I found this article through the deserving-of-far-more-hits-and-accolades Arts & Letters Daily. I like it. It treats small town America, the backdrop of my entire childhood and teenage years, with a degree of honesty and compassion that is all too rare when, as the writers note, most are all to willing to dismiss it as Red America or something akin to Lake Woebegone.
While I lack the training or background to say much anything of substance about Carr and Kefala's analysis of rural decline and their attendant solutions, their discussion of how the children of small towns are either pushed to leave for four-year colleges or move into full-time jobs immediately following graduation, if until then even, is spot on in my experience. At Lake of the Woods School you knew exactly who would be leaving for their bachelor's degrees and who would be going to community colleges and who would be working at the resorts for the rest of their lives. The ones who took algebra in the eighth grade were going places. Those who took Consumer Math weren't.
In the words of the article, I was an “achiever” and in the most dramatic possible way. The only thing less interesting than attending a Minnesotan university, in my high school mind, was attending a North Dakotan university, most of which were closer to my hometown than the best Minnesotan schools. I applied only to Gonzaga, Marquette and Ithaca, respectively located in Washington State, Wisconsin and New York, and ultimately chose Gonzaga, the school two time zones and over two day's hard driving away. It would have been difficult to get much farther away, and except for the Christmas break, I stayed away. In the past four years, I've probably spent more time in Germany, Kenya and even Indonesia than I have cumulatively in Minnesota. The last time I was in Baudette for any considerable length was the summer after freshman year when I came back to work at the local state park.
It's not that I hated growing up in Baudette, town of 1,000 and seat of Lake of the Woods County, only county in Minnesota without a stop light and proud of it. In a lot of ways, it was a good place to live. I learned patience from the hours of driving to cross-country, track and Knowledge Bowl meets. I could walk twenty minutes and see the Milky Way and Northern Lights on a clear night. I made good friends. Granted, there were problems, like a paucity of outlets for those with more esoteric interests, but no place if perfect. Beside, I like to think that the tight community kept me grounded and prevented my nerdier interests (*cough* Star Wars RPG *cough*) from completely overwhelming me.
Does that mean then that I hope to return and raise my own family there? Now that's an interesting question. The short answer is no. While Amazon.com has made Baudette's lack of a bookstore moot and the Internet in general has made it far less remote and isolated, I've gone to operas in Munich, visited photography galleries in Spokane and seen professional football in Nakuru. I like these things a lot, and say what you will about the Pequana Playhouse, Baudette will never have them. That's kind of a downer.
In my experience, the critical turn is this: in the cities the culture and amusement are provided for you. There are bands and venues and maybe even orchestras. There are artists in every medium. There are restaurants that claim flavors from every hemisphere and cinema with subtitles. If you want it, if you have the slightest, most passing interest in it, you can have it. In small towns, though, it's all up to you. There are high school sports and community theater. You're never just a member of the audience. You're engaged if you're involved at all, but you pay for it in diversity. The people share a common ancestry, but worse still, the same people are behind everything. Parades and fairs and every other special event begin to resemble one another because they are chaired and organized by the self-selected few every time.
By no means is Baudette a terrible place, but it is a very small place, and the world is a freaking huge place. I've wanted to see what else there is, and I have not yet begun to be bored by it. Give me a few more years, maybe a decade or two, and I may discover that Baudette is indeed one of the better places in the world and return, but that is a long way in the future still.
3 years ago