02 January 2009

Seeds of Our Move

As detailed in various posts, including the blog's very first one, our decision to abandon urban life for the country percolated in our minds for many months (even years) before we pulled the trigger and set that first move in motion.

As you might imagine, it's hard to identify exactly what got the whole thought process started in the first place. Mrs Yeoman Farmer's grandfather owned a farm in rural Indiana, and since she was a girl she'd had thoughts of living in a similar sort of place. But for me, the idea took longer to germinate. I have memories of flying across the country in the middle of the night in the mid-1990s, looking down at the isolated circles of light surrounded by miles of pich black, and longing to parachute down to the farm house I imagined to be in that warm circle of light. And then, hours later, my plane would land at LAX or ORD and I'd be back in a concrete jungle.

But I didn't really start actively thinking about rural life until late 1998. As a political science graduate student at UCLA, I'd come across a remarkable set of data: thousands of pre-election telephone interviews conducted that year in Nevada, using the state's registered voter list as a sample. In other words, I knew that every interviewee was a registered voter, and I knew their address and county of residence. If I could visit each county clerk's office, I could check to see if each interviewee had actually voted in the primary and/or general election that year. By adding that information to my data file, I could produce a conference paper which modeled voter turnout and compared primary voters with general election voters. And so, in early December of 1998, I set out for a ten day driving tour of Nevada with a five-months-pregnant (and sick) Mrs Yeoman Farmer and our two-and-a-half year old future Homeschooled Farm Boy.

I'd carefully mapped the most efficient route around the state, going from county seat to county seat. I'd also called ahead to each county clerk to alert them that I'd be coming, and to confirm the precinct record books would be available. Fortunately, the largest (Clark) sent me a CD-ROM with all the data I needed, so we could bypass Las Vegas. And some of the extremely tiny and isolated counties agreed to look up the handful of names I was interested in and fax me the results.

As we drove through and across the desolate expanses of Nevada, MYF and I were taken aback by how amazingly empty most of the state is. And then, here and there, we would see a ranch or a homestead. But mostly what impressed us were the people we met, at both the cheap motels we stayed at and the county clerks' offices where I did my research. The women in these offices (and almost all of them were female) were extremely helpful, and genuinely interested in assisting with my project. In addition to helping me track down voter records, they also provided numerous anecdotes about life in each county and the way in which elections are conducted. (In one county, for example, State Patrolmen lock the ballot boxes in their trunks and drive them to the county seat on election night, so it's often very late before everything is counted.)

I never forgot about that trip, and the impression it made on me about rural / small town life and the sorts of people who live there. Looking back, I can now see how this trip --- now more than ten years past --- was one of the early seeds that got me thinking about escaping from Los Angeles. But what brought it to mind today was a story in the New York Times about one of those small county seats we spent so much time in: Battle Mountain, in Lander County.

I remembered the place well, because it was so easy for me to access: it was right off I-80, and there was a single main drag through the town. The courthouse was simple to find, and I had fewer than two dozen names to look up. I probably spent more time chatting with the clerk and her staff than I did checking names. Anyhow, the Times story is about how the town is booming these days thanks to gold mining in the area. [I have been working on a separate post about gold and will be publishing it shortly.] The Times piece is an interesting read, well-written and researched, and I sense the reporter enjoyed visiting the town and meeting the locals almost as much as I did --- though, given his NY audience, he seems careful not to sound too enthusiastic about the place.

As for me, the trip was a wonderful experience that I'll never forget, and the Times piece helped bring it all back to mind. Given the pregnancy, and the 2.5 year old bundle of energy she had to contain, the trip was much less wonderful for Mrs Yeoman Farmer. But given how much more clearly I now see the role that trip played in getting me thinking about escaping our urban prison, I'm hoping MYF will appreciate how much fruit her discomfort and trials ended up yielding.


Joe said...

I remember when you did this. Re-reading it just now I thought, "Oh man, you'll need to use the long human subjects form. It'll take a couple of months." We were constructively naive back then.

TYF said...

Joe -

Absolutely. And the best part of having gotten all my data from work was never having to file a grant (or other on-campus research) proposal with the university. Managed to stay completely off the radar of everyone but my boss and my committee members.