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Entries in small town (2)


Blue Highways: Joplin, Rudyard, Hingham and Gildford, Montana

Unfolding the Map

Merry Christmas everyone!  I hope you've had a wonderful day.  While you were celebrating, we have also been driving along the Hi-Line with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM), through a lot of little small places.  On this Christmas night I reflect on small towns, which we are losing as our population becomes more urbanized.  To see where these four settlements are located, go to the map!

Book Quote

"On that May morning, the wind came strong at my back, and the square stern of Ghost Dancing served as sail; even resting easy on the accelerator.  I blew past clusters of buildings that had got in the way of 2 so they could call themselves towns:  Joplin, Rudyard, Hingham, Gildford..."

Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 6

Downtown Rudyard, Montana. Photo at Click on photo to go to host site.

Joplin, Rudyard, Hingham and Gildford, Montana

We seem to have a lot of small towns in far-away places in the United States.  They aren't quite gone, but they aren't quite there either.  They seem to fade in and out of reality, almost like fantasy places that we don't really notice except when they flash into our conscious as we blast by or through them, or perhaps even stop for a moment to gas up or get a drink and a candy bar.

I have often passed through many of them with nary a thought about them.  Most of the time it's easy to justify.  I have to get from one place to another and have neither the time nor inclination to stop.  Frankly, most of them aren't even considered "towns" but instead are called "census-designated places."  They don't meet the standards for towns.  They are not legally incorporated.  They simply have some sort of concentration of people.  At night, you might notice passing momentarily by a larger cluster of lights than before.  In the daytime, you might notice a gathering of buildings before you travel back into the sparse population.

I grew up on the Northern California coast, and we had little places like this.  These are places that appear around a bend on the Coast Highway, or suddenly materialize in the fog.  Many times, such places might have one lonely business - a store or a restaurant or a gas station - that gives one a potential reason to stop.

Perhaps if you did stop, you might learn some interesting tidbit.  For instance, you might learn that Rudyard, Montana might be named for the writer Rudyard Kipling.  It is hard for me to imagine the author that embodied imperial Britain in the late 1800s and early 1900s (and who wrote some wonderful childrens stories in The Jungle Book, many of which were turned into a Disney movie) having much to do with Montana, but apparently he did make an early trip through the United States and Canada and might have passed through the area.  He also lived for a time in Vermont, which he is said to have loved.  You might also find that Rudyard is the only place in the United States whose direct opposite point on the far side of the earth is upon land.

You might also find that Hingham, Montana was once a thriving business center, built around a square, which had twenty enterprises in the early 1900s, indicating that instead of throwing its buildings at US 2 to be considered a town, to paraphrase LHM, it actually gave US 2 an initial reason to go there.

In fact, this area known as the Hi-Line has a history full of people who settled there on what was essentially a dare - get title to 160 acres if you build a house, raise a crop and keep yourself going for five years.  The people came, and literally fought a war, as one resident puts it in a National Geographic magazine article about the region, against the often inhospitable weather and climate.  And, many of those pioneers were women, who came out and made a go on farms alone.  These were the type of people who settled the Hi-Line and their descendents, the people trying to scrape out a living there today, are deeply rooted to the place..

My fear is that such places will gradually disappear and take with them all of their secrets.  I was reading another article in the National Geographic recently which argued that the best way to house the growing population of the planet to build up.  In other words, people are going to continue to flock to cities because cities are where opportunities for employment and other activities are located.  As people continue to stream into the urban areas, the solution is to build higher and higher to maximize the limited space.  Whole communities can be housed in high rise buildings, and we are seeing this type of building happening in some cities in Asia.  This will leave rural "green belt" areas for recreation and and farming to feed the the world's population.

But as the urban areas build up, we will lose something.  The United States was founded as a rural, agricultural nation that became more and more industrialized over time.  However, our country still has an idealized vision of its rural past.  We consider farmers to be "the salt of the earth," never mind that there are few family farms left in the country.  We extol the virtues of hard work, based on the idea that hard-working men and women roll up their sleeves and get to the land.  After all, it's hard to justify the super-industrious person with the corporate executives trading derivatives from his high-rise office as the pillar of American culture, even though this idea is more true today than that of the homesteading farmer.

