Disjoint Observations About This Rural Life
Three months ago, my wife and I decided to leverage work from home to test-drive rural life. We put our stuff in storage, drove across the country, and rented a farmhouse a few miles from where my wife grew up. I’m originally from a city a few hours away.
If you want an image for what this place is like think Eastern half of the United States, rolling hills, a mix of small farms and woodland, 45 minutes from the nearest town, pickup trucks and tractors on the roads, 95%+ white, snowy in winter, hot in summer, peaceful, isolated.
Three months isn’t long, but its long enough that I have a sense of the rhythms of this place. Here are some disjoint observations about this life from an admiring outsider:
- I’ve never lived here before, but my family was among the first settlers in this region, so I have roots going back hundreds of years. This gives me a sense of belonging and rootedness that is hard to explain and sounds silly spoken out loud. It is gratifying going to the store and seeing name tags with my last name on them. I didn’t realize how alienating city life was. Its nice not being a minority.
- This place is “in decline”. The population has contracted by 5 or 10% over the past decade. I knew this going in. It is sad, but not as sad as I thought it would be. There are lots of young people around, there are festivals and community engagement and there are new houses going up and new businesses being founded. The primary channel where you feel it is real estate. People just assume their properties and farms will sell for nothing or be abandoned (which distresses them). Property tax is more important than mortgage payments. Housing costs are trivial for nearly everyone who works.
- Related to 2), people keep a few animals, allow their land for grazing, or make hay in order to qualify as a farm for tax reasons and therefore dodge (some) property tax. The amount of labor involved in stiffing the government a few grand is considerable.
- People are incoherently libertarian. The government pays for schools, roads and medical care, but is perceived to do little for people (perhaps relative to lavish urban spending). Government does impose lots of land-use regulations which people hate. Everyone is an expert on government rules as it pertains to their land and every new environmental regulation is perceived to be a cynical power grab by out-of-touch city folk.
- People know their political representatives personally. My father-in-law has his state representative’s phone number and calls him about potholes. Political office is often hereditary.
- Having a ton of land is amazing. The amount of work involved in keeping it up is also amazing. Hours a week on a ride-on tractor is typical in the summer months to say nothing of tree management, fixing fences, etc.
- The average income is conspicuously lower than in the city, but you can get by on much less. People talk about jobs in terms of wages ($/hr) rather than salary ($/yr) and if you are getting above $25, you are doing great. The career options open to people who are unwilling to move are slim, openings few, and usually gotten through personal connection. On the other hand, there is tons of work to do. If you are willing to work outside for a few bucks above minimum wage, you’ll never be unemployed.
- The only way to “make it” here is to be a doctor or start a business. People with money are generally held in high esteem because they tended to make it the hard way. In general, if you are a hard worker, you are respected. The overpaid symbol manipulators (like me) are rare and held in contempt. Real work takes place outside.
- Farming is really hard work. It is a common sentiment is that “city folk don’t deserve to eat” because of how little farmers make for the work they do. You can put in a full day making hay and a whole field’s worth will sell for less than $1,000.
- Barns are for hoarding. Aside from a tractor and maybe a few other pieces of machinery, barns are where people put their piles of stuff.
- My urban social circle is neurotic and childless 30-somethings. They worry about career progression, affording houses, and the next vacation. They lean into the rat race. Here our social circle is family: young couples with lots of kids. Its invigorating, and by comparison, the city seems degenerate. It is amazing how the tenor of life changes when the average number of children per family in your life is close to three. My own stress levels have declined a lot. I don’t know how much results from a more laid-back social circle versus the change in scenery.
- As a default, people are racist. The attitude is something like: I like the immigrants I know, I dislike the ones I don’t, and I don’t want many to come because this place belongs to my people. Once the locals get to know immigrants as individuals though, I’d bet they would do more for them than most urbanites. While immigration is low, there is a small and growing community of non-white people. One guy routinely makes cruel comments about Mexicans, but later described how “Manuel was new around here and needed some help with his roof, so I went down to help out”.
- The internet is awful, costs a fortune, and has revolutionized life here – especially Amazon.
- School quality and stranger violent crime are nonissues and never discussed.
- Bugs are a scourge.
- Childhood here has converged with the city through video games. Girls and boys, pre-teens and teens, urban and rural all play a shitload of video games.
- People die in car crashes. Everyone knows of several people who died young in cars.
- The weather dictates the rhythms of life here. In the city the weather is an annoyance, here the weather forecast is *the* topic of conversation – and not just for old people. A snowstorm means you may be stranded for a few days at home, a frost means your tomato plants need to be covered, too little rain is bad for crops, etc.
Putting everything in the balance, I think city life is marginally better than rural life for us, but that is only because we earn a high income so we can avoid most of the pain points of city living. If we earned anything close to the median income, the country would be the hands-down winner. I encourage all of you to try it.