After the COVID-19 outbreak and a spat of turmoil in big cities, more and more people are looking to escape to the country:
- “Americans are considering moving to less populated areas to avoid coronavirus” in the New York Post
- “Escape to the Country: Why City Living Is Losing Its Appeal During the Pandemic,” writes the Wall Street Journal
- “The High Cost of Panic-Moving: Fleeing a big city because of the pandemic is a bigger gamble than it might seem” argues the Atlantic
- “The pandemic is making people reconsider city living, trading traffic for chickens,” says the Washington Post
Look, I get it. The country is great! But this isn’t a new phenomenon. City people have absconded to the countryside since the founding of the United States. In fact, for years my state of Tennessee has been a top destination for “refugees” from California. But if the pandemic has made you consider escaping the city for greener pastures (and perhaps eating a lot of peaches), I have some advice for you.
Unlike what you might have seen in the movies, country people aren’t always inherently hostile to outsiders. But the problem that happens again and again is that someone moves here without any knowledge of the culture or lifestyle, absolutely hates it, but can’t afford to move back. Often the case with Californian transplants is they don’t want to live in Tennessee, they want to live in California but just can’t afford it. Those people often then try to turn their new home into their old one, without any reflection on the reasons they left in the first place. (Some more evidence that this isn’t a new problem: Comedian Tom Naughton was poking fun at this phenomenon over a decade ago.)
These “California Karens” are annoying (apologies to all the women named Karen and neighborly Californians), but it’s also unpleasant to see people so unhappy here. So before we start, some general advice that will help you adapt before you move anywhere new:
- Do some basic research about the place
- Visit as much as you can
- Talk to the locals about what life is like for them
- Educate yourself about the culture and community
Anywhere you move will require some adaptation—and you will inevitably influence your new location’s culture—but you don’t want to move somewhere that is completely incompatible with your lifestyle and values.
If you plan to homestead, try to visit in different seasons so you get a full picture of the climate. I also recommend that any future homesteader check out Escape the City: A How-To Homesteading Guide, which is slated to ship in December. While I’m usually leery of recommending Kickstarters, I’ve read an early draft of the book, and not only does it cover running a homestead in exhaustive detail, but it gets into the nitty-gritty of rural living in a way that most books of the genre don’t. Also, the author started homesteading in New England in his 40s, so it’ll be a good book if either of those scenarios applies to you.
There’s plenty to enjoy about the country: more freedom, living in nature, and fewer people, but there are a lot of downsides as well and other things you may not have considered. So, before you make that big move, here are ten things you need to know about country life. My experiences are flavored by my southern upbringing, but I try to make my recommendations as general as I can.
Things are slower
Country people are slower. Southern country people even more so. At first, that’s a draw for city people. “We want to slow down,” city people say. But in the country, you don’t get to pick and choose when life slows down according to convenience.
Imagine checking out at a store, you’re in a bit of a rush, and the cashier takes two or three full minutes to count out your change. Or imagine that you’re driving around the town square and people are just parked in the road to have a conversation. Those are real things I’ve had happen to me, and they’re not unusual. And it’s not uncommon while driving to get stuck behind a family of Mennonites in a horse and buggy or some farm vehicle slow-crawling down the road.
If you’re from a more fast-paced place, this is absolutely infuriating. Even I, someone who grew up in the sticks, am often enraged by it. Country people often think slower, talk slower, and do everything slower.
Understand that this is a feature of country life. Try to relax a bit and slow down. Practice deep breathing. That’s part of why you’re moving from the city, after all, right?
Services are minimal
If you live in a city, you’re used to lots of services. The local government picks up your trash, puts out fires, and sends police officers to your residence if you have trouble. You likely have fast Internet and good or at least decent hospitals. You turn on the water tap and clean water comes out. You flush the toilet and the waste floats down the sewer to be someone else’s problem.
