I used to idealize life in a small town. Knowing my neighbors? How dear. Limited options? What a relief. Big fish in a small pond? Confidence boost.
While life in a small town does have its charms, it’s definitely an adjustment for younger folk, single people, or people who grew up in or near big cities, or otherwise love them.
I’ve been living in a small town of 10,000 people on the Oregon Coast for the past three years. It was a dream of mine since I was a teenager, so I made it happen, and am now moving on. I sold everything I owned and moved back to a major city, yes, even during a pandemic. When this pandemic is over, I want to be celebrating in a big city. I want to people watch in crowds. I miss people. I miss density. So I’m trading the wildness of nature for the wildness of a big city for now.
I know a lot of people have made the move to smaller towns during the pandemic, wanting more space and access to nature. I get it, and enjoyed it for a few years, but ultimately, at this stage in my life, I found myself missing the big city experience, and wasn’t in a great headspace the last time I lived in one. I wanted to try it again, as the woman I am today.
I don’t write this with an intent to shit on small towns. Some people love and need that environment, and I do not regret my decision to live in one the past few years. However, I did make the mistake of idealizing life in a small town, and while it has many advantages, it has just as many drawbacks as city life.
Here’s what I learned about small towns after living in one for three years:
You will connect with, and be inspired by nature more often than people
The lack of people means more of your inspiration and connection will be taken from and happen with the natural world. That’s not to say human connections in a small town won’t happen, but they won’t be as frequent. Nature became one of my bffs. This is not a bad thing. Nature is soothing, it shows us patterns that are also present in our lives, and is an endless source of beauty and inspiration.
I’ve witnessed some of the most breathtaking scenes from nature I’ve ever seen. I’ve surfed with dolphins and watched the wind blow spray and form little rainbows on the waves around me. I’ve seen whales in my neighborhood, and made eye contact with seals on the regular. The hefty dose of nature has blown me away and offered me memories and inspiration I will never forget.
I’ve heard cougars scream at night, coyotes howl, and seen more eagles in the past three years than I have in a lifetime. The Oregon Coast is not short on beauty, or nature. Nature is incredible, and to be immersed in it, if you’re into it, can be an unforgettable experience.
I have learned, though, that pretty isn’t everything, whether we’re talking about people or places. Nature is rad, but so are cities. Idealizing life anywhere, period, whether it’s in a small town or a big city, is bound to disappoint us.
You Will Get Bored. And That’s Not Necessarily a Bad Thing
Life pre- smartphone and high-speed internet was more creative because we got bored. And through our boredom we dove into projects, made up games, doodles, played with our friends, read books, and otherwise found solutions to our boredom.
You can move to a small town and scroll on your phone all day, sure, but if that’s not your cup of tea, you’ll get bored, and get creative with how to get un-bored.
The best thing that has happened since living in a small town is the boredom. As someone who went particularly wild in their early twenties, the opportunity to get bored enough to dive back into writing and art and have my main socialization be surfing, hiking and physical fitness was a blessing. Most of the friends I made in a small town didn’t drink, or rarely drank. It was refreshing.
I was able to rediscover my love for painting and writing, and have made a habit of it, even as I’m surrounded by urban distractions and temptations.
I Learned to Appreciate What I Left Behind
I have also rediscovered the draw to big cities, even in a pandemic, and decided to move back in the heart of a major US city. Turns out, I missed diversity, culture, anonymity, and being close to some of the best food, art, and entertainment in the world, even if the pandemic has a few things on pause. It’s clear that industries are adapting quickly, as are all of us.
I missed the people watching in a big city, and the daily interactions. I missed being able to walk everywhere. I missed feeling dwarfed by high rises and a population of a few million. I was dwarfed by the ocean and the stars in Oregon, and now I’m ready for a different energy. A little more caffeine, a little less sleepy time tea.
I missed discovering new street art all the time, the feeling of being surrounded by endless possibilities and opportunities.
I don’t want to idealize life in a big city, either, and one day, maybe, when I’m older, I’ll seek out that quiet life in a small town by the sea again. But for now, while I’m young and have the energy, I want to be near the action.
