How Small Towns Saved Americans in the Summer of 2020



You won’t find any skyscrapers when you drive through small town America. The largest structure in town is the water tower and that probably still has some spray paint on it from the class of ‘93. The businesses that line the town are little mom and pop shops with gifts unique to the area. One doesn’t have to look too hard to find the shop owner of the place. They can be found behind the counter doing crossword puzzles from the newspaper or tapping into the local rumor mill through a conversation with a customer. There isn’t much night life to be had except for witnessing your occasional dart league, a local band playing cover songs or bellying up to the bar to watch the big game. The pace is slower like a week long Sunday drive, but the locals wouldn’t have it any other way. And it’s where everyone came to escape in the summer of 2020. 


While walking into town to drop off a letter at the post office in early June, I had never seen so many bike and canoe racks attached to vehicles. Scanning the plates as the cars drove by, I noticed many of them were from nearby states (“Minnesota, Minnesota, Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota…”) but there were a few from places like New York and Florida. These numbers of out of state plates would increase as I would see them while heading into the grocery store throughout the summer. Small towns in the Midwest are already highly sought after destinations in the summertime regardless of there being a pandemic or not, but rural America offered something to people that larger cities could not; the wilderness. 


Views from an afternoon kayak session on Teal Lake.

Every morning out in nature, there’s a concert that takes place. As the sun slowly begins to rise and in between the train whistle blows, the birds begin to sing their songs. Squirrels bound along the branches of trees and critters scurry along the grass that is still wet with the morning dew. For people that are used to a city never sleeping, the wilderness provides a place to rest. Nature tells us to “come as you are” in a world concerned with social media posts, building your brand, Tik Tok videos, being “woke”, and endless heartbreaking news headlines. While we can’t always escape from all of the world’s troubles, the wilderness provides brief moments of bliss that can be found in riding along a backwoods bike trail or kayaking on a lake with a loon near your paddle. 


A Sunday morning walk through Copper Falls State Park.

The further you go into the wilderness the better things seem to get. Whether you’re hiking along a trail with beautiful views as you scale rough terrain or fly fishing from a small boat along the riverbank; the less cell phone signal, the more connected you feel. I know it’s cliche to say, but it’s true. When we stop focusing on our newsfeed and spend time out in the open air, we give ourselves the opportunity to experience the peace that nature can provide. 


The view from St. Peter's Dome near Mason, WI.

It’s anticipated that during the fall hunting season, the number of people purchasing licenses will increase. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. People around the country witnessed firsthand what can happen when a meat packaging company has to shut its doors due to a COVID outbreak. Meat was flying off of the shelves at local supermarkets and prices were increasing due to the high demand. There were many times I would venture to Walmart only to find the meat already picked over and the shelves bare. Everybody went into panic mode. (I still don’t get the toilet paper part, but that’s besides the point.) People are now returning or being introduced to hunting because it’s important to have a freezer full of meat when the grocery stores are empty. That rumble in their stomach is satisfied by the game that they harvested and are in turn able to provide for their families. Regardless of how exaggerated their hunting story is after they take their boots off on the porch, providing for your family is something to take pride in. 


Rural areas and small town people often get a bad reputation for being “uneducated” or “out of touch” with society, but I think that couldn’t be farther from the truth. I believe what you’ll find in most of these areas are hard working people that want to do what’s best for their family and what’s right for their community. Now, there are a few outliers, but you’ll have that in any community no matter the size. Small businesses were significantly impacted by the repercussions that the COVID-19 pandemic brought on in the beginning of 2020 and we’re still not out of the clear yet. Many hallmark businesses that have been in their communities for generations were forced to close their doors due to the impact of the virus. Businesses needed to layoff workers or make several adjustments to survive. Out of the chaos though, many businesses rose to the occasion and thought of their businesses in a new way. 


Restaurants began doing curbside meals and offering a delivery option. Coffee shops added drive thru windows in the spot where you once could see the old men recapping the high school football game on Saturday mornings. Small businesses began shifting their focus to online sales and now have reached a larger customer audience that is nationwide. It was the innovative minds in these small towns that kept their communities alive. Not only could they still reach their local customer base, but also could serve the tourists that were flocking to the area to escape the city.


Yes, there are probably way too many country songs written about small town life and rural areas. Many of the stereotypes about life in a small town are true as well. It’s hard to avoid your exes and small town gossip. But the way I see it, there’s a lot of comfort one can take in the predictability of it all. In a year that’s been full of uncertainty, it’s nice to know that you might see someone you know while taking a walk after work. While running errands around town, you could witness a father and son play catch in the yard before supper is on the table. The mosquito bites and slow wifi might not be for everyone, but maybe it just might have gotten us through one of the craziest years of our lives.


- Dalton Hessel


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