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Rural America isn’t dead.

By Grace Wakim


CANALOU, Mo. – Nuzzled between sprawling crop fields lies a small town untouched by America’s consumer-driven economy. Outlanders pity this rural community’s humdrum lifestyle, but their capitalist egos eventually migrate into the shadows, just like Kenny and Jackie Wharton.


“You Can’t Go Home Again” from This American Life podcast host Ira Glass reveals the consequences of capitalism through the the Whartons’ return to Canalou.


Kenny and Jackie eagerly anticipate their reunion with the fairytale town they left behind for St. Louis more than 40 years ago, but the town’s dream-like essence no longer exists. Potent odors circulate above the small southwestern town. Milky-brown water oozes from rusty pipes and covers trailer home lots.


The Wharton’s’ glorious envisions for Canalou quickly overshadow the town’s historic beauty and culture. While inventing plans to restore run-down infrastructure and ordinary landscaping, the Wharton’s


“Canalou was a town too poor even to steal from,” Glass says.


Driving through town, Kenny recalls the shops and booming businesses that once existed amongst the streets of Canalou. Instead of appreciating the town’s unique change, Kenny and Jackie immediately begin to repair the broken and unique perspective.


It’s not uncommon to spot piles of abandoned and forgotten toys amongst dying forestry while driving through the residential area.


Well, the toys were broke,” mayor Charles Joyce says. “But those were the best toys the kids had. If we had to get rid of them, then they would have no toys at all.”


Decaying garbage spills over Joyce’s property line, but he doesn’t see anything wrong with it.


“What’s junk to me may be your treasure,” Joyce says


The Wharton’s mistake their newly found simplistic life for instability after attaining financial freedom associated with the “American dream.” As a kid, Kenny handpicked cotton before it got sent to the machines. Now he makes more money from his retirement than Canalou residents usually make in their life.


The Wharton’s appreciate their fortunes and successes in St. Louis, but time spent away from Canalou created judgment. Three decades living in a materialistic culture blind the couple of the town’s simplicities and quiet charm. Their tainted perception of success causes them to see residents as charity case in dire need of saving.


The Wharton’s grow disappointed when locals reject their plans. They struggle to comprehend why the community doesn’t want to modernize facilities or upgrade public services.


“This town has been this way ever since it was built. One guy ain’t gonna change that,” says Southward.

Broken, battered and perfectly imperfect, Canalou rejects the notion of financial success as the key to happiness or deep fulfillment. Machinery is sparse; life is slow. Most residents don’t ever leave. Not because they can’t but because they like it.


Time. Time is of the essence. Time is money. Time is everywhere, yet nowhere. Time is what occurred when the Wharton’s left Canalou 40 years ago, and time waits for no one.


“They've had it this way before we come here,” Kenny says. “And it'll be this way after we leave.”




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