I realize now what a cliche it was, but back in journalism school I had just one career goal in mind. Someday, I was going to write for The New York Times.
And if not that prestigious newspaper, then at the very least The Wall Street Journal. Or the Los Angeles Times. Or the Chicago Tribune. Why? Because these were the biggest newspapers I could think of, and I was fairly certain that bigger was better.
Of course, it also went without saying that in doing so I would be living in one of the country's biggest cities, too. New York, or Los Angeles, or Chicago. And I was perfectly fine with that, since I figured that people flock to places for a reason. In my faulty logic, I calculated that if a metropolitan area had a million people living there, it must be twice as good as a place that had attracted just 500,000 people.
So then, what does that say about a town that can barely hang onto its 700 residents? Not a darn thing.
Ask me what I learned on my summer vacation and I'll tell you straight: I learned that size does matter, but not in the way we often assume. Bigger, it turns out, is almost never better.
How do I know this? Because I just spent a couple of days in one of the smallest towns I've ever had the pleasure to explore, and I can't stop thinking about the experience.
This is not to disparage big cities everywhere, or even the medium-sized ones out West to which I'm most accustomed. But I have fallen completely and utterly in love with small, Upper Midwest towns.
Towns like Hendricks, Minn. -- population 713.
Of course, in the interest of full disclosure, I should tell you that my wife's people hail from Hendricks, and she's still got an aunt and uncle living there. But aside from that, there's something special about "The Little Town by the Lake," whose population wouldn't rival that of most medium-sized high schools.
Like so many other small towns in Southwestern Minnesota, Hendricks is ...
* A place where, with only a slightly better arm, I could almost throw a rock from one end of Main Street to the other.
* A place where the loneliest job in town isn't the Maytag repairman, but the locksmith. In Hendricks, they don't bother to lock the doors to their churches -- and apparently, it hadn't ever occurred to them to do so. Indeed, I suspect most folks don't lock their homes, either. Or, if they do, it's a mere formality, since there's usually a house key -- in plain sight, no less -- somewhere on the porch.
* A place where, like the bar in that sitcom song, everybody knows your name. Unless you're just visiting, in which case everybody not only wants to know your name, but your genealogy in the town.
* A place where a high percentage of folks own an electric golf cart for getting around town, and as long as you stay off the highway, local law enforcement looks the other way. (I assume, this being Minnesota and all, they switch over to snowmobiles in the winter.)
* A place where it actually gets dark at night. And I do mean dark. Not to mention quiet.
Consider this my long-overdue love letter to small-town America, and to the larger-than-life people who inhabit such places -- people like Wayne and Don and Sherry and Roger and Barbara and Dan and Kim and Kent and Jill and Liz and Amanda and Nathan and Noah and Hailey.
As for my career goal now? I mean, aside from hanging onto my current gig like grim death?
Someday, I'm going to write for the 800-circulation Hendricks Pioneer.
Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272, email@example.com, or follow him on Twitter at @Saalman.