You’ve arrived in Rappahannock. Population 7,378.
Those were the words that ran through my head as I drove down U.S. 522 past cattle farms and wineries en route to my new posting this summer as a Foothills Forum fellow and special reporter for the Rappahannock News.
What does that mean? And how did I get here?
I showed up on a rainy Monday from Ohio after a roundabout journey that started a year ago from my then-home in Indonesia through New England, Arizona and Guatemala. I was, most recently, an international reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Jakarta.
I came back, in large part, because I wanted to better understand America and be involved with reporting that felt authentic, that resonated with people. I was also worried about the future of a rapidly changing journalism industry.
I share the conviction of those involved with Foothills Forum and the hard-working staff at the RappNews that in-depth local reporting is vital to keeping people informed and those in power accountable. I appreciate their commitment to covering the issues that matter to people in this county, both by engaging residents in finding stories — and solutions.
I tried to do my homework before arriving. But it’s hard to really know a place without being there. I had no idea what to expect — and I’m trying not to.
Over the past two weeks, I’ve gone for drives and walks around the county. I’ve struck up conversations or dropped in on people and businesses.
I am in every way an outsider. But a curious one. I also understand the importance of trust and time and nuance.
Foothills Forum’s mission is a tough one. Even in a small county, how do you ever get all voices represented at the same table? I’ve struggled just to describe where I’m staying to friends and family. There seem to be myriad ways to define this county and also none that really do it justice.
What I’ve quickly picked up on is that Rappahannock is special. Some say there is no other county like it.
I sense a fear of change and nostalgia for the good old days. But change is a constant and something the majority of people responding to the survey that helped launch Foothills Forum also said they’re open to.
That’s something Foothills Forum will be exploring with its upcoming series on employment and economic transition, which will address many of the issues of concern people listed in response to that survey. Look for it by the end of this month.
When I’ve asked people what they love about Rappahannock, some say the beauty, the stunning vistas, the quiet solitude, starry skies, the mountains. Some say the people, the ability to walk into a place and know everyone.
I’ve also found that it is full of surprises: you can buy rose water and locally made chutney but scarcely get cell phone service. People who grew up here are returning and working to support and revitalize their communities — something I’m seeing elsewhere, too.
I came back to my home state of Ohio because I wanted to reconnect with it, and, as a journalist, I wanted to hear those kinds of stories. The rural communities I’ve been reporting on there struggle with many of the same challenges as Rappahannock — terrible broadband access, economies in transition, aging populations that grow smaller and smaller as youth leave.
The questions, too, are often similar and ones I’ll be trying to find answers to in the weeks ahead. What do people see as Rappahannock’s future? What unites them? Amid the challenges and the differences of opinion, what are some solutions?
I welcome and would appreciate your input. If you have ideas or thoughts you’d like to share, you can always reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Otherwise, I hope to meet you in my travels around the county.
From a fellow “Newbie” welcome to Rappahannock! Been here a year next week and love it.