I was caught in Atlanta rush hour traffic when I realized that living in the big city wasn’t for me. On my way to visit a friend, I’d driven up from Montgomery, Alabama via I-85. Instead of taking the I-285 interchange that takes any sensible driver around the city, I stayed on I-85, heading downtown. This wasn’t during the typical rush hour window you’ll see in most parts of the world. This was at 5:30 AM, well before office hours begin, and yet, I was caught like a fish in a net as traffic slowed to a crawl between Georgia State University and Midtown.
It’s worth noting: This stretch of I-85 in Atlanta carries six lanes of traffic on either side of the median. Six! Not including a carpool / HOV lane. How is it even possible for traffic to come to a dead halt on such a heavily trafficked road?
That’s when I knew.
Until I was 20, the biggest cities I’d ever been to were Pensacola, FL, and Mobile, AL — neither of which are particularly large. Sure, I’d taken a field trip to the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery in elementary school to “see how government was done,” but I didn’t really remember it. When I finally relocated to Montgomery for college, it was like an upgrade in social status: I was moving on up to the East Side of town.
But as someone who grew up in the country, most concepts of urban lifestyle were foreign to me.
I-65N through Alabama is two-lane highway most of the time, with a broad, grassy median separating opposing traffic. Occasionally, it becomes a three-lane road around urban centers, but I’d never dealt with more than three lanes at a time. At the I-65 / I-85 interchange in Montgomery, traffic shifts from three to four full lanes. The first time I experienced that, I freaked out.
This was one of many changes to my accustomed lifestyle. Where I grew up, dial-up was still a thing and the switch to cable internet and reliable cellular service was a trade I was more than willing to make. The closest supermarket was a half hour drive through the woods, and if you wanted to shop at any specialty stores, you were driving at least an hour to get to a mall. This was before Amazon and one-click purchasing, before you could carry an entire bookshelf in your pocket.
That’s the cost of living in the big city, I thought. Four lanes of traffic. Quite the adjustment.
What I didn’t realize at the time was how the two opposing sides of the American ideal strongly desire what the other has. In the country, a little more convenience wouldn’t hurt. In the city, a little more space is always top of mind. It’s this grass-is-always-greener mindset — and subsequent compromise — that gives rise to suburban America. You scratch out your little scrap of nowhere, put up your white picket fence, mow the lawn on weekends, and commute to the city for everything from concerts to celebrations.
Sitting in a six-lane Atlanta traffic crunch, a great place to question your decision-making paradigms, I knew that I’d crossed a line somewhere. A job opportunity had already taken me to Memphis, Tennessee, and there was (and still is) no love lost between myself and that city. The rough and tumble of the ultra-urban lifestyle, even in quasi-upscale areas with stylish townhouses and comfortably-sized front lawns just wasn’t my speed.
My saving grace in Memphis was the location of my apartment complex on the outskirts of town. The ability to get out into the country or explore local green spaces, like Shelby Farms, took the edge off the urbanization. Memphis, like most cities, is a twisting mangle of highways, intersections, and stoplights, but it was an experience best taken in small doses unless a friend insisted on dragging me downtown “to show me the sights.” By the time I left, headed back to Montgomery after a death in the family, I was already leaning away from the allure of big city living.
I-22, also known as Corridor X, connects Memphis to Birmingham across upper Mississippi and Alabama. On my first trip to Memphis, after years living in Montgomery, it was difficult to imagine a switch back to that rural lifestyle. Coming back, I felt myself almost longing for it, drawn away from asphalt and concrete back to pastoral woodlands, fields, and streams.
For the time being, I resolved to settle back down in Montgomery and escape into the country on the weekends. In smaller cities, you’ll find a strong push to keep that small town feel. It’s impossible to know everyone in a city of 200,000, but names and news travel fast thanks to southern gossip and the power of social networking. As I reconnected with old friends and rebuilt a portion of the life I’d left behind after college, I felt both comfortable and painstakingly out of place. I felt smothered by the city, like I’d hit an invisible ceiling that would eventually stall any upward or outward process that I’d hoped to gain during my days there.
To make matters worse, I was already restless. I’m stricken with terrible wanderlust, and it’s difficult for me to stay in one place more than a few years. When I leave, I don’t go back — though I hadn’t established that rule at the time. In moving back from Memphis, I discovered that there weren’t many unexplored places left to soothe my need to explore.
It wasn’t until almost a year later that I traveled to Atlanta and found myself jammed in traffic that I realized I had to get out. As I started to consider my options — where could I go, what could I do? — the revulsion of another big city experience settled on me like a noose around the neck. Looking at the gridlock, I realized that this could be my life: honking horns and bumper-to-bumper traffic in the early hours of the morning.
By the time I made it to my friend’s apartment, I’d scratched off every major city from a list of relocation opportunities. But moving back to the country was also impractical since I had no desire to own property or return to my former stomping grounds. Instead, I started compiling criteria that would allow me to explore the country one small town at a time and planned accordingly.
Since then, I’ve visited other cities. I’ve traveled through Charlotte, NC and Philadelphia, PA. I’ve spent time in Orlando, FL, and Rochester, NY. Taking the light rail from San Francisco Airport, where I’d flown in with a friend for a weeklong vacation, I remember looking at the homes stacked up along Millbrae and Lomita Park and wondering, “Why would anyone ever want to live here?”
To date, I haven’t found an answer that would make me pack my bags. I realize that there are unique opportunities in LA and NYC. I realize that you’ll experience things in downtown London and Paris that you won’t experience otherwise.
And yet, given an equal choice, I’d tour the countryside in a heartbeat to escape a city I’ve never even seen.