Life in a Northern Town

I’VE BEEN A CITY GIRL for many years, and I’ve gathered the
necessary accoutrements to prove it: a small house in a rough
neighborhood, an expensive clothes habit, even the ability to
differentiate maki from nori. But like Gatsby, I’ve never quite
believed that the clothes and the fancy food and the well-lighted
delusions make me truly, deeply urbane.

I was born and raised in small-town USA, a mythical place that
makes weary urbanites weep with longing for simpler lives, but
where — and I do not intend to break this to you gently — the
reality does not resemble the romance.

Of course, many small towns have a unique charm. Life unfurls
slowly in rural America, and it can be intoxicatingly serene. In my
Midwestern hamlet, I took for granted a back yard the size of a
city block and a breathtaking proximity to wide-open spaces. Mine
was a dying agricultural community, but it certainly was beautiful.
To this day, nothing is more precious to me than the memory of
rolling corn fields, sculpted by John Deere and summer rain, seen
from the back of my dad’s motorcycle as we drifted down a country
road, literally in the middle of nowhere.

Whenever we took the highway into town, though, I derived a
different sort of pleasure from reading the hand-painted sign that
announced the existence of our lone, crumbling gas station:
‘Welcome to Bob’s Convince Store.’ The word convenience
was shortened to convince for, apparently, your reading
convenience.

My little town had 716 people and two acceptable hobbies:
alcoholism and snowmobiling (the most popular residents combined
the two). I enjoyed reading and writing one-act plays, which I
performed alone in my bedroom, and to my peers these pursuits made
me ‘gay’ (which was, and still is, rural street slang for ‘lame’).
I was in sixth grade when my mother, anxious about my preference
for solitude, dragged me kicking and screaming to that evening’s
high school basketball game with a single mandate: ‘Talk to some
people.’ Talk to them about what? Polaris jackets? I went out for
cheerleading and I joined the speech team. Neither fostered the
close friendships I had hoped for.

This is all to say that my childhood introduced me to the most
exquisite loneliness I have known in my lifetime.

Statistically, the rural Midwest of my youth is not much
different than it is today. Some issues are worse than before —
rampant alcohol abuse is now augmented by an explosive (sometimes
literally) crystal methamphetamine problem. According to the
Southern Indiana Drug Task Force, annual methamphetamine lab
seizures in that state have skyrocketed from around 200 at the
beginning of the decade to over 1,500 in 2004. Meanwhile, alcohol
abuse in small Midwestern towns is keeping pace. The 2003 National
Survey on Drug Use and Health showed that North Dakota leads the
nation in binge drinking.

Economic crises continue to run Midwestern farmers out of
business, consolidate land holdings, eliminate jobs, and deplete
rural populations. In February of this year, The New York
Times
noted that Iowa’s brain drain — the mass exodus of
creative people who leave for lack of options — is second only to
North Dakota’s.

Very small towns also tend to be monocultural; mine, for
instance, was older, whiter, and less educated than surrounding
urban areas. Lack of diversity fostered intellectual stagnation,
and insularity was a way of life. Education was not a top priority
for young people in my town, and this put my peers and me in
greater proximity to life’s more dubious offerings — drugs, teen
pregnancy, continued poverty, and a lifetime’s worth of corduroy
jumper dresses adorned with appliqu?d geese.

I won’t pretend city life is without problems. It’s exhausting
and loud, and in my neighborhood an active drug trade and related
crimes keep me vigilant and always vaguely paranoid. But rural life
is not all maple syrup festivals and corn dog eating contests,
either. The vandal who preyed on my town’s already delapidated old
buildings never got arrested (even though everyone knew who he was)
because he was related to the town’s sole cop. Summers were
charming until agricultural spray planes dumped synthetic
pesticides indiscriminately on crops and people alike.

For what it’s worth, I got a short-lived popularity boost when
my stepdad’s ex-wife supplied an entire generation of high school
graduates with cocaine. But for the most part, difference of any
kind was not tolerated in my hometown. I came out in college —
fulfilling my former classmates’ belief that I was gay — and when
I returned home for my 10-year high school reunion, my then
girlfriend and I were met with wide-eyed stares, polite distance,
and absolutely no questions about our relationship or our life
together.

I know progressive small towns exist and that it’s possible to
create a renaissance community of like-minded citizens. But it’s as
rare as it must be intentional. Keeping a small town thriving is a
full-time job for all its residents. And moving to the wrong small
town, even if you’re buoyed by the spirit of bringing education and
change, is a risk: Small-town dwellers, set in their ways, distrust
missionaries most of all.

Laine Bergeson, pictured, is assistant editor of
Utne.

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