No matter how long you live in your small town, you'll never be a native

  • Susan Humphrey - HLAZYJ Photography

The woman behind the counter asked where I lived. It turns out she grew up in the very same small town, population 300. She said she had to leave it to find a job, moving to the nearest place with a population nearer 10,000.
"So you must be the new trash that's moving in," she mused.

The woman looked 40 or so, with the dry complexion of winter wheat, as weathered as something wadded up and left in a corner for too long. She did not even attempt to smile.

Something pithy should have come out of my mouth about then. "Yeah, I am. You must be the old trash that moved out."

Instead of saying anything, I looked back at her, mystified. I reached into my pocket, handed her some crumpled dollars for whatever I had just bought.

All the way home I kept thinking of the clever things I could have said. Along the dusty road, up the shoulder of the mountains, turning at a steep, rutted drive, I spoke out loud to her. I sounded, probably, just how she'd expect an uppity newcomer like me to sound, even if I had lived here for 15 years.

In case you're wondering, you will never be a local in towns like these, the scenic but not especially popular ranch towns scattered across the West. It doesn't matter how many decades you spend living here. If you weren't born here, and you carry yourself differently, you might as well have a bull's-eye tattooed on your forehead. You are not a native; you are part of the new trash.

I like to climb in the boulders and cliffs above town. I'm as invisible as a ghost when I come up here. It's my secret hiding place when deadlines, children, wife, dirty bathroom, broken car become too much. I run into the rough hills, scrambling between gut-twisted junipers.

Few people come up here, really. There are some old BLM roads, but I rarely see anyone. Sometimes I walk the roads, brisk pace, eye out for mountain lions in the surrounding woodlands. I even fancy myself a tracker, enjoying the animal pathways I find crisscrossing the landscape.

I was walking down one of these roads when I heard the growl of an ATV behind me. Instinctively, I dove for the snowy woods. I did not want to chitchat -- no questions asked or answered, no awkward conversations, no teenagers with guns. (My father grew up a New Mexico motorhead and literally shot himself in the foot when he was in high school, so I know the type.)

I peered out from behind trees, resting on my haunches so I'd look like a stump or a boulder. The ATV came into view and it was not anyone I was expecting. An older man, likely in his 70s, sat behind the throttle, cowboy hat pulled down over his brow. An even older-looking, graying Labrador retriever lay on the back, its head on its paws. They were traveling about four miles an hour, the man's eyes casually roaming the land ahead. I was far enough back in a tangle of junipers so that he couldn't see me.

As he passed, he glanced my way. He had seen my tracks in the snow, a quick scuff marking my departure. He must have had an eye on my bootprints all the way up here. I was impressed. He had a sharp eye, certainly sharper than my own. But he didn't slow down, and he didn't spot me. He just threw a gesture in my direction: I know you're in there.

When the sound of his engine faded, I came out from hiding and followed him. It was a grand day, my imagination wandering to the slow drift of clouds and the snow-capped peaks above. After a mile, not paying attention, I lost track of the man on the ATV. He must have turned off while I was strolling, hands in pockets, head in the clouds. I skipped the road and took a wooded ridgeline, thinking I might spy down on him from somewhere. What is an old redneck doing alone with his dog on a sunny afternoon, anyway? Perhaps this is where he sneaks away to dance like Madame Butterfly, bootheels clicking, all by himself. Who knows?

That's when I heard a purposeful cough ahead of me. Thinking I was alone, I froze. I peered through the shadowed trees ahead of me, squinting to see. Slowly, I bent halfway down so I could look between the trunks and there he was, turned away from me. He had his hands in his coat pockets and was looking down on a valley below. His old dog stood at his side, snout pointing toward the same valley. They had left the ATV behind, came up the ridge on foot.

Over the years, I have tried to understand this local landscape, but I was not a child here running wild, not a teenager with a bonfire, not a young man hunting mountain lions. I came as an adult. I appreciated this man's presence here, respected his solitude. I had a renewed appreciation for ATVs, which got him up here to enjoy his surroundings in peace and solitude.

The old man never turned in my direction, never even saw me. I backed away slowly, coming down off the side of the ridge, rolling my weight from toe to heel the way you do when you don't want to be heard. Just when I was out of view, a hoarse barking broke out. His dog had picked up my presence. But I was already gone, just about to slip out of earshot, feeling like I had made it through a rite of rural passage. I got through the woods without being spotted by a seasoned local. A little proud of that, too. I had gotten close enough I could have sneaked up and tagged him on the rear the way you'd creep up and slap a bear on the rump. I had counted coup. I was grinning as I made my escape.

