At the time of this writing, I’ve lived “in town” for 15.5 years. Actually, more like 22ish years if you count the back and forth of college life and then living in Lincoln, NE for two years of grad school, but I’m counting the annual calendar changes of City Life from the time Ben and I got married which is getting pretty darn close to 16 at this point.
All that said, I still marvel at the fact that running to the grocery store for something I need for a recipe can actually happen without 30 minutes of driving plus whatever time I would need in the actual store. I find it mind blowing (and sometimes anxiety-inducing) that my kids can walk to their friends’ houses or the park or even church or sports practices because that was never-ever an option for me growing up on our small family farm, 8ish miles outside of Yankton, South Dakota. I had to have rides to everything, be it by bus to school, or in my dad’s pickup or mom’s Jeep (and later Dodge minivan) – I wasn’t getting to any of my activities or lessons without a grownup to take me there (which they gladly did all year round, all the live-long day sometimes, it seemed).
Our house was on the top of a small hill, just north of Mission Hill, a tiny little blip on the map that did at least have a post office, but not much else beyond a grain elevator and a couple churches (because even the smallest of towns in the Midwest seem to have more than one church!). Our road was paved as was the old highway that we drove into town; the new one they constructed south of the James River was double laned and divided but the one we drove was just a two-way road often patched and covered in pink rock each summer to make up for the brutal SoDak winters.
Surrounding us in mile sections were lots of fields, a handful of houses/farms/barns scattered about, a grove or line of trees to accompany each homeplace, and of course, gravel roads. I learned how to drive on those gravel roads and it was both terrifying and probably fortifying, too, to navigate them as a teen.
We had neighbors just across the road from us (which was sort of rare in our area) where two kids lived but both were older than us. My brother had a good friend the same age as him who lived up the road and to the east a bit on the next gravel road who also had a little brother, and because our moms were walking friends and the boys did lots of activities together, I remember them being my most frequent playmates, and some of our closest neighbors, along with the family directly across from our place. Of course now I live in city-limits and have neighbors on all sides of me and for blocks and blocks in each direction, but that’s one part of country life that I miss the most – the space to have, one, privacy, and two, see the dang sky and prairie with nothing but nature (and maybe a tractor) in my line of sight.
When I think of what we considered our “neighborhood” growing up, the term “neighbor” applied to anyone within a mile-radius of our house (and probably beyond, if I’m being honest). Those big square miles of gravel+paved roads bound us all together; we each understood what it was like to live without many other people or conveniences nearby. And I spent a lot of time on those roads, both in vehicles and on bike and foot, as a younger kid, but even as a teenager, too. One super helpful feature of growing up on a grid like that is when you are also a cross country runner and you know each corner marks another mile, which makes training/logging distance pretty simple. The ditches were less, friendly, however as they were pretty steep in places and you just never knew what kind of critter might come out of one (be it deer, raccoon, maybe a possum, gopher, or a snake – you know, standard prairie wildlife).
Perhaps the biggest imprint my original neighborhood left on me was my obsession with the prairie sky. I was the kid who would follow her dad out to look at the churning sky as it turned green and a severe thunderstorm came barreling our way. I was the one looking up at the ever-changing clouds in fair skies, too, daydreaming and looking for shapes, patterns, and yes – indications of weather headed our way. I was the one in awe of the sunset time and time again as it burned and blazed away the end of another day. And I have carried all of that with me my entire life, so much so that I eventually named a business after the sky, and still manage to find the most peace when I am out there under its vastness and its beauty without so many trees, power lines, houses, and buildings to get in my way of basking in that prairie sky.