TALLIES & TOLLS: How would you learn what rural America is really like?

TALLIES & TOLLS: How would you learn what rural America is really like?

Last year, I traveled in this van, 25,000 miles across America, interviewing change makers. At the beginning of May I sold my Portland house of twenty years and am traveling for a year. I’ll be staying in rural communities and small towns, purposefully living on a rural person’s income, and talking to more change makers. I believe sharing lives, and the challenges rural communities face, will help create greater understanding and build stronger communities across the nation.

Where I am today:

At this moment, I am in Roseburg, Oregon feeling immense gratitude for my current lodging gifted from a complete stranger. After hearing about GOING RURAL and my need for a home for me and my cats, he offered me his house while he’s away. It has been a great way to immerse myself in a community and see if my cats can adjust.  Yes, dear old cats. After a year searching, but not finding, a foster or adoptive family, for the moment they are part of the journey. They have been sweet, fragile old grannies. (More on them later.)

Where I’ve gone in the last two weeks, and why:

My initial destination was Bandon, Oregon. A Portland women’s book group sent me to this coastal tourist town (with a population of 3100) to find out how the tourist economy impacts local communities.

Starting in Coos Bay, I traveled southward through Charleston, Bandon and then to Port Orford—all southern coastal towns. This week, I’m in Roseburg, which is far larger and two hours inland. I’m excited for the opportunity to spend a few weeks learning more about Main Street America and its mission to breathe new life into this once thriving logging community.

In upcoming blogs, I’ll spotlight the people who’ve created transformative programs and businesses. When I find affordable housing, I’ll head back to the coast, hopefully to Port Orford. If you have any contacts in that region, I’d love to connect with them.

First though, here’s a bit about my experience as I attempt to achieve the seemingly impossible: Living within the budget of an average rural individual.

In Oregon, the average individual rural income is $21,000. By contrast, in Issaquena County, Mississippi, it’s less than $12,000. (As a baseline, the average national individual income is $31,000.) Whoa! Both are not nearly enough to live on. The number of single moms I’ve met making this work, in both places, is staggering. 

On my first week, while photographing a processing plant in the tiny community of Charleston, Oregon, a woman offered to give me a tour through the oyster farm she manages.

I met up with her after work. I followed her down a shaded lane where rivers meet. She he got out of her truck, lit a cigarette and motioned to the dock. “This is my home,” she said.

She’d moved from Estacada—a rural town outside of Portland—after her husband died three years ago. Tumbling out of control, she had “lost her mind,” and needed to make a change. She packed up her rusted Suburban, moved to the coast, “kept her head down” while living at the beach, and worked at a Taco Bell.

She walked down dock, pointed to the shallow waters where the oysters grow. A young boy came out of the building filled with machine parts and oyster farming gear. She introduced me to her adopted son and patted her pregnant belly while pulling hard drags off her cigarette. “Ma”, he asks “Can I play my trumpet for her?” 

Pride shone through the rough edges. Now 35, she makes $1,800 month, pays $400 hundred to rent the place above the workshop, and has reclaimed her sanity. “It’s a hard life,” she says. “But it’s a good life. “Look at the beauty here. I work 60 hours a week. I get to manage the farm and am I’m proud of what I do. I’m one of the lucky ones,” she added. “I get to do work I love with people who care about me.”

As for others, locals here typically work in the service industry making minimum wage. A one bedroom apartment is $750. The average family of four spends $900 – $1000 on basic groceries. Many drive over thirty miles to work. With gas at over $3 a gallon, transportation eats up their earnings fast. If you do the math, it just isn’t enough to cover the bills.

Today I added up all my expenditures: In two weeks, I’m over budget by $400. 

That number didn’t include my health insurance premium, replacing my only pair of town shoes when my sole came off, business expense or my unexpected vet bill—those dang granny cats. I joke, but the cats make this experiment a bit more real. The scales tip quickly when your kid gets sick or your real granny falls and hits her head.

For me, this is a social experiment. But what if I didn’t have a cushion? Where would that money come from? What would I cut back on? How would I deal with the strain? Who might I blame?

Two days ago, budget dwindling, I pulled into a small town and asked the gas station attendant where to find a grocery store. “The local grocery is down the way about a mile, but if you go just a bit further there’s a Dollar General,” he said. That’s where I go.”

When life is on the edge, a store that offers the lowest price—regardless of the quality, or the impact on your community—can be the only choice. Why Dollar General is Putting Grocery Stores Out of Business is a documentary that addresses its impact on communities.

I chose the local grocery but the organic veggies cost too much. As I browsed the aisles I saw the manger’s special: Longhorn Cheddar. It was one-third the cost of my regular brand! Eureka, I thought. After a week, it’s still in my refrigerator. 

The amount of energy directed to pinching every penny to reduce spending is exhausting. I can only imagine what it’s like with a family.

Now to find affordable housing. Like so many other rural towns dependent on tourism, investors have bought up much of the housing for vacation rentals like Vrbo and Airbnb. Plus, with the transient population, people are suspect of strangers. Today I will post an ad in Coffee Break, the free, local newspaper. 

In the meantime, what I didn’t expect was how quickly the rural diet can alter the way you eat, even when you have good choices.  After two weeks of not having a place to cook as I would with organic vegies, I would have thought I’d be relishing my fresh greens and orgnanic envy apples. Curiously, I still seem to crave the cheap carby fillers that were what was available in these small coastal towns. I now believe there’s something addictive in the ingredients.  It’s hard to stop the cravings even when I know my body is nutritiously fed. This too is now part of my experiment.  How do we help people eat healthier when their systems have been addicted for years to unhealthy cheap ‘filling’ choices.  As I struggle to get back in my own groove, I have ever more compassion for the challenge to move from processed food to a healthy diet.

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