The dog continued barking, and I caught the man's low voice. Yanking back the trophy I'd just won, he grumbled, "Ahh, Blue, leave him alone."

Craig Childs writes from near Crawford, Colorado. He is this year's winner of the Ellen Meloy Desert Writers Award, and he has authored several books. His work has appeared in The New York Times, Men's Journal, Orion and The Sun.

Mark Bailey
Mark Bailey Subscriber
Dec 26, 2011 11:06 AM
It's an issue a lot of us move ins talk about. I wonder why we care.
Ed Quillen
Ed Quillen Subscriber
Dec 27, 2011 12:44 PM
The late Allen Nossaman, who owned the newspaper in tiny Silverton, Colo., for many years, once told me that in little mountain towns, you become a local when nobody remembers exactly when you moved there.

    Another sign that you're settled is when your home becomes the Quillen House rather than the Sanderson Place or the Marquardt House.

    When my wife and I owned the newspaper in Kremmling, Colo., a woman came in and berated us for daring to editorialize about local politics. "Who are you outsiders to come in and tell us what we should do?" she asked.

    I explained that that's what newspaper editors did, no matter where they were from. I also pointed out that we owned a business and a house in town and both our daughters had been born there. I'll never forget her response: "Just because the cat had kittens in the oven doesn't make 'em biscuits."

    The moral of the story, I suppose, is that establishing a personal locale takes time, and how it happens is determined more by other people than by anything you do.

Wendy Beye
Wendy Beye
Dec 27, 2011 01:32 PM
Though you'll still be a "transplant," pitch in, help out, join the community, and you'll be welcomed as a neighbor.
Peter Gibbons
Peter Gibbons Subscriber
Dec 27, 2011 02:46 PM
Craig, the reason 'move-ins' aren't welcome is that they often come with loud mouths, money, and the filth that existed in their home areas. I say "filth", because most of the move-ins I've met and gotten to know are Once-lers (pronounced, Wants-lers, from The Lorax). They want-want-want and lead to further industrialization of the Colorado landscape -- something that many of us "Natives" don't want. The population of Colorado has doubled in the last ~30 years, which is something that many of our families have fought, tirelessly. For every person that moves here, a house, a new patch of highway, a new shop to meet their Thneeds must be constructed. New-comers claim to "LOVE Colorado", yet they continue to demand all the things the old residents have persistently refused (e.g., the Olympics). In this day of instantaneous communication, out-of-staters sound the alarm to everyone they know about how great the state is, or how weird the weather is, and how great their lives are here. We Coloradans never wanted the publicity. So, when you are faced with a so-called Native and their hostility toward you, it isn't necessarily personal -- it's what you represent: Development and an exploding population of Once-lers and their endless Thneeds.
Ronna Sommers
Ronna Sommers
Dec 27, 2011 03:33 PM
Sounds like poor manners.....
Julie Trevelyan
Julie Trevelyan Subscriber
Dec 27, 2011 06:03 PM
I think it's a timeless topic in rural Western towns...rather unfortunately. I happen to live in a tiny Utah town (population approx 175) with plenty of "move-ins." I have to say, I've yet to meet a "move-in" there who wants wants wants create massive changes there in order to satisfy their increasing Thneeds. In fact, the majority of them moved there precisely for what the place offers: community, beauty, lack of the hustle and bustle and endless growth of cities.

I'll never be a local in my town, despite having lived there 12 years and counting, despite voting there, paying taxes there, working for local businesses there and thus supporting the local economy. I happen to know quite a few of the locals and really like most of them, despite the fact that we often have extremely different viewpoints on many subjects. Well, heck...if I wanted to live in a community of people exactly like me, I probably wouldn't have picked a tiny rural town in the middle of a gorgeous nowhere to put down roots, now would I have?

