What’s the smallest town you’ve lived in? What’s the smallest town you would?
For me, prior to this, it was Chesterland, Ohio. It held 2990 people on about as many acres — 20 times the acreage of the town I live in now. Chesterland didn’t feel like a small town to me. Small towns are cute. They have charming shops and little cafes that aren’t that good but everyone swears are worth it if you get the right thing. If you Google Chesterland Ohio, the first image that comes up in a house for sale. There is no kitschy downtown. You have to go to Chagrin Falls or Chardon for that.
Downtown Chesterland revolved around Drug Mart, Wendy’s, and leaving.
The next smallest “town” I lived in was Nail Bay, Virgin Gorda. Nail Bay is not a town. It’s — well it’s a bay. But Virgin Gorda was around 3900 people when I lived there, and it operated like a small town. Everyone knew each other. You could sit outside your place and hail a ride from just about anyone. You don’t have toilet paper? Well, then no one else does. The ship just hasn’t come in yet. But emotionally, you were in it together, hopping in dinghies to get from island to island, bartering and trading and IOUs.
But nothing in my previous lives compares to this town. This town has 180 people, many of whom are children. And the closest real town, the kind with a grocery and a DMV is only 2500 people. The DMV is an old courthouse, a stately building with a bell tower. The actual DMV office is tucked down an old hallway, with high ceilings and narrow rooms, trimmed with warm, ornate wood. There are three desks in the office, and I’ve never seen more than one occupied. There has also only ever been one person in front of me. There is a noticeable addition of small talk and even a little gentle ribbing. Their credit card reader faulted when I first paid for my truck registration, and I got a note in the mail apologizing, asking if I could come back — a note an individual person typed and signed. I wore my nicest “town coat” when I went.
When we first started telling people we were moving here from LA, most everyone’s first question was about the size. LA has 4 million people. Even though where we lived, Topanga, was relatively small, it still had more people than our entire county now. But I wasn’t living a big city lifestyle in LA. Even before Ben, when I lived in Santa Monica, I lived small. I biked to work. I walked to the grocery store. I went to the bars in my neighborhood. I set my Tinder radius to one mile. I lived in LA for two years without even owning a car. LA is not like New York. In New York, I also walked to get my groceries, but I would pass what felt like thousands of people. When I walked to get cat litter in LA, I passed maybe three people also on foot in six blocks. That was it. And once I left the every-day-you-go-to-an-office life of Headspace, Ben and I lived an insular life, more so as Covid took hold. I worked remotely from a small cabin in the Santa Monica Mountains. I knew my neighbors. I hung out regularly with maybe 10 people. Many of my most intimate relationships lived online, over FaceTime, in sporadic but heartfelt DMs. My day to day life here in this mountain hamlet feels nearly identical. I am trying to make a house more liveable. I am hiking with my neighbors. I am irritated we forgot to get eggs during our trip to the grocer. I am at my computer, forever muting Slack and taking days to answer emails so I can get some god damned work done.
But the small town-ness, it slithers in.
Recently a writer I follow (Ben Dreyfuss) posted (Richard Dreyfuss’s son) on Twitter (oh no) about the difficulty of getting things in Idaho. I’m going to take a pretty safe stab in the dark and say it’s likely he’s living either in or outside of Sun Valley. I have spent a lot of time in Idaho. My parents met there, my brother was born there, my dad grew up there, working at the laundromat and the ski hill in a small town (population 1423 then, 3957 now), and the whole lot of them live there now. Anyway, Ben Dreyfuss. I was on Twitter when he posted his frustration at getting things in a more rural state, and I cackled knowing the coming wrath of Real People in much of America breaking down the realities to him (leaving alone living somewhere with significantly less infrastructure than the continental United States.)
His gripe was that Amazon 2-day shipping doesn’t even exist in Idaho. This isn’t true. There is a massive fulfillment center in Boise, Idaho. I saw it being built. Every time my parents drove past it, they would mention the sheer, unbelievable size of it. “What are they doing in there? Building a rocket?” “I hope they do. Send some of these Californians to the moon.” (Daughter excluded.)
The internet came for Dreyfuss Jr., as they do for everyone. Obviously his sentiment has a lot of issues (privilege, ignorance, the showboating of a potential previous abuse of a fraught system, etc., etc.) but for the sake of this newsletter, what it really highlights to me is the lack of an understanding of why you live in a small town. It is not for convenience. That’s literally the backbone of cities. Walk to work! Get milk in 5 minutes! Have dinner delivered to your door! Get drunk at the bar and stumble to bed without driving! Small towns are not heralded for their convenience. In a way, they are heralded for their lack of those things because what makes a small town great is the ability to rely on your neighbors — because the store is closed, because the power is out, because you forgot today is Halloween and does anyone happen to have some red felt laying around? Small towns are known for the other C: community.
