I spent well over half my life in the suburbs of major cities -- first Phoenix, then various cities contiguous to Los Angeles. I finally in 2002 moved to my first "somewhat" small town, Norco, California, but with a Home Depot, Costco, Sears, Wal Mart, Kmart, Outback Steakhouse, and all the other comforts of big cities within five miles of the town limits, it really wasn't small-town life. But it was close.
But I left Norco in 2004, seven years ago next month, for what was at the time an unincorporated area of Gila county, about 6 miles from Payson, Arizona, which with a population of about 12,000 qualified as a small town. There's a Home Depot and a Wal Mart, a small Sears appliance store, two grocery stores, and for the most part everything else in town is small, locally-owned, and struggling to survive ever since the Wal Mart opened up. A year after I arrived, Star Valley incorporated and included my rural neighborhood, so I now live in a real small town with a population of only 2000 people and a large herd of elk.
The Suburban Cowgirl is in the suburbs no more. I've graduated to a "small town" and the next stop on my way to nirvana will be when I actually move to the country, on 5 acres or more, out in the boondocks somewhere, at least 10 miles from the nearest town. I have aspired to that all my life. Will I make it someday?
Life in a small town is unlike life in the city or even in the suburbs or even in a quasi-small town like Norco.
City: concrete jungle, nowhere to ride, nobody knows their neighbor. Think rat race. Think laws. Think teenagers drag-racing down the street. Think sirens in the night, helicopters spotlighting alleys, cops calling through a bullhorn to stay inside.
Suburbs: bigger lawns, can find somewhere to ride within a few miles, probably know your neighbors' names, probably are friends with a few of them. Could borrow eggs or flour from at least three neighbors. Teenagers more restrained because someone might actually know their parents. Sirens in the distance. You might be able to hear a rooster crow somewhere.
Norco: Horsetown USA. Bridle trails alongside the streets, open, protected preserve just a few miles away where you can ride for miles. Everyone has animals. Neighbors look after each other's horses and loan hay instead of a cup of flour. Teenagers are in the local barrel races. No street lights in most areas; you can actually see stars at night. Moonlight rides. You probably have a rooster in your own yard; don't need to borrow eggs because they're out in the hen house. The local Horsemen's Association meetings draw 100 members every month.
Small town: Wow. National forest 100 yards from my gate. Lots of people have horses, the rest of them used to have them, wish they did, or are hoping to get one soon. Nobody thinks anything of it if someone walks into a local store with a gun on their hip; after all, there could be rattlesnakes out there. You know all your neighbors and will hop a fence to drag their escaped horse out of their vegetable garden while they're down in the valley. The local Horsemen's Association might draw 15 members on a good month.
In a small town, you can hardly go anywhere in town without running into at least one person you know at the grocery store, post office, gun shop, or thrift store. The day I moved in here, I left my car at the storage yard where my stuffed-full UHaul truck had been left by my moving assistants two days earlier and drove it to my new house to await the unloading crew I had hired. But I was stuck there because the movers were late (they actually never showed at all, and I had to hire a local moving company to unload the thing two days later) and I didn't want to drive the UHaul truck to go anywhere. I hung around my driveway until I saw a car coming from the far end of the dead-end road I live on. I flagged them down and asked them to give me a ride back to my car at the storage yard 2 miles down the road and they gladly did it. I was a complete stranger to them.
So that was my introduction to small-town living. Total strangers saying, "Sure, hop in," and helping me out of an awkward situation.
In a small town, directions are given as "Go just past the Baptist church and turn right" or "It's the place with the orange sign just east of the Circle K." My own street is "Between the county maintenance yard and the restaurant." The two main highways intersect "at the McDonalds."
I heard a mail clerk today tell a customer, "I can't find the parcel right now but if I find it later on I'll take it home and bring it to you." (The customer was her neighbor.)
The last few members of the now-defunct square dance club still meet on the third Thursday of the month at a local restaurant, just to keep in touch with each other. And I just now got the phone call from the former membership chairperson, reminding me that tomorrow is the day for that. I've gone ONCE in the past year and a half since the club folded, but she calls me every month.
When my corrals flooded in the monsoon a few years ago, the neighbor down the street came with his little bobcat front loader and spent 5 1/2 hours building up the corral with granite and wouldn't let me pay for anything but the cost of the granite itself. I think of his generosity of spirit every summer when the rains come and my horses remain high and dry in their stalls.
People in this small town are hunters and cowboys and have that independent "I can do it myself" attitude. We have four-wheel drive trucks and SUV's. We don't wait for the county or town to send the snowplow. Whoever has the equipment will clear the road for themselves and their neighbors.
If we can help someone, we do.
I've lived a number of places and haven't hated any of them, but this is the first place I've lived where my soul was happy. There is a peacefulness here that I haven't felt anywhere else. Ironically, I'm earning less money in this small town than I ever have in my life . . . and I've never been happier.
I still yearn for acres of grass for my horses, and maybe someday I'll achieve that last goal, but for now, living in this small town of Star Valley is all right with me.
And that's the latest from the Ranch.