Notes from the Urban/Rural Divide: Romance Versus Reality

Settling in a quaint rural community seems to be the aspiration of a certain sort of urban person. These people linger over the ‘Homes’ section of the Times, drooling over ‘rural retreats,’ they drive up to see the changing leaves in the fall, they take long weekends at B&Bs and perhaps eventually rent or buy a house in a rural community that they visit occasionally, and in some cases they finally take the plunge, settling full time. They tell themselves and each other about how they’re getting away from the rat race, getting in touch with nature, how they’ll finally have time for themselves.

Their jealous counterparts in the city ask them for quaint rural tales and they oblige, taking care to talk about how they’ve been embraced by the community, how the nice old lady at the farmers’ market remembers their order every week, how people at the post office say hello on their way through the door. Rural life is different, they say, slower, more meaningful, more of a community. Then they in turn write columns for the ‘Home’ section or short, saccharine little memoirs about how sweet it is to take up country living.

A huge sense of romance swirls around rural communities and what it means to live in them, and that romance doesn’t necessarily mesh very well with reality. Not just in the sense that not all rural communities welcome outsiders, not all rural communities are sleepy and slow, not all rural communities are low-crime and pleasant to be in; some are insular, some resent outside people, some are struggling with meth and assaults and other problems, some are struggling to maintain logging, fishing, and other industries.

But the actual facts of day to day living in rural communities can be quite grinding, something many people leave out in their charming tales, or disguise with cutesy anecdotes that conceal the truth. For city dwellers, there are things about rural life that may come as a shock. You are responsible on a very personal level for your own water, sewer, and garbage. If there’s a problem with your water supply—your pipes burst, your pump is damaged, your water is contaminated—there’s no municipal agency to take care of it for you.

When your toilet starts overflowing and sewage backs up in your shower, you’re the one who snakes the lines and calls the septic company to see about pumping your septic tank. (By the way, did you know that your cute rural house has a tank of shit somewhere in the backyard? Oh, and you’ll need to locate it and dig it up so the septic service people can get to it, unless you want them tacking that on to your bill, which, believe me, you don’t.) When your garbage cans get full, you need to take them to the dump or arrange for garbage service, and you’ll need to secure them to keep pests out.

When your roof leaks, when your floors creak, when your windows crack, all of these things need to be dealt with. You can try doing it yourself, something many people seem enthusiastic about because they embrace this as part of the rural ‘lifestyle,’ but you may quickly learn that it requires tools, skills, and patience. Which means you’ll be looking for a professional, and that requires wading through an assortment of shady handypeople and contractors to find out who can actually do the work and won’t gouge you for it; all those sweet folksy rural homefolks are perfectly happy to take advantage of the ignorant city people.

Living in rural communities requires sacrificing access to rapid, high-quality medical care. It means you’ll have fewer social and cultural opportunities. It’s likely to mean that you will be living in a less diverse community. There’s a reason that I spend every trip to the city eating basically continuously; because in my rural community, there’s no Burmese food, no Ethiopian food, not an Indian place to be seen. A handful of fine dining restaurants with highly inflated prices are the only decent places to eat, with a few notable exceptions.

It’s not that uncommon to see city people buying rural property and not hacking it. Especially when they transition from part to full time in the community they’re expecting will adopt them as one of their own. When the reality of life sets in and people start to think about how much energy is involved in daily survival, how far away the nearest good French restaurant is, how much more work it takes to get out and see friends, they start second-guessing themselves. And they start slowly withdrawing, taking more time in the city, leaving their house empty more, eventually deciding to rent or sell it and go back to their prior lives.

The romantic notions of rural life, fed by myths created by city people, reinforced by social attitudes about rural communities, create very much a primrose path for people who expect one thing and get another when they move to small communities across the United States. Many people don’t seem to understand that the front lines of the class war are being fought in rural spaces, and that people fighting for survival have no time for, or interest in, bumbling people from the city; that kindly mentor you’re visualising to help you settle into your new life may never appear. And while the reality of rural life can be amazing and invigorating and wonderful, it’s also not going to be like the romance you are hoping for.