Small town living has meant some incredible things for us. We told our realtor we wanted to get a hot tub. She knew someone trashing theirs, and days later it appeared at our house for the cost of delivery only. We told a friend we were getting into backcountry skiing, and he asked if we wanted a discount on radios, oh and by the way want to buy his girlfriend’s bag for cost? Used once. Another friend texted us: there’s free wood at this address, first come first chop. When we called to get propane, they couldn’t locate the account for our address, so we mentioned Jack’s name. She laughed. “Oh, I know Jack alright. What a pain in my ass.” There’s a free bin in town where we’ve picked up pots and cute rattan boxes and Le Creuset pots, where we leave jackets and socks and other things that don’t have homes here anymore. There are offers for everything: I’ll take you skiing. You can park here. Have a friend stay here. Come in and grab whatever you need. Call me if you need a tow. Tell them I sent you. Use it whenever you like. Just pop in. I know a guy. I know a gal. I can do it.
And while community does mean grabbing eggs at your neighbors, it also has to mean sacrifice, or we wouldn’t have left them. In a community, you are not just the person getting eggs, you’re the one giving them. Small town living means someone else’s problem is almost always yours too — something Dreyfuss is learning, something I was craving.
A couple weeks ago, we packed the truck bed with our trash to drive the mile to the local town trash pickup. The town manager happened to be there, and he shook his head. The dumpsters were full. We took our trash home and brought it back inside, where it sat for a few days before we tried again.
We have been trying to get an electrician for four months. They’re all too busy. We’re a month of YouTube videos away from just trying it ourselves, and from our breaker box, you can see that’s what Jack did some 30 years ago.
Building supplies are a minimum of 70 miles away, often it’s the 130 miles to Grand Junction. You can grab sugar from next door, but the likelihood of grabbing raw sheets of corrugated metal is a little less likely.
And Google doesn’t even know our address. I tried to order snowshoes from MSR last week, and their website wouldn’t accept my address. They said it wasn’t real. I tried several other addresses in town, knowing whoever received it would see my name and figure it out. None of our addresses worked. I had to email customer service. By the time they could help me, the snowshoes were completely sold out. On the plus side, Amazon does deliver here, usually within two weeks. There’s nothing I need that quickly that I can’t get from a neighbor, or just live without.
In another idle hour spent on Twitter, I saw this tweet from AOC: “NYC: Heavy rain is expected tonight and tomorrow. Quick tip to save a headache later: when walking around, check the grates near your home/building and clear off any leaves or debris. It takes 5 minutes and can prevent major flooding. Call 311 if it’s badly blocked”
This plea for community participation made me think of the last few weeks here, through wildflowers and wild wind storms and early blizzards, how quickly and without committee this community tends to itself. We all pick the toadflax in the summer. Jack showed it to me when we moved in. “Get rid of this pretty little devil or it’s all you’ll see.” And you do see it: random weeded piles of it up and down the trails and the road. You’ll see people just walking in the fields pulling it, as if it’s the best way to spend a Saturday afternoon, simply because it’s invasive. There’s not a town mandate. There’s simply the town. People pick up the signs when they fall down. People chainsaw the fallen trees across the local trails. The free bin is full of things you could easily sell on Ebay. The community garden is almost always full because everyone seems to be waiting for someone else who needs it more to take it.
All the things people imagine about living in a small town are, in most ways, real here, at least so far. It’s inconvenient. It’s big-hearted. It’s gossipy. It’s helpful. It’s cliquey. It’s inviting. It’s isolating. It’s humbling. And it gives you plenty of time to look under the hood and see what’s going on. I live a big life in my head, one that my real life has never added up to. When I’m hiking with Cooper, just me and my guy in the vast wilderness, I am on TV talking about surviving a mountain lion attack, advocating for the lion. I am on a ship weathering a brutal storm, equipped with more gumption than anything else. I am digging someone out of an avalanche, in the knick of time, and yes I look good doing it.
Away from the hum of possibility, I’m forced to look at my own possibilities more intently. New York or LA, there’s a certain baked in chance. Maybe you’ll end up dating a celebrity. Maybe you’ll end up on a tropical vacation with one. Maybe you’ll meet someone at a party who just happens to be looking for someone like you at their Series C startup. I’m trying to be vague but we all know these people.
I joke that living here allows me to be the big fish in a small pond I always wanted to be — but the internet bakes in one massive, shallow pond. All a small town does is put you on the outskirts, outside the buoys. We’re in the beaver pools, the streams heading in and out, just a few of us looking at the algae-ridden shallows, away from the docks and the beaches, figuring out how not to freeze, wondering if there’s something to this pond scum at the edge. If there’s something here for us someone else might be missing.
Next week, the newsletter will be on hold while I’m traveling for work. When it kicks back up on Nov 14, you’ll be receiving it from Substack, the Austin of newsletter providers. See you there, and I hope you all have a very Happy Halloween!
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