When I was 10 my family packed up and moved from the artsy northern California town I’d grown up in to a rural town in southern Utah. According to the census, it is a “city,” but I don’t understand how a place with literally more cattle than people qualifies for that label. Nearly everyone who doesn’t commute to the next city 40 minutes away works for a farm or ranch in some capacity. My best friend’s family raised sheep, and I had to weave through a yard full of them to get to her house.
Every stereotype you know about towns like this is true. People are incredibly kind and will give you the shirt off their back, but have no qualms about telling an 11-year-old that they think those shorts you’re wearing should be longer and they’re just looking out for your modesty. Gossip spreads like wildfire; once when I was 13 I rode in the back of a friend’s brother’s pickup truck, thinking my mom would never know. Guess who got a lecture on seatbelt safety that night?
What always comes back to me, though, is the absurd amount of freedom I was given, compared to what I’ve seen with my younger siblings (who never lived there) and the kids I’ve babysat and worked with since I moved away. Did I want to go to my friend’s house? I just walked. Did we want to go to the gas station or the town’s sole restaurant to annoy my friend’s older brother who worked there? Great, be back before bedtime. After-school adventures often took me climbing over barbed-wire fences and hiding in abandoned chicken coops. Just as often I’d strike out on my own, going to the library, or to visit my neighbor’s llamas and tell them about my day.
I realize that it’s just not realistic to expect the same sort of laissez-faire concern for your child’s whereabouts in a city, but seeing how the kids I babysit spend every moment of their lives under the direct and constant supervision of an adult kind of bums me out. I do think that there is something lost to the kid raised in our hyper-supervisory culture in a city. All of my best memories of my childhood are from unsupervised time, either by myself or with other kids; going for a walk at night with not even a streetlight for company, band practice at my friend’s house while her mom was at work, slumber parties after the parents had gone to bed. Additionally, as someone who deeply values time spent alone–and did even as a child–the idea of spending the first dozen or so years of my life under constant adult supervision and scrutiny is unbearable. If there’s one thing a rural area has in abundance, it’s solitude and quiet, even for a 12-year-old.
Of course, perpetually watched over as they may be, the kids I babysit also have friends who aren’t white, friends who have gay parents, and friends who come from a different religious tradition than they do. Nearly everyone where I lived was white and Mormon, and I never met a single out queer person during the five years I lived there. Queerness didn’t even warrant actual outrage or discussion. It was a joke. A fag was just a guy you didn’t like. A man who loved other men? Unthinkable. Preposterous.
I left when I was 15, having been called up north by my parents’ divorce and better school opportunities. I still get nostalgic. It’s been seven years since the last time I went to a rodeo, watched someone’s dad skin and butcher a deer, or attempted to have a one-sided conversation with a horse. I am mostly comfortable with the tradeoffs I made in leaving (being out is great, as is not having the feeling that I am constantly being judged and watched), but sometimes I miss the silence, the fence-climbing, walking in the middle of the street at midnight in the dead quiet with my friends and not seeing a car in any direction for miles.
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Alex is a lesbian Jack Mormon feminist from Utah going to school in California. She has a BA in Anthropology and is currently pursuing her MA in Women’s Studies in Religion. Her research focus is Mormon women’s auxiliary organizations and concepts of women’s modesty in religion. She likes nail polish, fanfic, feminist theology, and tea.