I'm not a local, and that's fine. But I do call my town "home," and I'm a part of the multi-faceted community, and that's a very fine thing, too.
Ronna Sommers
Ronna Sommers
Dec 27, 2011 06:30 PM
Being possessed of a 'local attitude' is just as important as actually BEING a local... It's having that local mindset that ANYONE can bring to the neighborhood. Being a decent neighbor...having respect for everyone in the natural world....THAT is a great thing..
Julie Trevelyan
Julie Trevelyan Subscriber
Dec 27, 2011 07:04 PM
Excellent point, Ronna. Being a true local is mostly a state of mind, no matter where you came from originally. (And it's possible to be a local and a "once-ler", at once.)

Here's to loving where we live and respecting all our neighbors as best we can.
Dannie Kemp
Dannie Kemp
Dec 28, 2011 09:36 AM
I am a 'move-in' southeast. Only 12 miles from the city I was born, I moved to the "country" 20 years ago and I am still considered a "new-comer". Our county has grown 30% in 10 years. You know, it's funny, I consider those that relocate from the north 'carpet baggers'. I look around and I don't see many Native Americans. If one looks far enough back, they were 'move-ins' too. See ya soon! This brief article of experience was extremely well written and has done much to improve my outlook. Thanks!! Dannie
Ronna Sommers
Ronna Sommers
Dec 28, 2011 07:26 PM
That person was SHOCKINGLY RUDE! There is no excuse whatsoever for a person to behave in such a manner... It reminds me of the song from South Pacific....loosely:'You must be carefully taught to hate, before you are 6, or 7, or 8, to hate all the people your relatives hate, you must be carefully taught.'
Joanna Taylor
Joanna Taylor
Dec 29, 2011 06:10 AM
Exquisite writing. Reminds me of Fencing the Sky by James Galvin
Ronna Sommers
Ronna Sommers
Dec 29, 2011 07:37 PM
You counted coup, quite elegantly.... This was the third time I have read your article, and I derive something interesting each time. Thank you for that.
Rose L. Brinks
Rose L. Brinks Subscriber
Jan 03, 2012 02:59 PM
When we bought a farmstead and 100 acres at Laporte, Co, in 1977, someone said, "Oh, you bought the Herring place." No, actually we had bought from the Burns famiily which had lived here 25 years. That didn't matter; it was the Herring Place. The Herrings had been here nearly 60 years, and their son "Ted" was well known as the builder of "Ted's Place" and a state legislator. That taught me what it takes to be a native. I spent some ten years researching and writing a book about the local cemetery (Bingham Hill) on our farm, so I think, after 35 years, if not a native, I am an "oldtimer."
Ronna Sommers
Ronna Sommers
Jan 03, 2012 04:05 PM
Rose Brinks: What a lovely comment... Although I am not from this area, I carry that small-town/local attitude in my heart, and it is omnipresent! Most of the kids in my class of 1966 were all delivered by the same MD... My husband, being a collector of boring postcards, gave me one of my greatest treasures: A 1906 postcard - A view looking up the street where I was born....that shows a dirt street...has a vehicle AND a horse included in the photograph.
Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
Jan 03, 2012 04:14 PM
It's the same way in Vermont, at least in that I can never be a local.

People are very welcoming, but I'll never be able to call myself a 'Vermonter'.

In a sense, it all seems silly, except for the few people who are Native American. We're all immigrants. But certainly, there is something special about someone born into a place that is 'home' and has been for many past generalizations.

But, it's also special to be able to find 'home' after spending 30 years living in the wrong places, at the wrong times, and lever feeling at ease. I won't even call the place I come from a home. It was home in that loved ones lived there, but beyond the four walls of my childhood house, I wouldn't care if I never saw that town again. Let the newbies have it.
dennis moroney
dennis moroney Subscriber
Jan 03, 2012 10:17 PM
Years ago I knew a man who had grown up in Mississippi. He said to me "You know Mississippi is the kind of place where a person can be born in Alabama, be brought to Mississippi as an infant, live his whole life , attend schools, have a business, raise his children, and finally die in Mississippi, and when they write his obituary,they will refer to him as a native of Alabama. So it is with the small minded locals of the west. I live outside a town where many of the "local" residents make a point of referencing the year they moved here, just to make sure that they have enough status to be considered more native than you. All the shopkeepers who are from somewhere else ask if you are a local, perpetuating the "first in use, first in right" mentality of a colonial outpost. I think of it as so much posturing for those with little else to be proud of, and embrace Wes Jackson's admonition to "become native to this place". I drink the water, breath the air, eat from the land, and immerse myself in culture, both local and exotic. Be real, be happy..... be secure in who you are.
Rusty Neff
Rusty Neff
Jan 06, 2012 04:31 PM
I read this article with a sense of familiarity.

