Sex + Dating

Why Small-Town Dating Is So Much Better Than City Dating

illustration of small town dating
Jason Hoffman/Thrillist

I grew up 15 miles from New York City, spending my formative romantic years in the suburbs that would one day be made famous on Real Housewives of New Jersey. After four years of college in Massachusetts, I spent a mostly single half-decade in Manhattan dating people from every borough -- but it wasn't until I moved 350 miles away to the absolute middle of nowhere that I found a dating culture richer, more fun, and far more enjoyable than anything Manhattan had to offer.

Redwood is a 600-person hamlet along a tiny speck of road 10 miles from the Canadian border in rural New York. This is the "North Country;" a term for an outlier region of the state beyond the tundras of Syracuse, Albany, and even Rochester. This label draws a geographical line in the sand between here and the misnamed "upstate" provinces of places like Westchester and the cultures therein.

North Country is more Alaskan than Manhattanite: people here travel by ATV or  truck, hunt and garden their way to full bellies, and feel largely intolerant of annoying downstate legislation like gun control.

An uninitiated city girl without friends (or SO potential) in this new world, I picked up a two-night-a-week gig slinging $2 beers and well drinks to the locals at one of Redwood's gin mills. I'd never tended bar before, and loved listening to people's stories while pouring them generous shots of clear and bronze liquors; snapping metal caps off Genny Light and Busch bottles; and dutifully scribbling notes in my reporter's journal behind the bar.

What I didn't realize at the time was that I'd just sidled up to a front-row seat to the dating culture of rural America. And I got its lessons, in abundance.

Small towns offer no buffers

In cities, you can visit 100 different bars on 100 different nights and not run into any of the same people. In five years in New York City, I can't even name more than one person from any of the apartment buildings I lived in.

But in Redwood, like rural outposts all over the US, I knew about people's love lives before we'd even been introduced. People in the barroom knew everything about their neighbors (and neighbors' neighbors). Dating wasn't quiet. People came into the bar a day after I'd been out with someone, and asked how the date was. They made jokes about vehicles spotted in my driveway. I'd bartend while people told stories (not all true) about whomever I was seeing. Exes of people I was interested in, despised me.

Spend five minutes perusing Tinder in Redwood and you'll find your neighbor, a handful of your friends, the guy who painted your house, and six people you played pool with at the bar last night. You change your location settings -- 30, 40, 50 miles away -- and still, you recognize these people. The only strangers you'll see are military (Fort Drum is a stone's throw away) or Canadian (the border's 15 minutes from here).

No buffers = solid background checks

Without anonymity, you know the reputation, dating history, and most likely the sexual health of all your prospects. Almost everyone you meet, you have intel on. In some ways, that helps narrow the field to people you know are reasonably good matches while weeding out those you'd want to escape from five minutes into a date.

A low populace provides a remarkable ego boost

In the almost-decade I've lived in the middle of nowhere, I've been hit on. A lot. Hundreds of times more than I'd ever been hit on in the city. And it's not because of my disarmingly good looks -- to be at the top of the dating food chain requires little more than possessing an unfamiliar face, different last name, and the occupation of a reasonable weight class.

It's because new faces are so hard to come by. There was a mystery and allure attached to a single woman in her late 20s moving alone to the middle of nowhere. People whispered about me; made up stories about my conquests. Once upon a time, when I first moved here after years of living as an anonymous New Yorker, being perceived as this interesting felt flattering.

Dating venues are different

Here, people still go out for dinner on their dates. Other popular romantic outings include four-wheeling, kayaking, hiking, mudding (don't admit it if you don't know what that is), sledding (known to city types as "snowmobiling"), drive-in movie theaters, and boating around one of the lakes or rivers for the day. I've never suffered through a date in the country that felt remotely close to the endless reel of interview-like coffee dates my metropolitan friends drag themselves to.

If you don't already love the outdoors, you'll learn to -- fast. Dates are fun for tomboys. Those high heels I used to wear for a night out in the city were albatrosses when I had to hoist myself in or out of the full-sized F-150s my dates picked me up in. I have yet to find a woman up here who turns up her nose at the offer of a ride on the back of a Harley or weekend spent camping out at the Watkins Glen racetrack.

The men here are a different breed

There are no metrosexuals here. No lumbersexuals. No hipsters, futurists, or any other insane fashion trend popping off on magazine covers. Men have calloused hands, camouflaged sheets, and gun racks in their living rooms. It's not strange to see blood in the bed of the truck; or tackle boxes in the backseat. You'll have to press him to take his ballcap off for dinner; to wash his hands before… well, anything; remind him for the thousandth time to clean the dip out of that cup in his center console.

These guys can build things, fix anything, and survive for more than three hours in the wild. They also provide in ways I, for one, had never been provided for.

They hold car doors even though the vehicle isn't fancy; pay for dinner even if they don't have a lot of money; and give you their gloves even if it's -30 out (yes, it gets that cold here). The first couple of times any of the aforementioned things happened, I was stunned. Now, going out with guys in other, busier parts of the world where chivalry is lacking, is strange.

Your date is going to see where you live

This whole "I don't want my date to know where I live because he/she might be a serial killer" thing just doesn't exist out here. Your date is going to pick you up, or you're going to pick them up -- at what is probably their whole entire house, not apartment. You'll be invited in. And because there is a two-degree separation (max!) for anyone you go out with, you're basically guaranteed to come out of the encounter unscathed.

Cheating is never quiet

Early on in my bartending stint, I met a woman who was carrying on an affair while her husband was on his final deployment overseas. I knew this because everyone in town was abuzz about it, whispering about her -- and her husband, and what would happen when he came home. It felt absolutely bizarre to know so much about the personal life of someone I hardly knew. But I learned quickly that this was par for the course when you live in the middle of nowhere. Everyone just knows all kinds of stuff about all kinds of people. And what this couple -- and so many other estranged couples in the area -- go through becomes fair game for barroom conversation forever.

It's nice to think having everyone's eyes on you would make you more accountable for how you treat people, including your partners. It's not always the case.

Relationships never end

Every person you date, you will see again. In abundance. They'll be at the bank, grocery store, bar, post office, or convenience store. I've never had a first date here and not heard from the person again. With exes, there will always be weirdness to overcome. And sometimes, years after things ended, you'll get a text or call asking what you're up to.

Somehow, exes in the North Country never seem to completely move on.

Dating in the country is nothing like FarmersOnly.com

This is rural America; not a cartoon. And while it can be tempting to assume all rural-dwelling singles are gun-toting Trump enthusiasts with mullets, things here are obviously more complex than that.

Fed up with the banal left-swiping of Tinder, and curious after multiple city-dwelling friends excitedly called the FarmersOnly domain to my attention, I queued up the site and created a profile. But aside from its hyperbolically old-school website design, goofball graphics, and inferior functionality, it was basically (and unsurprisingly) just another low-budget dating site. Also, most people in rural America think it's just as ridiculous a niche dating service as people in the city do. In other words, hardly anyone (in this area, at least) is on it.

People in the North Country just work more organically for their relationships. It's significantly easier to meet people in person than online in rural America, even with its ridiculously low population.

And somehow, that -- even with everyone watching, and knowing, and wondering -- is the most refreshing thing of all.

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Nicole Caldwell is Thrillist's Sex & Dating editor who never thought she'd find a penchant for camo. Check out her farm and follow her on Twitter: @nicolemcaldwell.