I have spent a lot of the last year thinking about the status of rural America. I am not the only one to be interested in this subject, but I am in the unusual situation of thinking on the matter while living in Santiago, Chile, which is a very large, urban city and in a different hemisphere. Perhaps there is some element of nostalgia or homesickness that makes me scroll across the country in google maps, stopping to look at street views of intersections in the middle of nowhere, and wondering what life is like there. Of course, this vague nostalgia is leavened with more pressing concerns. It seems that rural America is in a type of crisis, where there seems to be a gigantic disconnect between the heartland and the coastal elites. The people in the heartland, supposedly, were so discouraged by how the coastal elites look down on them that they took the logical course of action of supporting a New York City television star who considers golfing in New Jersey to be a country excursion. But rather than talking about politics, which consumes six hours of the average person's day, I will talk about my own personal experience with rural living, and why it makes the generic narrative of rural resentment difficult for me to understand.
My earliest memories, of when I was two to eight years old, took place in Battle Ground, Washington, a suburb of Portland, Oregon. Or at least it is a suburb now: at the time, at least in my mind, it was a small town, and a big treat for us was going ten miles to the nearest shopping mall, in Vancouver, Washington. At that age, downtown Portland was a foreign landscape, and most of the United States was something I only read about in history books. My city had only been founded in 1951, and all of what I knew about United States history from books happened long ago and far away: American history happened "over there", the Revolutionary War and Civil War. My own area had almost no European settlement before modern technology, and its history was confined to a non-existent battle. Before there were "coastal elites" and Portland was trendy, the Pacific Northwest was far away from the main lines of media, commerce and industry in the United States. I read about it in books, but all I really knew was my little town of 3000 people with two supermarkets. Not, of course, that I was aware of all of this at the time. At the age of nine, I moved to Oregon, to a 40 acre "farm" (that didn't actually grow anything), 15 miles south of Salem, Oregon. In some ways, this was a wonderland for a young child. I had what amounted to my own park, with steep hill sides, prairies with head-tall grass, a pond, a stream, forests with collapsed trees to play on...but I was also separated from being able to socialize on the street. The nearest post office was 4 miles away, and going to a market (not a super market) was eight miles away. This was in the days before the internet or cable TV, and this was also the time when I remembered starting to watch lots of television, which gave me another window on the rest of the world. On my little black and white television on top of a hill, picking up one of three channels through static, I watched television shows like Family Ties, which took place in Columbus, Ohio. That was, I thought, the average part of the United States, where everyone had two story suburban homes, two middle class incomes, and (unlike my family), people never had to worry about leaking roofs, driveways that couldn't be driven up in the snow (our driveway was around 1000 feet long, and steep), or how we would get into town if the car broke. All of the television shows I watched took place in the America I had never even been to. Night Court was in New York City. Family Ties was in Ohio. The Golden Girls lived in Miami. All of those places came together in my mind, that was the United States that most people lived in, a seemingly effortless world where there was no natural threats.
And even all of this doesn't take into account the truly empty quarter of Oregon. For the first 10 years of my life, I had never really left the I-5 Corridor
. For a person living in a city, living on 40 acres, five miles from a post office seems "out there", but there were still three shopping malls within a twenty mile radius of me. In fact, for the first ten years of my life, I might never have been more than 40 miles from a shopping mall. And so my first trip across the Cascade Mountains to the Eastern Oregon Desert
was incredible for me. Eastern Oregon, especially towards the Great Basin
, can only be described in superlatives of time and distance, that are still inadequate. Until you have driven 50 miles between post offices, its hard to understand just how remote and isolated the area is. Over the next few decades, I would sometimes live in, but mostly visit, the small towns that existed in the American west. The best way to understand these towns is as an archipelago
, the distances between them can best be understood as oceans from a practical standpoint. So in my life, I have lived in three different types of rurality: a cozy small town, property that was big enough that we couldn't see our neighbors (but were still able to drive to a mall when we wanted) and the true isolation of living in the deep West. And all of these experiences are why I do not understand rural resentment as it is currently sold.