I love living in a small rural town. I was raised in one along the WA-BC border, and currently live in s small town in southern WA. Although I've lived here 31 years, and married a 3rd generation resident, I am considered to not be a "true local"...even by my wife! If you weren't born here, you're not a local. It doesn't mean they don't like you or that your opinions don't count, just don't call yourself a local.
Hunter Kunkel
Hunter Kunkel
Jan 10, 2012 03:20 PM
I like to picture fields without fences. We all come from the same place after all, earth, or more presently the uterus.
Dan D Short
Dan D Short Subscriber
Jan 10, 2012 10:03 PM
pay your bills on time, treat your critters well and don't act arrogant and you'll get along just fine.
Anna S Jeffrey
Anna S Jeffrey
Jan 17, 2012 03:45 PM
so true, so true... As a true and proud native of a place very similar to this one. ~ been there seen them
Erick Laurila
Erick Laurila
Jan 17, 2012 07:53 PM
When doing my graduate research in western Ireland, a young Irishman told me that his family had lived in the area for more than 100 years and had a shop, but the family was still considered "blow-ins". He figured a family needed to be somewhere at least 300 years before folks started to think you actually might be a local.
Anna S Jeffrey
Anna S Jeffrey
Jan 18, 2012 07:54 AM
I suppose the true natives are the real... Native Americans... And they deserve the right and respect!
Audrie Clifford
Audrie Clifford
Jan 18, 2012 11:03 AM
I subscribed to your magazine more than a year ago, but then my life became so busy I asked you to transfer the subscription to a family member.This past November my book,ANOTHER DAMN NEWCOMER was published and has received excellent reviews. I mailed a copy to you, hoping that you'd review my book in your magazine. As I can tell by the amount of comments this excellent essay has received, the subject generates a lot of interest. So I'll keep hoping that you review my book.
Toby Thaler
Toby Thaler Subscriber
Jan 18, 2012 08:15 PM
I live in a moderately big city (Seattle), and a similar dynamic occurs even here. I have been in my neighborhood (Fremont) for almost 40 years, and am recognized as part of the "fabric" of the community because I'm publicly active. However, I'm not a real local; that honor is reserved for the third generation descendants of the post-Native American originals, many being Scandinavian ("ya sure, you betcha!").

On the other hand, if I moved back to my home town (Spokane) I suspect I would be considered an outsider because I'm too "urban."

Good story.
Audrie Clifford
Audrie Clifford
Jan 20, 2012 08:59 AM
I'm quite impressed by the number of comments about this essay. It doesn't matter if you live in Tennessee, Alaska or Florida, the prevailing sentiment is the same. I have come to the conclusion that when people live in the same place and grow up together, they form what could be called a "tribe". Non-tribal members are looked upon with suspicion.
Jodi Peterson
Jodi Peterson Subscriber
Jan 20, 2012 09:55 AM
Hi Audrie, Thanks, we did receive your book, Another Damn Newcomer. It looks like a fun read; regrettably, though, we have space to review only about 40 books per year out of the hundreds published in the West, and we try to pick books likely to be of broad interest to all of our readers around the region. Although your book certainly addresses bigger issues, it's focused pretty tightly on a small part of NM, and thus might not be as interesting to readers in, say, Oregon or Idaho.Thanks for sending it though. Sincerely, Jodi Peterson, Managing Editor
Mike Welch
Mike Welch Subscriber
Feb 02, 2012 02:42 PM
I can relate...albeit from the opposite spectrum. As a "native" Montanan we have an old saying that is becoming more and more popular---"Montana sucks, now go home and tell all your friends." That being said I have always found the whole "native" concept a bit ludicrous considering us non native-americans are all transplants in one way or another. So, unless you are a member of the Blackfeet Nation, Salish-Kootnei, Ute, Arapaho, Navajo, Crow, etc... etc... then NOBODY has the right to give you flack for moving ANYWHERE. We humans, particularly we "white" North Americans, have such a short memory span that we perpetually and conveniently forget that we ALL are non-native. I dont care how many "generations" you are, the fact is you too are not native, so please small town western rednecks and others who suffer from short term memory loss, get over it. Lastly, the next time some redneck in Montana, Idaho, Utah, Colorado or wherever attempts to give you B.S. for not being born their, tell em' kindly to you know what off.
Audrie Clifford
Audrie Clifford
Feb 03, 2012 07:03 AM
Great comment, Mr. Welch. I love your attitude.
Charlie Hohn
Charlie Hohn
Feb 03, 2012 08:20 AM
They say you can pick your friends but you can't pick your family. It's true. You also can't pick your home town. If I were able to choose, I'd choose the very same family, but I'd sure as heck put us in a different place than where I grew up.

