Small town life — bucolic relief or isolating hell?

By Caitlin Kelly

I love to visit them --- this one is in Florida -- but not sure I want to live there again
I love to visit them — this one, Appalachicola, is in Florida — but not sure I want to live there again

As a scarred survivor of 18 miserable months in a small New Hampshire town, this recent New York Times essay resonated with me:

In November 2012, I flew out to start work…We bought a house for maybe one-fifth of what we would have paid in San Francisco, less than what my parents paid for my childhood home in rural Pennsylvania.

We were betting on the fact that we wouldn’t be alone in fleeing the big city for a small town. Urban living has become unthinkably expensive for many middle-class creative types. A 2010 study from the Journal of Economic Geography found a trifecta of reasons some rural areas have grown instead of shrunk: the creative class, entrepreneurial activity and outdoor amenities. In 2012, a University of Minnesota research fellow called the influx of 30-to-40-somethings into rural Minnesota towns a “brain gain” — flipping the conventional wisdom on the exodus from the boonies to the big city.

Predictably enough, they end up abandoning what initially looked like a great choice.

I know another writer, fed up with the cost and craziness of New York City life, who fled north to the Catskills for silence, low rent and creative freedom. She lasted two years.

Another writer friend recently quit her job and traded a major American city for….the Catskills:

It’s remote. The other day I had to drive 45 minutes (one way) and pay $2.00 in tolls to get to my bank. So much is done online these days, it might not be that much of an issue, but it’s definitely an adjustment. I’m thinking I’ll have to coordinate trips into the larger towns to coincide with other errands.

It’s clean. I haven’t seen one piece of litter or trash — which is not to say I haven’t seen junk in people’s yards, but that’s different.

It smells good. The air is pure and fresh. On rainy, chilly days like today the air was filled with the scent of burning firewood and wet grass. The other day I walked by someone’s house and smelled the sweet buttery scent of an apple pie baking. I actually paused in front of the window and when the lady inside looked at me, I waved. “Smells delicious!”

It’s really dark at night. The other night I drove home after dark and needed my high beams the whole time. I try not to think of slasher movies when walking at night. Actually, I try not to walk at night.

It’s friendly. Some people are quicker to talk to me than others, but those who have were extremely friendly. People have given me their phone numbers, invited me to events and introduced me to other folks within minutes of meeting.

It’s intellectual and creative. I’ve received more bookstore and library recommendations in the past five days than I have in 19 years living in Los Angeles, and heard there are many other writers and artists up here.

It’s cheap. Not only are the prices of necessities and services lower, but there are fewer opportunities to spend money. I’m not eating out, going to the movies, walking by stores or cafes. I literally haven’t reached for my wallet to buy anything in three days.

I had that fantasy too.

In January 1988, I followed an American man I met in Montreal, where he was finishing medical school and I was a newspaper reporter, and moved to Hanover, New Hampshire, a small town two hours north of Boston best known for Dartmouth College, one of the most elite and costly universities in the nation. I worked there for three months on a visa, then moved permanently, expecting to stay there for the next three years while he finished his medical residency.

Yes, please!
Yes, please!

I barely lasted another year.

Summer was heaven: sailing, hiking, canoeing, soaking up the beauty and silence of the Upper Valley. Fall, with the leaves turning color and the smell of woodsmoke in the air, was glorious.

By January, though, I was ready to shoot myself: completely bored, lonely, broke and isolated. Unlike virtually everyone around us, I didn’t have a job and wasn’t married, pregnant or already a mother. I didn’t jog nor have the slightest desire to do so.

We had a great apartment, the main floor of a big old house in Lebanon, NH. I loved our large kitchen with its deep wooden flour bin and 1950s stove. It was a beautiful part of the country, and I loved exploring its backroads and rivers. Every Friday I took a folding chair at a local auction house and got a great education in antiques.

But my boyfriend, (later husband), was gone most of the time working and when home was exhausted and withdrawn. We struggled to live decently on his $22,000/year salary and my meager savings. Oddly, for being in the country surrounded by open land, there was nowhere to go for a walk, because all that land was privately owned.

I hate to admit it, but I also had no idea how to connect with anyone there; my primary identity, then as now, was my work. Not there.

And rural economies, I quickly learned — having only lived in large cities like London, Paris, Toronto and Montreal — were two-tier: you were lucky enough to find a decent, solid job (teacher, nurse, government) or toiled for pennies in a low-wage position.

In utter desperation, I once called a maple syrup farm that had advertised for workers, but was dismissed out of hand for having no prior experience.

(Here’s a sobering piece about rural homelessness in Missouri.)

Our phone rang all the time, each time a wrong number, and each time with the same request: “I need a new windshield”; ours was the former number for Upper Valley Glass. No matter how many times I entertained his co-workers, almost no one ever reciprocated. Without a job or friends, life was grim and lonely. There was no internet then, no Skype.

