Which is a better place to live, a small town or a city? That was the conversation my husband and I had while enjoying a white Christmas — though not the single-digit temperatures — in Winthrop, Washington, population 415, or 1,916 if you consider the outlying areas.
I should clarify “small town” to mean a thriving small town. Sadly, there are plenty in the state with buildings boarded up, and the thrift store and food bank the anchors. Thriving towns often are those whose leaders have come up with a gimmick to keep the tourists coming, if not new residents. Winthrop, with its faux wild west architecture and its honest reputation as the nation’s largest cross country ski area is one of them. The excellent “Trail’s End” bookstore describes the town’s residents as highly literate outdoor enthusiasts.
After spending two days there, in a cabin in front of a gas fireplace reading, writing, snacking as well as soaking in our private hot tub, we ventured into the streets, the stores and onto the ski trails. At the bookstore, I had a long and pleasant conversation with a clerk about books we had both enjoyed. At the ski shop, we waited a long time for an employee to listen patiently to streams of questions, doubts, and other insecurities from a potential ski shopper. When our turn came, we received the same thorough and thoughtful attention. When we discovered that the restaurant where we’d made an on-line reservation for Christmas Eve dinner was not where it had been a year ago, someone we talked to on our rambles gave us good directions on how to find the new location. At the same restaurant, the hostess and our server both spent time asking how we’d passed the day and actually listening to our answers, while also sharing local information, and just generally chatting us up.
In no way did these experiences match those of our lives in a city, where everyone is busy. Normally efficient, but always busy. The pace is wearying. “Rush hour” is not in the vocabulary of people who live in Winthrop. On the ski trail, we met a couple from a city north of where we live who were considering relocating to Winthrop. Too much traffic, too many people, and too much development were some of their reasons. They’re right. The Puget Sound region is experiencing enormous population growth.
We were quite content to spend five peaceful days in the quiet of nature, the only sounds being the swoosh of skis on the tracks, the hum of the occasional light plane overhead, and the gurgle of the jets in the hot tub.
But would we want to live here? After considering the possibility from different angles, we decided we wouldn’t. Why not? The clinic there couldn’t do what the hospital a few blocks away from our home could. Dining out options were good but limited. Making new friends might take time, and we would miss old friends who live near us now. We enjoy museums, art galleries, and lectures, which would be harder to find without driving some distance. We knew that all of these objections could be overcome. We realized that the biggest reason not to move was that we are fair-weather outdoor enthusiasts. When the man on the street gave us directions to the restaurant, he added that it would be easy for us to walk there. As we drove the mile home in well-below freezing temperatures, we were happy we hadn’t taken his advice.