"Dr. Hofmann, I'm in Nashville for the weekend. And guess what? I saw a cow! And it was close."
This was not a joke. It was on a voice mail message I got from a 22-year old former college student of mine who had recently graduated and was working in New York City. Like most of the New Jersey girls I've had in my classes over the years, she had rarely, if ever, traveled outside of the state, except possibly a vacation or two to beaches in Florida–a popular spring break location. Now that she was starting a career, her big move was to work in "the city." The trip to Nashville was a fluke. Her roommate was from Nashville and had talked her into flying there for the weekend.
I don't know why so many of my students stay in New Jersey after they graduate. New York City seems to be their Mecca. Many go on to graduate school, have careers, marry and raise families within 50 miles of where they were born. I think it ought to be mandatory that all young people spend a minimum two years and at least 500 miles away from the state where they were raised. It should be like the mandatory military service that all young people in Russia and Israel must do. And if they come from a populated location, they should have to go to sparsely populated area to serve their two years–a small, rural town.
Having been raised in a small town in the Midwest, I consider myself fairly well traveled. I've lived and worked 13 states and have visited all 50 several times.. I have lived in large cities (New York City and Los Angeles), medium sized cities (Columbus, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, etc.) and many small towns with a population of 3000 or less. One had a population of 52 people, and it was one of my favorites. Each had something to offer me, and things I didn't care for.
Currently I live in a small town just across the river from Trenton, New Jersey. At least they say it is a small town. When you are driving through it, you can't tell when you leave one small town and enter another. I can drive all the way from my "small town" into the center of Philadelphia–about a 40-minute drive–without ever seeing a farm. It is continuous "small towns." It should be illegal to call a town small if it is squeezed in amongst other towns. That's like standing in the middle of a crowd, drawing a chalk line around you on the floor, and declaring that you are alone.
Real small towns are friendly places. I spend my summers about 20 miles outside of Kremmling, Colorado. Kremmling is an honest small town. The most recent population statistics show it at about 1600 people. At an elevation of 7362 feet, it is high up in the Rocky Mountains. Even though I'm only there for five months a year, every time I go to the grocery store, post office, hardware store or the drug store I see someone I know and chat with them. I know the cooks at three of the eating establishments that I frequent, and the bartenders at two bars, even though I don't drink. When I drive the 20 miles to my house, everyone I pass, whether in their cars or along the road, waves to me. You can't drive to another town without seeing lots of cows. Sometimes I have to wait for a rancher who is moving a herd of cattle down the road in front of me.
Small towns have a family feel about them that many people never get to experience–and that is too bad. Even though I live in a "small town" back east, I can shop for weeks and never see someone I know. People don't wave to me or say hello. This is not to say that large metropolitan areas don't have much to offer. It's just that they are not friendly about it.
Each semester I tell the students in each of my classes to get the hell out of New Jersey and see some of the world. Then, if they don't like it, they can come back. Of course they don't listen to me, probably because it's not on the test. Perhaps I should bring a cow to class for show and tell.