We moved to a suburb of New York City in June 1989, to a Hudson river town, and I’m — very happily! — still here. I know the people who run our coffee shop and gourmet store and hardware store. I’m at our YMCA a few days every week so have friends there as well. Even though it’s officially a village, it never feels claustrophobic.

On our main street, a terrific concert hall
On our main street, a terrific concert hall

I’m not sure I’d ever live in a rural small town again. I can see Manhattan’s mid-town towers from my street and be walking among them within an hour. I know how badly I need that balance.

How about you?

Do you live in — and love — a small town?

Have you tried it and abandoned it?

40 thoughts on “Small town life — bucolic relief or isolating hell?

  1. i’ve never lived in a small, rural town and i think i’d probably have the same feelings you had, after a time, if i did. i love to visit them, but just don’t think i could make my home there. i know myself, and love being able to walk downtown, and experience all kinds of cultural experiences and enjoy the choices available. it must have been especially hard for you, having such a challenging relationship while living there –

  2. dabaudoin

    I grew up in a small town and hated it. I was stifled, paranoid, and bored out of my mind. After college I moved to New Orleans and then to Phoenix, where I blossomed. Circumstance has put me in another small town for the past decade, but I’m going back to Phoenix as soon as I can. Small town life works for some people. But if you don’t fit into the narrow parameters, you are probably going to feel smothered.

      1. dabaudoin

        Some people are born for small towns–they feel safe and warm there. Others feel cramped and smothered. It’s just how we’re wired. No need for guilt.

  3. Steve

    A big event here in my little place is when my neighbors cows get out of the fence. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else. You can have all the hustle and bustle, dirt and filth, crime and “excitement” of the big city.

  4. Peter William Carrillo

    I lived in a small town when I grew up, I moved to a smaller town for university, and now I live in a larger town, but I’m way out in the country. Basically, after living my whole life in small towns and rural areas, I am beyond ready to make my way to a bigger city.

  5. Always enjoy reading your blog, Caitlin! Been thinking I would like to move back to the Northeast in a few years and was looking at the Hudson Valley. I know it’s a bit rural up there, but I figured I could be in NYC in 2 hours if I ever wanted or needed to go, so I wouldn’t feel so isolated. Do you think if you were closer to civilization it would have been easier to handle? Or am I kidding myself?

    1. Thanks, Viv! Come….it would be so fun to have you nearby. 🙂

      We had several challenges at once: 1) NO money! So even going to Boston would have cost us money (gas, food, parking for the day, a meal or two) we didn’t even have; 2) I’m not thrilled driving 4 hrs in one day; 3) no work or friends. Without either of those, it was just misery, really.

      If you come here, you have a much better/easier option, which is the train in and out of NYC. That makes it so much simpler…you can sleep/work/read…not sit in a vehicle.

  6. I grew up in the middle of North Dakota. City wasn’t that small but you couldn’t get more isolated. When I graduated from college I ran. I couldn’t go back to small town and I’m an introvert and almost hermit. I like the idea of being surrounded by people but able to be alone. Even when I vacation in the middle of nowhere I’m done with the bucolic afte about 48 hours. I suppose it all depends on where you’re at as a person.

    1. Thanks for sharing this…

      I almost always now choose to vacation in a large city; the suburbs (while lovely to look at here) are boring as hell and I want to walk everywhere or use public transit or taxis….NOT drive all the time! I like small cities like Flagstaff, AZ and Tucson, where I was in May 2013.

  7. Once on a road trip through South Dakota, we hung around the pool with a big 16-year-old who had done rodeo for years. He showed us his scars, talked about his collapsed lung in a very off-handed way.

    We told him we lived in Chicago, and asked if he had ever been there. He gave a shudder and said with genuine concern, “No way, that place is too dangerous!”

  8. lexc13

    Tried the small town thing for college, lasted a year and a half. I started to have that trapt feeling but then again I was on campus and didn’t drive, so I kind of was trapped. But I’m almost totally over city living now and thinking I want to get out. I do worry about being too far from the city. I also guess I’m going to have to learn how to drive.

    1. That was a big change for me! I left Montreal at 30 — never having driven — and had to learn before I moved to NH here I also had to buy a car. I had always relied solely on taxis, public transit, my bike or walking up to that point.

      But I love the flexibility and independence of knowing how to drive, so it’s been a great addition to my life.

