I’ve Never Lived Outside Benton County, Arkansas, And I Never Plan To

I didn’t always feel this way about Northwest Arkansas. When I turned 12, I hated everything and everyone. I started buying into the hype that rural living was somehow unsophisticated, and that to be anything meant moving as far away as possible, as soon as possible.
Publish date:
November 19, 2013
It Happened To Me, small towns

I mapped it on Google Maps today. The furthest I’ve ever lived from my childhood home in Gentry, Arkansas, is the home I live in now, just outside of Siloam Springs, Arkansas. 13.7 miles is all that separates me from the 300 acre “compound” where my paternal grandparents, parents, younger brother and his wife, and their two kids live. I’m the biological child who’s gone furthest from home. I’m 31, and I don’t plan on ever living further than those 13.7 miles from the house where I grew up.

I’m not some crazy, co-dependent, attached-to-my-parents-in-an-unhealthy-way sort of person. I did not grow up in a cult. I’m not devoid of skills or experience that could take me elsewhere. I love traveling, and have gone coast to coast in the US, and have visited a handful of other countries. But I have roots here. I teach at the same high school that my mom and her mom graduated from. My paternal grandfather and his siblings also attended the same school where I work, though most of them didn’t finish. I graduated from the same school system where my dad and his sister went. I live in the brick house that my maternal grandfather and his father-in-law built to my grandmother’s specifications.

I live just across the river from various cousins and a great aunt. My best friend’s parents still live in the house where she and I had sleepovers, and sometimes they watch my daughter. My family is rooted here. My stories are rooted here.

Like the times my brother and I drove the four-wheeler to the creek to catch crawfish, two miles of rough red clay road away from our house. We’d use bits of raw bacon on a makeshift hook that was tied to a length of baling twine to lure the mudbugs out of an underwater rock shelf, and catch them with a net made of old pantyhose and a coat hanger. We dropped them into a plastic five gallon bucket full of creek water, then we’d slosh our way back to my Granny’s house, where she would help us clean them and fry the tails.

Or the birthday parties I had in my Papa’s machine shop, unwrapping presents and eating cake my mom made beside sawhorses and greasy engine parts. My friends and I never seemed to mind the shelves of nuts, bolts, and rusting tools next to the party favors. To many of them, this was an adventure, a new experience.

Or the time my best friend came to help my family on “Meat Day,” which also took place in Papa’s machine shop. My dad’s cousin, a former butcher, would come to help us process three whole cows in one day once each year. One cow went to Granny and Papa, one went to my family, and one was split between my grandparents’ pastor and my parents’ pastor. My friend wore galoshes, sure that she’d be ankle deep in blood and offal. I laughed at her; how could she not know that the cows had been skinned, gutted, and hung for two weeks in the walk-in cooler my dad built from cinderblocks and an old Borden milk truck?

Or the times that, as a small child, we went to visit my Grandma and Grandpa in the house where I now live, and Grandma would read softly to me and feed me a little bit of coffee-soaked sugar from her spoon. The light from the picture window would gleam on their iridescent peach everyday coffee cups.

Grandpa, who always wore his belt buckle to the side of his waist, would take my hand in his, walk with me through the yard, show me the leaves and gumballs that dropped off the impossibly tall sycamore. My mom’s hands now feel like her dad’s did then, soft and cool on the surface, firm and capable below.

Or the many times my best friend and I slept at her house and dressed ourselves in the most ridiculous outfits we could find. We would stand by the highway that ran in front of her house and flash the cars passing by. To our middle school minds, of course, flashing meant exposing a bit of knee, or pulling an outlandish tutu up enough that the polka dot pants below would show. If a car would happen to slow and make a pretense of pulling onto the dirt road passing by the side of her house, we would shriek and skitter to the safety of her rambling farmhouse, tulle and Mexican ponchos and ribbons flying.

Or the nights that restlessness, insomnia, and teenage ennui burdened me so much that I couldn’t toss or turn one more time. I would sneak out of my window and walk in the cool moonlight, sometimes on my family’s land, sometimes trespassing in fields adjacent to theirs. The night air, the hoot owl and bobcat calls, the dew under my feet cleared my head and helped me breathe again. In the morning, afraid of consequences, I would tell my parents that the screen on my window had “just fallen out.”

