There are certain things you learn growing up in a rural area. You learn how to change your own flat tire because you know that when you need to, you won’t have cell phone service. You learn how to drive on roads that have “city people” white-knuckling at 20 mph under the posted speed limit. You learn that trying to get away with anything as a teenager is futile, because before you even get home, your mother will have heard about it. You know that every time you go to the grocery store, you will run into at least ten people you know.
You think it’s normal that your teachers are also your relatives, family friends, and go to your church. Your friends’ parents are also your parents’ friends, and people often can’t remember how or when they met. You feel like you’ve just always known everyone. You learn that girls have to know how to use tools and fix things, and that boys have to know how to cook and do laundry. Gender roles mean nothing in the country. Everybody works. Everybody gets dirty. You know what to do and who to call when the neighbor’s horses get loose. You know the names and faces of your entire graduating class.
You learn that shoes in the summer are superfluous (and that you only use words like superfluous when you’re trying to impress someone) and that walking barefoot across gravel, hot pavement, slippery river rocks, or into the grocery store is expected behavior. You learn how to recognize river currents for when it’s safe to swim. You are aware that the river will flood over the roads at least once every year. You accept that the power will go out every time the wind blows and won’t come back on for at least hours. Sometimes days. It doesn’t matter; you or one of your neighbors owns a generator.
You know all of the back roads and alternative routes to get everywhere you would ever need to go. You never need a map or street names. You immediately recognize the sound of the siren going off at the volunteer fire station, and you know which of the firefighters got there first by how long it took to shut it down. You know the color, make and model of the fire chief’s personal vehicle (which is almost guaranteed to be a truck) and get out of the way without hesitation if you see him speeding down the road. You understand that when you hear sirens, someone you know is in trouble.
You learn to bake cookies when your friends are sad. You make homemade chicken noodle soup when they’re sick. You smile and say hello to strangers in public and know all of the local business people by name. You probably go to school with their kids. You will almost definitely work for one of them when you get your first job.
When you leave home after high school, at first it feels liberating. Eventually it gets lonely. You don’t know your neighbors and learn to stop making eye contact with strangers because it creeps them out. You sit in your local Starbucks and miss Saturday mornings at your hometown café. You can’t see the stars anymore, and you forget what fresh air smells like. You still know that every time you go home and stop at the grocery store on your way to your parents’ house, you will run into somebody you know. Most of us move back at some point. If not, we find another place that kind of feels like home. Because we want our kids to grow up country, too.
Emily Hofmann McKagan is an Arlington native, and a Bellingham transplant.