People who are happy where they are, engaged, friendly, and invested in creating community and making their lives and surroundings better are an asset to any community, wherever they end up. People who are otherwise, are not. True anywhere, with anyone.
Bill Gore
Bill Gore Subscriber
Feb 03, 2012 08:40 AM
Well said, Charlie! I've lived all over the west, from a small town myself, but the most intense localism/nativism I've ever seen is right here in San Diego. I have seen "Native San Diegan" on people's resumes! People never leave their little neighborhoods, and such people tend to be 'little' people, in every sense. I know its tough, that you want to feel belonged in your community, but you really just need to have a thick skin and keep a smile on your face. These folks all have their own little dramas and live in their own little worlds. You will find your friends and make your own community. Personally, I have much more respect for those who as adults go out into the world and find their way, versus the wee folks who stay so close to home.
paul hoornbeek
paul hoornbeek
Feb 03, 2012 07:00 PM
All you have to do to belong is to participate. Figure out what you have to offer & give it. Working the local volunteer fire dept or ambulance or sar is a good way to be part of a community & to be recognized for something besides being born elsewhere.
Audrie Clifford
Audrie Clifford
Feb 04, 2012 08:08 AM
That's a nice, easy solution, Paul, and I would agree in general, but it doesn't always work. My husband and I did everything possible to be a part of the very small New Mexico community we had moved into, including my running for election as village council member and later as mayor. I was elected to each position, but was stymied by having only one vote and being disliked by the old guard. Take a look at my book, Another Damn Newcomer, on and you might get an idea of how it was for me.
paul hoornbeek
paul hoornbeek
Feb 04, 2012 08:57 AM
Issues of Like and Dislike are irrelevant when you're giving someone CPR.
CHRIS Battis
CHRIS Battis
Jan 06, 2017 01:00 PM
My late wife and I lived in a ranching community in NE California for 25 years and were pretty generally accepted despite our political sympathies, our "no hunting" stance and the fact that I'd never played on the local HS football team. Indisputably, the key to our acceptance was my wife's participation in the local volunteer fire department. She began going to meetings not long after we moved to the valley, and became the first female member of our "good old boys' club". She was from the start the only member who knew how to use a computer, and over the years she taught EMT classes, wrote grant proposals, led training sessions, and after 15 years was elected Department Chief by the other members. I don't doubt that she'd still be doing it if she hadn't been disabled in a horse-riding mishap and had to step down. Other considerations aside, if you're hoping for acceptance in your community, and want to meet the very best people there, just become active in the local volunteer fire department and you may even find that you're being invited to parties.
Abigail Wright
Abigail Wright
Jan 06, 2017 03:16 PM
First, I will read anything written by Craig Childs. Second - small town-itis is not exclusive to the West. I live in Colorado but was born in Vermont, as was my father and his ancestors, going back to before the Revolutionary War. Forty years ago the newcomers that flooded into Vermont - disillusioned with urban life, or politics, or the disco culture - were also resented by some of the locals, those locals who had to struggle to get by with a vanishing economy and high fuel prices. Eventually, the newcomers integrated themselves into, and helped preserve, those features that have made Vermont a haven for those who love rural life. And they gave us Bernie Sanders.
Edward C Quinby
Edward C Quinby
Jan 07, 2017 08:54 PM
Nice Essay - As to how long you have to live in a small town most of the comments are probably accurate but small towns vary as do areas. I think that in the West if you were born someplace you might be local but back East [in Maine, Vermont or Maryland] you won't be a local unless at least one of your Grandparents was born there. My family had places in both Maine and Maryland and I spent time in each small town visiting and later living in houses that had belonged to Great -Grandparents. I wasn't truly a local because I hadn't been born or gone to school there; but I had higher status than the neighbor who had moved in thirty years ago and whose children were raised there.