Relocating (back) To Rural America
Growing up in a smallish town on the verge of assimilation into a larger metro area, I was exposed to two distinctly different lifestyles; the simple life of classic country living, and the fast-paced hustle and bustle of urban America. As a thirty-something millennial yearning for peace and quiet I might be a bit biased, but if you’ve experienced this type of environment, then you’re already aware of the attractiveness of such a situation. In the scope of your social existence, you have convenient access to a wide selection of restaurants, retail establishments, and entertainment venues. In regards to your living arrangements, you might live down a two-lane road that winds through the countryside, with ample acreage and plenty of space between neighbors. While this is (and was for me) an amazing way to experience life in your late teenage years and early twenties, it is, unfortunately, a short-lived scenario. Acre by acre, the ever expanding metropolitan area of Every-City U.S.A encroaches into the small town way of life, until folks who used to proudly comment on how quiet life was are now complaining about bumper-to-bumper traffic and a rush hour that never seems to end.
During this transitional stage of my hometown area, I made my move. This sudden decision didn’t come unprompted and shouldn’t have been surprising at all to my closest friends and family. I was, after all, a poor college student with little to no career prospects, non-existent financial support outside of the three jobs I was working, and one final straw; the young lady I had fallen in love with had relocated halfway across the country for an opportunity at a career. So, with $1,278 to my name and a handful of college hours, I packed up my belongings in an old four-door sedan import, and set journey across the country to make my fortune and secure my piece of the American dream.
The next few years were actually quite remarkable, as I transitioned slowly from the hourly-waged unskilled jobs I was familiar with in my hometown to temporary contractual office jobs, and finally a real salaried position at a large corporation in the oil and gas industry. Like any dedicated self-starting millennial, I spent a good amount of time excelling in each and every aspect of my role while being passed over for advancement and raises, which was fine — I didn’t have the obligatory college diploma or network connections at the time, and I was much too naive to realize I was stuck in a rut. I was violently jettisoned from that rut during the financial crisis in 2008 when the company I worked for was acquired and experienced a rapid but seemingly silent reduction in workforce. After a few months of unemployment I found a lower paying position at a much smaller organization that ultimately led to a lengthy and tempestuous cycle of job transitions over the next 6 years. It sounds bad, but it was actually an amazing time for me. I was blessed to spend some time at a couple of interesting startups where I learned a good amount about building businesses. Building on those experiences, I then spent some time under contract with a Fortune 500 and a few businesses in several niche industry verticals.
Then, something weird happened. I found myself quickly approaching 30 years of age with wife and kids, no degree, and a fairly sizable bank of varied experiences. By this time I had held the roles of data analyst, procurement agent, supply chain manager, product manager, E-commerce manager, market analyst and even software developer. As my “side hustle” I had even helped launch a small, yet quite successful cosmetics brand on Amazon. I was unaware of the term at the time, but I was, or had at some time become, a polymath. I say that with sincere humility as I was (and to some extent still am) too dumb to realize it.
At the time, my family and I were living in a three-story, almost straight up and down apartment outside of the D.C. metropolitan area. I had just transitioned from 1099 to W-2 with a company I had been consulting for. The business was booming and, while the cost of living was high, the income was the best a college drop-out could hope for. That’s when it happened. My wife and I seemed to fall completely out of sync with the fast-paced lifestyle. In fact, I would say we became completely detached from and utterly sick of it. She had grown up in a significantly more rural setting than I, and something in both of us yearned to get back to that simple way of life. So, both of us, laden with experience and knowledge from the corporate world, packed up our things and moved right back home — her home to be precise. We relocated back to rural America.
Originally, we had entrepreneurial plans to start a successful small business while reaping the rewards in a slow paced environment and enjoying the fiscal benefits of a lower cost of living. While living in rural America may cost less and promise a quieter, more peaceful existence, it is not without many serious disadvantages. The first thing we learned rather quickly. Small businesses had an average lifespan that could be measured in weeks. I lost track of how many gyms, dog grooming parlors, hair salons, restaurants, and various other establishments came and went, seemingly overnight. People were dropping their earnings from the sale of inherited family real estate on terrible business ideas. At first, I thought they were just poorly informed and then I realized what the problem really was. There were no jobs.
The area we moved to, and where my wife was originally from, was much more rural than the in-between country and metro area I was born into. Historically, the area had been a farming community for commodities like feed corn, cotton, soy, and cattle. Over the span of the previous 50 years, several prominent manufacturers had also opened up facilities that employed a majority of the population not working on the family farm or for the crop companies. During the last 20 year segment, several of those industries, such as a large print organization specializing in the the production of several prestigious magazines experienced shrinking market shares — for obvious reasons. Others were outsourcing their manufacturing overseas to save money and were slashing jobs. Many people found themselves without employment. Any job was a good job and what you were paid was good enough. As my youngest child is commonly heard saying, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.”
I tried a couple of different jobs the first couple of years in what we were realizing was less and less a paradisiacal dream, and more of a dead end. During this time I worked remotely for a now defunct Chicago startup which, ironically, was probably one of the more exciting and engaging jobs I’ve had. After the down-cycling and dismemberment of the startup, I had the extreme displeasure to work for the most dysfunctional company I have ever seen in my time spent in several different cities and industries. I’m not one to defame a previous employer, but this place unequivocally deserves the criticism that has been and will continue to be delivered by current and former employees. It wasn’t just the low salary. I had come to accept that most employers in the area would use the constantly touted low cost of living to justify low wages, even when those wages afforded very little attempt at saving for the future or a rainy day. My first (and last) Christmas at the company, I felt like I had accomplished many truly positive things for the organization. A coworker, who had been instrumental in some of these milestones, excitedly mentioned our upcoming holiday bonus and how our stellar performance was sure to elicit a high dollar amount. Unfortunately, I’ve never been good at detecting sarcasm, so it was with as much shock as disappointment that I received an envelope with $100 in cash inside. To add insult to injury, I later noticed that the “bonus” appeared on my pay stub and had been taxed at the full rate. I went home holding a piece of paper that bore the visage of Benjamin Franklin, but was only worth about $75.
