listings for a snapshot of home prices. www.realtor.com

Green People: Listings of food co-ops, community-supported agriculture arrangements, farmers’ markets, etc. www.greenpeople.org

Intentional Communities: A list of nearly 1,000 intentional communities worldwide. www.ic.org

Joseph Hart is a contributing editor of Utne. He can be reached at TheDrift@frontiernet.net

Viroqua, Wisconsin Photo Essay

All images by
Jonathan Chapman Photography.

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