Things are not always like this in the country. If you call the police, they may tell you to work it out yourself. If they come at all, it could take hours. If I call the fire department, I can probably expect a bill in the mail. We have one hospital and it’s not a great one. (Please keep this in mind during the COVID-19 pandemic, especially.)
You may have a hard time getting someone on the phone or getting a call back whether you’re calling a business or a government office. And sometimes people will close up shop despite what the sign says because they’re tired of working or have an errand to run.
Electricity might not be as reliable as you’re used to. Things down here are much better than they used to be, but we sometimes went days at a time without it when I was a kid. When I visited some folks in rural New Hampshire a decade ago, everyone had wood stoves because the power frequently cut out, even in a neighborhood with multi-million-dollar homes. If you live in the cold Northeast, a wood stove and generator might be the difference between life and death. And wood stoves require either buying firewood or cutting your own—you always have to be prepared for the winter.
I’m blessed with city water and fiber-optic Internet, but many people have to tap into wells with questionable groundwater and connect to the Internet through a satellite dish, which is both slow and expensive. However, I do have a septic tank, and if it gets clogged, it’s up to me to get it fixed.
I personally prefer things this way. When I lived in the city limits, the government trash service was terrible. They ran late and often left more of a mess than they cleaned up. On my farm, we have two competing private trash services, and the one we subscribe to is excellent. They’re cheaper than the city, never make a mess, and they’re often here and gone before the sun rises. And I don’t have to worry much about police harassment, because they’re not out here much, and the police we have are pretty relaxed.
That doesn’t mean it’s all a bed of roses. My neighbor and I often have to clean debris off the road ourselves after a big storm because the highway department can take days to do it. When my wife is pregnant, I have to drive her a couple of hours to see her OBGYN. And heaven help you if you work in a city. I once had a 90-minute commute, which cost a small fortune in both gas and wear and tear on my cars. I was rear-ended twice inside two weeks, in two different cars. For years after I quit that job my eye would twitch whenever I hit the interstate.
But in the long run, these were worthwhile tradeoffs to us to have the freedom to raise chickens, shoot guns, camp in our own woods, and generally live how we want to live.
When considering a property, these are things to keep in mind. Before we moved into this house, it didn’t have fiber-optic Internet, but I spotted the hookup for it by the road and confirmed that service was coming by talking to the local phone company. If you have medical issues, you might want to consider a property closer to a good hospital. Itemize your needs and see if your prospective new home can meet them.
More on what you might need to survive once you move:
- Best home water filter
- IFAK first aid kit list
- Best fire extinguisher for your home and vehicle
- How to store gas at home (and does gas go bad?)
- Off-grid power 101
To become a “country person,” you need to internalize the idea that you are your greatest ally. That means becoming less reliant on the outside world and more reliant on your own resources. It means that sane prepping will be a feature of your everyday life, not just something you choose to do. Where I live, we have a minimal government, partially because we can’t afford a big one and also because we like it that way. Which leads me to my next point…
Country people are more conservative
It seems to be a fact of life that country people, on average, are more conservative than city people, whether you’re in Maine or California. My theory about this is city people are more dependent on services and thus consider big government a benefit, while country people are less dependent on services, or are used to poor ones, and thus often consider government to be an unnecessary annoyance.
Regardless of political theory, it’s largely true, though I’m admittedly painting with a broad brush. I can’t drive to my house from town without passing numerous Confederate flags and Trump signs. For this reason, it’s important to scout a place out before you move. Find out what you’re getting yourself into before you go. If I drive a few minutes into Kentucky, the landscape changes significantly, with hardly any Confederate flags and a lot more yard signs for Democrats. Rural New York will have a much different flavor than rural Montana.
Whenever you go someplace new, it’s important to listen more than you talk. Voicefully agree on whatever you agree with the other person on and ask questions when you disagree. “Oh, why do you think that is?” It’s a gentle way of pushing back without making enemies. And you might find there are often things you can both agree on, even if you have radically different world-views.
