In a place like New Richmond, there are really only a couple of things you can show an out-of-towner that doesn’t involve four-wheeling, a high school football game or the occasional herd of cows.
We used to have the swingers’ club, an old, rundown Bates Motel sort of place that was easy to point out from the main road; that always for a good talking point. That’s gone now.
Apparently we have a Cardboard Boat Museum, which is probably the closest thing to a claim to fame; every year, curious city-dwellers and suburbanites flock to watch the Cardboard Boat Regatta on the Ohio River.
But mostly, we’re just a sleepy Appalachian river town; there are some historic homes, nice river views, a floating restaurant, a pizza place or two and a nice, walkable riverfront anchoring it all together.
I did most of my growing up in that town, about a 25-minute drive from downtown Cincinnati and a 15-minute drive to everywhere else. I don’t live there anymore, but it’s home. Always will be.
That floating restaurant is called Skipper’s River Café, another talking point, where you can find microwaved jalapeno poppers, cheap light beer, karaoke and gaggles of ducks bobbing for crumbs. It’s where parents go with their children on Saturday afternoons; it’s where I first took my boyfriend when I wanted to sum up the place I was raised as concisely as possible in one visit.
One Yelp review for the place reads: “If your (sic) a river rat you got to check this place out. Friendliest stop on the river!!!!!” (To claim oneself as a genuine New Richmond “river rat” is somehow its own relic of hometown pride.)
I moved to New Richmond when I was 12, when I watched my days of meeting my friends outside to walk to the pony keg for a soda melt away and disappear; here, I walked off the bus onto our long gravel driveway, in the rain, ice and snow, sometimes pretend ice-skating on the slippery patches and sometimes falling down with backpack in tow.
I’ve lived in the city for some time now and every time I go back home — to New Richmond — it feels like I’ve forgotten a little bit more about what life is like there.
I love it for my parents’ farmhouse and our pond, for growing blackberries and eating them from the bush and for being able to see the stars at night.
But it’s different. Really different. It’s not home to Deliverance-style inbred hillbillies, but we have our own selective interpretation of xenophobia, a quieter, milder form.
A rural Appalachian town like New Richmond, Ohio is still the last place I’d expect to find a camera crew for a ballsy satirical show like The Colbert Report, which is why the show’s recent segment on Vicco, Ky., a small mining town helmed by Johnny Cummings, a progressive, gay hairdresser/mayor, caught my attention.
When we hear “small Appalachian town,” we often think of poverty and pick-up trucks, of windy roads and chewing tobacco and conservatism and the love of guns and hunting and “cricks” and the outdoors.
That’s how I imagined small towns before I lived in one, and now that I’ve called one home, I still see that as more accurate than not. But they can be a great deal more than that.
The segment lauded Cummings for spearheading an anti-discrimination fairness ordinance that made Vicco the smallest town in the country to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation; something I’d never have imagined flying in New Richmond.
Back in high school, I developed a lukewarm crush on Nathan, a flirtatious, witty and cute popular-kid type who used to compliment my writing and gently tease me about my awkward demeanor. He tepidly courted me for some time — if you can call anything high schoolers do “courting,” but that effectively faded sometime during senior year.
He went away to college and came out as gay a few years later — as many people had long suspected — far away from the town where he’d worked so hard to hide it. He comes back to New Richmond now as loved as ever, still flirtatious but still visibly much, much happier.
Now, I think of myself as an unwitting accomplice in this cover-up of his, and it makes me smile. Any minor sense of solace or safety I ever gave him with my girly interests, I’m happy about. There’s something small I gave him, something he needed at the time.
And today, like Mayor Cummings, he makes me proud to be from a small town; someday far away, once I’ve explored this earth, I hope to move back to one, for the quiet backyards, cornfields and wise old oak trees and fireflies, not for bigotry or firearm-worshipping or Bible-thumping homophobes.
I will be one of the good small-towners, the ones who are friendly and colorful and open-minded and smart and vocal. And there will be a group of us like that, just like the people of Vicco, who cherish small-town life but realize small-town does not equate with small-minded.
CONTACT HANNAH MCCARTNEY: firstname.lastname@example.org