Years ago, I lived in Denver and loved it. I rented a house not two blocks from some famous football player's nightclub (the ceilings were ridiculously low, I imagined it was to make himself look really big when he walked in) and another bar on the corner. I worked in downtown Denver, right next to a bank that sponsored lunch time concerts on the square during the summer. Life seemed slow and sprawling and new, and that's the way it was in Denver back then.
Much can be gleaned of the timbre of a town or city by its old buildings and structures. Marble stairs with worn footpaths, the patiently piled stone foundations, and solid pillars and sculpting tell much of the founders' belief in the lasting strength of their community. History is alive in those old structures, and with a little imagination, it's not difficult to sense the culture and the stream of consciousness that brought the community to today.
That feeling of timelessness is a given in the northeastern states, but in Denver, there was none. Houses were built on concrete slabs with ceilings painted the same color as the walls. The buildings downtown were the same stark and impersonal towers found in NY City, though they did cleanly gleam in the sunlight. Only with a drive into the Rockies could history be found in old mining towns sometimes built into the sides of mountains.
Halfway between the northeast and the Rocky Mountains is Arkansas, with all its vastness and open beauty. Arkansas has everything from deltas to mountains, lakes and rivers; it's far enough south to tame the winter, far enough north to have winter, and a summer that isn't unbearably hot. Everything grows here. Everything is big here. Everything grows big here.
Except for the small towns, that is. It's not unusual to see a welcome sign with a population count of 348. I saw one with only 89 residents. Yes, everyone knows everyone because everyone was born there and chose to live out their lives there. Kids may leave to go to college, and some do decide to move elsewhere, but a lot return home.
The sense of community is astounding in these small towns. As close and tight knit as they are, they are not closed or unwelcoming. You can bet the natives know just as much about those that chose to move there as they do of their own relatives. It may take awhile, but not long, for the new residents to learn the ways of what it means to be home and fit right in.
This sense of community is not separate from the local city councils as governments tend to be. Sometimes, elections for mayor and aldermen can get a bit unruly, but what remains at the heart of all is the welfare of the town. City council meetings are always done "by the book," yet with an openness that welcomes the ideas and thoughts of the residents.
I watched while one town debated the closing of a railroad crossing that was little more than gravel piled between the rails and barely crossable, yet they kept it open for the sake of an elderly gentleman with a sickly wife that needed the quicker access to the highway. Projects often come together despite limited monies available because of the people who step up to the plate and volunteer their time and expertise. Whole parks and fire departments came to be because the townspeople built it themselves.
Ten years ago, a major tornado ripped through one of these small towns. Three people died in that tornado, and the town built a memorial in the park with their names inscribed. That tornado destroyed the public school, with the grounds evacuated just minutes before the building where a dance had started was shredded. The school was not only rebuilt, but updated and expanded. The photo above is the playground behind the on-campus daycare center at that school, taken last week.
There may be miles between homes, but it's nothing for someone to stop and gather up the horses or cattle that escaped their fencing before continuing the drive to work. Invitations to dinner are common while every random meet is met with a handshake or hug and a tall glass of iced tea. Neighbors watch out for neighbors, drivers wave to passing drivers, always with a big smile and an exuberant "Hi!"
Life is quiet, simple and safe here. For the first time in my life, I have experienced the community that is lost in the anonymity of big cities where it is more likely to feel very alone in a crowd. I may be living alone now, but I am a part of the neighborhood and far from lonely.
It's a wonderful feeling.