Of course, this is all very regional. While politics might look a little different in upstate New York than it does in New York City, people there are also probably a lot more liberal than are rural Tennesseans. Make sure you’re moving to a place where you will be comfortable with the culture.
Outside of politics, another way country people can be conservative is with the attitude of “We’ve always done it that way.” Everyone is a creature of habit to some degree, but country people can sometimes take this to an extreme, holding on to bad ways of doing things even when they no longer work. The more enmeshed into local politics you get, the more this will become apparent.
To give a gentle example of this, when I first moved in and told my neighbor I was going to get chickens, he doubted that they’d survive long due to bobcats and other predators. But he was thinking of raising chickens like most people around here do: letting them run loose during the day and locking them up in a coop at night. I put my chickens in a chicken tractor, and I’ve only lost one to a raccoon. That’s also an example of how you can bring new knowledge to an area without flipping the boat over.
Hostility to outsiders can be a real problem
There are certain stereotypes of rural people, especially southerners, and there are reasons for that. Racism is a very real problem in rural areas — and not just the more abstract systemic kind, but full-on displays of hostility and prejudice. (Of course, this can be true in urban areas as well.)
And in other country places, people are hostile to everyone they perceive to be an outsider. There’s a town not far from here where I’m always received with dirty looks and aggressive behavior from people who have no idea who I am. I’m “not from around here” and that’s enough.
In areas that are more racially homogeneous, systematic discrimination can take other forms. If you have the ‘wrong‘ last name you might find yourself a frequent target of the police (I recommend the documentary The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia for an extreme example of that). On the other end of that, those with the ‘right’ last name can practically get away with murder. The Andy Griffith Show, required viewing for any aspiring country person, perfectly encapsulated this mentality.
The good news is that as an outsider you’ll largely be insulated from those historic entanglements, assuming it’s a community open to newcomers.
Some communities are more welcoming than others, so I encourage you to do your research and take some field trips before your move. But in many cases, that initial hostility will wear off if you humble yourself and try to integrate with the community. Sooner or later you’ll be accepted as a part of that community.
There is no “nightlife”
I once had a neighbor from Nairobi, Kenya, who lamented what a wasteland our little town was. She’d complain that there was nothing to do, and regaled us with tales of the nightlife in Nairobi.
It’s true. If your idea of a good time is rounding up some friends, hitting the bars, getting trashed, dancing the night away, getting some tacos, and riding an Uber home, you’re not going to find much of that in the country. That doesn’t mean my wife and I don’t have the occasional night on the town, but it usually involves dropping off the kids with their grandparents, driving two hours to Nashville, eating a meal, walking around a bit, and then driving back home before it gets too late.
If you’re a bar person, there might be one in a small town, but it’s going to be a much different vibe than what you’re probably used to. And country people tend to be more religious, often frowning upon alcohol consumption. Liquor stores are a new thing in my county, and we still have “blue laws” that prohibit alcohol sales on Sunday. Again, though, that’s highly regional.
So what is there to do in the country? Well, country things of course! Many people ride horses and four-wheelers, go boating and fishing, hunt, shoot guns, make barbecue, and go camping. There’s plenty to do, but it’s a very different experience than city life.
Family and church take up everyone’s time
One backbone of social life in the country is family. In cities, it’s normal to make friends and then exclusively do stuff with your friends. In the country, at least in the south, we have friends, but we don’t see them as much. That’s because they’re often busy doing things with their families, and friends aren’t invited. That’s not universal, but it can make country life as a single person much lonelier. Everyone’s busier with their families, and nobody has as much time to hang out with you.
But on the flip side, you might find yourself “adopted” by a welcoming family.
Churches are the other big backbone of rural social life, and many people attend them for that aspect even if they’re not serious about their religion. In fact, church is technically a bigger social outlet for many country folks than family, for the simple reason that their entire extended family often goes to church with them every Sunday. In some rural areas, Tinder is a wasteland for dating, and church is where single people meet each other.
