Culture

I Learned Hallmark Movies Were Right About Small Town America

By Mica Soellner··  6 min read
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I Learned Hallmark Movies Were Right About Small Town America shutterstock

A year into the Covid-19 pandemic, I was on a news assignment to cover the brewing frustration over lockdowns in rural California.

I headed to Redding, roughly an hour flight from San Francisco, as my base to explore a region of the state vastly different from the liberal, urban bastion that makes up most of the Golden State. 

It was there I met folks like Terry, Sally, Win, Patrick, and Woody. 

They were making headlines across the state for their local activism and resistance to government-imposed lockdowns, as well as their efforts to lead a far-fetched movement of breaking off northern California to form a new 51st state named Jefferson.

They were hesitant at first to talk to a national reporter about their lifestyle and their movement, and there’s little doubt why. 

By most of the media, they were written off as extremists, backwards, and out of step with the rest of the state and society – labels that remain unfairly perpetuated throughout most of rural America. 

But, in the midst of the pandemic that left the majority of the country depressed and fearful, those I met in and around Redding were strangely optimistic. 

Though some viewed peoples’ refusal to comply with Covid rules as selfish, many defended their choice to keep living life as they always have. 

“I literally can’t shut down. I have to keep going for this community,” one local gas mart owner in the tiny town of Cottonwood told me. 

That idea of community seemed to strike a chord with everybody I met there. And the more remote places I visited, the more that sentiment was drilled in. 

City Girl in a Small Town

I didn’t exactly grow up on a farm. My childhood was spent mostly in the suburbs of St. Louis, and I later spent two years in Appleton, Wisconsin before moving to Washington D.C.

While living in Wisconsin, I was preoccupied with my path forward – eventually moving to a bigger city that had more to offer. 

But, when I moved away, I noticed a stark shift in lifestyle that seemed to leave most urbanites exhausted and unfulfilled. Most people are always chasing the next big thing, forming casual and temporary relationships, and never seem satisfied with a quiet night in.

Washington D.C., especially, merits a specific way of life that’s rooted in constant networking and name-dropping. It’s a lifestyle I’ve gotten used to, but the more time I spend in the Beltway, the more I think of those I met in Redding – or even the small town in Wisconsin where I spent the first two years of my career.

The lives of local residents, most of whom were born and raised in the community, baffled me. 

I spent most of my time in Appleton hyper-focused on my newspaper job, and the lives of local residents, most of whom were born and raised in the community, baffled me. Most people got married young and had kids by the time they were 25. It was considered rare to move out of state, or even away from your hometown.

At the time, I thought to myself, I never wanted that to be me. I wanted to see the world and have a successful career. I promised myself I wouldn’t get stuck and settle in a small town.

It wasn’t until later I realized how unfair my attitude was towards the community I was meant to be a local voice for. I never sought to learn about peoples’ desire to stay in their hometown and wrote off young residents’ ambitions to start a family early in life as antiquated. Worst of all, I had judged the very people it was my job to understand.

Small Town Values Are American Values

My memories of Wisconsin couldn’t help but flood back when I was in Redding. Despite the obvious differences between California and Wisconsin, the towns were similar in size and culture. Most people worked with their hands, had generations of family ties in the area, and knew their neighbors by name.

I arrived with the intention to tell their stories, but little did I know the ones that would stick with me were the ones that I never put on paper.

I still think of being stranded in Woody’s Cottonwood barbershop because of the lack of ride-shares or local taxis. Woody generously drove me almost a half hour back to Redding to make sure I safely got back to my hotel. 

At a local town meeting, I still vividly picture Terry tearing up at children learning about American history and the U.S. Constitution. He cared deeply about protecting the freedom and rights of the next generation.

Early on in my assignment, Terry and Win invited me to a local community gathering at the end of the week, which was set for the day before my flight out.

I knew I would already be finished with all my needed interviews by then, so I hadn’t planned to go. But, after the time I spent with them, I wanted to see them one more time before I left. I decided to show up last minute, but by the end of the night, I dreaded having to go back to DC.

Rural people are typically independent, self-reliant, and foster a duty to help each other.

I’ve never felt so welcomed as an outsider who easily could’ve dismissed them as many others who trickled through have.

It was the first time I understood how stark the country’s rural-urban divide is.

In Washington, rural America is often pigeonholed as politically unimportant and not economically viable. When people think of rural residents, they often associate them with poverty and values that no longer fit the mold of a modern society. 

But, what’s forgotten by many people who live in cities is the hope, promise, and growing diversity that lies in many rural communities. Rural people are typically independent, self-reliant, and foster a duty to help each other – values that arguably embody the best of America.

Closing Thoughts

The residents of Redding, California or Appleton, Wisconsin or Winterset, Iowa may not be the wealthiest or the most well-connected, but they sure seem happier.

Looking back, I view my time in small-town Wisconsin very differently than how I had when I lived there. The residents may not be the most adventurous or ambitious, but they don’t have to be. They make the most of what they have and find fulfillment in having a simple, quiet life – a mindset that’s becoming lost in a world of instant gratification. We could all learn from them.

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