Reporting from Nowhere, USA

I was dispatched to a rural outpost in nearby Franklin County Tuesday when two people were found dead in a car along a back-country road.

penhookPenhook is, in technical terms, a “census-designated place.” That essentially means there are some mailing addresses that include “Penhook, VA,” but it isn’t a town, or a city or even some sort of village. According to a quick Wikipedia search, Penhook consists of 12.6 square miles and 726 people.

On the way, an editor and a reporter here at the paper who are more familiar with Franklin County told me there was a Minute Market there that locals frequented, using as a general store and knowledge center.

After checking to see if police would give me any information at the scene where two people were found shot to death — they wouldn’t at that point — I made my way to the Minute Market, where the clerks probably noticed me while I was still parking my car.

They know their customers, and they probably knew I wasn’t one of them. But they also knew something strange was going on that day, and they weren’t surprised when I told them I was a reporter.

The clerks, who were rightfully disturbed by the violent event that had apparently occurred just down the road from the store, already had an idea what had happened. In fact, they already knew who called 911 and what the caller had seen.

Going to a small town, or a place like Penhook that isn’t even big enough to be a “town,” is an inherently different experience as an outsider. But many rural areas, like this one, will welcome outsiders into the fold if they come bearing some sort of help.

In this case, I was attempting to find out what had happened down the road, just like them.

And it’s general stores and communities like the Minute Market and Penhook that make small towns extremely rewarding to report from.

In larger areas, the magnitude of any one event — even the violent deaths of two people — is diluted by the simple fact that only so many people can feel affected by it. What happened Tuesday night in Penhook — when every person who walked into the store began talking about the shooting — simply doesn’t happen in large communities.

I was standing with the clerks when one of them received a text message. We had heard from the 911 caller that the victims had been found in a metallic Jeep. The clerks and customers had been wracking their brains to come up with an idea of who could be involved. The text message brought the answer.

It was only a rumor at that point, but it spread like wildfire through the night, and it turned out to be true. When the clerks read the message, saw the names of the supposed dead, the light bulbs went on. They drove a metallic Jeep.

And then the pain and disbelief set in. They were regulars, like most customers, and they were local business owners, and they loved their dog, and they were such a nice couple. Everything there was to know, seemingly, was known in this store.

In that rural outpost, everyone is connected. The people feel these connections deeply and when one or two are lost, it resonates.

Below I’ve got some recommended reading: Stories set in these hyper-connected small communities.

The Hanging by Rich Schapiro, The Atlantic: This great piece is in the new issue of the magazine and debuted this week. Along with my experience, it sparked the idea for this post. This tale, however, shows the part of the story that comes after the big news: When some violent event happens, no one can believe so-and-so would do such a thing. And that’s when you realize that no community, no matter how tightly bound, can completely know and understand a person.

The Ballad of Johnny France by Richard Ben Cramer, Esquire (1985): A classic on a sheriff’s search for two mountain men. (Link is to the excellent Bronx Banter blog.)

Finally, I have a big piece coming out as part of a special report in tomorrow’s paper. It is also, coincidentally, about rural life. Stay tuned.