When I was a child, my school had a program that allowed us to swap the city for the country. As an adult, I feel we need the same program.
When I was a kid, our school was part of an urban-rural exchange program. Early each spring, kids from the city (Portland, on the west side of Oregon) were paired with ranch kids from my hometown (Condon, in the north-central part of the state). The point of these weekends was to bring city kids to rural areas, let them experience ranch life, learn about where the meat and bread on their dinner tables came from. And the country kids got a taste of the city.
My first memory of this program was in 1966, when I was eight and my brother Pat was in eighth grade. Two city boys came to stay at our ranch. They had floppy Beatles hair and dark peacoats with toggle buttons, the air of the city all around them. I don’t remember much else about that weekend. I’m sure my brother Pat didn’t think a little sister would impress those boys, and he shooed me away.
Two years after Pat, my brother Brad and sister Leanne, each had a city kid. I remember that weekend mostly by a photo taken during that visit: a girl with light brown hair watches a redheaded boy talking on the phone in our front room. Leanne and Brad are there too, smiling trouble-is-up smiles. A few years ago, I asked Leanne about that weekend. She said the boy had an immediate crush on Leanne’s best friend. That photo was of him calling her on the phone and asking if she wanted to go to the dance that the school hosted each year to honour the city kids. Spiral crepe paper arched on walls, record player music, city dancing a slow dance with the country.
Here is the question of who was learning from whom.
My own city girl came to stay when I was in eighth grade. Mona had full lips and big direct eyes, and she wore her hair long and straight. But then, so did I. We country kids weren’t that far behind. But she knew things I didn’t. Music and the slang of the moment. She wore her ribbed sweater with the half-zipper zipped low, and her breasts were further along than mine would ever be. I could tell she came from a place where the TV had more than one channel and the telephone wasn’t on a party-line shared with the neighbours up the road.
In 1970, Portland had a population of around 350,000, with the greater Portland area at a million. Condon had a population of just over a thousand, with only 2,300 in the whole of Gilliam county. The city kids had access to more sports and music and arts programs than we did. Their teachers weren’t juggling three different grades and a coaching job too. They went to schools with as many kids as there were people in our whole town. Mona knew about four-lane streets and pay-for parking, elevators and escalators, and department stores.
The differences went both ways. Small-town kids have a sense of being special to each teacher, and to each other. We were known. Our families were known in the whole county. We had open skies with a full view of sunsets and approaching thunderstorms. We had wheat fields and canyons, and a grocery store that took credit just by knowing our names.
The city kids shed their shyness first because they had the skill of meeting strangers. Us country kids paraded our own confidence as we led them to the barn, showed them how to milk a cow, gave them a handful of wheat kernels left over from harvest, and stood side-by-side as we chewed the kernels into a gum that tasted of dust. We saddled horses and folded our hands into a low stirrup to boost the city kids up.
When I was a kid, our school was part of an urban-rural exchange program. … I wish for an exchange program for all of us adults.
In another photograph, those two boys of Pat’s sit, one on Lucky Bob, one on Freckles. I’m sure they just stayed in the corral and rode in circles. It was cold in early spring and these were city boys. Lucky Bob and Freckles were horses for kids, but they were also lazy. They would have tried to scrape those boys off on a fence post or tree branch if Dad had let them ride any farther.
After Mona left, I looked through catalogues and found a zip-up sweater, in yellow. I wore it at least once a week and felt a bit of city on me. Mona’s family invited me to come stay at their house for a weekend. The view of the lights of all the houses down the hill from their big picture window stayed with me. I remember the Rose Parade, waiting for it to turn around and come back again, like the Fourth of July parade in Condon did because it was small and the return gave us a chance to see the people on the other side of the floats.
I don’t know if the idea of an urban-rural divide was spoken of back then, a hint at the greater divide that exists now between rural and urban. But I felt it in me. The differences between us, between our families, the houses we lived in. I felt it in the way I was drawn to the city and in the sense that those city kids saw us country kids and our lifestyle, even back then, as a kind of novelty.
The first time I saw Oregon from the sky was when I was nine or ten, a passenger in a small prop plane. What holds clearly from that day was the almost perfect line that separated the state. Dark green and soft edges of the valley to the west; golds and browns and stark terrain to the east. Up until then, I had thought the landscape of the whole state was like the landscape of Condon. But now I saw that the state had two sides, two kinds of terrain. In my memory, the line between the two was completely straight, the contrast vivid, like two entirely different lands.
I left the east side when I was eighteen and went to school on the west side. I stayed. People from Condon said to me, “You’ll hate the rain. The traffic.” I fell in love with the green. But, as I say in my memoir, This Particular Happiness, “Leaving doesn’t mean you are gone from it. Leaving doesn’t mean it’s gone from you.” I’ve lived in the city many more years than I lived in Condon. But I feel like I am still a citizen of Condon. I carry the rural in me as much as I carry the city.
And I feel the divide.
Over the years, Portland has grown bigger (the greater Portland area is around two and a half million), while Condon’s population has shrunk (there are fewer than 2,000 people in the whole county). Portland teachers struggle with meeting the demands of so many kids and not enough space or resources. Condon’s teachers worry there aren’t enough kids to keep the school going. Losing the school is a death knell to a small town.
I wish for an exchange program for all of us adults.
I wish for the country to come to the city, not to shop or sit in traffic, but to converse with the chefs, to taste handmade chocolates, sample lettuce grown on back alleys and rooftops. To crouch down and look in the eyes of the woman on the street, backpack propped next to her. To speak with the city planner, the young artist shaping jewellery or pottery in a shared workspace, to smell all the smells. To listen to the texture of cars on the freeway, rain on trees.
I wish for the city to come to the country. To sit atop a horse and follow a trail into a canyon, listen to the sound of a creek flowing and a killdeer calling. To shake the calloused hand of the rancher who goes into the ice storm to rescue the newborn calf. To sip a Coors Light at the Round-Up tavern and share a game of shuffleboard with the guy who ploughs the highway all winter. Speak to citizens glad that the nearby landfill brings jobs to the county. Have a conversation in the cab of a combine and hear the wheat rancher speak of why, why she holds on to this lifestyle, this history.
The dividing line is stark. We dig our feet into soil or cement. We all have wrongheadedness, attachment to the way things were or the way we think they should be.
Maybe the city can bring their dance to country. Maybe the country can offer a handful of grain and we can stand side-by-side and sift the kernels through dusty fingers.