I Live in a Town With No Traffic Lights. This Is What It's Like.
Sometimes, I don’t know if I made the right choice.
If you told me a decade ago that I would live in a tiny town with no traffic lights, I probably would have laughed. Having grown up in a small town in North Dakota, all I wanted growing up was to escape to a big city as soon as I could—a place where no one knew me, like New York City, Amsterdam, or even Tokyo. And while I've travelled to many of those cities and even lived in a few, I'm back in a small town with my husband and our five kids, which was not part of my master plan.
Five years ago, I was a successful, single mom of two living in a mid-sized city. Like many working moms, my life was an endless cycle of dropping kids off, being stuck in traffic, working, being stuck in traffic again, and picking kids up. Housing in the city was expensive, so we lived in a small townhome with no backyard, spending our evenings instead at the city park, where I anxiously hovered around my kids like a helicopter. It was neither the big city life I had planned for myself, nor the idyllic childhood I wanted for them.
Then I met someone through an online dating site. He lived in a tiny town of just 700 people an hour from the city. The first time I drove to meet him, everything felt so familiar. The big old houses, the small handful of businesses, and the many empty storefronts. I couldn't have imagined that less than a year later, we'd get married and choose to raise our big blended family in one of those old houses, just like the ones that surrounded me growing up.
Small-town living is kind of surreal. On my morning run, I can make it from one side of our little village to the other in about 15 minutes. I say hello to an older woman walking her dog, and my neighbor watering his roses. I pass 100-year-old farmhouses, with paint peeling off their sagging front porches. I jog through the village park, rounding a large white gazebo where a band plays on the Fourth of July. I bypass a muddy trench around an ancient metal merry-go-round, etched by generations of little feet. It's like the set of Gilmore Girls, only without a diner that serves good coffee.
The main street runs through the center of town—a two-lane country road with 35 mph speed limit signs to slow passing cars. We have a church, a bank, a grain elevator, a used car dealership, and a bar. Then there's the chiropractor clinic that's taken over the brick building where they used to print the weekly newspaper, and a clock shop, which has somehow managed to stay open in the age of online shopping.
A few blocks away, there's the fire station for the volunteer fire department that hosts an annual pancake feed, and the baseball field where the little league plays on hot summer evenings. In the other direction, there's a beauty salon, a gun store, my kids' elementary school, and an old post office, which the postmaster tells me is slated to close upon her impending retirement.
It feels so familiar and safe, and that sense of security has helped me become a different kind of mom than I was in the city. I can send my four oldest kids outside to play without worrying that they will get hurt—and knowing that if they do, someone will help them. We set boundaries and curfews to match their ages and abilities, rather than watching their every move. As a small-town parent, I can breathe—relax, even.
As a woman, I feel safer, too. I've run hundreds of miles on gravel roads near our little town—so different from running in the city, where I felt constantly on high alert. I've traded in my pepper spray for biscuits for any curious farm dogs I cross paths with. I know that if I ever too got hurt or caught in the rain, I could knock on any door for help, just like I would offer help to a stranger who knocked on mine.
Since I work from home, my favorite part is how quiet it is here. The traffic noises and sirens of the city have been replaced by birds singing, crickets chirping, and even cattle mooing. I can see foxes and deer near the edge of town, where paved streets turn to gravel roads lined with fields of corn, green pastures, and blue sky from horizon to horizon. Yes, it's just like you've heard in your favorite country song.
As you'd expect, the cost of living is much lower here. We can afford a huge house—with a big backyard, too—for far less than my tiny rental in the city. But we pay considerably more for power and internet, both of which seem to go out almost every day. I don't see my friends or have a decent cup of coffee as often as I would like. The nearest mall and hospital are about 30 minutes, and we are a full hour from good Thai food.
And then there are the non-monetary costs of living off the beaten path. Sometimes I do feel isolated, but it can also be a self-imposed isolation. It's hard to get your kids ready to go somewhere, period—but it's even harder when it's at least a 30 minute car ride each way to take them anywhere other than school or the village park.
Our neighbors are, for the most part, friendly… possibly too friendly at times. You can't walk up the street without talking to someone, whether you want to or not. I miss the anonymity of city life. Here, if I have a conflict with a neighbor, everyone will know before the day is over. My kids' school has a similar gossip mill on a smaller scale. When there are only 13 kids in your class, a falling out with a friend or an embarrassing moment is "literally the worst," my kids tell me.
Sometimes, I worry I traded the opportunity to raise my kids in a diverse, inclusive community for small town freedoms. And frankly, there are times when I don't know if I made the right choice.
As my kids get older and their needs change, we may move back to the city to expose them to a greater variety of opportunities and people. However, it seems that progress is happening here, too. As new developments spring up, replacing farmland with rows of cookie-cutter houses for young families, our little town is changing and becoming more diverse.
For now, I feel fortunate to be able to send my kids outside to play and to enjoy the quiet solitude of living here, just like my mom used to do when we were kids growing up in a small town. We don't have a traffic light, sure, but we have community, culture, and serene solitude. And for more on the benefits of living outside the city, check out The Best Things About Living in the Suburbs.
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