Big times in small towns

22:55, May 06 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.

I'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.

I 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.

Then, 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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