To reach Hardyville, you must grind your way up to Lonelyheart Pass, then slither on ice into the Great Brown Valley. If you know where to look,
you’ll find the ghost town of Lost Fortune crouched at the foot of the grade. But this time of year, it’s best not to stop. From Lost Fortune, count 4,387,004 sagebrush bushes and you’ll find yourself at the one-and-only stoplight in the middle of nowhere — Hardyville.
Half a block north, drop in at Hardyville’s center of hot cuisine, the
Hog Trough Grill and Feed. That’s where, on this gray and snowy day, I found Dora-the-Exile-from-Yale staring in consternation at a menu.
“Is this chicken or steak?” she grimaced.
“This.” Pointing. “It says chicken fried steak. Well, which is it? Chicken or steak?”
“Mystery food,” I shrugged. “Try it. You’ll hate it.”
She gave me that east-coast-martyr-to-hummus-and-arugula look, then turned back to the menu in search of something edible by her standards. She
wouldn’t find it. In Hardyville, you adapt to chicken fried steak or stick
to your own kitchen.
Pretty soon Nat-the-rancher ambled in from the feed side of the operation, plopped some horse wormer on the table, and folded himself into
one of the Hog Trough’s slightly uncertain chairs. Nat’s old and pretty grizzled. But he wears a cowboy hat even older and more weathered than he.
The hat is the wonder of Hardy County and it stays firmly on his head through all waking hours of the day. I even once saw him keep the hat on as
he took a back flip off a green horse and landed in cactus.
“Hey,” he greeted me. “There’s the lady who’s making Hardyville famous
in that newspaper column. Not too famous, I hope. Don’t want a lot of strangers movin’ in.”
“Don’t worry. I’m telling everyone that Hardyville and all you guys are
“I feel imaginary sometimes,” sighed Dora, still scanning the menu in
hopes of locating a vegetable.
“Imaginary, huh?” Nat mused.
“Yeah, but strange thing; I still get a lot of requests from people who
think they want to live here.”
“You think they really do? Want to live here, I mean?” Nat scratched his
“No. They just think they do. Most of ’em would run screaming bonkers out of here if they stayed more than a week. They imagine they want
a picturesque life in some picturesque town filled with rugged individualists. But not many want to be rugged individualists, or
even slightly inconvenienced individualists. Soon as they really understood
in their bones that the nearest Wal-Mart is 93 miles away … that they have
to fix their own radiators … that they might make $10,000 a year here if they’re lucky … and that the Hardyville One-Plex is going to play
Anastasia clear into the next century — pfft! gone!”
“And once they realize there’s nothing to eat except … um … Rocky
Mountain oysters,” added Dora. “By the way, what are Rocky. …?”
“You don’t want to know,” Nat and I rushed to assure her.
“Well, you two are both born city girls,” Nat went on. “And you’re doin’
“Yeah, but in my case, it’s simple. I’m stubborn enough to put up with
anything for the sake of being left alone and having some breathing space.
Hardyville’s about as good as it gets for that. End of story.”
“Well, I miss concerts and libraries and … oh, a lot of things,” sighed
Dora. “I even miss freeway gridlock, sometimes. But I’m getting used to it.”
“You already got used to the snow plowing,” I agreed.
Dora blushed. When she first moved to Hardyville she famously violated
Code of the West. She moved onto a scenic little acreage half a mile
past the sign that said, “Road not plowed beyond this point.” Then, come
the first snowstorm, she went howling into the county commissioners’ office, reminding them that since she lived there now, they’d darn
well better not “forget” to plow for her.
True, they weren’t plowing her road. Just like the sign says, M’am. And
they couldn’t see any reason to deplete their tiny road maintenance budget
now, just because some snooty college girl from Connecticut never learned
how to read.
Unlike many notorious California folks — or New York folks — or Denver
folks, for that matter, Dora got it. She shut up and started trading with a
local rancher — Nat. He plows, she delivers home baked bread. Dora learned. But too many transplant folks would just sit and whine about the lack of services until they finally got what they wanted — and
got our taxes launched into the sky. Or they’d leave, sniveling all the way
to the coast about how we benighted rubes failed to appreciate their Bountiful Efforts to Improve Our Community.
You see, that’s what I mean when I say Hardyville is a state of mind.
It’s not where Hardyville is that matters. It’s how Hardyville is. If you honestly want Hardyville, and all the cranky, troublesome, but spirit-filling independence it implies, then don’t bring
your dependencies to Hardyville. Don’t bring them anywhere else you go, for
You want to live in Hardyville? I tell you the secret, then, that Hardyville is as real as it is imaginary. It’s at least as real, and as much a part of twentieth-century America, as Atlanta or Minneapolis. More
real than Los Angeles, Washington, DC or Aspen, Colorado.
How do you get there? If you can’t find Lonelyheart Pass, you can start
in the direction of Hardyville by thinking about the way you’re living now.
Are you racing like a little maze-rat, just to keep yourself in fancy toys?
Do you fantasize about independence while tying yourself to every tax-funded service available? Are you living vicariously, via television?
Do you choose to spend your days in a little gray cube? Is your mind in a
little gray cube? Are you giving your freedom away to every diktat spewed
by some gov-o-crat, because you’re too risk-averse to declare that your life belongs to you? Have you put your kids in day care, soccer and gymnastics, more than in your life? Do you hate your life, but somehow never manage to take real steps to fix it? Are you using people — or being
used by them — instead of having honest relationships? When it comes right
down to it, do you choose convenience over independence? Do you choose the
status quo over the uncertainties of happiness? Do your deeds fail to match
your words, your hopes and your ideals?
Then you’re not on the road to Hardyville. If you want to be on
the road to Hardyville, then turn around.
Oh yes, Hardyville exists. And no, it isn’t a quaint throwback to the
past. It isn’t some nostalgic remnant of nineteenth-century Americana. It’s
as modern and accessible as any other place, in its own way. But it’s too
inconvenient for contemporary tastes.
Most people will never make it anywhere near Hardyville. Even — maybe
especially — most people who say they want to. Hardyville, like freedom,
will remain the province of a few who give enough of a damn to put up with
the inconveniences, or who care enough to change their hearts and lives for
a more fulfilling, but somewhat risky, life.
And so we sit around the table at the Hog Trough — Nat who got born here, Dora who’s a refugee, and me who’s too plain stubborn for what elsewhere passes for the good life. Just the three of us and a few more hardy Hardyvillians.
The Hog Trough is kind of empty, truth to tell, now that winter has driven the outsiders away from Hardyville’s one unattractive tourist attraction. And the food … well, I’d rather suck on horse wormer. As the
snow drives down from Lonelyheart Pass, shutting us off even more tightly
from the outside, I know Dora and I are thinking of all the advantages we
No stock exchanges, sushi bars, Furbys, frequent fliers or FBI agents.
No bureaus, block grants or Friends of Bill Clinton. No major leagues, no
Junior League, no malls, boutiques, department stores or mega-corps. No Red
Robin, Red Lobster or Whoppers. No rush hour with choppers reporting traffic-on-the-nines. No Versace, Gucci, Ralph Lauren or Calvin Klein. No
personal trainers, credit jewelers, street gangs, liposuckers, homeowners
associations, post-modern architecture, deconstructivist intellectuals, PC
committees or Lexus dealers. No arbitragers, executive producers, multinational millionaires, multi-level marketers or media stars. Ronald
McDonald, Bill Gates, Bill Bennett, Ralph Nader, Martha Stewart, Dr. Ruth
and Dr. Laura are all somewhere, far away, beyond the forbidding hills. We
are on our own here.
It’s a bleak life. But somehow we will survive.