Big times in small towns

Last updated 10:55 07/05/2012

Most of our attentions when planning our travels fall on experiencing major centres and new cultures. I think however, that getting off the main tourist path, especially in a country as nebulous and never-ending as the United States, can be invaluable. Right now I'm far from the big city lights. I'm happy though. I relish a spot of small town American life.

CPI'm writing to you from Chicago Park, California. It's a town, or more accurately an unincorporated community, small enough that I might be one of the first to actually blog from it. LP's parents live here, and for the next few weeks until we get married, so do I. There're a few things here: an all-purpose shop slash liquor vendor slash DVD rental outfit, a post office, a joined primary and intermediate school whose teams bear the moniker "the Trailblazers", and a big orchard that sells its peaches out of a barn and has a small restaurant affixed to it called The Happy Apple.

Chicago Park's history, proudly detailed in all of its brief glory on a small plaque by the post office, tickles me. A group of Italian-American immigrants from Chicago moved westwards with an eye to creating a grand new utopia. Then they ran out of money.

Everybody waves at you here. I like it.

Small American towns give you a feel for the extremities of the country that the big cities can't provide.

LP's grandmother lives in Ennis, Montana: a one-street town of 800. It is a town that gives small town conservatism a friendly face.

There're more guns for sale in town than there are people (the gun shop's sign proudly claims to have 1100 guns for sale). Many of these guns hang proudly in racks in unlocked utes that line the main street. No one locks anything. People go out on long holidays without locking their homes. Despite its tininess, there's still a parade and a rodeo every July 4.

GVI picked up a newspaper in town the week after Al Gore's Live Earth in 2007. The political cartoon had Gore playing an imaginary guitar with the caption "hot air guitar". Steven Seagal lived here for a time and Kevin Bacon filmed a part of a TV movie in town, which are big talking points.

These are good, friendly people. They are the people you usually hear only referred to en masse in glib analyses of electoral voting blocs. And while you might disagree with the politics of the people in town, no one is really talking about politics.

Where I am now, Chicago Park is 15 minutes' drive from two small cities, Grass Valley (pictured right) and Nevada City, which are veritable metropolises in comparison. For the most part, Grass Valley is a lesson on how corporate chains strangle the life out of a small town: there's a Blockbuster, big brand supermarket, a CVS, McDonald's, Burger King, Taco Bell and more... all in a town of 12,000 people.

One stop up on the motorway is Nevada City, population 3068, which is the spiritual opposite of a place like Ennis, Montana, but just as friendly. It's set picturesquely in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains. It was the site of a gold rush in 1849, and was later one of the most important towns in the state. The architecture hasn't had much of an update since, which is cool. It's a slightly hippy-dippy centre for art and music: indie-harpist Joanna Newsom was born here, as was Supertramp's Roger Hodgson. There's a fairly big burnout quotient in town and a large population of big-bearded elderly looking as though they're preparing to enter a ZZ Top lookalike contest.

ncThen, if you zoom out and into the area surrounding Nevada City: it is a hub for organic farming (pictured right), there's an acclaimed centre for the practice of Zen Buddhism, and then there's the "Ridge"-folk, who live in a sprawling rural area where it isn't uncommon to come across ornately self-built homes where people live entirely off the grid. 

Amusing yourself here is a lesson in making yourself slow down. Above all else, these towns are an excellent exercise in human theatre.

Being in a small town away from your home country probably allows you to romanticise its quirks in a way you can't at home.

I look at Otaki in a much different light from how I look at Grass Valley. I give Ennis a lot more leeway than I do Dannevirke.

It's either that, or our small towns are a lot more miserable than these. I'm not sure.

So when you're abroad an on the road, do you skip from major city to major city? Have you had any great small town holiday experiences?

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AndiNZ   #1   11:56 am May 07 2012

Since you mentioned Dannevirke, I thought I'd say that it has both a KFC and a McDonald's, and way fewer than 12,000 people. So no surprise that a town of that size is home to so many multinationals?

Small towns can be great, or they can be dreadful. Mostly, they are what you make of them. That said, they do tend to be ultra-conservative, and I find myself needing to be mindful of that at times.

Even though I'm politically moderate for the most part, I am still a long way to the left in my area. I might have mentioned during one of your political blogs that I like MMP because I always vote against the majority of my electorate, and my vote still counts.

Mel   #2   12:22 pm May 07 2012

Our honeymoon was small-town Australia. More than that, it was small town Tasmania. Apart from 1 night in Launceston and 3 nights in Hobart (and we only spent half a day actually IN Hobart), the next largest place we stayed was St Helens, population ~2000, fish n chip shop closed on a Saturday afternoon, so our only dining option was the motel restaurant...

It was nice to see some smaller parts of town, but I dont know that we found people particularly friendly. Perhaps we didn't stay in any one place long enough.

Normally, we stick to bigger places - we certainly are on our pending trip to Europe. But then, we have a limited time frame and a lot of land to cover.

kelly   #3   01:52 pm May 07 2012

yeah I was in Kutna Hora and went walkies and ended up in some river town with the locals who spoke no english, they were all pretty much over the age of 80 and really friendly and warm! they sure know how to cook a mean as kai! I'll be spending a few hours this time around in Barstow lol... anyone had any experiences there??

Another Anne   #4   02:52 pm May 07 2012

I remember visiting a village in Switzerland once where they voted in their major elections by going to the town square and raising their hands. I was amazed at how civilized it all was! I also remember visiting friends in a picturesque Cotswold town in England where Starbucks was trying to get in. The compromise was going to be that Starbucks could go in to a property in the main street, but wasn't allowed any signage. I must ask them what happened with that!

Maggie   #5   04:52 pm May 07 2012

If you need to interview a real life off-gridder, I'm your gal :) So excited you're in Chicago Park!

Rosie Angelhair   #6   07:09 pm May 07 2012

Roger Hodgson lives in Nevada City, CA, but he was born in England. There is a big difference.

Richard   #7   01:16 am May 08 2012

Less than 90 minutes to Sqauw, that's awesome!

jaynine6   #8   02:18 am May 08 2012

I love small towns in America. Having lived here for the past 5-6 years, we have travelled through many a small town. I believe these small towns are what America is tuly like, and the best way to really understand and appreciate the American culture and its people (the heart of the country). I dont think you can experience it by just visiting the large LA's, San Fran's and NY's of the US, which is what most tourists only see.

Aimee   #9   11:44 am May 08 2012

I know you don't like Florida, but I lived in a small community when my daughter was just a toddler. We would go for walks everyday and EVERYONE waved, even the tough gangster looking people. Shortly after Christmas one year I had an old lady run out and give my daughter a baby doll, she had enjoyed seeing us walking and had thought of my daughter when she was out Christmas shopping. That is the cool thing about Florida, if you have small children you can get alot of attention from all the old people, which of course is one of the drawbacks too. I have never lived in a big city either in NZ or here in the US, they freak me out and make me feel closed in.

James Robinson   #10   05:43 am May 09 2012

@AndiNZ: I view Danniverke's McDonalds/KFC as an aberration - as it seems more directed at the people who drive through the town, I doubt if it was off the main drag, they would be there. Thoughts?

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