While some churchgoers are mostly just there for the scene, many people are serious about their belief. If you’re the non-religious type, keep that in mind and try to be sensitive about it.
Guns are normal
I’m not saying you need to own guns, but they are a normal part of rural existence. If you hear gunfire in a city, it’s a good reason to freak out. People are close together, and there just isn’t much reason to shoot a gun. In the country, gunfire might mean it’s the first day of gun season or a neighbor is having a family reunion.
Guns are integral to rural life. When it takes the cops half an hour to get to your house, you want something to defend yourself. If a coyote or fox threatens your animals, you want to be able to shoot them or at least scare them off. If you go hunting, a gun is a big help. If you have to put down a pig or a cow, a gun is usually the best tool for the job.
People shoot guns for fun, to hone their skills, and to sight in their rifles for deer season. Some even like to shoot Tannerite to make big explosions. It can be annoying, but it’s usually not dangerous.
However, sometimes gun owners don’t make smart choices. A friend of mine pelted his uncle’s roof with birdshot because he fired a shotgun into the air. No one was hurt, but that still wasn’t smart.
If you’re considering your country move because you want more firearm freedom, be sure to check into local laws around firearms and talk to locals about guns to gauge the overall attitude. For instance, in many places hunting is restricted to shotguns only because the land is flat and rifle fire could carry a long way and hit an unintended target. That’s less of a problem in the hills of Tennessee.
Again, firearm ownership isn’t a requirement, but it’s a good tool to have on hand. A simple .22 rifle or a single-shot shotgun can take care of most needs. My grandma kept a single-shot .22 rifle on her wall in case a fox got after her chickens.
If you do decide to purchase a gun, I strongly encourage you to learn how to properly use it, maintain it, and secure it. I found Tennessee’s hunter safety course (required to legally possess a hunting license) and handgun permit class to be invaluable, even as someone who has been around guns my entire life.
Learning about firearms? Start here: Total beginners guide to guns
You will hear weird noises at night
Outside of guns blasting, country life offers plenty of noises at night, offset by what can be unnerving quiet. Scratches, howls, mysterious growls, and hooting are all part and parcel of an evening in the country. Most of the time, it’s nothing to be worried about.
In the country, you are sharing space with an entire ecosystem of wild animals, like possums, coyotes, rabbits, owls, and raccoons. Usually, these animals will go out of their way to avoid you.
Besides gunfire, humans can make some strange noises themselves. Not long after I moved here, I woke up at 1 AM to what sounded like circus music. Thinking I was just imagining things, I stepped outside. The music was coming from the woods, and the longer I listened, the louder it got. It was so loud I half expected to see an army of clowns in my yard. By the way, I am terrified of clowns and I was half asleep. I woke my wife up to see if she could hear it too or if I was just hallucinating. No, she heard it too.
We listened for a while longer and eventually figured out it was mariachi music. Some neighbors were having a party. They seem to have it about once a year, and I no longer get freaked out by the music now that I know it’s not clowns hiding in the woods planning to eat me.
It’s normal to be a bit paranoid for your first few weeks in the country. Over time, you’ll relax and you’ll also learn to distinguish weird sounds from normal ones.
Establish your presence
There isn’t much to fear, but that doesn’t mean there’s nothing to fear. An unfortunate reality of rural living is that many of our communities have been touched by the opioid epidemic and other chemical dependencies.
“Meth heads” are a big problem around here. At our old house, a family of them lived across the street. The windows were always open and the lights were always on, even in the dead of winter at 2 AM. Not long after we moved to the farm, I walked out to find a half-dressed woman in our yard asking me if I could do something about my dog. Yes, I responded, I can give the dog a treat, please get out of my yard. That dog later went missing.
Things would vanish from outside our house. We pulled up to the house one night to find a naked woman running through our yard. That would be a strange occurrence in a city or suburb, but it’s downright bizarre when you’re surrounded by more cows than people.
