Retreating to Rural America

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I have spent my life in the belly of the beast. For nearly forty years, I have lived in Montgomery County, Maryland, which borders Washington, DC on its north side. This might not be the most liberal county in the nation, but it is certainly among the top five. During all that time, I worked (as Professor of Mathematics and Senior Associate Dean of the Physical Sciences College) at the University of Maryland. Again, this is not the left most institution of higher education in the country, but the political/cultural/educational orientation of my campus would not be confused with that of Hillsdale College. Finally, I have socialized and recreated extensively throughout the Baltimore-Washington corridor since 1969. Like I said, a long sojourn in the heart of liberal America.

However, seven years ago, I had the good fortune to purchase a second home in Garrett County, which is at the western most tip of Maryland in the Allegheny Mountains, about 175 miles from the nation’s capital. Since I retired four years ago, my wife and I spend all summer and significant portions of the other three seasons ensconced in our little paradise on the shores of Deep Creek Lake in McHenry, Maryland. Yes, we’re still in Maryland, but it’s as far (politically and culturally) from the Baltimore-Washington liberal playground as Midland, Texas is from the big Apple.

Of course the environment is a big reason why we love the place. In the summer, the lake is clear, cool and inviting and the mountains are lush with greenery. In the winter, the lake is an ice playground and the snow-filled mountains are dotted with skiers. All year round, the air is fresh, the entertainment and recreational opportunities are abundant, and the scenery is spectacular.

An equally attractive feature of our getaway is the community and its people. Actually, many outlanders (like us) have built and purchased homes, so the landscape has taken on the features of a resort locale. But it has also managed to retain its rural flavor as a home to numerous farms, a few quintessential small mountain towns, several insular religious communities and various small businesses and shops representative of small town America. During my seven  years here, I’ve gotten to know quite a few locals. They, their lifestyles and their values present a stark contrast to the folks I’ve known during my four decades in the suburban Washington area. Here’s a set of representative examples of the differences:

  • If you go to the local elementary school at the end of the day, you will see parents in their twenties and early thirties fetching their children. In suburban DC, the parents are never in their twenties and often in their forties.
  • People go to church on Sunday – even to the mainline Protestant churches that are bleeding membership in urban areas.
  • No one is in a rush. Sometimes, to a lifelong (sub)urban dweller like me – e.g., when I am trying to arrange a household repair – this can be frustrating. But generally, it is refreshing and calming.
  • When I take a walk along one of the country roads, I exchange a wave with the driver of virtually every vehicle that passes. If I did that in DC, at best the driver would assume I was trying to hitch a ride, and at worst that I was a potential carjacker.
  • People listen to country and folk music, not rock and rap.
  • Shopkeepers, public servants (like the clerk in the local post office), repairmen and others one encounters in daily life are polite, cheerful and anxious to be helpful. Truth be told, that is often the case in DC as well, but it seems forced in the metropolitan area whereas it seems natural at the lake.
  • Republican candidates for public office outpoll Democrats 60—40, and often 2-1.
  • Patriotism and love of country is on display on more than just Independence Day. That spirit exists in suburban Maryland too, but it is often drowned out by criticisms of America that emanate from the President down to the local politician.

Perhaps I am idealizing and exaggerating. But when I am in western Maryland, I have the sense that in many ways the country that I inhabit is not so different from the one that I grew up in during the middle of the twentieth century. I never feel that way when I am on  Montgomery County. Alas, I fear that the future of America is reflected far more by the latter than by the former.

Ron Lipsman, Professor Emeritus of Mathematics at the University of Maryland, writes about politics, culture, education, science and sports at http://ronlipsman.com. Follow him on Twitter @rlipsman

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