Notes from Rural America

Sarah McMahon
5 min readFeb 6, 2024

My father sat at our oval porcelain kitchen table, on a chipped wooden chair that has been in that kitchen, around that table, since my great-grandparents built the house in 1950-something. My father has a dark beard and not much hair. He wears wire rimmed glasses and a t-shirt I gave him last Christmas, from the infamous Los Rios Street in San Juan Capistrano, CA. The kitchen he sits in is over a thousand miles away from Los Rios Street, in a house situated on a small hillside in rural Northwest Wisconsin.

“Hey!” he says, smirking, “tell Mike there’s a house they call the rising sun,” before chuckling to himself, a toothpick bouncing up and down from his laughing mouth.

“The Animals!” he cries, gesticulating with his hands, “I can’t believe you didn’t know that!” House of the Rising Sun is my ringtone and has been for as long as I can remember. Whenever my boyfriend calls, my father yells, “Tell Mike there’s a house! They call the rising sun!” One night, he will demand that I sit on the overstuffed living room couch as he streams the original video, released the year he was born, to the television. The Animals wear matching yellow suits and play the song while gazing into the camera, and it’s been the ruin of many a poor boy and God I know I’m one.

I live in Southern California (hence the t-shirt from Los Rios Street), but I grew up here, in the house my parents still live in. Rural Wisconsin is worlds away from Southern California and I’ve made it my personal mission to distinguish how. It’s the same country, after all. We speak the same language. Or do we?

My father blows his nose, and it sounds like one of the freight trains that roll through town every day. “Drier than a day-old popcorn fart in here,” he mutters, before heading downstairs to check the humidifier. Our basement is half finished with orange carpet. There is a rarely used pool table down there too, with the canonical picture of dogs on hind legs, teeing up a perfect shot. One winter when I was young, we sat in this basement for hours shucking hundreds of cobs of popcorn. Like many of my father’s ventures, the summer of popcorn started as an idea and ended with us being way in over our heads. The heavy metal handheld tool we used for shucking left my small hands red and raw, but the bowls of perfect yellow kernels made the slow work that…