Even otherwise benign neighbors might want to test you, something which has happened every time I’ve moved to a rural place. At this property, that consisted of drunk dudes from around the area pulling up on their side-by-sides and pelting me with questions, like a redneck version of Jonathan Frakes. “Where do you go to church?” “How much do you want for this place?” “Know a girl named Peggy?” One fella, who was so trashed he could barely walk much less drive a side-by-side, pulled out his Ruger LCP and waved it around to show it off. I responded by pulling out my Glock 19 and handing it to him. That seemed to pass the redneck sniff test.
Before we had kids, I might have laughed more of this stuff off. I’m pretty easy going and I’m used to weirdness. But with children, I was afraid my oldest son would go missing or worse. I had to establish that yes, this small farm and its little yard are our domain and that we are not people to be messed with.
After the dog vanished, I got a Great Pyrenees. Sadly, he was hit by a truck before he turned two, but in his short lifespan, this man-sized beast aggressively tackled anyone who dared to walk in my yard, including yours truly. He was a sweet dog, but his size and gregariousness were intimidating.
Another important step was to buy game cameras and place them around the property. These infrared, motion-activated, battery-powered cameras are intended to be placed in the woods to help scout for deer, but they’re also handy for home security. I once doubled over laughing at a picture of a wandering stranger staring right into my game cam, his jaw agape as if he’d just seen Bigfoot. I sometimes forget to change the batteries or SD cards in the cameras, but the fact that the cameras are there and people know about them sends a message that yes, I am watching, and no, I will not be messed with. Word gets around.
It probably doesn’t hurt that I often take afternoon breaks for a bit of target practice in my yard. The people slowly shuffling by my house eyeballing what they could steal shuffled a lot faster when the lead started hitting my target gong.
Perhaps you think I’m a terrible person, but this is sometimes what it takes to establish yourself in the country. My kids are free to play in the yard, my dog can roam and play without being thrown in a stranger’s car, and packages don’t go missing from my porch. Sometimes I forget to lock my door, or my storage building’s door flies open, and nothing bad happens because I am well-established as someone who isn’t a pushover.
I want to be very clear here in saying that this shouldn’t be a license to act like a psychopath. I don’t go around aiming guns at people, threatening them, or deliberately siccing dogs on them. I aim to be cordial and polite to strangers, but there are times when I have to establish that I won’t be a victim. Teddy Roosevelt said to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” The Andy Griffith equivalent is to smile big, be friendly, and sometimes clean a shotgun on your front porch to make a point.
It’s also smart to identify good neighbors and make ties with them. Besides the cows, we have the absolute best neighbors, and we often warn each other of odd happenings in the area. There is a certain safety in numbers.
You will learn to hate ticks
All that said, I’d rather deal with meth heads than ticks. In the summertime, ticks are rampant. They’re silent, sneaky, and can give you horrible diseases like Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. You often can’t feel them crawling on your or biting you, and they can hide in little nooks and crannies on your body, like around your genitals. I sometimes get a tick on me just by stepping into my yard.
So what can you do? No amount of prevention is sufficient, so you need a plan to remove them. Most ticks I can simply pull off and either burn with a lighter or wash down the drain, but if they’ve embedded themselves, I need more drastic measures.
My main weapons are a simple pair of tweezers and rubbing alcohol. You want to grab the tick as close to the skin as you can and gentle pull directly out so the head doesn’t break off in your skin. If it’s really stuck in there, an alcohol-soaked cotton ball placed over the tick can help dislodge it. Disinfect thoroughly afterward, including washing your hands and your tweezers.
An itchy bump is normal after a tick bite, but if you see a rash or experience other symptoms, go to a doctor as soon as possible for a preventative dose of doxycycline and a Lyme Disease test.
As far as prevention, you want insect repellents with picaridin or DEET. I’m all for essential oils and natural remedies, but they do diddly squat to repel ticks. You might also consider treating clothes, tents, sleeping bags, and other fabrics with permethrin, which lasts a long time and weakens and kills ticks before they can bite. Be careful when using it around cats, but items treated with permethrin should be safe once they’ve dried.