What will we lose?  We'll lose a way of life that is part of the American self-image.  We'll lose the iconic image of self-sustainability on the land.  We'll lose the idea of down-to-earth men and women stoically planting and harvesting, hewing and clearing, and building new lives on the frontier.  Perhaps that is as it is meant to be.  Often the price of progress means leaving old things behind.  The price of progress may mean that towns like Joplin, Rudyard, Hingham and Gildford, Montana, once the rule in America, are now the exception and becoming more exceptional each day.  And while most of the younger generation won't necessarily miss them, people like me who grew up in the rural areas will always feel a wisp of nostalgia for what is gone.

Musical Interlude

Beef is one of the main agricultural industries of Montana.  Though I love Aaron Copland's classical music, the beef industry somehow appropriated Copland's Hoedown from his ballet Rodeo in their "Beef.  It's What's For Dinner" campaign.  Since this song is so synonymous with beef nowadays, I am including it as the meat of your musical interlude for this post.


I'm writing this on Christmas Day, so here's your little extra Christmas present.  Don't get spoiled!  It's from The Jungle Book, the Disney movie.  The singing orangutan is the great Louis Prima!

If you want to know more about Joplin, Rudyard, Hingham and Gildford, Montana

Montana's Russell Country: Gildford
Montana's Russell Country: Hingham
Montana's Russell Country: Rudyard
Wikipedia: Gildford
Wikipedia: Hingham
Wikipedia: Joplin
Wikipedia: Rudyard

Next up: Kremlin, Montana


Blue Highways: Klickitat, Washington

Unfolding the Map

We join William Least Heat-Moon for a barbecue with the three hang-gliders in Klickitat, Washington.  Hang-gliding is described as an addiction to risk, to put it all on the line, but to not push the envelope too far.  Sound familiarly like keeping things in balance?  I explore a little from my own experience why it seems that people from small towns might take more risks.  To locate Klickitat, fly to the map!

Book Quote

"Alba Bartholomew lived in Klickitat, a company town of seven hundred in the narrow vale of the Klickitat River.  His little frame house was like the others on the street except for the windsock blowing on the roof.  He worked at the St. Regis sawmill, where he ran a stacker.  It wasn't the most interesting of jobs.  The mill got much of its timber from the Yakima Reservation twelve miles north.  St. Regis was the reason for Klickitat, and when the Yakima's big ponderosa were gone, people feared the company would pull out and Klickitat would go the way of Liberty Bond.

"'....I think the real answer to why we fly is because it's addictive.  It's a buzz to put everything on the line.  Whenever we go up, we're subconsciously asking the most important question in the world - asking it real loud - 'Is this the day I die?'"

Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 8

Klickitat, Washington welcome sign. Photo by a Klickitat resident and in the public domain on Wikimedia Commons. Click on photo to go to site.

Klickitat, Washington

I'm making a little bit of a correlation in this post.  As I learned in my statistics classes, correlation is not causation.  However, one can make a few intriguing suggestions about how things may work through examining correlations.

My correlation, which I am highlighting with my pairing of the two quotes above, might or might not be apparent.  This chapter of Blue Highways is all about three guys who hang-glide.  LHM sees them, meets them, and is invited to the home of one in Klickitat to talk more about hang-gliding. I find it very interesting that LHM describes the town of Klickitat as small and with nothing much besides a dependency on a lumber mill which, if his words are any indication, may close down in some unknown but not too far off future.  (Note: the lumber mill has been closed since 1994)

Just a few paragraphs down the page, one of the hang-gliding guys talks about flying as an addiction, and the thrill of risking oneself to the point of questioning whether the risk will be the last action one ever takes.

It all makes me wonder whether there is truly a correlation between two things exemplified in these paragraphs.  Might living in a small, out of the way, dependent town, lead one to be more open to risk?