Small Towns Can be Isolating
Big cities generally have more daily opportunities for human interaction and socialization. When you drive for all of your errands, and live in more rural areas, that daily interaction with people goes away. At times, this is a blessing, but that built in socialization, I believe, can be beneficial. I met up with girlfriends in the small town I lived in, and got some built-in socialization in the surf community, but it didn’t quite compare to that of a big city.
I experienced some of the deepest loneliness I’ve ever felt in a small town during the pandemic. And from visiting big cities during this time, I learned that just being around a lot of people fulfilled something for me.
Privacy Is a Luxury in a Small Town
If you’re single, you will see a lot of faces you know on the dating apps. The person you end up dating will probably know the last person you dated, and so on, and will have likely hooked up with your old neighbor, and so on. If you’re not used to this kind of tight knit community, it can feel a little suffocating. You will know all about people you’ve never formerly met, and vice versa. People are more likely to “drop by” or knock on your door and expect you to answer. People will have a lot of questions for you. People will drive past your house to see if you’re home.
Gossip is often part of the culture
People will know things (real or misleading) about you before having formerly met you. You will know things about them, too. If something happens, and it involved more than one person, or witnesses, chances are news will travel, and in a small town, it doesn’t have to go very far for it to feel really fast. Gossip seems to run rampant in small towns, perhaps because life is slow and kind of boring, and gossip is an easy way to be entertained. It gets old and toxic, quick, though, especially if it’s turned on you.
If education is important to you, consider a small college town.
We can always learn from people from all walks of life, and that was one great thing that happened here. I befriended people with completely different political and religious beliefs than me, and who grew up with different values. Part of this was a lack of options, but it was also something really special, especially in this harshly divided political climate.
With that said, sometimes you do want to be around people with similar values, and if there’s no college nearby, higher education is less common in small towns, and while this doesn’t make a huge difference, it might be something to note if that’s important to you.
You will learn that people truly are just people
Despite our education, our religious beliefs, our values, our upbringing, we all ache. We all laugh. We all want respect, to have fun, to love and be loved. We all seek connection and acceptance. We’re simple creatures. Culture can be an adjustment whenever you move to a new place, but underneath it all we’re all just human.
Lack of Amenities
You will be somewhat limited to your options. Say, if the vet in town doesn’t do a great job, you may have to drive an hour or more to find one who does. When you don’t feel like cooking, your takeout options will be limited. You most likely can’t just take a quick Uber to the airport for a spontaneous trip. And while none of these make or break life, there is some comfort to having amenities, to have options, and to being able to take your pick.
You may feel less safe
As a single woman, I feel infinitely safer in major cities than I do rural areas. In a city, if you scream, someone is close enough to hear you. There are witnesses everywhere. You likely won’t lose cell service. If your car breaks down, the sheer number of passerby’s means someone is more likely to stop and help. The vastness of nature can be breathtaking, but at times a little spooky.
There’s Less Variety
Of course, our minds are infinitely creative and we can always come up with new ideas and make the best of what we have, but there’s generally fewer options for things to do in a small town. We get into our routines wherever we go, but you may find you need to travel to find new stimulation after the novelty wears off. There’s also going to be less variety in the people you meet, run into, and interact with. Typically, small towns aren’t known for their diversity.
You Don’t Need to Leave to be New
Six years ago, when I left the area I grew up in, I wanted to start fresh. I wanted to be new. I was new, in many ways, and perhaps new habits wouldn’t have stuck as well had I not totally changed up my environment. I made new friends, faced new struggles, adapted to a new culture, and I was afraid to return home and return back to who I “was.” I now see, and believe, that we are always new. Sometimes a new environment can help us reestablish ourselves, but we are always new, whenever we chose to be.
We can choose to be new, to start over, to think differently, eat differently, love differently, every day, regardless of where we are.
So, there you have it. This is what I learned after three years in a small town. It gave me boredom, renewed creativity, nature, and connection with people different from me. It gave me more appreciation for big cities. It gave me peace and quiet. Eventually I got bored. I’m back to a big city and happy about it. One day, when I’m a little older, I could see myself in a smaller city again, but maybe not quite so small.
There’s no perfect place, but I’m learning different places can offer us what we need at different times in our life. I’m going to keep exploring, or maybe stay put for a while. To be continued.