Speaking of cats, you’ll want to treat your animals for ticks and check them regularly. Dogs, cows, and horses are tick magnets.
There is one natural remedy that works: letting chickens or guinea fowl free range on your property. Both birds love eating ticks, especially guinea fowl, which can eat up to 4,000 ticks per day, but free-range birds are a problem themselves since they’re vulnerable to predators and traffic. And guinea fowl are notoriously aggressive, so you may be buying more problems than you’re solving.
Bad smells are normal
Ah, fresh country air. No smog, just the good, clean smell of cow manure.
There are a lot of gross smells in the country. For those of us who grew up around them, they can be comforting. But if you didn’t, it’s something to get used to.
Cow manure smells great when compared to chicken poop, which doesn’t carry as far, but is absolutely horrid. Compost is another source of bad smells, as is sulphur water, which smells like the aftermath of a bean-eating contest.
A nearby farm has this sign on their fence:
Many other farms have similar signs. As funny as that sign is, it’s mass-produced for a reason. As I said above, you wouldn’t be the first person to flee the city for the country. And a lot of city people move out here, are utterly offended by what they’re not used to, and cause problems for the people who have lived here their entire lives.
Don’t be that person! If you’re planning an escape from the city, understand what you’re getting into, and realize that there’s going to be an adjustment period. To make your move a success you’re going to have to alter your expectation and learn to embrace new opportunities. I’d love to see more people move to the country and become less dependent, but I don’t want you to be a miserable bane on everyone’s existence, including your own.
You need to acknowledge that you’re effectively starting from scratch in a place that is strange to you. It’s common for city folks to move to the country and think, even subconsciously, that they have something the “yokels” don’t. You need to understand that they’re not the yokels, you are, and you have a lot to learn.
Country people are used to being condescended to and are very sensitive to it. Stereotypes about backward yokels are as old as time. So be humble about your newfound status in life and the fact that you’re a stranger in a strange land, and you’ll probably find people opening up to you and wanting to help.
Don’t forget that you left or are leaving the big city for a reason. Your new neighbors are going to have some guesses as to why you left: crowded apartment during the pandemic, civil unrest, high taxes, traffic, etc. The point is, they know that if where you came from was so great, you’d still be there. Hearing new Tennesseans insult our state and then proclaim the greatness of San Francisco is almost a running gag at this point. (As an aside, the one time I visited San Francisco, I found it perfectly lovely and not at all as it’s commonly portrayed.)
It might even help to recount horror stories about big city life to the locals, which helps to say, “I’m from the city but not of the city,” and to make the locals feel better about their life choices. We country people sometimes envy city life, so if you make us feel better about ourselves we’re going to have positive associations with you.
Also, respect and eye contact are expected in rural life much more than in the city. Practice saying things like “please,” “thank you,” “yes sir,” and “yes ma’am.” You’ll be amazed at how far those phrases will take you when ingratiating yourself to country folks. Give respect and you’ll likely receive it in return.
You’ll need that respect and the help that comes with it because a lot of farm knowledge is hyperlocal. Not only is it the case that what works in Florida might not work in Arkansas, but what works in one part of your county might not work where you live. No one knows more about growing vegetables in our small part of the world than my next-door neighbor. We have different philosophies on how to do that, but I respect his knowledge and experience.
Finally, the reality is that the people you are around are going to influence you more than you influence them. Let’s say you have a well-behaved kid, and that kid starts hanging out with a motorcycle gang. Are you going to think “Wow, I’m so glad! My kid is going to rub off on that motorcycle gang!” No, of course not, because you know the gang will rub off on the kid much more than the kid rubs off on the gang. Jim Rohn famously postulated that you are the average of the five people you’re around the most. So, instead of being a “California Karen” who wants to dive in and single-handedly change a community, consider how that community might change you, and if you’re going to like how that looks in five years.