By Caitlin Kelly
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?