What Living an a VERY Small Town Taught Me

In 1992 I moved to a town of about 500 people, nestled in the heart of Vermont’s Green Mountains. In the preceding few years I had moved a lot — Boston, New York City, Chicago, Aspen, Rockport, Maine — I thought I’d only be here for a a season. I was always up for the next challenge and that year I decided staying in the same place would be my challenge. 25 years later I’m still here. I’ve seen a lot of people come and go. Some thrive, most can’t hack it. The economy is tough, there aren’t enough people to support most businesses, everything’s closed by 8, it’s a 30 minute drive to the grocery store; and yet I stay.

Life in a small town teaches you surprising lessons: tolerance, humility, self reliance, and to be yourself.

Tolerance.

This comes as a surprise to most people. Small towns look pretty homogeneous from the outside. And in many ways they are. But when I lived in big culturally diverse cities like New York and Boston, I chose who I surrounded myself with. I spent almost all of my time with people that shared my interests and thought like me.

When I first moved here I used to joke “I only have 7 friends, and I don’t even like any of them.” What did I mean? I meant that in the outside world I wouldn’t have chosen any of those people to hang out with.

In a small town you become friends with the people around you, even if they’re different from you. That opens your eyes. And then there are the people you don’t like. You may not like them, but you nod good morning when they hold the door for you, and you thank them the first time they pull your car out of a ditch, or find your runaway dog, and you come to see their humanity.

Humility.

You may feel superior, but you’re not. A small town will teach you that.

Self Reliance.

I remember the time we called the police and they told us there had been a big crash on the highway and the State Troopers wouldn’t be able to come for a few hours. That was a wake up call. But it’s more than that. It’s a culture of doing for yourself and your neighbors, not waiting for the proper authorities.

I’ve written a lot about our town’s experience in Hurricane Irene (www.floodbound.com,) during that storm 10 homes in a town of 500 people were destroyed and the town was completely cut off from the outside world. The height of the storm found neighbors cutting and clearing downed trees to try to save the bridge, and others cooking and setting up hot food to support them. It wasn’t anyone’s job, it was just something that needed to be done. The town had no school, police or hospital but had acting sheriffs, a school on the green, and a medical center in our one room library staffed by doctors, nurses, PAs and even ski patrollers.

The power company said it would be weeks before they reached us, what they didn’t know was that we would reach them. Our residents stepped up and started fixing roads.

It’s a simple concept. If you see something that needs to be done, and you have the ability, you do it.

Be yourself.

In bigger towns I had my work self, my home self, my school self, and probably some others. Remember the Seinfeld episode where “worlds collide?” In a small town there is only room for one version of you. There’s no use pretending. It’s freeing. If they like you, they like you. You as you are. They’ve already seen your mistakes.

Will I stay here another 25 years? I don’t know, it might be time for another change. But whatever I decide, this place has made and indelible imprint on me for the better.