The local farrier showed up at 9:00 in the morning the other day, while I was still out feeding. Once again, I had to try and explain to him that the llamas who greeted him were being curious, not trying to warn him away from where Destiny the horse was eating her breakfast. He never quite believes me. While he pulled tools out of the back of his truck, he kept talking about the disgruntled look on their faces and how they flattened their ears back when he reached out to them.
He eased his way through the herd and trimmed up Destiny’s hooves. I finished my chores. We met back at his truck so I could pay him and he could fill me on the busy couple of days he’d had with death in North Park. My farrier is also the county coroner.
This is how I found out that Gene’s brother Bob had died.
“He’s in a better place,” my farrier/coroner assured me. “I barely recognized him.”
Gene and Sharon own the property I live on, the ranch cabin I lived in when I first came to North Park 20+ years ago, the mountain pasture my llamas graze in the summer. We visit on the phone regularly and see each other several times a week when the weather is good. Sharon had called the day before to talk about our shared electric bill. She didn’t mention that Bob had died. Not because I didn’t know Bob, I did — spent many cattle drives, branding day lunches and haying time visits with him over the years. I also know that Bob and Gene had shared more than 80 years of deep connection. Sharon didn’t mention Bob’s passing because fresh pain and loss are really difficult to bring up.
I was so grateful to the farrier that day, carrying important news I might not have learned for several more days until I went into town and saw the notice of Bob’s memorial service tacked on the post office bulletin board. The moment the farrier left, I ran inside to call Gene and Sharon.
This is one of the things I love about small towns. News still travels faster in person than by any other means — even in North Park where only about 600 people live in town and the other 600 are spread out over 2400 square miles.
Small town living has always suited me best. I like being where individual life moments are marked with little spontaneous celebrations. Like last Thursday when several of us ended up hanging out in the post office lobby talking about retirement and life with the postmaster on his last day of work after 25 years of being the guy we handed our packages to and bought our stamps from. He’s taking up sheet rocking next.
There’s more flexibility in small towns. Last December, a truck was parked outside the North Park Visitors Bureau with a For Sale sign on it. It was precisely what was needed for some community food project work I’m connected to 80 miles away in Laramie, Wyoming. I made a few calls, did some test driving, and through the woman who was selling it for him, convinced 86-year-old Jimmy who owned the truck, to hold onto it for almost three months until we could raise enough money to buy it.
There’s more trust in small towns, fewer locked doors. All this balanced with practical realism, of course. On the day I finally brought a check and picked up the truck from Jimmy, I saw him again ten minutes later. He was riding his tricycle down Main Street, his canister of oxygen in the giant basket behind him, heading straight for the bank to deposit that check.
The problem with small towns is that you feel rigidity and intolerance more when they do raise their ugly heads. When a married woman in town fell in love with one of my closest friends, and the two women moved in together, scandalous gossip turned to spitting on sidewalks when they passed. It all grew into the kind of shunning a small town knows how to hone to a high art, eventually forcing the couple to leave a home they once loved.
When I travel in big cities, I protect myself by walking tall, sticking to the outside of the sidewalk, and by not making eye contact. Living 15 miles outside a very small town, I protect myself by offering up juicy bits of gossip about my life before someone else makes it up.
Because everyone in town knows where I live, what I do, and how much I love being part of this unusual part of the world, they keep an eye on me. When I spent a year in cancer treatment, I got cards every day from people I know only because we share a small grocery store, the same three restaurants, and vote on paper ballots at the library every November. If I had died in the process, the coroner would have let everyone know, there would have been an announcement on the post office bulletin board, and it’s quite possible a few businesses would have shut down for my memorial service.
But the truth is that all the bad things happening in big communities are also happening here in my small town — poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, domestic violence, gun violence, sexual abuse, bullying, racism, sexism, environmental poisoning and destruction. In some ways it hits us harder when it does come along, because we don’t have enough people to provide emotional distance from it.
What we do have, is heart. Hearts that have been raised on and nurtured by the breathtaking beauty of our mountains, rivers and lakes, and a long history of survival made possible by human perseverance and kindness.
A lot of us will show up for Bob’s memorial service this Saturday. It will be the only event happening in town that day. We’ll spend time together talking about how he spent his life on the Wamsley ranch, got his schooling in a one-room schoolhouse, rode his old gray mare in a halter rather than a bridle and bit, was one of the sweetest people we’ve ever known. We’ll have lunch together. We’ll mourn the loss of one of our own, just like people everywhere do. And not at all like any place else, because this is our small town, and we know how special that makes us.