Needless to say I didn’t last long there, but I learned a valuable lesson on my way out the door. Never underestimate the willingness of a company to put themselves in a bad position just to fire an employee they don’t like. Especially when that company, due to its separation from the ebb and flow of the politically correct corporate world, is completely lacking an ethical compass. Ultimately, that’s what happened — I spoke up about a specific instance of blatant nepotism in the hiring process of a new manager and found myself out the door a week later. I won’t go into the story of the employee who was written-up three times for sexual harassment before being fired instead for reading an executive’s email. I also won’t detail the multiple discriminatory comments and racial slurs I personally witnessed being hurled at ethnic-minorities on the production floor. It makes me nauseous to say that they are either unreported or ignored.
After escaping literally the worst place I’ve ever worked, I went back to school with renewed fervor. I earned my degree and was hired by a great organization that works closely with local governments. While I loved every minute of my time with them, a serious car accident that occurred during the copious amount of time spent on the road during the course of the job forced me to seek opportunity elsewhere. Today I have the privilege to work for an amazingly successful brand that has allowed me to flourish in a unique and challenging role. The leadership is smart, and quick on its feet and my immediate superiors are talented and incredibly intelligent. To be honest, I was surprised to find both people of high caliber and such a well known company in this rural oasis. Realistically, this is likely the only good opportunity for someone with my experience in this area. If this falls through, which I hope and pray it does not, I’d have to relocate back to the city and “ all the brightness, and everything I hate,” to quote Vin Diesel in Chronicles of Riddick. To be fair, I don’t hate everything about the city life. If you’ve spent 5 years eating at the same 6 restaurants and getting a numb rear end from the ancient seats at the tiny local movie theater, you come to appreciate the variety the urban lifestyle offers. But I digress……
What have I learned from moving back to rural America? Unfortunately, quite a few negative things.
First and foremost, a good job that pays a fair wage is both a purple unicorn and a double edged sword. The talent pool for skilled jobs is so small that companies in rural areas tend to overburden talented employees with a lot of responsibility. This typically leads to the common pitfall of “quantity over quality” and eventual burnouts when those who don’t handle stress very well ultimately buckle.
Secondly, not only is the opportunity for small business limited, but being an entrepreneur has much more risk associated with it than in an urban setting, and a lot of that risk is outside just the economic spectrum. The phrase “I heard it through the grapevine” takes on a much more serious meaning in a small town environment. If your entrepreneurship fails, nearly everyone knows about your business’s demise within a short time span. Not to mention the fact that you have to contend with a very small customer base whose earnings are significantly below that of the average annual median.
Thirdly, there’s simply just not a lot to do and, in certain areas experiencing zero or negative growth, there likely will not be for a long time. The first year of our relocation was new, fresh, and a welcome change. Then things began to get very stale. I even got to the point where going out to eat was pointless — I could usually make something more interesting at home. I remember being excited when one particular fast food restaurant that I previously disliked came to our little town. Sometimes when we went out of town on vacation, I didn’t want to come back.
Now I know what a logic oriented and well-adjusted individual might be thinking. What did I expect? I could have figured out a lot of these things without actually moving to a rural area. You’d be absolutely right. However, if you found yourself drowning in the monotony of an urban 9-to-5 and feeling trapped in a seemingly endless cycle of being a number and not a name, you might make the decision the same way we did; poorly informed and in whimsical desperation. Suffice it to say, our outlook on life is that it’s an adventure and experiences are never all bad. On that note let me tell you about the more positive aspect of the rural lifestyle.
There’s literally no traffic. I heard some locals complaining about traffic at a four-way stop where there were probably 3–4 cars on each side waiting during peak hours and I could barely contain my laughter.
There are no lines for anything ever. I walked into all of the newest Star Wars movies on opening night without getting in line. Conversely, when the Batman movies featuring Christian Bale came out, I was waiting in line at a Houston movie theater for an hour just to get a seat that wasn’t in the very front. I can get in line at a fast food restaurant and be through in a few minutes.
The Mexican cuisine is surprisingly authentic and the restaurants just as inexplicably fast at serving food as their urban counterparts.
You don’t need a white noise machine to get a good night’s sleep. When we lived in the big cities, I found the only way to get to sleep was to drown out the elevated train, freeway traffic, or noisy neighbor with a fan or air purifier. The only sound I hear where we live now is the occasional dog bark or cat fight.
The rural life is just different. I don’t look down on people who were born and raised in these areas and have never lived and worked anywhere else. In fact, I envy them to some extent. A lot of the times, the fast paced city life just sucks. However, when you’ve experienced one, adjusting to the other is tough. You can’t apply the mentality you’ve developed in urban life to the rural lifestyle. You won’t get very far, you’ll ruffle a lot of feathers, and you’ll experience a lot of disappointment before you find a happy median. In fact, you have to be open to trying a lot of new and strange things to cope. Eventually, you either find something that works for you or you move on. For now I’m happy where we’re at, but who knows where we’ll be five years from now. The Lord knows, and I’ll leave it to Him to point me in the next, exciting direction.