41° 29′ N 80° 12′ W

I’ve shared before about my hometown, and how (metaphorically) scratching my number off the population sign changed my perspective of life in an itty-bitty farm town. It has been 1,190 days since I packed my entire life into the back of my dad’s pickup truck and took off for those big city lights. It took me over half of those days to get homesick for the first time, and almost all of them to fully appreciate the town I grew up in for what it has to offer. So, to my little town, I owe you a thank you.

12122430_10153216220530488_7769111017231572649_nThank you for your endless supply of country roads. A date at a fancy, expensive restaurant has nothing on headlights on a dirt road, with country music blaring out the windows of an old pickup truck. Trying to imagine learning to drive a stick in the city gives me nightmares, and I can never thank you enough for your wide open spaces that were full of patience when I stalled out (repeatedly). But most of all, thank you for endless miles I know like the back of my hand. When I’m feeling suffocated by speed and noise of the big city, I know I can always count on roads that don’t need street lamps or street signs to carry me home.

Thank you for your one-building, kindergarten through 12th grade, school. Growing up it really did feel like prison, and I resented what I thought were missed opportunities. What I failed to see were the opportunities granted by a small school in and of itself. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and in a small school like ours that’s exactly what happens. When your teachers know you that well, they become more than teachers – they become friends, mentors, confidants. When your graduating class is less than 50 people, your classmates become more than just peers – they become family. And when you leave? You go out into the big, sometimes cold, seemingly endless world and realize just how unique and irreplaceable that bond is.

Thank you for teaching me the value of hard work. “Hard work” is offensive to some people these days, but they can shove that where the sun doesn’t shine because in a small town it is a badge of pride. From bailing hay and bottle feeding calves to changing tires and driving tractors (way before I was 16), I learned the value of getting a little dirty. Hurt yourself? “Rub some dirt in it, you’re fine.” I may be as girly as the best of them, but hand me a set of reins or the key to a 4-wheeler and I’ve never felt more at home. While I won’t be spending my professional days getting muddy or greasy, I’ve been instilled with a work ethic that shines through in every dream I chase – and I’m pretty damn proud of that.

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Thank you for being a stereotypical small town. My friends love to tease me about the fact that I relate to just about every country song on a weirdly deep level, and I suppose I have you to thank for that. But how can I not for all the summer nights chasing fireflies as a child, and laying on the dock or in a truck bed talking about life as an adult? I mean, we really did just go driving around and hanging out at Walmart on weekends, because there’s nothing else to do. Once we even laid on the centerline of the road in the middle of the night, full on The Notebook-style, knowing it would be hours (if not days) before a car came. There’s just a reason there are so many songs written about Small Town, USA.

Thank you for the people who have never given up on me. I’ve taken some pretty big risks in my life, I’ve gone out on some questionable limbs. Along the way, I’ve never been afraid to fall – because I’ve always known there will be people there to catch me at the bottom if I do. When I visit and walk through the halls of my high school, there is always a friendly face asking about my life. I get messages from those I knew along the way, asking for advice or just wishing me well. I still get our church bulletin, keeping me up-to-date with all the comings and goings. If living in a place where people don’t know my name is one of the best things that has happened to me, having a place to come home to where everyone knows my name is another one of the best things that has happened to me.

Thank you for being you. I like to joke and poke fun at your slow pace, how getting a Dollar General was the best thing that has happened to this town since sliced bread. But do you want to know the truth? There is something comforting about coming home to a town that looks just the same as it did in my earliest memories. Driving through town, I look around and have a memory of every mile, every inch, of that place. The house I grew up in, the ditch I put my car in (18 hours after getting my driver’s license), the wooden crosses along the side of the road… The hills we ran sprints on, the drive to my best friend’s house that I (to this day) know better than the back of my hand, the way the sun sets in the field across from my house… It is all a part of me, it is a piece of my story, it is who I am.

Living in a small town…is like living in a large family of rather uncongenial relations. Sometimes it’s fun, and sometimes it’s perfectly awful, but it’s always good for you.  —  Joyce Dennys
Thank you for being a map dot, my map dot. Thank you for giving me street smarts; even if those streets are just dirt roads, thanks to you I can hold my own in this world. Thank you for never turning your back on me, no matter how fast I ran at the first chance I got. Thank you for being everything I never realized I needed while I was growing up. Thank you for being you, and where my story begins.

They say that sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself. I just thank God that I am lucky enough to get the chance to do both, every single time I drive through that one stoplight, back into the open arms of my little hometown.