Exploring a Small Town

Here is the way I recommend exploring a small town:

A challenge when entering a small town for the first time is a sinking feeling. The place can look desolate, worn, and dusty. A day or two later, it will look completely different, so resist the urge to turn around.

My first stop is usually the Chamber of Commerce or the visitors bureau. Most small towns have them, and while they are not the last word, they can acquaint you with the basics. I stock up on brochures, maps, and other written information.

I usually ask for the name of the town historian or a person who has lived in the town for a long time. I ask where people go for breakfast in the morning and where I will find the best view of the town. I also ask for a list of the top ten things to see or do in the town and environs.

Next I buy a copy of the local newspaper. Most small towns have at least a weekly. Then I go to a café for lunch or coffee and read the paper front to back. These papers capture the flavor of the town and usually contain a calendar of events that tells what’s going on—perhaps a rodeo, a recital, or cowboy church on Sunday morning.

If a town offers neither a visitors bureau nor a newspaper, check out billboards in the library, outside the grocery store, or in the local tavern, where special events are often posted. Also, find out if anything special is happening at the high school. Schools are the heart of a small town, and nearly everyone attends basketball and football games.

Find the best view of the town.  Sometimes it’s at the top of a nearby mountain, in other places it’s just a knoll. But the view places the town in its environment. Also discover the best hikes and the finest rivers, creeks, waterfalls, forest glades, stony canyons, and scenic drives.

Satisfy your curiosity. You have time in a small town to nose around and learn about things that intrigue you. These can be an antique car parked at the side of the road, a huge piece of machinery, a grain elevator, or a windmill. Once you find the owner or the person responsible, you will be pleased at their willingness to answer your questions and show you around.

If there is a significant manufacturing business in a town, find out if it offers tours. I have been fascinated by tours of a recreational vehicle factory, a grain elevator, and a manufacturer of metal detectors.

Find gathering places. Most towns have a café where people meet for coffee and conversation in the morning. At night, some also drop by the local bar for a drink or seek out karaoke on Friday and Saturday nights. Bars are good places to people watch and sometimes they capture the spirit of the town. The same is true for church services, particularly if religion is an  important part of the town’s culture or if they are held in a historic building. A service in a nineteenth-century church can transport you back a hundred years.

Hang loose. You are there to enjoy. A sense of drift in a small town isn’t a bad thing. Freed of a rigid schedule, you can pick up an interesting string and find out where it leads.

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