I spent the past weekend traveling to and from the places of my husband’s youth. First, we drove to his hometown in western South Dakota, via Northern Colorado and Eastern Wyoming. From there, we went to his college town, on the southeastern tip of South Dakota, crossing the southern half of the state to get there. Finally, after a couple of nights laughing and drinking beer with old friends, we made it home to Denver through Nebraska and Eastern Colorado.
During our time on the road—about 22 hours total—we saw little but one long loop of green out the window, interrupted by a farmhouse here and there, and the occasional two-stop light town, population something in the low four digits.
The places that I lived in, growing up in the United States, were not so far away from all this, figuratively speaking. In elementary, then middle and high school, I lived in towns with residents that numbered in the tens of thousands, but they were places where your parents were taught by the teachers that now taught you (well, not mine, specifically, but you get what I’m saying) and where Applebee’s was a good night out.
I left these places as soon as I could, which in my mind was as soon as I could afford to live somewhere else that was bigger, more crowded, with wide sidewalks full of people trying to dodge tourists.
Now, almost 15 years since I lived somewhere I would have considered the middle of nowhere, I get how judgmental that phrase is: “the middle of nowhere.”
People live there and choose to do so, even if I would never (ever) go back. There is—at least for some—enough to connect you to the rest of the world so that if you really want to leave, maybe you can. If those places felt disconnected in my youth, it’s only because I was disconnected. I didn’t know what I wanted to do, where I needed to go to do it or how to get there. I just knew that I wanted to get out. And I didn’t really go all that far, in the grand scheme of things. (Where I am, my kids can dream about cities that are bigger still.) At least, I didn’t go so far that I can’t look back now and appreciate that the smallness I left behind was formative in a good way.
On the drive home, during the legs I was not behind the wheel, I started reading Sing, Unburied, Sing by Jesmyn Ward, which takes place in rural Mississippi in poverty so profound that you might think it takes place a hundred years ago—until a character walks around trying to look for a cell phone signal.
That world, like the world of endless farm and ranch land through which my husband was driving as I read, is real. It’s not a cliche or a postcard. We—and by “we” I mean “I”—can’t ever think of it as the middle of nowhere, because if we do, the people become nobodies. And, to them, so do we.
I don’t want to live in a country of nobodies.