There was daffodil, lilac, and iris picking by the then-abandoned house where my dad’s surrogate grandmother lived, the woman who would become one of my daughter’s namesakes. To this day, those are my three favorite flowers. My dad brought a bouquet of daffodils from Evelyn’s yard in a Mason jar to the hospital when my daughter, Sophia Evelyn, was born. There were nights spent in sleeping bags on our trampoline, watching meteor showers with my little brother or my various friends. There were shooting lessons with a Red Ryder BB gun behind the old chicken house. There were extended family dinners, punctuated with the same old stories, the same laughter each time, the same warm, comforting informality. There were long horseback rides on the meandering dirt roads that led by my friends’ and classmates’ houses. There was swimming, sledding, running, hide and seek, laughing, crying. There was a marvelous sense of wonder at the immensity of the world, the power and beauty of my small corner of it. I still feel that wonder.

How could I walk away from all of this?

It’s not that I’m afraid to leave (OK, maybe I am, just a little bit) and it’s not that I think I don’t have opportunities elsewhere -- I know I can leave if I wanted, and I know that I can be successful somewhere else. It’s that I choose to stay.

I didn’t always feel this way about Northwest Arkansas. I grew up loving our farm: the cows, the pigs, the chickens, the horses. Then I turned 12 and hated everything and everyone. I started buying into the hype that rural living was somehow unsophisticated, and that to be anything meant moving as far away as possible, as soon as possible. I began to resent the rednecks I lived near (and with), vowing that I would never be one of them. I did as much as possible during my rebellious teenage years to dissociate with that image. I learned the term “flyover state,” and would stare at the planes overhead with envy. Where were they going, and when could I go there, too?

Anyone who grows up in a small town sees the media representation of “Small town girl goes to the big city, hijinks ensue, girl makes it big!” The insidious insinuation is that no one can succeed in a small town, in a rural lifestyle. Of course, we all know success is what you make it, blah blah blah. That message is lost amidst the rural white trash redneck stereotypes.

I’ve made friends with people who have grown up all over the place -- suburban Baltimore, Las Vegas, rural Washington state, south Texas -- and they tell me that I’m one of the “cool locals.” When the initial buzz of flattery wears off (you think I’m cool? Oh, wow!), I’m a little offended. I’m not a “cool local,” I’m just a regular local. I am offended by the stereotypes that people have of Arkansas and Arkansans. There are wonderful, intelligent, shoe-wearing people living here.

My area of the country is beautiful. We’re nestled in the foothills of the Ozarks. I live a quarter mile from a small, clear river that meanders by rolling fields, towering bluffs, and quiet forests. The view from my front porch is like none other. I wake nearly every morning to a soft fog rolling up the hill from the river, blurring the massive oaks in the front pasture to mere ideas of trees.

My area is surprisingly diverse and vital. I live just a few miles outside one of the top 20 small towns in America as named in Smithsonian Magazine, and I teach at the high school there. John Brown University (where I received my bachelor’s degree) is consistently ranked by US News as the top private institution in the South. Wal-Mart corporate headquarters are a 45-minute drive from my house in one direction, and the University of Arkansas is a 30-minute drive in the other. The food scene in the larger towns in our area is bursting with innovation. And Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art has brought in more than just Lichtensteins, Rockwells, and Wyeths -- it’s brought in visitors from around the world.

Local rumor has it that Oprah and Drew Barrymore want to build vacation homes here. Harrison Ford and Tom Cruise and Beyonce have all come here, eaten in our restaurants, stayed in our hotels, seen our sights. I have friends who have pictures to prove it.

But, wonderful as those things are, it’s not why I stay. I stay because I can drive to the low water bridge at Flint Creek and catch crawdads with my little brother and his family, and we can tell the kids about the times we did that when we were little. I stay because I know why my front door is in the exact place it is. (My grandma sat down on a stump and told my grandpa that’s where she wanted her front door.)

I stay because my daughter’s room is the same bedroom that my mom grew up in. I stay because if I left, I would miss butchering pigs and cattle with my family and filling my freezer with real meat that I’ve helped process. I stay because I can float the same river with my husband and daughter that I floated with my own parents. I stay because I can show my friends, my daughter, my husband where I had my first kiss, where my favorite teacher still lives, where I used to go when I needed to be alone. I stay because my home is my story. I stay because I can still go home, because I’ve never left home, because it’s all my home here.

The moral of the story? I don’t know, maybe it’s live where you want. Or maybe it’s about knowing where you come from and celebrating it. Maybe it’s that you shouldn’t be ashamed if you love something that others can’t understand. Whatever moral you want to take from this is fine by me. But for me, it’s not about the moral. It’s about the story.