Welcome to Perryton, Texas. As you enter the town from Highway 83 your first glimpse of one of Texas’s most northern cities will be a welcome sign that rattles off the town’s title, “Wheatheart of the Nation.” Population: 7,774. These are facts that any good resident should know by heart because they make the town essentially what it is.
As a kid growing up in Perryton, I thought that I lived in the big city. We had dress shops, a movie theater, Sonic, and McDonalds. In comparison with my grandparents’ town of 400, I was sure that I was living the high life, and in truth, I imagined that my upbringing was similar to most kids’ in bigger cities. My parents filled my time with sports at the activity center, school spelling bees, and science fairs, but unlike urbanites I could wander the neighborhood aimlessly and meet my best friend at “the windmill” without any parental worries.
However, as I entered high school, I realized that the notions that I had carried about my big city life were hopeful at best. The Perryton that I had grown up in was quickly changing into something that no resident ever expected. I watched as the Corner Drug shut its doors, soon followed by the clothing and shoe stores, and most recently the Hallmark. My mom called distraught about this. “Where will I get cards, Al?” she asked. I suggested the grocery store, but she told me, “They don’t have the singing cards. You know how I love those.”
These closings have created a void that no singing card can console but while the presence on Main Street is different now than it has ever been, the town remains somehow the same. My best guess is that none of these businesses were ever really the reason a person moved to my hometown anyway. In truth, a lot of residents grew up in Perryton and never found enough wrong with it to ever leave. My parents were Panhandle transplants but undoubtedly felt the same. In cities, residents grow attached to the liberties of their surroundings; in small towns, residents grow attached to the people around them.
My childhood had all of the markings of this truth. Until college, I had never lived in another place, so I didn’t realize how unique this dynamic really was. Perryton may be the only place on the face of the Earth where students flock to the calculus teacher’s house for her legendary granola, the only place where the crappiest car in the high school parking lot is somehow the coolest. The standards of Perryton don’t always match up to those of the rest of society but I think that residents would boast of this rather than bemoan it.
Situated at the top of the Texas Panhandle, Perryton is closer to five other state capitals than it is to its own. Yes, five—Oklahoma, Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico, and Nebraska. If that doesn’t make Texas big enough and Perryton small enough for you, imagine driving through two states to get to the closest Wal-Mart. This is the reality for Perryton’s residents, and although this life seems like a parody of rural America, it is in fact what makes Perryton so special.
The divergence from societal ideals is simultaneously the best hope and biggest gamble at stake for Perryton. No sight within the city limits is enough to lure in a new populace, and I can see why. In a culture with instant gratification, why move to a place where you have to wait? In my time in Perryton, I may not have been accustomed to the privileges of Wal-Mart—yes, privileges—or have experienced the tastes that I read about in Texas Monthly without driving for hours. Instead, I grew up in a place that I helped create, and although my role has turned to a supporting one, I now know that my time there was never about a flashy zip code. 79070 will never have a picturesque view like 90210, and as hard as some try to make Ochiltree County “The Real O.C.,” it just isn’t. Instead, Perryton can rely on the laboring fact that amidst nothing but the bare necessities, people still call it home.
Unlike cities that are restoring and revamping to appeal to the modern world, Perryton has no qualms about being what it truly is—a place where people trump progress. It is evident that there is a constant struggle between preserving the Perryton of old and accepting the Perryton of new but in truth neither is really that different from the other. Perryton was never defined by fancy stores, fine cuisine, or a booming Main Street. Instead it remains a place where the past is the best indication of the future and, much like its residents, a place where a life lived simply is a life lived to the fullest.