“City people. They may know how to street fight but they don’t know how to wade through manure.” Melina Marchetta, On the Jellicoe Road
As we drove a backcountry road that led us to our home for the night, we passed yet another remnant from days long ago. It was an old barn barely standing with a caved in roof that might have been destroyed by a UFO landing, like out of some old B movie. It is one of many that we have passed during our maiden RV voyage through America’s rural Eastern Heartland. Logging almost 2000 miles on backcountry roads of Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Illinois, Indiana and Michigan, we see a lot of evidence of days long past, and that has left a couple impressions.
My first impression was from witnessing the widespread blight and poverty in these rural areas. I realize this is not news, but as we drove through depressed areas, we wondered how it got to be like that and how it could exist along with obvious signs of relentless prosperity. Usually these signs were in the form of a large modern home sitting on several well-manicured acres of land on the outskirts of some little town. Quite often, small town neighborhoods were a mixture of occupied homes that were either well-kept or in total disrepair. Certainly, a large city has its pockets of wealth and poverty, but when you drive through a small town and its outskirts, the contrast is more obvious.
I know cities have had their share of economic hits as well. But big cities have the advantage of being big cities, which means they have resources such as people to make a comeback. Urban areas have the upper hand given that four in five Americans live there, which makes up only 3.6% of the total size of 48 contiguous states. In 2016, 40% of the GDP came from the 10 most productive metro areas. Meanwhile, rural populations are declining, while poverty levels increase. Add to that, problems such as crime and opioid abuse are increasingly rural phenomena.
It wasn’t always like that. After WWII, small towns prospered by contributing to the industrial economy. But much of that prosperity has disappeared for several reasons, including automation and jobs moving overseas. Among the rumblings coming out of rural America these days, perhaps the loudest comes out of coal country. Coal production today is twice as high as it was in 1920. Yet, current employment is about 10% of what it was back then (80, 209 in 2013 vs 784,621 in 1920). You can’t totally blame clean energy for that – instead, it’s technological advances in coal mining that have decreased dramatically the need for manpower (Sourcewatch). Indeed, a once prosperous coal town, Beattyville, KY was given the dubious distinction of being America’s poorest white town from 2008 to 2012 according to Heather Long of CNN Business. It once boomed from coal, oil and tobacco industries and the county where it is located was the No. 1 oil producing county east of the Mississippi for much of the 1900s. Now, 57% of its population receive food stamps and 58% get disability payments from Social Security.
At first glance, it is easy to suggest that people from towns like Beattyville should just buck up and move to where there are opportunities, like cities. I don’t doubt that some have, but this is not easy or even possible for many, especially older workers. Plus, living in most cities is not cheap and housing costs continue to outprice the average person’s income. So, is this the final predicament of rural America? I am going to go out on a limb and say no, it does not have to be that way. While poverty seemed to prevail in many areas we drove through, what we also saw were many small towns that were doing quite well.
Which leads me to my second impression and that is, each little town has a rich history and stories to share. It seemed no matter where, each town had an interesting fact or person associated with it. And quite often, the history of a small town would include a period of booming industry of some kind. And what I also learned is that a rich history can be turned into an economic resource for a small town.
A great example of this is Eufaula, Alabama with a population of about 14,000. It was once a major shipping center on the Chattahoochee River and played a significant role during the Civil War. The City of Eufaula’s website describes its current economic base as a “healthy mix of tourism, light manufacturing, industry, service and agriculture. The city has enjoyed steady growth due to expansion of existing industries and recruitment of new industries. I can personally vouch for its tourism industry having spent time visiting its historic downtown area, museums and historic mansion district. The city has a fascinating history to share and it’s does a good job doing so.
Given that 96.4% of America’s land is not urban, it is no wonder that a large part of RV traveling is through rural and low-population areas. Cities offer a grand view of history, art and culture, but there is something very interesting out there in rural America. A small town can be much more than just that place you want to get through as quickly as possible and certainly don’t want to be stuck in with a repair. The freedom to travel leads us to any place we wish, but we have found good reasons to travel to small town U.S.A. Here are three; the satisfaction of an RV lifestyle that contributes to small town economies, small towns have entertained and enriched us with their histories and stories, and we visit small towns for the first time, but never feel like outsiders. Small town, U.S.A. – more than what meets the eye.