February 12, 2024

WEIRENS | Reflections from my Evening in the Ditch 

Print More

You have a phone; you have insurance; you are a twenty minute drive from bustling Ithaca. Are you confident that you’re prepared for anything coming your way in this seemingly comfortable situation? The answer is that you shouldn’t be. 

Rural communities are grossly neglected when compared to their urban and suburban counterparts. Although there are ultimately many factors behind this lag, I didn’t realize the true severity of the situation until my friends and I fell victim to a sliver of the hardships that rural dwellers face all-too-often.

Two weeks ago, bundled in our warmest layers of winter clothes, three of my friends and I gleefully piled into a borrowed 2007 Toyota Camry in Collegetown. It was Student Night at Greek Peak, and we intended to make the most of an evening on the slopes. It was lightly snowing, adding to our enthusiasm. 

As we got closer, the snow fell faster and faster. The roads became twistier and icier as the darkness fully enveloped us and houses turned into farm fields. We took a corner, and suddenly our friend (from Southern California, who happened to be driving) gave a short yelp, losing control of the car. One 180 degree lurch later, we found ourselves spinning off the road into a farm field. After what felt like a dizzying eternity, the car crunched to a stop. 

“Is everyone ok?” my friend finally asked from the backseat. 

After confirming we, and the car, were all unscathed, we attempted to leave the field. But it didn’t take long to see we were properly stuck. Two of my friends attempted to get a hold of the American Automobile Association, while my other friend and I got out the shovel and went to work digging the car out. 

Despite my finest Minnesotan shoveling skills and our group’s desperate car-pushing efforts, we weren’t budging. Even worse, the tow trucks were playing hard-to-get. Endless transfers on the phone led to eternities on hold, followed by random operators informing us they couldn’t help, or that it would be hours to get a driver to us. 

Where was the AAA that all four of us had paid for, waiting for this precise situation? Calling local tow agencies in the area proved fruitless. Nobody local, or even remotely close, was answering their phones. Every potential option turned into a dead end.

Three hours had passed. 

As our phones were dying, and spirits dwindling, a Good Samaritan slowed to a stop, giving us the number of a local man who happened to own a tow truck. Out of options, we tried the number and were shocked to get a response and rescue within half an hour. 

We cheered, watching the headlights of our tow truck operator come into view. He gave us a well-deserved tongue lashing on how lucky we were; we then settled our debt with a wad of cash from a nearby gas station ATM. 

The issue here is bigger than me or my friends: Why couldn’t we get rescued at all, when it would’ve taken only seconds in the city? All of us had insurance, AAA membership, the internet, etc., all the precautions that exist to help precisely in situations like these, and yet we couldn’t have been more helpless. After all, had that kind woman not stopped to tell us about the man with the tow truck, we’d still be in that field rocking and pushing. The state of rural emergency services was far worse than what I’d hoped. 

My opinion on this matter doesn’t just stem from my personal experience. Rather I believe it’s a reflection on the greater rural accessibility and broadband status, which significantly lags behind urban and suburban America. Over the past summer, I conducted research on rural resources as a government consultant intern in DC. There, I learned about some of the struggles faced by rural communities, especially regarding rural broadband. 

For example, according to the Federal Communications Commission, 17 percent of rural Americans lack access to the Internet, whereas only one percent of urban Americans lack Internet access. The average life expectancy in rural areas is only 76.7 years of age, while urban dwellers typically live 79.1 years. Forty percent of urban adults (ages 25-44 years old) hold at least a bachelor’s degree, while 22 percent of rural adults have one. I could go on. 

Until rural America is as adequately served as the rest of the country, there will always be additional hardship and risk that affects everyone.

This looks like students in old cheap cars like ourselves stranded in a blizzard. It looks like injured or sick residents of rural areas who are unable to access appropriate healthcare, whether it be through telehealth services or fast enough ambulances. It looks like children falling behind in global pandemics or crises from lack of access to proper online schooling. It looks like the unnecessary suffering of farmers without access to the existing benefits of agritech. 

One of the causes contributing to these issues is the low profitability for private corporations to serve these low density areas. Returning to the example of rural broadband, it’s not profitable for Internet companies to install the necessary infrastructure in certain rural areas. So they don’t, and people go without the internet and suffer for it. This isn’t fair or right, and the government should subsidize the necessary funds to prioritize the rural quality of life.

What matters to readers is that Cornell students should care and strive to use their education for the betterment and accessibility of America’s rural areas. My experience was a mere fraction of a problem experienced by tens of millions nationwide, and, who knows, maybe it could happen to you on a winding road leaving Ithaca. 

Aurora Weirens is a third year student in the College of Arts & Sciences. Her fortnightly column The Northern Light illuminates student life. She can be reached at [email protected].

The Cornell Daily Sun is interested in publishing a broad and diverse set of content from the Cornell and greater Ithaca community. We want to hear what you have to say about this topic or any of our pieces. Here are some guidelines on how to submit. And here’s our email: [email protected].