Sunday, October 25, 2009

Our Town

Three weeks and 7000 miles on the road, much of it in new territory, generates a score of story threads, each one screaming for elaboration. The priorities are falling into place. The piles of reference materials with notes on notes get a bit neater but never what one would call orderly. Even the electronic outlines show signs of healthy word growth. Somehow, sometime, coherent essays will come out of all of this. For now, I'm still content to wander - and wonder - over the whole expanse of people and places over time. Occasionally, observations in search of comment fly off this great spiral. Here's one of them.

Vastness is a striking element of the High Plains and Northern Rockies. Distant features on the horizon seem pushed beyond unreachable by the perspective. There is a similar vastness overhead in that huge dome of sky, but interestingly, it seems so close that one could reach deep into it and grab a handful of cloud. But it only works directly overhead. Look to the side and the perspective makes one feel very insignificant. In sum, it is a landscape of isolation. At the same time, the great cultural quilt called the Public Land Survey System, a concept out of the mind of Thomas Jefferson, insured that settlers would have roads, schools and urbanization, at least on a small scale.

In the century or so that this region has been settled by the farmer, the miner, and the merchant, thousands of towns have indeed developed. I visited many of them, the smaller towns, on my journey: Glendo, Wentzville, Buffalo, Percival, Harlowton, Beatrice, Medora, Yanktown, Glendive, Mobridge, Forsyth, Roundup, Dickerson, Washburn. Some of them seemed to be thriving; others just holding their own. For most, the shining moments had long passed into the vacant storefronts, quiet streets, a subsistence economy, and aging population. Still, there was a sense of pride in those towns. The commemorations were evident in their vernacular monumentation to origins, the famous and infamous, the veterans living and dead, to love of country, and to spiritual beliefs. Elementary schools, regardless of age, were also well kept, reflecting the enthusiasm of their young charges who couldn't care less about the adult realities around them.

Why do these places survive? Whether it is yesterday or a century earlier, it takes a special kind of person to stay in the rural Dakotas and Montana no matter how beautiful the land. I can't think of more than a handful of my urban friends who would be interested. Perhaps these small towns persist because they are a product of the investment in the tough, isolated life around them. The sense of ownership, of "home," must be strong among these people as is the bonding. But, are the incentives social or are they driven by a range of economic factors from self-employment to poverty? I can't answer that. I can say, however, that today's small towns everywhere face a continuing out-migration to large metropolitan areas. It is a trend likely to continue. The towns in my list have lost many of their ambitious young adults to Bismarck, Great Falls, Rapid City and bright lights beyond. The older populations left behind sustain them and may do so in the future. After all, I expect many of the sons and daughters will return "home" to end out their lives in the places that nurtured them. Will that be enough? I suspect not, for abandoned towns are a rather common feature in urban history over much of the globe. As a man binds his house, so a town binds its people, but permanency is not a part of the formula. Let us accept it and move on.

I'm leaving tomorrow but I don't want to go
I love you my town, you'll always live in my soul
But I can see the sun's setting fast
And just like they say, nothing good ever lasts

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