American Mythology

Nothing lasts forever. Except perhaps the memory of a small town

By Jason Mott

Bolton, North Carolina.

The people who live here have always lived here. They will always live here.

That’s how small towns work. No one moves to a small town anymore. Traffic is only one way. A generational exodus in which the old give birth to the young, the young flee for the lights and lure of bigger cities like seeds cast into the wind. But a few children always remain. They grow into adults and dig themselves into the soil, just like the corn and soybeans they’ve spent their entire lives watching climb up from the soft, loamy Earth. And by this method — by these few who enjoy the feeling of deep roots — Bolton finds its perpetual equilibrium. Never growing, but never quite fading out of existence either.

Bolton is a town of roughly 600 people. And it’s been that way as far back as I can remember. My father used to tell me about how, when he was a boy, the town had a paper mill and people came from miles around to work and live here. But then the paper mill moved and most of the people moved with it.

To live here means to commute. You commute to work. You commute to school. You commute to the movies. If you want a good steak and don’t feel like cooking it yourself, you can plan on a 30-mile drive. There’s no broadband internet. “Not financially feasible” is what the phone companies tell us. So time marches forward, the town remains.

I travel a lot for work. Los Angeles. Miami. Chicago. Made it to New York a few times and was once told by a man in a well-cut suit that small towns don’t exist anymore. “They’re just a mythology of the way America used to be,” he said. I wanted to disagree with him, to point out that I was a living, breathing specimen of the thing he claimed didn’t exist anymore. But I didn’t. I’m not sure why.

Maybe it was because, on a certain level, I agreed with him. There is something mythological about small towns.

Ask someone about their childhood and, regardless of where they grew up, they’re likely to tell you how their hometown — regardless of the metropolis it might have been — felt like a small town. They knew their neighbors, the man or woman at the corner grocery store, they walked home from school and weren’t grappling with all the things that children today have to worry about. “Things were different when I lived there,” someone once told me, speaking about the small town they used to know. “All the good things were still being made.”

But then everything changed.

The world got bigger, and so did the small towns. Nothing was the way it used to be. Open fields were staked through the heart by apartment buildings. Empty stretches of beach transmuted into million-dollar homes that wash away with every hurricane season, only to sprout again the following year, refusing to rescind their place on the sand.

People fill up all the vacant places. Everyone is always closing in on one another. That’s just the way the world is these days. The only small towns are those that haven’t been hunted down by time and progress, the rumble of dump trucks and Olive Gardens

. . . That seems to be the belief.

But I, for one, can attest to something else.  The small town still endures. It’s still the place where everyone is your neighbor and, at night, the sky is still dark enough for stars to shine. A place where the sound of crickets is louder than the sound of bass music from a passerby two streets over. A place that only changes when you decide for it to change.

Nowadays everyone is from somewhere else. And everyone is always searching for home.

Me? I know where home is. It’s at the end of a dirt road just off a two-lane blacktop that few people know about and even fewer actually travel down. Home is a certainty for me. I live in Bolton, North Carolina. A town of 600 people. A town of roots. I’ve lived here my whole life. Just like my father and his father before him.

There’s nothing especially noble in that . . . but there’s something special about it.

The time is approaching when I will no longer live here. I feel it in my bones, like feeling the air pressure change as a storm rolls in from the east, lumbering across the distant sky on shaggy legs of rain. Work and life and even love are slowly guiding my steps farther and farther away from this place. One day, the town I love will look for me and I will be gone.

Nothing lasts forever.

But maybe small towns will. Maybe the man in New York who called them a part of the American mythology knew something I didn’t. After all, mythology is how we have always kept the great things alive. So maybe one day, when I’m living someplace else, I’ll turn a corner and find myself in Bolton again. That’s how mythological places work: I’ll always be here.

Jason Mott is a New York Times best-selling author, a UNCW alumni and current UNCW writer-in-residence.

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