Transplanted Kentuckian Admires Small-Town Lifers

Commentator Laura Lorson has lived in Kansas through its year of natural disasters. She is a native Kentuckian but has moved a lot since high school. Now, she says, she wishes she were one of those people who lived their whole lives in one place.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Commentator Laura Lorson has lived in Kansas through this year of natural disasters. She is a native Kentuckian and someone who has moved around a lot since high school. And now, she's wishing she could have lived all her life in one place.

LAURA LORSON: Before I moved to Kansas, I hadn't been in a lot of truly small towns. I basically had a kind of notion fueled entirely by repeated viewings of "The Music Man," that small Midwestern towns would be sparkling clean with white Victorian houses and maybe a gazebo or two for city band concerts or ice cream socials. The reality of small Kansas towns is that a lot of them are dying. They mostly seem to have sad little curio shops and one small grocery store that has a video rental, and you can see the blank gray windows with signs saying for lease, and maybe a tavern, and you can just feel the get-me-the-heck-out-of-here vibes from practically every teenager in the county just radiating off the empty brick storefronts.

Strangely, that vibe actually makes me feel kind of jealous. My family moved around. After college, I ended up moving again and again and again. But deep down, I wish that I had gotten to stay put to get a feel for the deep grammar of a place that only imprints itself in your bones when you live somewhere all your life. I didn't know that when I was a kid. It always seemed like there was something more that I was missing some place else. I wanted the kind of life that actually only exists on the set of a Woody Allen film. I wanted it to be witty and urbane, and tell jokes about Marshall McLuhan in a foreign language.

At any rate, when I came back to Kansas, it wasn't really because of any deep mystical calling. It was because there was a job, and while I was doing the job, something happened to me. I traveled to the small towns of the Great Plains. I talked with those people who stayed in those small towns. I'd learned what they do and I heard something in their voices that's a lot like pride. I can't really explain it. The closest I can come is the feeling I get when I'm driving home at night. I can look out my back window and see the county highway glowing silver because of the moonlight. There's not a soul behind me. I have to look closely for the turnoff to my house because there's nothing to let me know I'm there except my headlights.

My small town with its brick storefronts and distinct lack of stoplights is a place where people know each and have always known each other, and their parents and grandparents have always known each other. And now, they know me. I fill a role here too. And when I drive past the outlines of tractors and barns, just slightly darker than the inky color of the fields surrounding them, I realized it's not that I never belonged anywhere, it's just that I was taking a long way home.

SIEGEL: Laura Lorson lives in Perry, Kansas. She works for Kansas Public Radio is Lawrence.

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