Smalltown, USA, is nestled into the Appalachian mountains of Northern Pennsylvania. It sports a pretty miniscule population, but is actually the biggest town in its area. Nearby towns host about 1,000-3,000 people, meaning that they use Smalltown’s public school district and shop at its Walmart, but if you want to shop anywhere else, you’ll have to travel about 30 minutes south to reach the nearest mall. (For the record, that mall is dying quickly, so I hope you can find what you need in the 6 stores that are still standing.) Smalltown has very little to offer. In fact, all of its residents have had the same childhood; we all spent tons of time in our local forests, we all depended on outdoorsy hobbies to entertain ourselves, and we all know how to shoot a gun (as well as various other redneck activities).
Needless to say, Smalltown’s experience of 2020 has been a little odd.
To be fair, I haven’t been in Smalltown, USA, for the entire year. For the first few months of 2020, I was actually a senior in a university 3 hours south of Smalltown, and I was loving every day of it. I studied English and Theology and was very involved on my campus; I was a Resident Assistant, Editor-in-Chief of the campus magazine, and a frequent Saturday-night-partier, all while staying on the Dean’s List for most semesters. I was sent home once COVID-19 edged close to my campus, and I spent the last months of my college career online. There was no graduation ceremony, no chance to shake my professor’s hands, no celebration of the long years I spent slaving over my textbooks. I received my diploma in the mail.
When I returned to Smalltown, there still wasn’t a single COVID-19 case in the county. It would take another 3 weeks before we received our first, and, as I’m typing this article, we still only have 64. I was worried that I’d be the one to bring the virus to Smalltown, but it thankfully never happened. I closed out my year without problems and returned to my usual, summer job at an animal shelter while doing some freelancing on the side.
The low amount of COVID cases isn’t because people are being responsible and wearing masks, let me make that clear. In fact, most people I talk to believe that it’s a hoax simply because they don’t know anyone who tested positive. In Smalltown, USA, word travels quickly, so it seems unusual that someone could catch COVID and the rest of the town wouldn’t know about it within a matter of days. Some people believe that it was created to “ruin Trump,” and has never existed in the first place. As my college friends and their families began contracting it, I didn’t know how to explain that I do know people who have tested positive without sounding like part of the conspiracy. Most people weren’t excessively worried about it, though. My 90+ year old grandparents only quarantined for about a month, and businesses continued as usual with some small adjustments.
Smalltown’s public school re-opened in the fall after sending out a survey to parents to ask how they’d like the district to proceed. Unsurprisingly, the parents voted to re-open as though nothing was different. Masks are required, and that’s it.
As we all know, 2020 had more in store for us than just COVID. As the Black Lives Matter protests broke out, the naturally conservative nature of Smalltown shone through. A number of people hung up signs in their yards that loudly stated All Lives Matter or any other number of ignorant phrases, and others went along with it because they didn’t know any better. Many more approved of peaceful protests but dropped their support the moment there was any level of property damage. All of the eyewitness videos and testimonies were lost on the Smalltown population because a lot of them doesn’t have internet access, so everything that wasn’t posted by mainstream news channels didn’t reach the ears of many people. And, let’s be real, the media really failed us during the entire movement. I spent a lot of time explaining the things I’ve seen on Twitter to my coworkers, and I had to try to be satisfied with simply signing petitions and giving small donations to bail funds. If I wanted to attend a protest, I had to travel 2 hours.
Throughout the protests, the left-wingers of Smalltown depended heavily on the internet. We used it to receive our news, support the movement in whatever ways we could, and attempt to educate. Personally, I started a blog meant to turn the Religious Right’s ideas on its head through valid Theology (@st.reetprophet on instagram) and plenty of others advocated in similar ways.
As the election draws near, Smalltown remains as conservative as always. It’s so conservative, in fact, that a number of businesses feel comfortable displaying political signs in their windows or putting odd slogans on their storefront, such as “Biden = Socialism, Trump = Freedom.” The most common signs I’ve seen around town are focused around voting pro-life, which took me by surprise. Pro-life vs pro-choice conversations haven’t been in the forefront of politics for quite some time, so it felt like I was transported back to 2016.
A small amount of conservatives seem disappointed that they have to vote for Trump, much like a number of Democrats are settling for Biden, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping them. There’s no real hope of the county turning blue anytime in the near future, just like the counties around us.
In general, life feels very distant when you live in Smalltown, USA. The pandemic hasn’t affected our lives in any major way. We didn’t see any protests, let alone riots. Even in terms of the election, it feels like we’re still talking about 2016’s issues. People respond in two ways to this sort of isolation: gratitude or frustration. Many people consider it a blessing to be far away from the world’s problems and are glad to be able to observe things from a distance and only participate when they choose to. Others are overcome by feelings of uselessness and wish that they were able to enter the frontlines. Regardless of how the Smalltown residents feel about their living situation, they probably don’t relate much to the media coverage of issues that have surfaced in 2020 because they simply don’t exist in the area. As you can probably imagine, many have chosen to ignore them.
I probably won’t be living in Smalltown, USA, for much longer. After living an exciting life in college, being stagnant in the mountains doesn’t feel right for me anymore. I’ll have to travel pretty far to live the type of life I’m thinking of, but it will be worthwhile to feel a little closer to the rest of the world. Maybe someday, Smalltown will get better, but for now, it stays frozen in time just like all the other Smalltowns.