And no, I don’t mean the version of rural life that is idealized and romanticized by urban and suburban millennials everywhere. I don’t mean the cookie-cutter version of “the country” where people are somehow both diverse AND progressive because let’s be real, that is a lie. I’m talking about real, uncensored rural small town America.
I grew up in a small town smack dab in the middle of western New York State. We’re considered a high-density rural area and were recently annexed to the Rochester Metropolitan Statistical area (gag) even though we are far from “metropolitan.” I lived my entire life in a 175 year old country house on a dirt road 5 miles out of town. We had no phone service, poor internet, and our water came from a well. Everybody knew everybody and you couldn’t even get away with saying the f-word without your mother hearing about it from someone in the next town over within the same day (I kid you not – this actually happened to me).
My grandfather owned a farm; before my time, he had livestock but when I was growing up he harvested hay to sell and generate extra income. Every August, a whole crew of us would volunteer to help him cut, bale, and store it all. When I was little, I would hang out at my aunt's house while my parents were out working. When I was older (around 7 or 8), I rode around on the wagon behind the tractor and caught the bales from the baler and by the time I was 12, I was tasked with stacking the hundreds of hay bales in the attic of the barn with my mom. It took us a week or two at the most to get it done, and we all did it for free because that's just what you did. Instead, everyone who needed hay for their own livestock got it from him for free.
As I got older, I started to feel out of touch with the community around me. I was raised in a very liberal home by parents whose values weren't always the same as the people around me. I felt like such an outcast because I didn't fit the small town mold. I felt like people saw me as this person who didn't belong, but deep down I felt like I was meant for something far beyond this tiny town of Nowhere, New York. I didn't think I would ever feel at home in my hometown. So naturally, I did what any person would do in this situation: I chose a school in south-central Westchester County, just outside of New York City. An overwhelming majority of the people I went to school with were either from the wealthy suburbs or the city, and had grown up much differently than I did. But the greatest thing about being in Westchester was that I NEVER saw people wearing camo. It was amazing.
Other than that, I didn't really feel like I fit in there, either. What these people considered normal were luxuries to me. My roommates refused to drink tap water because they thought it was unclean. (And at college, our tap water was city water.) They all had the newest iPhones and were in on all the new trends. They all refused to shop at Walmart because they could afford to shop ethically (when I had pretty much no money other than what I earned at my job minus my first tuition bill) and because they had the option. Here, we have Aldi or Tops. We have to drive 20+ miles for Wegmans or Walmart. They complained about how slow the school's internet was. (To me, it was a dream!) Their values were so much different than what ours were back home. All of these experiences and opportunities they had access to because they were so close to the city were completely foreign to me. That's when I realized that I was a lot more "rural" than I ever would have let myself believe in the past.
After graduating, I moved back home with my parents to pay off my student loans and take some time off from the anxiety inducing school environment. Living in such a progressive community for three years made the return to conservative country a rather difficult endeavor for me. I had gone from being surrounded by an extremely diverse community to being surrounded by pretty much nothing but white people. Sometimes I think moving back caused an even bigger culture shock than moving away. But since my return, I've since learned so much about rural life that I never would have been able to understand had I not spent time in the city.
The thing is, rural communities are often so isolated from their metropolitan counterparts that they appear to a majority of people to be out of touch with reality. Because 80% of the American population lives in urbanized areas, it's easy to think that these "country folk" have no idea what's truly going on in the world. But in little towns like mine, the world is only as big as what's around us. But when we think about small town America, we don't think about it in this light. We either romanticize it, acting like it's such a simple and slow way of life and go on like the locals are charming and quirky and how we're all "one with nature" or whatever. Or we demonize it by insulting rural dwellers for being too backwards and behind the times.
This is why I've decided to embark on a year long journey to capture the essence of small town America. In doing so, I will immerse myself in the culture of my community and experience as much as I possibly can here all while keeping this question in mind: What is Rural America?
I'm excited to see where this goes, and I hope you'll all stick around for the ride!