Recently Rural: A Memoir
by Eugene Havens

You’ll never compete for housing again. The thought was my first real attraction to rural life. Finding a stellar place to live, without stress, without opposition, was the dream of every urban person and, for all but the trust fund class, pure fantasy. The rest of us knew the pain of the chase for an affordable apartment. Once you knew you needed to change your address, your teeth clenched. You had entered the mad scramble of a penniless college student arriving to campus. Your budget was tight, your options limited. You could taste desperation on your tongue just thinking about it. A housing search brought a crushing feeling of inadequacy to the city dweller. What if everyone beat me out? What depressing shanty would I be forced into? How safe will it be? How far will I need to drive to everything that mattered?

All would be dispelled by moving to rural America. The Olympic event of apartment hunting would be history. In a rural town, you would find a choice on every corner. Did you want a mid-century farmhouse? Would a cottage by a stream suit you better? What about a spindly-legged mountain lookout? It was ready and waiting for the incoming rural resident. Just take your pick.

We told ourselves that getting beaten up by the city was good for us. It kept us from getting soft. If so, I was ready to get soft. Rural America, I accept your invitation to a pillowy life.

There was only one problem. It was an exaggeration, a white lie.

You wondered later if you misheard. Did Rural America really say it was easier to live there? People said it. They lived there. How could they be so wrong? What were they talking about?

Was rural America ready and waiting with open arms for newcomers? Not quite. Not really. To put it bluntly, not at all.

The first clue that I was in for a ride appeared even before I left the city. My rural contacts shared some troubling advice: “Could you possibly rent a house online before coming here?”

Say what? I had never rented online, not even in NY or LA.

“Yeah, we’re facing a bit of a housing squeeze up here. It would be better for you if you rented ahead.”


“You might have to drive in from ten miles away, which isn’t ideal in winter. People are renting places in outlying towns. There’s a lot of demand and not a lot of housing right now.”

“People are living in smaller towns to drive to the small town,” I said.

“You should rent ahead. Here’s a website.”

The website had houses for rent. We had expected to rent for a while. I was in no rush to buy, for obvious reasons. She was unsure of our cash flow as she started a job there.

My significant other was starting a new career in a small town, which was a step up from her city career. It was a long story.

I emailed the listing agent. “We like this one. Is it available?”

“Great doing business with you,” he replied. “We look forward to you coming here.”

“Can we put down a deposit?”

“Not necessary. We’ll hold it for you.”

He was willing to hold a house for three weeks. I didn’t understand. I emailed back. “Can we fax an application?”

“No, that’s fine. We’ll wait until you get here.”

I told my significant other I was under the impression the rental market was tight. This is crazy. She found it charming. People were put together in order to disagree on everything. She said he was being friendly. Our rural contacts had filled him in. He was happy to have us. They told him I would be teaching college. They said my significant other would be starting her new career.

On paper, we looked like the golden couple. Plus, we had a kid young enough to warm your heart.

“I like to nail things down,” I said. Here I was arguing for cementing our place in a small town. It was how I knew rentals. Once you saw something, you nailed it down. She wasn’t worried.

“If he says he’ll hold it for us, I’m sure he will.”

If we didn’t rent ahead, we would be commuting to the town. Wasn’t a small town supposed to make your commute disappear? We had to scramble to find a place before getting there. Wasn’t a small town supposed to let you retire from a life of scrambling?

The biggest benefit for a tired city person was already a fiction. Yes, we could rent ahead. I had never done it and was probably proud to avoid it. I had canvassed the city with a newspaper in the days before smartphones. I was the first one to an open house, the smiliest and most agreeable with the owner. It gave me a chance to see what I was going to be living in.

Having to rent online ruined a fantasy about rural life. It wasn’t sitting there waiting for you. It was a squeeze like everywhere else. And why not? Life didn’t throw you softballs.

What flummoxed my feeble brain most was the existence of a housing shortage in an unknown place. Wasn’t the point of a small town to live in a location where few people wanted to be? Hadn’t we zagged while everyone else zigged? It sounded absolutely terrible to ask these questions. The town was the proud home of fine people. And yet, they weren’t being resettled based on certain promises of effortlessness and ease. They didn’t have a significant other who promoted the town’s best aspects for a city person.

I just seriously wanted to know. Why was the town being overrun?

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