I remember riding my bicycle past road signs riddled with bullet holes. Sometimes, the entire center of a sign would be gone with only a crown of rusted metallic strands reaching out like the fleshy remnants of an exit wound.

What do people who grew up in enlightened communities think when they see such acts of reckless vandalism? As for me, as a child, I never thought to question my reality.

Some of those signs were on the long stretches of county highway I had to pedal in order to visit my friends. I was well aware that the flimsy material of the sign wouldn't stop the bullets. The lethal projectiles would pass on through and fly for miles.

We had no choice but to leave it to fate that we wouldn't end up in harm's way. We understood that it would be taken as ingratitude if we ever dared to request a reprieve from the perpetual threat. So, we kept silent and focused on survival.

Laughter, mockery, and denial

Hunting season taught me what it feels like to have somebody start shooting at you. Men get "buck fever" and lose all sense. They forget to clear the area beyond their target. I remember throwing myself to the ground. I remember crying and tasting mud and having a bunch of bearded men laugh at me after it was done for making a "big deal out of nothing."

If I'd been killed by a stray bullet, they'd have called it the kind of tragedy that's impossible to prevent. "These things happen, nobody's to blame." That's one of the favorite sayings of people who take no responsibility for the agony they inflict on the world.

But somebody is to blame. Sometimes it's a whole community.

Nostalgia for a time that never was

Whenever I discuss rural areas, somebody likes to chime in and correct me. They tell me how the lights were always on and you could always knock on the neighbor's door for help. They talk about green spaces and the inherent joys of living in a place that demonstrates the proper reverence for time-honored traditions.

In my experience, that oft-repeated refrain stems from the same survival mechanism that can transform moments of abuse into the seeds of fond nostalgia. Rather than condemn our tormentors, we prefer to occupy a fantasy and focus on the table scraps we call the "good times."

We make transparent justifications for the actions we didn't like. "He was hard on me because he loved me," or, "He only hit me when I was bad." Through repetition and denial we condition ourselves to rewrite the past.

Such a mechanism sustained me when I had nothing good to serve as a foundation. The older I get, the more I value acknowledging ugly truth over surrendering to the complex prison of a beautiful lie.

The gravitational pull of the sinful city

The community where I grew up viewed urban areas as direct portals to Hell. They perceived "the country" as the Garden of Eden, interrupted by urban blights on the landscape that exerted a irresistible pull in the direction of eternal damnation.

Nobody I grew up with ever read Dante's Inferno, but his model for Hell fits what the people of my community imagined. Cities were pits made up of concentric circles that spiraled into oblivion. The further you progressed towards the center, the worse it got.

Many of the people I grew up with were so scared of cities that they wouldn't even go for a visit. "What if I'm unable to escape? No, I'm good here! I have everything I need."

It's a tragic when you think of it. They were afraid to get on airplanes. They were afraid to try different kinds of food. They were afraid to see a show.

They could stand to watch the Green Bay Packers play at Lambeau, but not in Minneapolis. If they drove too close to the city, their hands began to tremble on the wheel. They had to stop and turn around.

Where did the drugs come from?

I've talked to people who grew up in Minneapolis at the same time when I was growing up out beyond the fringes of civilization. "Ah," they say with a laugh, "I know your neck of the woods. I parked at the grocery store with a Viking sticker on my car and I came out to discover a bullet hole in the door."

Through these conversations, I've been able to piece together the way my home town looks to urban eyes. It's not a pretty picture.

We were a destination point for people who sought a weekend of lawlessness. We were the wild west. We were the unconquered frontier. You could get away with anything.

"I used to come to your town to get marijuana," somebody told me. "It was so easy to find." That revelation surprised me because I'd been taught that the urban areas were the cesspools of crime and moral decay. It was a surprise to me to hear that the other side thought the same thing about us.

Coming to the country for a weekend of sport

Marijuana came from my town, cocaine came from the city. Many of the teen boys existed in a perpetual state of rage about how city teens pranced in to seduce the homegrown girls with their pretense of sophistication and designer drugs.

My hometown had a network of trails. The trails were used for ATVs in the summer and snowmobiles in the winter. Naturally, the local boys knew the interconnected labyrinth better than those that came up for a weekend of sport.