  9. First of all, thanks for including me in your post. Second, I can only imagine how isolating and frustrating it would be to live here before/without internet! Thankfully, internet is working perfectly, as is cell phone. We’ll see how long I last (I’m shooting for a year), but so far so good. I’ve already met several people, including a cool young couple who live in Brooklyn and here (up the road from me). I also have several things on my calendar and might be joining the local choral group “The Village Voices”! 🙂

    I don’t know if I could live here forever, but it’s a nice break from the massive congestion that I left behind, at least for now. Also, I think upstate NY might be different than other rural areas. But I TOTALLY get not feeling the country life. Talk to me again in the winter! 🙂

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  11. Funny. I never dream of living full-time in a small town. Just having a bit of a weekend place. And even then, it needs to have a hub. I just want my place to be a bit out of the hustle and bustle. But on the craziest of days, my fantasy is to spend a week somewhere quiet. Read tons of books. Swim to my heart’s content. Hike. Build fires. Ahhhh.

  12. I live in a fairly small town, but it’s home to a large, state university, so it has a different feel than the small town where I grew up. We’ve been here nine years, and I’m ready to move. It’s fine. I have friends. It’s somewhat transient with the university, but frankly, I thrive on change, and I’ve been here way too long. I miss New York. I lived there for a year in my early 20s (late nineties) and a part of me wants to go back or at least visit more frequently. We moved here from Atlanta, and although I wasn’t crazy about living there at the time, I visited this past weekend, and the energy was intoxicating. I realized that I missed it, too. I think I just need a bigger city. I relate to people better in a larger place. I thought a smaller town would be better for raising children, but I don’t think my kids are small-town people either. In fact, my oldest said today that he thought we should go away for the holidays — to New York or Atlanta. I’d like to make that happen. Most likely we’ll be moving to Savannah in the next year or so. It’s a small city and slower paced than other urban areas, but it has a creative, progressive vibe. I’ll take it.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience…it’s interesting that some people love them and some of us…don’t. I’m so much happier with the added choices of a city, for culture, work, friendships.

      Savannah is gorgeous! That sounds like a nice choice to look forward to.

  13. I grew up outside Chicago, went to college in a very small town in Iowa, and lived in Denver for years. There are pros and cons to both cities and rural communities. I prefer to live in a small town that is within easy driving distance to a larger metro area. Gives the peace and quiet and still provides access to all the “fun” urban experiences. I.e. Concerts, traffic jams, major sporting events, drive by shootings, etc. 🙂

    1. That’s what I have….and like it quite well. It also saves a lot on rent/mortgage as it’s much less costly outside Manhattan and the five boroughs for, in my mind, an overall better quality of life.

  14. I have such conflicting feelings about this! I grew up in a very small town in Orange County, NY. I value the childhood I had so much that I find it hard to understand how I don’t want that now.

    We lived in a small town between Montreal and Ottawa for two years before moving to Toronto. There were some amazing things about living there (most notably, the cheap housing costs). But we didn’t last long, mainly due to the lack of job opportunities.

    Now, I love living in the city, but we’re struggling because owning a home here seems so far out of reach. (I’d say we could rent forever, but the fact that we’ve been given notice because our block has been sold and is being turned into townhomes is exactly why I don’t relish that idea.)

    I love the small towns along the Hudson north of NY. That balance I think is exactly what we need. But we also need a lotto win to buy a house, even in the suburbs. Le sigh…

    1. Those Hudson valley towns can be affordable — and anything is better than Toronto housing costs! I left TO in 1986, even then appalled by the costs and the $$$$$ two-income couples who could, and do, pay $$$$$$$ over any asking price. I think it’s one of the toughest and most skewed real estate markets anywhere, really.

      I come back to visit every year, or more, and also watch the real estate ads. I’d love to own one of the big old houses…but I don’t stand a chance. That hurts. I don’t like having had to leave my hometown and history. But I did better here in many ways…

      It’s a difficult balancing act to find a place to live that’s: 1) affordable 2) offers a really good quality of life for that lower price (i.e. access to culture, nature, good schools/libraries/services. etc 3) socially welcoming 4) has a climate that we can handle 5)oh, yeah….jobs! Good jobs. Plenty of them in case you lose one, or several…

      Wishing you luck!

  15. I grew up in a small Iowa town and have spent most of my adult life in relatively small college towns. Now we are preparing (over the last five years ) to move to my husband’s hometown in rural Kenya. I love to visit cities and I couldn’t wait to leave rural Iowa when I was 18, but some part of me really does find comfort in constantly being surrounded by people I know well. Plus, I love farms, the outdoors and reading. Because so much of my life is interior, I just don’t mind the excitement of the city being reserved for occasional visits. But I do agree with others that it’s a temperament thing and some people just seem wired better for city or rural life.

  16. I seem to adapt wherever I go. I’ve lived in large cities abroad and in the US, small suburban communities and now I am in the sticks–the Adirondacks. This last move was to get away from the noise of Long Island, but also the expense. There are drawbacks like the hour drive to a good grocery store or the doctor and vet, but I’m in between Albany and Montreal.

    We’ll see how the winter pans out. My first year on Shelter Island I definitely had cabin fever, but now I know what to expect.

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