Now wait a minute, you might say.  Small towns are often a bastion of conservative values.  People in small towns may live there because there is less risk.  There is often less crime, for instance, and the closeness of small communities often shield its members from other types of risk.  I wouldn't disagree.  After all, I lived in a small town that was remarkably free of issues that plagued more populated areas.

But I wouldn't necessarily agree either.  In my small town, there was little crime, but there also were people who we considered "characters" who might have been locked up in other places.  We didn't have gangs, but we did have families with reputations as fighters who'd just as soon hit you as look at you.

I've argued before, however, that as peaceful, friendly, folksy and pastoral small towns can seem and feel, they often have a dark and sometimes violent undercurrent that is less apparent than it might be in cities.  Small towns can be dark, dysfunctional places, where alcoholism, drugs, and abuse of the emotional, physical and sexual varieties are revealed if someone cares to pull back the curtains hiding them.  I wouldn't trade my small town childhood for anything, because it taught me about the best and the worst that humanity offered.

In isolated small communities, is it any wonder that someone might find risk and danger compelling?  One interesting fact that may support my argument is that small towns and rural areas are overrepresented in the US military.  In 2005, the Heritage Foundation examined U.S. Census data and found that rural areas are overrepresented in the military as compared to urban areas.  While there are most likely many factors that contribute to this statistic, including that rural areas tend to be poorer with less opportunities for employment of young people than urban areas and that there is a higher percentage of conservative-minded people who may view military service in a patriotic sense, I also think that a desire to undertake risk as a way to break free of convention might serve as an additional motivating factor.  The desires that drive young people in cities to gather at Occupy protests currently around the country, to assert themselves in a cause that they can rally around and believe in with like minded people in a structured way, may also come from the same psychological place that encourages young people in rural areas to join the military and do service.  Both choices offer a set of risks and rewards.

When I lived in a rural area, there always seemed to be a number of young people who were always willing to risk.  You probably find the same thing in cities but in small towns it stands out a lot more.  These were kids who were on the forefront of experimenting with drugs, alcohol and sex.  Of course, a lot of us did those things, but small town kids always seemed to take it one step farther.  Some of them paid dearly for their risk-taking.  Alcohol maimed and took the lives of more than one young man and woman when it was mixed with driving.  Somehow, rural areas the loss of someone young is extremely tragic because it is so noticeable, so out in the open, and the grief of parents is on display and not lost or buried in a newspaper column in the back page - it is most likely going to be on the front page of the local paper.

Despite the tragedies, we teens in small towns still too risks.  Why?  Because there was little to do in a small town on the Northern California coast, just as there was little to do after hours in a midwestern plains town, or a town in the South, or a small mountain town.  We took risks because we were young, we wanted to impress the girls/boys, and we wanted to feel like we were in control of our own destinies.  We wanted to feel like we were making our own decisions, even if they were bad decisions.

Today, as an adult of 47, I understand better the idea of risk and reward.  I could, if I wanted to, take hang-gliding lessons which would be a somewhat dangerous but understandable way of taking a risk.  I could do a parachute jump.  I could get a motorcycle to ride the open road or devote my time to mountain climbing or spelunking.  All of these are dangerous but they are considered hobbies that involve an adult's choice.  In those activities, I might still catch a little of the thrill I got by stepping outside the boundaries imposed on me as a teenager.  After all, when all is said and done, humans don't really belong in the sky any more than they belong on a speeding piece of open machinery on an asphalt road or rapelling down into the bowels of the earth.  We do it to push the envelope, to test our limits.  No matter what, we are always like children in that very few of us can ever leave anything just as it is and be content.

Musical Interlude

What's the opposite of taking risks?  Why, it's never doing anything.  As is usual, we find in LHM's travels and quotes that life is a balance, this time between risk and safety.  It's neither good to be a total risk taker.  But, as the Barenaked Ladies point out in their song Never Do Anything, neither is it healthy to never risk nor accomplish anything.

If you want to know more about Klickitat

Klickitat Horizons Community Blog
Klickitat Mineral Springs
Wikipedia: Klickitat

Next up: Dallesport, Washington