Source: Harold Harrison

There is a latent fingerprint being revealed across this country in the sparsely populated Red Counties.  Nearly all these areas were claimed by settlers both before and after the Homestead Act. That baseline condition back then was a solitary life, initially with larger families, that remains endemic to farmers and ranchers to this day.

I experienced that growing up on ranches in Montana in the 40s and 50s. At the edge of our spread was a one-room grade school built around the turn of the last century where I attended with about seven older kids from the neighboring ranches. It was better than homeschooling in that I got to listen to lessons far beyond my level which resulted in my being well ahead of my peers when our family eventually moved to a small town with a normal school.

If you look back on that solitary life, mingling with neighbors and with strangers in town was minimal. Often, a trip to town was limited to intervals of many weeks or even months to get supplies you couldn’t grow or make on your own. My own ancestry had a taste of that: mom’s dad was a plumber who along with his dad, a Civil War vet, helped build a new town in NW North Dakota in the 1890s. Grandad’s future bride grew up on a farm a ways out of town where her dad (a transplanted Swede) came to town once a year to settle up his accounts after the crops were in. As the story goes there apparently was no love lost between those two families despite a subsequent marriage, due to that annual ‘settling of accounts’ practice.

At the end of the 19th century, a clever new thing happened: the Sears Roebuck catalog.  You could now order something from far away and have it delivered, if not to your home, to the nearest rail station.

Once the average family had their own car or truck, those trips to town became more frequent, but the pattern was still the same. Even in the 20s, many roads were unsuitable for the early cars in winter. In fact, Grandad started a new-fangled business — a garage that both worked on those cars and garaged them over the winter months.

Flash forward to the late 50s and we started seeing the earliest shopping centers with their seasonal attractions of various holiday displays and products that drew ever more people to the larger towns for special events. Afterwards, country folk returned to their solitary homes where TV took away some of the loneliness, but often at the expense of playing musical instruments in the parlor.

Across the second half of last century, the trend steadily changed to families moving into town so the kids could go to normal schools. Meanwhile, smaller farms were absorbed by bigger operations with mechanized equipment, thus reducing the need for hired hands.

Socializing across the middle half of that century was generally limited to the local Elks Club, Moose Lodge, or Grange Hall, and church on Sunday, all with the modern benefit of mostly paved roads and more reliable cars that seldom broke down or suffered flat tires.  Maybe a movie, like Gone With the Wind, would attract a special trip.

Meanwhile, most of us grew up in the completely different ‘townie’ lifestyle — one of rapidly growing suburbs with their accompanying neighborhood shopping centers and strip malls serving most of our consumer needs without requiring long drives to town.

Over the last few years, culminating in the disastrous 2020 events we are still stuck in, we are seeing all those strip malls and shopping centers vacated essentially at gunpoint to the detriment of our neighbors who owned and worked in them.

Despite being forced down our throats suddenly, is this migration trend inevitable if it were allowed to evolve naturally over a few years? We have already become comfortable ordering our stuff over the Internet, an act often driven by nothing more than a lower price than that offered by local businesses.

Are we longing for more social interaction because the last two or three generations know no other way of life? Not that it is bad, mind you, but is it necessary for our healthy lives? Or will another pattern evolve such as is badly expressed in the current social media? Is the current social media (with its Karens and paid spammers) an early feral equivalent of the wolf — tentatively slipping into our camp until we find a way to domesticate it to our mutual benefit?

If so, the work from home concept now in vogue is already driving a migration to the hinterlands by people who might otherwise have grabbed their Starbucks on their way into the mega office building where they used to work. Perhaps the flood of escapees leaving New York and California for Texas and Florida proves the instinctive survival trait is alive and well.

I’m thinking that these new escapees are being motivated by an emotional gut level fear for their very survival, rather than by that which motivated the much slower migrations to Red Counties over the last couple of decades — a cerebral decision to find one’s “forever home” or enjoy a slower, more laid-back way of rural life.

Now, one of the key factors on everyone’s mind with last year’s lockdowns, particularly for the kids, is their total isolation with respect to school and after-school activities.  These constraints are bubbles within bubbles that utterly inhibit all exposure to the natural world as well as direct personal interactions.  Part of that is enforced by an ever-increasing sense of danger in the urban environment where crime and degradation are expanding. Flashing back to mid-20th century and before, kids could be ‘feral’ without any serious consequences as Mother Nature was steadily upgrading their sense of what being truly alive is all about.

If true, I believe there will be a steady shift to more conservative thinking as the autonomy and liberty of those new locations quietly enhances what was once a common denominator across this vast country.