The Luxury of Friendship in Small-Town America

The essay below is a part of our Love Letters to Rural America project. Participate with your own love letter by submitting it here or tweeting at @cfra with #LoveRural in your message. In this essay Virginia Meyer recalls how she went from living in South Minneapolis to knowing and loving rural America.

I grew up in South Minneapolis on busy 42nd Avenue. The student body of my high school was larger than the population of most towns I lived in post graduation. I was pretty anonymous, average by all accounts. I didn’t stand out. My mom and her sisters are close, and I grew up surrounded by aunts, cousins, and friends. We swam in Minneapolis’ many lakes and ate from my mom’s huge, overgrown garden. It was a good way to grow up, but something about the anonymity of the city bothered me.  There seemed to always be somewhere else to be, someone more interesting to befriend, or something more to experience.

Me giving wagon rides with Kate and Jenny at my College Graduation in 2008

Me giving wagon rides with Kate and Jenny at my College Graduation in 2008

I left Minneapolis two weeks after my 18th birthday and drove to  Warren Wilson College, a small work college in Swannanoa, North Carolina. Swannanoa is a smallish town, just outside Asheville, tucked into the Swannanoa Valley of the Blue Ridge Mountains. At the college bookstore, among anatomy textbooks and three-ring binders, you’ll find bear bells, strap-on bracelets to warn protective mama bears of college kids jogging on the mountain trails all over campus. At Warren Wilson, I learned to apply board-and-batten siding and handle 1,800 lb draft horses in addition to earning a degree in Environmental Studies. The student population hovers around 800 and I made fast friends.  Living and working on campus meant that no one was anonymous, for better or worse, you were known.  

When I was a freshman and working on the campus construction crew, I sliced deep into my left hand with a power saw. I was high on scaffolding, putting up cedar shingles when I made my terrible error, severing tendons to my fingers. Blood soaked the sleeve of my jacket and my favorite jeans, the climb down seemed impossible. One of our crew supervisors, Charles, who lived up the valley with his wife, Mary, and a Belgian draft horse named Old Sam, opened his arms and told me to jump.  

An emergency room visit, surgery, and physical therapy followed. My roommate scrubbed the blood out of my favorite jeans with a toothbrush, and Charles and Mary left cards and candy bars in my mailbox. Once I recovered, Charles invited a few of us over to help him work Old Sam, dragging logs for firewood from his woodlot. When we finished, he paid us $15 and asked us to have a beer on his porch while we watched Old Sam roll in the mud. Living in small towns taught me a lot about unlikely friendships. When your options are limited, you spend your time with people you might never know in a different situation.

For a native Midwesterner, the Blue Ridge Mountains felt suffocating. The lack of visible sky made me claustrophobic, and I missed Minnesota. I spent each summer break in the northwest corner of the state, working for the White Earth Land Recovery Project after my freshman year, then working on a diversified family farm outside Euclid, Minnesota, the next two summers. Euclid is an itty-bitty concrete Main Street surrounded by huge blue sky and the blackest, richest soil I’d ever seen. I spent my 21st birthday at a bar in town called The One and Only. It felt like everyone noticed me and wanted to know why I was there. I was interviewed by the Dakota Farmer, and I explained over and over again to curious neighbors and customers, “I’m working on the farm to get first-hand experience and I want to own my own farm . . . someday.”

Highlights of summers in Northern Minnesota include daylight that lasts until 10pm and watching trumpeter swans nest in Prairie Potholes. I filled the loneliness that comes with being an outsider in a small town with handwritten letters to my grandmother and painting watercolor signs for our Farmers Market stand. I looked forward to long showers, washing away the black, glacial soil, and wearing clean “town clothes” for our weekly CSA deliveries to Grand Forks. My biggest treat was buying a double chocolate cookie from Dakota Harvest Bakers when we delivered eggs. Euclid taught taught me to enjoy and savor the little things. Sometimes I didn’t leave the farm for a week or more. A hot shower, clean clothes, and a treat felt impossibly luxurious.

Moving cows on a Forest Service lease in Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming

Moving cows on a Forest Service lease in Big Horn Mountains of Wyoming

After college graduation, I packed up my Honda Civic and moved to Hyattville, Wyoming, population 74 at 4,884 feet elevation. It’s shockingly beautiful big mountains, dry badlands, and snow melt creeks so cold they'd take your breath away on a 90-degree day in July. When I arrived in June, the town seemed so busy for being so small. The Cafe and Bar was almost never empty, the Main Street wasn’t paved but pick-up trucks lined its sides. I worked on a ranch irrigating, moving cows, making hay, and riding horses. My roommate and I took full advantage of our day off each week. Hiking and rodeos and street dances filled our free time. I was always sun-burnt and always oh-so-happy. Larger ranches who hired hands and managers from far away meant that the locals were accustomed to new faces and people in town. You were known, welcomed even, and there wasn’t the suspicion or confusion I experienced in Northwest Minnesota. 

As the seasonal demand for summer labor decreased, so did the number of people in town. My roommate went back to school in Idaho, ranch hands who worked for the summer in Hyattville moved on to Utah, and snow covered the mountains. I stayed on. Snow and wind sometimes made travel difficult. After hunting season, the town became quiet and slow. I fought the killing loneliness of January alone in Wyoming by playing cribbage at the Hyattville bar with a man so large he had to ride draft/quarter horse crosses. For years after I left Wyoming I sent my cribbage partner postcards, a small thank you for keeping me sane in those months alone.

From the Public Library in Greybull, Wyoming, I applied for a job at the Center for Rural Affairs and got it. I was thrilled! My favorite horse from Wyoming and I moved to a tiny house on a tiny acerage outside Craig, Nebraska (population 199). Since then, I’ve lived in a few Nebraska towns, each with their own unique character. I’ve embraced unlikely friendships in every town, with every move. I imagine that if I had lived in more populated places that I would have sought out people like me and avoided others that made me feel uncomfortable. That luxury of avoidance isn’t possible in rural America. Instead, you have the luxury having to befriend people that you might think are nothing like you.

The best thing about exploring life and locales is that, eventually, you wind up at home with yourself and your location, no matter where it might be. And, for now, I'm glad I ended up right here.