There is a cliche in teen movies about the ugly girl, the rejected girl who is the least popular girl at her high school, and the reasons for her ugliness are: she wears glasses and has her hair in a pony tail, and maybe wears tomboy clothing. And we, the audience are supposed to understand that a Hollywood Star in a baggy t-shirt is hideously ugly. Of course, how could it be different? Using the same logic, I am expected to automatically understand that Zanesville, Ohio, (for example), is this isolated and desolate hinterland, a world cut off from the mainstream of the United States, and that as a coastal elitist, I can't understand what it would be like to live in a county of only 80,000 people. Or beyond that: what if I lived in an even smaller town. There are some towns with...less than 1000 people! The shock!
And it isn't from elitism that I like to point out how much smaller some of the places I've been to have been, it is just that once you experience truly isolated areas, "small town" America doesn't seem that "small town". An extreme, but not unrepresentative example, is US Highway 395 between Reno, Nevada and Pendleton, Oregon, which runs for 560 miles (very close to the 556 miles between Boston and Richmond, Virginia) through Nevada, California and Oregon. In those 560 miles, it will pass through four towns large enough to have supermarkets. Alturas, California, Lakeview, Oregon, Burns, Oregon and John Day, Oregon. It will not cross an interstate or, outside of its terminal points, pass within a few hundred miles of one. There are no Walmarts and a total of one McDonalds (in Burns). There is a 60 mile gap in Oregon, between the gas station at Valley Falls and the one at Wagontire, where there are no gas stations, no post offices, no stores, and no structures of any kind.
I understand why people living in an area like this could feel resentful and alienated from urban America, because their experience is totally different from the experiences of urban America. When political discourse is about health care and you have one basic hospital 50 miles away, and when you hear debates about education and the nearest community college is 100 miles away, and when you know there is a social debate about diversity and inclusion but everything in your town looks like it has for fifty years, you might feel that the mainstream of urban US society is something you can't understand. Even consumer products seen on television might seem very different from normal life: because there are towns where the normal gaggle of big box stores and fast food restaurants that clutter highway intersections are unheard of. While a trip to McDonald's might be the essence of small town America elsewhere, there are still places where fast food restaurants are only found in "the big city". So does a person from this type of very isolated have reasons for hating elitist, urban America? Is it understandable that these people might not understand what a social media consultant for a specialty bicycling company even does? Of course. I am not saying every one of their opinions or prejudices are right, but at least in my mind...I understand the disconnect. But this group of people makes up around 1% of the United States' population.
But what about people who live in Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania? All those states that I grew up hearing about as the main, real United States that I had never even visited? The states that have multiple cities of a million people, that have airports and trains and buses that zip constantly among those big cities, where the major companies of the US do their producing, shipping and selling? Where being rural means you have a megapolis an hour away, but have two horses in your backyard? When you have a gaggle of prefab chain restaurants in your town, but feel angry that coastal elites don't think much of Applebee's or The Olive Garden? When you talk about Washington, D.C. as if it is a vague, foreign presence, even though you could probably drive there on any given Saturday? Where you work in an office park and live in a gated community on two different sides of a city, but only see the city while passing over it on an elevated freeway? Where you went to university, go to the doctor, go shopping for anything you need, and work, all in a half hour of where you grew up? Where you never have to make sure your coolers are full of ice so your food will last the three hour long trip home from the grocery store? Why are those people resentful? This is a real question I have, because to me, those people have all the conveniences and comforts of urban living, even if they have a few cosmetic amenities of the countryside. Not that I don't understand the real motivation: cultural resentment, brought on by the emptiness, irrelevance and obliviation of a culture that refuses to change and lives based more on image than reality. That in itself deserves a much longer essay. But marking it down with the inaccurate euphemistic excuse of "rurality" is ridiculous. There are some people who have that excuse, but the majority of people who argue it do not deserve it, and indeed, don't even comprehend that it exists.