Nella Mae Parks

Nella Mae Parks on her farm in Cove, Ore.

At age 18, the imagined made-for-TV movie of my life features a whip-smart young woman leaving her podunk, backwards town to get educated and completely change the world.

I left my town of Cove gleefully for college with the intention of returning, victorious, only at holidays. I planned to fully participate in the so-called “rural brain drain” because I was told that in order to fulfill my potential I had to leave. Yet, I returned to find the opportunity and support I needed to build a business, start a family, and make a life in a town of 500 people and in a county of 26,000.

Now I am a farmer, daughter, parent and wife, business owner, volunteer, and active member of the very same community that I intended to leave forever. I have been asked so many times why I live in “a place like that.”

In college I found myself fielding bizarre questions from across the rural-urban divide. “Yes, we have electricity. Yes, I ride horses, but no, not to school.”

I was told I was “surprisingly articulate for someone from Eastern Oregon.” I constantly explained the geography of the state and location of my hometown. I felt like an unpaid diplomat of an inglorious foreign land. I was distressed that people in my own state didn’t know about my home — as if it didn’t exist; as if we didn’t matter; as if none of it was worth knowing.

But my home is worth knowing. I want to shout out across Oregon’s rural-urban divide that my home is strong and good and complex. I have a deep, abiding love for my home place, but I also sometimes encounter attitudes I hate. Here there is less access to public transportation, entertainment, and anonymity. Finding employment is hard. I have my business and two or three side hustles to make it work. To live here, you have to be creative and flexible. You have to be comfortable with risk and instability.

Yet, things seem possible here. Sometimes I think this is the only place I could have started my business. I had so much help from friends, family, and strangers it seems unfathomable to start anything — business or family — in a place where you don’t know people. But that’s the easiest answer and the hardest thing to explain about why I live here — community.

My experience in rural Oregon is not everyone’s experience — many people have to leave to find their place. I know living here is not for everyone.

I moved back to my home place in rural Oregon because I love it, but I am not complacent in it. Neither are the many young people who stayed, who returned, and who choose to live here. This place is complex and messy. This place impresses and frustrates me. I love how it is and I want to improve it.

I left with the intention to change the world, but in the 33-year-old version of my made-for-TV movie, a whip-smart young woman quickly realizes that she has to start in the place she loved most.

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