Quiet America: Impressions of Small Towns

I didn’t move to small-town Ohio entirely on my own volition.  I doubt I would have moved to such a place if I hadn’t been accepted to MiamiUniversity, a school that is much older than the Florida city of the same name and half the country away from Florida, in a small town just north of Cincinnati.  My plan was to pursue a master’s degree in technical writing.  It was a stopgap due to the fact that I hadn’t been accepted into the immunology programs that were my first choice for grad school.  I was wandering far afield from my biology beginnings and farther from the suburban paradises (or circles of hell, take your pick) that had been my home for most of my life.

While I’m not really from anywhere, having grown up in cities all around the world, I can safely say that I’m from the archetypal Suburb.  Aside from a few months of my childhood spent living in rural California, I’ve never lived out in the country or in what you could call “downtown.”  I’ve lived on the outskirts of cities in the United States and Indonesia, never too far from a supermarket or too close to crowds and tall buildings.

Oxford, Ohio would offer me a different experience.  The town has a population of around 22,000, most of which is made up of university students.  It becomes nearly a ghost town in the summer, and it was nearing the end of that season when I arrived in town.  I didn’t know a single person there; even my roommate was a stranger to me.  My plan was to get plugged in quickly and make friends quickly, in all the ways I could.  I thrive on personal interaction.  Statistics, or at least clichés, were on my side.  Everyone says that everyone knows everyone in small towns, and college students seem fairly personable, though I didn’t know if grad students would be any different.

For the moment, though, the town was empty and I was friendless.  All the things I knew had been removed—family and friends, of course, as well as the modes of entertainment I preferred (parks, zoos, and such), and the suburban staple, the strip mall.  There was a supermarket within walking distance of my small apartment building, and a Super Wal-Mart outside of town.  And that was pretty much all there was.  The public library was so small that I never bothered to visit it.  The town’s only park took up about a quarter of a block.  There was a state park about 20 minutes’ drive away, but my research made it out to be fairly bland.  To me, the only immediately refreshing thing about the town was its local independent coffee shop, called Kofenya.  I immediately took a liking to it, though their tea was never quite hot enough for me.

I occupied myself with two things once I got the logistics of packing out of the way:  I explored, and I took pictures.  The two are related, and were inseparable while I lived in Oxford.  While I didn’t take my camera along to Hueston Woods (the state park, which turned out to be as insipid as I expected), I carried it with me around town and made myself busy seeing the sights, which were few but rewarding.

Oxford has one main street.  Ironically, it isn’t Main Street, which is residential, but High Street.  High Street is home of Oxford’s uptown, which is actually its downtown, and is one of the main streets leading through Miami University, which is actually not in Florida.  The town is full of small ironies.  I took pictures of High Street.

Aside from the university and High Street, Oxford is entirely residential.  The Tollgate Mall, which, not surprisingly, is nowhere near any tollgate and is not a mall, lies right next to an apartment complex.  Most of the houses in Oxford proper are named.  The names range from the clever to the mundane, but nearly all are either alcohol- or sex-related.  What else would you expect from college students?  I took pictures of the houses—Absolut Angels, Ace-ingCollege (so named because it was across the street from Ace Hardware), the Drunken Clam, and so on.  I opted not to take a picture of the Panty Shanty, and sadly missed my eventual favorite, the Slippery Slope (featuring a yellow warning sign whose generic man was holding a beer stein.)  I was told that the previous year a house was told to change its name because it was so obscene (Dicken Cider Box, and please don’t think about that too much.)  I would have avoided that house if I had known where it was.  I try to only take pictures of things worth remembering.

The best of my pictures were those of the university.  Some of its buildings were built in the 1800s, and very few are new.  I know this because the university, in celebration of its bicentennial, had posted years of completion next to all the major buildings.  Buildings of such venerable academic tradition are always made of red brick and are most picturesque in afternoon light.  I took pictures of whatever structures caught my eye, plus many that weren’t actually that interesting.  I have an eye for photography, but my own pictures can only go so far.  My camera is a $200 Nikon digital that fits in my pocket.  It’s suitable for documenting my life, but not for inspiring awe.

Not that that stopped me from exploring.  My growing-up years were not generally spent in temperate climates, so I took great pleasure in watching the trees change colors in the fall.  I had already explored the three sides of town (High Street, residential, and campus), but I discovered that adventures present themselves in familiar territory if you let time pass.  I let time pass.  The trees changed.  Voila!  Adventure!

Adventures always require a bit of travel, but often they can be found within walking distance of home.  MiamiUniversity’s campus is quite beautiful, thanks partly to its tree-filled quads, and the red brick buildings matched the red leaves quite nicely.  My photo adventure filled a lazy afternoon.  (It could have been less lazy if I had been doing my homework, but I’m an adept procrastinator.)  The highlight of my time with my camera that day was a rack of bicycles surrounded by purplish-red bushes.  I vowed to return in a later season to watch the bicycles change.  I wasn’t disappointed.

Winter brought a snowstorm after Christmas that covered the town in eight inches of white.  The school was closed for the day and the students spent their time sledding, throwing snowballs, and generally being children.  I had never stopped being a kid, so I joined in where I could.  I took pictures early in the morning, after I realized I wouldn’t need to report in for research.  The bicycles were quite beautiful that day.

I’ve heard many complain about the slippery roads, the cold, the inconvenience that winter brings.  I couldn’t join in.  While I had many other things to worry about while I lived in Ohio (some of which drove me to quit school after a semester and a half), I found the coming of winter to be quite therapeutic.  I loved the cold, reveled in wearing my thick pea coat and the warm jacket that REI sold me for cheap, and found a great thrill in packing a perfectly spherical snowball that I never threw at anyone because it was too perfect.  I learned to handle my car in the snow as well as could be expected from a boy who learned to drive in San Diego.  By February, I was hooked on winter … and then I left Ohio, just as winter was also leaving.

It’s clear to me that I couldn’t have enjoyed Ohio very much if I hadn’t lived in a small town.  If I had lived in a suburban hell similar to all those I grew up in, Ohio would have been much the same as any other place I had ever lived.  It just would have been colder, and the trees, where there would have been trees, would have been red for a week or so before dropping their leaves and becoming dead-looking spindly saplings.  The roads would still be covered in ice, but the ground would only be covered in snow for a brief moment before someone or some machine would remove it.  Late summer would have been less boring, perhaps, but I wouldn’t have had an independent coffee shop (let us not have any talk about Starbucks’ superiority) to enjoy.  Small towns are special, this I have learned.

I wouldn’t want to live in a university town forever, nor even a small town.  In university towns, there’s too much population turnover, too many drunken fools, and too many hormones in the air.  And even though they taught me that adventures are always within walking distance, small towns have too little to offer for me.  Call me a product of my generation, a glutton for the new and the different, neither of which are likely to be found in anything smaller than a city.  I will admit that you are right, but I will also show you the soft spot my heart holds for quiet towns, and maybe that will change your mind.

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About Joel Wilcox

I'm a writer, photographer, visual artist, and world traveler who is also currently an academic slave (read: Graduate student). I put the (de) in the fine lines.
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