California Forum

Move to a small town, see life in more dimensions

I was born and raised in Sacramento, and attended college in the Bay Area and New York City. I returned to my hometown in the mid-1970s and published a small weekly newspaper there for nearly two decades. When it went out of business, I had the opportunity to do something I’d always wanted to do, get out of the big city and see what life in a small town was like.

I moved to Dunsmuir, population 2,000. My mother was born and raised here. It was where she and my father met when they were still in grade school.

It was not so much family roots that attracted me to Dunsmuir, but the natural beauty of its surroundings. A river runs through it. Forests and mountains loom over this small town nestled in a river canyon. Dunsmuir’s downtown is frozen in time, still looking much as it did nearly a century ago.

After two decades of living here, I’ve learned a few things about small town life, which I’m happy to share with you big-city folks who may be wondering about, and perhaps yearning for, a quieter, less stressful life.

▪ The talent pool is much smaller here. You may not be considered an intellectual heavyweight in the big city, but you can move to a small town and become a genius. Ditto for artistic and literary talent.

▪ It’s common for people moving here from the big city to reinvent themselves, to expand outward in ways they were unable to do in the cramped confines of the city. A roughneck biker dude from San Diego moved to Dunsmuir a few years ago and transformed himself into a born-again Rotarian and the town’s mayor, well on his way to becoming a pillar of the community. A wealthy retired lawyer from San Francisco moved here and set himself up as a kind of one-man redevelopment agency, buying up a substantial number of decaying properties in the downtown and pouring money into them, helping create a new art gallery and performance space, as well as several new businesses.

▪ You will find after you’ve lived in a small town for a while that life unfolds much like that in a novel. Two-dimensional characters gradually become three-dimensional. The clerk you see every day in the store turns out to have a name, a family, a past, opinions on the state of the nation and the Republican presidential candidates. Narratives, life stories gradually unfold. The woman who commits suicide after her home burns down isn’t just a name in the newspaper, but the person you know as the lady who sold her handcrafted jewelry at the local farmers market.

▪ At least one or two people in the town will be mad at you at any one time, often for unknown reasons.

▪ Lack of privacy? People knowing all about you, your income, your darkest secrets? Yes, that happens here, but it also happens in offices, prisons, church congregations and any other setting where people are thrown together. My attitude is that if anyone can attach a scandal to me, that’s fine. It would probably improve my reputation.

Small towns tend to be kinder, gentler places. You’ll think twice about giving a guy the finger for turning in front of you at Main and Elm. He could be standing next to you in line in the market the next day. And it helps that you’re living amid three-dimensional characters. It’s harder to dislike a person and easier to cut them some slack, if you know what they’ve been through in life.

Tim Holt is the editor of the quarterly North State Review.