We brought the world with us

January 21, 2012

I remember running amuck in the small Eastern Montana town where I grew up.  In the fifth grade, I’d ride my ten-speed the two miles into town for school so I could hang out with my townie friends until dinner time. 

After school we’d skid our bikes down the dike behind the swimming pool and squeal when the boys pretended they were going to run over us with their BMX racers.

We didn’t have cell phones. Our parents didn’t hear from us until we arrived home three hours after school let out.

I’d ride my bike back home at dusk.  I’d wave at the Burlington Northern engineers as the train crept by on the tracks that followed the narrow two-lane highway.  Occasionally, I’d see a hitchhiker hop from one of the cars and head towards town. 

BN hosted educational programs at the elementary schools, teaching kids of the dangers of the tracks. 

Every kid growing up along the Highline knew the safe distance to keep away, that you could easily lose a leg if you weren’t careful, and that a penny on the tracks could derail a train.

(That might have been just a myth, but it kept kids and their spare change away from the tracks.)

Our fears centered around the dangers of machinery and inclement weather.  I was more afraid of train tracks and frostbite than I was of bad guys.

Aside from being irritated that I was late for dinner, my mom never worried about me too much. We knew everyone who lived along that stretch of road, and I was a responsible kid.

I’m only 35.  I’m not waxing nostalgic about the squeaky clean 50s.

I grew up in the 80s, when Madonna was like a virgin and Nancy Reagan was fighting a war on drugs in her red suit and pearls.  It didn’t seem so innocent at the time.  But in retrospect, it was.

Things have changed in small town America. If you don’t want to be a country mouse, all you have to do is buy a smart phone and you’re connected to the world. 

Getting connected is crucial for the survival of our way of life.  We have to prepare our kids to function in the wider – sometimes darker – technological universe or they will be swallowed up by it.

And yet, if you’re like me, you value the insulation from the world that a small town provides.  I don’t want to lose that. 

The very reasons that many of us choose to live and raise our families in a small town are the things that could harm us the most.  Sometimes it feels like our innocence is turning against us.

We’ve always loved that we could send our kids outside to play without worrying about their safety. 

We’ve loved that we could take a moonlit walk through the neighborhood and the most threatening thing we may encounter is the heavy bark of our neighbor’s hunting dogs.

But nowadays, I’d hesitate to let an 11-year-old loose in town with no contact from her until dinner.  A lot can happen in three hours.

It used to be, if you wanted to get away from it all, you’d move to a small town.  I guess enough of us had that same idea.  And when we came, we brought the world with us.

This article first appeared in the Lewistown News-Argus and the Sidney (Mont.) Herald on January 21, 2012.