I was driving home the other night, down our rural road, in the lull between those who go right home after work in town, and those who stop at the tavern; it was moonless, very dark, and there was no traffic. Nonetheless, there are still deer who suddenly appear in the road, so I keep my speed down. Tonight I was to be reminded that there are dumber mammals on the road than deer.
I came around a long curve with a short straightaway ahead before a narrow bridge and another curve. All was darkness. Suddenly I thought I saw a tiny flash of white light––not headlights by any means, just a small quick chip of light like a shard of glass well above ground level. I began to brake and then, as my headlights lit up the straightaway, I saw people in the left lane, and something big and white completely occupying my lane and very close. More pressure on the brakes, thankful for the anti-lock brakes on our new used car, huge white wall ahead closer with people to the left of it, nowhere to go, brake harder, harder. Stop. Two feet max between me and a big old RV parked in my lane.
Three men are in the left lane with flashlights on now, though not all of them could have been on and none pointed up the road when I came around the curve. Even now they are milling about, talking, not pointing the flashlights so as to warn oncoming traffic in either direction.
One walks over to me. I put the hazard lights on, open the car door, and say angrily “You got flares?” I assumed this event, whatever it was, had just happened, no flares out yet, and I carry flares.
“Oh,” says the guy, “uh, I just picked them up, we’ve got it fixed.” Right, I believe you had flares out.
“Then why isn’t it running and showing some lights?”
“The battery was dead, we had to jump it.”
“Why isn’t it running then?”
He turns to a middle-aged woman standing passively near the motor home and tells her to start it up. She doesn’t move, so he tells her again. The other men with flashlights still are not warning traffic. A car rounds the bend behind me, sees my hazard lights, slows down quickly. It occurs to me that I may be the only functioning adult present, though all these people are over 30, and rather than driving on, I get in and back up a few feet so as not to be smashed into the RV if a chain reaction rear-end collision occurs.
The RV starts up. It has only one brake light working and the tail lights are dim. I get out and inform them of this. Throughout the entire time I am there, none of these people seems at all concerned about the danger of this situation. My car could have fishtailed in a panic stop, flailed into the other lane and taken out all three of the guys there. Two cars or trucks could have arrived at once, one around each bend, and been unable to stop safely. These people aren’t just unconcerned, they are unengaged. If they were deer they’d be long dead.
Eventually the RV sputters off, and one of the helper vehicles actually follows it, perhaps to compensate for its inadequate tail lights. I drive off too, keeping my distance, until I turn off and they continue on, perhaps to one of the two very low-end trailer parks a few miles up the road.
I’ve grown to realize, in the 12 years we’ve lived out here, that there are many folks in this area who are not only marginal economically, but mentally and empathetically as well. For them such events as this are the stuff of stories to be told over beer or while fueling the chainsaw or leaning on the fence, along with stories about arrests, fights, narrow scrapes with the law, somebody who totaled their car missing a curve. Even when injury is involved there’s no awareness of consequences or responsibility. A neighbor’s son wrecked three trucks within 2 years; two were single-car accidents but in one he rear-ended someone in town and crippled a woman. No sweat, just something that happened. Alcohol and meth were involved, but to accept that as an explanation is a cop-out. The question to be asked has to do with why, with boredom, and lack of education, and lack of parenting skills. The young man in question now has two children with a young woman from whom he is now separated (both were meth users) and our neighbor’s wife, who finally left her husband because of his irresponsibility and “anger problems” is now raising the children. She has been gathered unto Jesus, acquiring an instant pattern for life, support group, and promise that the next life will be better than this one. But it would have been much better if she had been able to leave earlier before her two sons followed their father’s pattern.
In a positive development relative to this, a representative from the women’s shelter in town (21 miles away) came to the local Food Pantry the last two weeks, doing something new: rural outreach. She’s spreading the word about their shelter and other services including a 24-hour hotline which handles not just domestic abuse calls but suicide and all other forms of distress where someone needs immediate response. The shelter folks will arrange to pick up domestic abuse victims fleeing home, as long as a safe public place can be arranged to meet. This, the hotline, and the publicity, are all very valuable for rural areas where some people are very isolated and transportation is a big issue.
Rural areas don’t exactly have different social problems from those in urban or suburban areas but the setting can really intensify them. The isolation can reduce social contact, remove options, and conceal problems from neighbors, relatives, and law enforcement. It’s legal to fire guns out here, any time. There are fewer options for kids: no neighborhood kids, no places for organized activities within walking or biking distance, schools that struggle to maintain their very existence due to enrollment that is small to begin with and fluctuates. Our area is experiencing a boom in births but a decline in kids 5-8 years old; there may not be a K-8 school closer than 20 miles by the time this year’s babies get to school.
When gas prices go up and town is 20 miles away, the impact is severe on families, school budgets (long bus runs), and the few small local stores and businesses. A couple who run a business installing gutters showed up at the food pantry during the summer; the costs of their materials had gone up so much, while construction and remodelling plummeted, that for the first time in their lives they could not feed their kids without help. We’re seeing a lot of new faces at the food pantry; they’re new to us, and new to the idea of having to ask for help.
And, when somebody parks a disabled vehicle in the road without lights or flares, they can do so in confidence that no sheriff’s deputy will happen on it and no one will see it and report it in time for the understaffed sheriff’s department to respond (no cell phone coverage for miles). It’s just there, and you deal with it. Not long ago my husband came around a sharp turn in the road (this was on the highway) to find two cars facing opposite directions stopped to chat out the driver’s side windows, completely blocking a road that is heavily used by log trucks and delivery trucks as well as by regular traffic. He was quick-witted and lucky, able to squeeze past on the shoulder. A car coming the other way could have hit him or one of the other cars and a four-car pileup would have resulted.
The stupid and careless, like the poor, are believed to be always with us. In fact some of them are “created,” when babies are malnourished, toddlers are neglected, children are uncared for and discouraged from learning and from being responsible. We can have a society with fewer poor people and fewer stupid or ignorant people, if we work at it.
Rural problems are out of sight and therefore out of mind, for most people. These areas may need extra support to keep the institutions critical to their well-being; they may need not just outreach but more decentralization of services: part-time clinics, places that offer parenting classes, bus service to job training, and so on. Some services others take for granted don’t exist here, like cell phone service, cable tv, broadband Internet access, meals on wheels. I know people who’ve had to move to town for the broadband, in order to telecommute or perform high-tech work.
With our economy nationwide staggering from the parasitism of the very rich, it is not likely that rural areas will see much of this sort of investment; indeed, most rural counties today consider themselves lucky to be maintaining minimum levels of law enforcement, road and bridge work, and health services. But what the rural parts of this country need is a national initiative, a new Tennessee Valley Project which would, for example, upgrade schools, provide clinics, and add wireless net access to benefit schools, businesses, and families. Otherwise the current population tendencies will become more pronounced: rural residents are more and more composed of these groups: retirees; those raised here who would leave if they had the education and the gumption; a smattering of “cultural creatives” from elsewhere; and those who move/stay here because they can live under the radar of law enforcement. It doesn’t have to be this way.