As I set out to write this book, it occurred to me. “I wish this town had mini-golf. My three kids would get a kick out of it.” Curious, I took a look around. Every city larger than ours had mini-golf. We’re located in a small community of 20,000, in a rural county of 65,000. The nearest cities with mini-golf have 85,000 people or more. It was a reality I had been living with for five years. It took the absence of a minor recreational activity to make it clear. We hadn’t just left the city. With our move here, we had left services and experiences that we would never see again.
I wondered for the hundredth time, why did we move? Did we make a mistake? Couldn’t I have discovered this mini-golf rule beforehand?
In every town that had a mini-golf course, I found city amenities that rural people covet.
My web search did seem to follow a rule. In every town that had a mini-golf course, I found city amenities that rural people covet. They included national clothing stores, an airport, specialized medical services, and a restaurant scene with nightlife and live music. If they sound like the bare minimum for a place to have, you haven’t moved to a town of 20,000. Ours lacks all of these. (There is a local airport used by fighter jets. We have no commercial air service.) I had been missing these conveniences or necessities to most people in our country.
We can survive without mini-golf. I reach for a quirky example to add context to the unknown place where we live. It’s difficult to explain to city people what it’s like to fall off the map. Five years ago, I moved from the second-largest city in America to the 1,680th largest. (Shouldn’t the list flip to the smallest?) Overnight, my wife and I gave up everything we knew.
It’s pretty rare to lose your modern life when you relocate. Most cities and towns in the United States share common elements. They have various national stores. They have a mix of health care options. There’s a tourist draw of some kind. There’s a group of private companies that provide jobs and attract workers, the usual stuff. Despite their differences, cities and towns run themselves in a comfortably predictable way. If you live in a town that lacks something, you can drive to a city nearby.
We had moved to a different kind of town, a smaller one. This town was hours away by car from the nearest amenities. Not many urban people look at towns that are small and isolated. Yes, there’s a lot of chatter and some evidence that diehard urbanites are looking to relocate to smaller cities and even towns. It would describe my wife and me, but we took things further. We moved to a place entirely out of the way. This town is unknown to many in our own state. By the numbers, we live in the 27th largest city in the 27th largest state in the country.
By the numbers, we live in the 27th largest city in the 27th largest state in the country.
Statistics tend to put us to sleep. It’s why it fascinated me to find kitschy mini-golf acting as a sign of a town’s mojo. If you’re an urbanite ready to simplify your life in a smaller town, take note. The presence of mini-golf may let you know whether that town has the goods.
How so? What could a kiddie golf course inform us about a town’s livability? Without extensive data analysis, perhaps it’s just a coincidence. I have a hunch it’s as simple as mini-golf being frivolous fun. It’s not essential like snow tires or even the local pub. If a town’s residents can afford to support an “unnecessary” business, it shows there’s disposable income in the town. It explains why national stores are there. It suggests an active business community. City people are used to these things. Clothing shops. Medical services. Restaurants. Nightlife. Culture.
We live in a town that’s too small to have much in abundance. We have our version of it. Instead of mini-golf, there’s a county fair every year. Instead of nightlife, there’s an emphasis on family life. We buy clothes at the department store. We shop online. The UPS driver keeps us going. We have everything needed to get by. For many locals who prefer small-town living, the absence of big-city amenities and culture are a benefit. For the person brought up on city living, it can feel like an empty room.
It’s not to say a city person lacks sympathy for the economic situation in a rural town. For example, there’s only one pool hall here. Customers certainly don’t exist to fund mini-golf. Absent a robust economy to draw in a range of businesses, you’re left with whoever moves to town and sets up shop. As a result, we have more of one thing and less of another. We have more tire stores than shoe stores, more realtors than pediatricians. Just as quickly, a store can suddenly close. We don’t get too attached.
We have more tire stores than shoe stores, more realtors than pediatricians.
There are few national stores. Everyone has a wish list of brands that should come next. You hear the reason why corporations are reluctant. The population doesn’t support it.
If you’re reading this book because you’re toying with the idea of leaving the city and relocating to a smaller community, the answer seems obvious. You should steer yourself toward a town that has everything, mini-golf and all. Even with national stores, nightlife, and an airport, the transition from city to country will be an adjustment. Trading in the city isn’t easy.
The answer seems obvious, but there’s a drawback to getting everything you want. If you need to live in a cultural hotbed, you may be surprised to find the same problems you’re trying to leave. We remember Austin, Texas, and Portland, Oregon. Thirty years ago, they were the destinations for urban people leaving the city. Today, they’re busy, expensive, and congested. Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, and Bend, Oregon became trendy alternatives. Both cities started out small. Both experienced explosive growth. They were on the radar.
The answer seems obvious, but there’s a drawback to getting everything you want.
After you’ve moved to Bend, Oregon, and are stuck in traffic alongside your fellow ex-urbanites, on your way back to an overpriced condo, would the trade-off seem worth it? Would the many things you gave up in the city still be worth losing?
People have fled the big city for decades. Our urban fantasies of quaint, undiscovered destinations are, in reality, bigger and more expensive than ever. Even if you bring along city equity, you won’t see the dramatic difference that urbanites before you found.
There’s another way to go. It’s a strategy for savvy city people who want their relocation to count. It requires pain tolerance. It involves moving “off the map.” What you do is this: settle in the least-known town that you can find—and make it work. If your goal is to live in wide-open spaces at a reasonable cost, that life is easier to find in an unknown town. It’s the reason we’re here.
Where is here? It’s a farming community not often spoken about. It’s in Southern Oregon. Locals refer to it as a city, and if you’re passing through, people think it’s a town. The major institutions include a hospital, a small technical college, and a national guard airbase. There isn’t much to draw tourists, but a national park is located 1.5 hours away by car. It’s an agricultural town once famous for another industry, logging, that was sadly legislated out of existence years ago.
What you do is this: settle in the least-known town that you can find—and make it work.
Our new home is a rural town, lacking in trendiness, removed from many of the benefits of modern life. Some predict this town will become the next to grow exponentially. It hasn’t happened. Others believe the town leaders are working to prevent it. People around here like it small, quiet, livable. There’s enough to get by.
The locals aren’t incorrect. My wife and I own a livable house with high-speed internet. Two of our kids go to an affordable private school. We make peace with what the town lacks in different ways. Some make a point to travel as often as possible. Others tend to forget there’s more to be found elsewhere. A routine can help you to ignore the limitations. You climb the hill in front of you. What’s in your periphery can wait for another day.
How do you forget the broader life you had?
For some of us, it isn’t easy. How do you forget the broader life you had? I loved to live in the city. It was my only goal. I adopted the city as my own and worked hard to stay. Over twenty years, I lived in New York City, Los Angeles, and San Francisco. I was also fortunate to get close looks at Moscow, Copenhagen, and Tokyo. How did I end up in a small town? Why did I agree to stay until the end of time (or at least my time)? Could I last that long?
On paper, there’s more value in small-town living. Everyone knows the “best and brightest” cities are full. Can a city person take advantage of the country without going insane in the process? What’s the true nature of rural living, anyway? Is it marked by warm moments or filled with quiet desperation? Are the lower costs and intangible benefits worth all that you give up? Is more modest, more peaceful living any more straightforward?
Did I find the value? Give up too much?
I had traded the top-5 cities in America for number 1,680. Did I find the value? Give up too much? Did I even want to think about it? Could I think of anything else?