I've heard a variety of odd stories and I've never been able to get a satisfactory grasp on what is true and what is legend. Accounts depend on the perception of the witness. The rural kids viewed the city tourists as rich demons who had come to leave behind a wake of addiction and unwed mothers. The city tourists viewed the rural people as backwards hillbillies that might shoot you and bury your body in the swamp.

Perhaps you come closest to the truth by taking the worst parts of both sides.

In the halls of my high school, boys would brag about how they knocked some "jerk from Minnesota" unconscious, and then lost their pursuers within the complex tangle of unmarked logging roads. To this day, I expect a battle with no purpose still rages out on dusty trails in the middle of nowhere.

Solitude and the sense of enduring space

People in the country expect to be left alone and are resentful of any intrusion. They don't like to be watched. They don't like to be seen. This applies whether or not they're doing something they know to be wrong.

Many rural people develop a lack of perspective. They look upon seemingly eternal, unblemished space and they're disinclined to consider the consequences of their actions. If one small space is spoiled, they'll just move on to the next.

When you go to visit, you might stumble upon a contaminated spot behind a barn where a farmer dumps his used motor oil. If you criticize him for it, he'll just scoff and say, "Well, that's what I've always done."

He gives no pause to consider what would happen if a million people living together all did the same thing. He's never seen urban life. He refuses to get anywhere near the city. As far as he's concerned, those places don't even exist.

An artificial viewpoint with rigid boundaries

The farmer who dumps oil behind his garage has constructed a barrier in his mind. The city is "bad," everything to do with the city is "bad." He therefore refuses to learn about the city or accept anything "city people" believe. He doesn't want to know about any newfangled ideas about saving the earth.

"The Earth has always been here, quit being so arrogant as to think you can hurt it."

Rural areas are always pure and unblemished and true. They are "exceptional." They are "superior." This attitude is reflected in many of our unconscious beliefs.

"You should thank me for my service because people like me feed the nation!"

If you persist in trying to educate him, he'll smile and nod and listen to you. But the very next time his truck needs an oil change, he'll wander off behind the barn to dump the old stuff out like he's always done.

The rural viewpoint contaminates your thinking

What I've discovered about myself is that I have a deeply rooted avoidance mechanism. I've spent so much time surrounded by ignorant people that I slip by them without even making a conscious effort. To this day, when I come across an absurd obstacle, I barely even look at it. Instead, I just go around.

I used to think this represented self-reliance. Today, I recognize that it's a form of entitlement.

My behavior is deceitful. Like the old farmer who dumps his oil, I too will nod at people, assure them I'm about to follow directions, and then do whatever I please. I don't see this as being dishonest anymore than I consider it lying when somebody asks for information they have no right to know.

But it is deceitful, and my impulse to instantly assess and dismiss concepts that aren't immediately obvious to me has led me astray more than I am comfortable to admit.

Progress is viewed with suspicion

Rural communities rankle at the concept of diversity. They look at it and assess that it's a newfangled way of making them feel guilty about their longstanding values and traditions. Then the nostalgia kicks in, and they disregard the cavalcade of abuses which they've spent their whole lives reimagining with fondness.

The things that bring them misery are expelled. Once an idea has been condemned to that fate, getting them to address it again is like trying to push two negatively charged magnets together.

Life has taught me that there are consequences for ignoring the things you don't understand. Perhaps the worst of these consequences is that you strip yourself of agency. You end up caught in an orbit that uses a fundamental force to deflect you away from any exit that might provide the gateway to prosperity.

An eternal prison of your own choosing

People who grow up in rural areas begin their lives in a prison.

It's not a cage of bars. It's a cage of years. You live in the same place. You drive down the same roads. You eat the same foods. You talk to the same people. It's a large area of confinement that presents the illusion of freedom, but there is no escape.

I grew up in a rural area on the fringe of civilization. To this day, the perspectives of my upbringing are fused with my worldview. To some extent, I managed to escape, at least enough to acquire a bit of the experience I might have otherwise been denied. In other ways, I'm still haunted by the backwards viewpoints I haven't been able to purge from my psyche.

The idealized mythology of a pastoral Eden that exists beyond the city does not now, nor has it ever existed. Instead, there is a cruel community propped up by illusion that compels their own children to renounce their autonomy out of fear.

We must find the courage to break this cycle. Asking for a reprieve isn't an example of "ingratitude." The expectation to be treated with dignity is a basic human right.