I was eleven years old when my parents told me that life as I knew it was about to change. We were leaving the city and moving hundreds of miles away to a tiny farm town in Wyoming.
A lifetime of Disney Channel programming didn’t adequately prepare me for trading my one wild and precious suburban life for a town with only one stoplight that was full of people I would consider to be country bumpkins. We moved into a cabin on a farm, surrounded by an impenetrable forest and an excited suspense for the upcoming county fair.
The county fair was the most anticipated event for everyone in this place I was now told was my home. On a hot day at the end of July, my parents practically dragged me to the festivities. As I glanced at the ferris wheel, the cotton candy stall, and the taunting fun house, I was determined to not have a great time. No sir or ma’am. I was unhappy with my family’s decision to move to the sticks and I wanted to make everyone suffer because of it, especially myself.
A few cousins I hardly knew tagged along during our day at the fair and bore the brunt of my nearly silent resistance. And, unfortunately, they would continue to endure it as we all started 6th grade a few weeks later.
I was determined to be different at school. Different from Devin, who made his mom get up every morning at 5am to cook and apply unflavored Jell-O to his hair so it could harden into three humongous cones. Nor did I want to conform to the country bumpkins in our class who wore nothing but pressed wranglers and cowboy hats and spoke with vaguely southern accents despite residing 1,500 miles from anywhere that might be considered “The South.”
No, I was going to be different from all of them. I was going to blaze my own trail. So, I adopted the hairstyle that was too popular in the city (a tightly gelled duck bill in the front that I wish I could still pull off), baggy graphic tees (that featured safely rebellious expressions like “Sorry I’m late, I didn’t want to come.”), and skater shoes (which had to come from Zumiez. There was no other option). I knew I was the most interesting student at my small, three-room elementary school.
And when my parents picked me up at the end of the day, country music blaring from the speakers, I would promptly turn the dial to something, anything else. Was I being dramatic? Yes, but a lifetime of Disney Channel programming had prepared me for that.
Nearly a year went by: fall, winter, something I learned was called mud season, and then spring. By now I had made some friends and grown a lot closer to my cousins, who even convinced me that some country songs weren’t all that bad. We all lived around the same 160 acres of dirt that had been cultivated by our ancestors since the late 1800s. When the weather was nice, we’d ride four-wheelers around the family farm before dinner and scream Shania Twain lyrics at startled horses.
But it wasn’t all fun. With school out and a whole summer stretching before us, it was time for all of us to get to work on the farm. That meant picking rock, staining the house, moving pipe, and, most importantly, feeding the farm animals. With residual resistance, I dragged my feet to accomplish most of these necessary tasks.
That is, until the day my cousins and I went to a pig farm and each picked out a tiny piglet. In an effort to expedite my assimilation, my parents had signed me up with the local chapter of 4-H, which led to me holding a little piggy in my arms as it oinked and squealed. I named him Frenchie. The idea was that we would raise these pigs until they were big, with well-developed hams and bulging boston butts. At that point, we’d take the pigs to the annual county fair, auction them off, and collect all the money earned. Whatever would happen to Frenchie after the auction was too abstract to think about. It just seemed like an astute business proposition to twelve-year-old me.
I devoted myself to raising little Frenchie that summer. Twice a day, I’d visit his pen, fill his water and food, sneak him a treat, and sit in the dirt with him. At first, Frenchie would keep his distance, but then he started wiggling his hairy curled tail every time I approached. Eventually, he’d run to greet me, snorting and caked in steaming mud. We developed a friendship, me and Frenchie.
That’s what made it even more devastating when I got the call. My aunt, who lived near the pigpen, told me that Frenchie was acting…odd. He was causing a racket and I should calm him down.
I raced over and found Frenchie circling his pen, squealing to high heaven. If you’ve never heard a pig really scream, count yourself lucky. It’s more than a screech, or a squawk, and certainly more than any squeal I’ve ever heard. Nothing I could do calmed him down. He wasn’t eating. Foam was gathering around his mouth. When I touched him, he jumped. I didn’t know what to do.
Days went by and Frenchie’s condition didn’t improve. Thinking he may have been the victim of bullying from the other pigs in the pen, we moved him to his own space. But even then he was losing precious weight and the weeds were growing everywhere in his pen except where he was circling day and night until he’d collapse with exhaustion.
That was when we called the veterinarian. He climbed out of his truck, a towering tree of a man with a handlebar mustache and tanned skin. He confidently strode over to Frenchie and performed some tests. After a while, he walked back to us, shaking his head and saying, with appropriate bedside manner, “I’m sorry. Your pig has a neurological disorder. It’ll have to be put down.” And then he added as an afterthought, “Oh, and… don’t eat the meat.”
I thought that was that. We buried Frenchie underneath a towering cottonwood tree near his pen. I visited often until, a few days later, a lightning strike hit the tree and blew it to smithereens. As I took in the scene: a charred tree, splintered wood, and the freshly dug grave, I felt my well-fortified defenses breach all at once. My resentment-filled attempts to make a new life here had come to this: a stinking pile of dirt and bits of smoking tree. I asked myself under my breath, “Now what?”
The community, including my classmates and cousins who I had come to know and maybe even like, offered their condolences. I realized how much these country bumpkins actually cared about me. One family even offered to let me take one of their extra pigs to the fair, which was a mighty nice offer.
It felt like I was starting over right after I had started over. I was left with an important choice to make: I could either cut my losses, miss the county fair, and do something else with my time, or I could take the offer, finish raising a new pig, and lean in. I chose to lean in.
I chose to straddle the divide between my urban and rural communities. I chose to listen to Fall Out Boy and Dolly Parton with equal devotion. I chose to spend afternoons at the mall and in huckleberry patches.
That’s how I found myself several weeks later under a big red and white striped tent, wearing pressed wranglers, boots, and a large cowboy hat. I guided my replacement swine, Succotash, around a pen, tapping it softly behind the ears to steer it around people, pigs, and the judge. Country music was blaring somewhere in the distance. I looked out at the community of people who were watching and supporting me. And I felt, even if I wasn’t ready to say it out loud, that I was home.