When I bragged to someone local who was sophisticated enough about blogging to know what I was talking about that “prairiemary.blogspot.com” sometimes gets 1,000 international hits if the topic is hot, that person said, “Well, of course, everyone wants to know about small town life — it’s the American dream.” Mostly this means that this person doesn’t follow my blog, because that’s not exactly my message and I don’t always write about Valier. But maybe I should do it more.
My parent generation was the one that moved from the farm to the city. My grandfather immigrated from Scotland to South Dakota as a young adult homesteader. I lived in Browning on the nearby rez throughout the Sixties, the Peace Corps years, but was part of the white town component. Just sayin’. My step-daughter, who was a year old than me, graduated from Valier High School, married here and had four children here. This history made me feel related, though not entitled, to the town.
But locals still assumed that I was from “outside” and needed to have the town explained to me. It is part of their identities to know the “reality” of their small irrigation-based town and to be the “explainers.” But they didn’t tell me the things I really needed to know. Maybe they didn't realize them anyway.
If you are thinking of relocating to a small high prairie town, look at the transportation options, esp. in terms of weather. In spite of global warming, one reason these towns are shrinking, which makes a lot of old housing available for what sounds cheap to an urban person, is that unless you have a good car and the roads are open, you’ll be separated from the hubs of trade and services, including hospitals.
Even the county hospitals are under strong economic pressure and to say that about the younger doctors is to belabor one of the injustices of our economic system that lets universities exploit the notion that doctors make a lot of money. With a major debt hanging around their necks, they HAVE to. Medicine itself has changed, addressing chronic conditions with regular blood draws and med adjustments that require you to be there. However, I’ve figured out that I can get blood drawn in our little satellite clinic and then sent to a lab who will report to my Great Falls doc.
Browning has so many people on dialysis that they have started their own center, but it meant having to rework their town water supply to get high quality water. But the rez town water supply is in political/economic gridlock. Valier’s problem is finding aquifer flows in spite of being next to a lake where the water is owned by the irrigation company. Funding state-required improvements makes the fees go up.
Infrastructure like water supply and sewage systems was originally created when these towns were first founded, which was about a century ago, a little beyond the lifespan of pipes and lagoons. The same is true of the big trees, often brought in from a different ecology that was wetter and had a lot less wind. They have aggressive roots that burrow into foundations and water lines, but drop limbs easily. Electricity and gas grids in town are owned in South Dakota. They try to make sure of prompt local responses but, like everything else, poles and pipes age and are vulnerable. It’s strange when the town is blacked out but the wind farm which we can see from here is still pumping out the “juice.” Unless it’s blowing so hard they have to be locked down to keep them from sailing off to the moon.
Internet service is barely good enough for me, a writer who does a certain amount of internet research and who watches a LOT of film and vid, but it is probably not good enough for a business with an internet base. I don’t own a cell phone, so I can’t tell you anything about service. But strangely my handicap comes from the big urban online businesses who insist that one supply a cell phone number rather than a landline number. These days they want your handheld numbers to be coordinated. I have nothing handheld but cats. It’s the same big-city kind of thinking that refuses to deliver to a PO Box because they don’t “get” that we don’t have mailmen on foot — personal mailbox delivery goes via vehicles in the country, but otherwise even the village folks come to the post office. We like it because it’s a chance to howdy our neighbors. Businesses don’t like it because in the city it’s a way to hide identity.
One might think that everyone knowing everyone in small towns cuts both ways and that would be right. People tolerate a low buzz of indiscretion and transgression because the culprits are known, possibly related, people you went to school with, and so on. They monitor instead of taking action unless something really bad happens. When I came in 1999 I was privately told there were three drug dealers in town — not on the rez. But that they were low-level, not much concern.
That was before meth and before heroin had to grow its base because fentanyl took its customers. But there is so much cancer in our aging population, the fentanyl stick-on patches necessary when they are terminal and come home to die, are a disposal problem since they still have a little juice to them when they are peeled and replaced.
Another problem with an aging population is muscle and smarts for the traditionally volunteer roles of EMT and firefighter. Nor are the service occupations benefiting from experience. The consensus is that it’s okay to lie to newcomers — doesn’t count. The boom/bust cycles of oil speculation bring in big tough guys from other rougher places who sometimes stay but without commitment. Some are veterans trying to cope with PTSD.
Family domination, feuds, and the like are well-known factors in small towns because they’re such great story material for novels and films, but when one first moves in, the web of relationships is down deep, and unless one is taken into confidence, one never knows what trip-wires lurk. I’m handicapped because I don’t drink. (It’s hard on my writing connections, too, but good for my liver.) There are no real dive bars here anyway. (Writers of a certain kind love 'em.)
People tend to settle for appearances rather than digging around for cures, but the state is on the case with federal muscle behind them. Being forced to do things makes people resentful, esp. since they tend to live on a one-cell eye-horizon basis rather than considering international matters or the scientific bad news of something like global warming. And yet nothing is of as much planetary importance as the grain crops that can be raised here because of the Swift Dam impoundment of irrigation water. Snowpack in the Rockies is diminished by global warming. From the beginning of towns, nothing has been a more effective weapon than famine. That has not changed but the distribution and nature of food changes.
I wonder if local clergy ever preach the idea that raising grain is ensuring peace in the world.