Most people don’t find themselves yearning to grow up in a small Kentucky town. And as someone who grew up there, I spent years wishing I was anywhere else. Wishing I lived in a city where the best hangout spot wasn’t a run-down mall with a movie theater, Dollar Store, Roses, and Shoe Show. Wishing my hometown was known for something more than being a crater in the Appalachian Mountains — yes, my hometown was actually built in a crater. Wishing I didn’t have to drive two hours to go anywhere remotely interesting.
Most of my life, I wished I could have been anywhere else: New York, Los Angeles, Nashville, wherever. I would have taken anything as long as it wasn’t a small town in Kentucky. Getting my Princeton acceptance letter was like winning the lottery, and I counted down the days until I would leave for college. I could finally escape my hometown. I wouldn’t be someone who lives and dies within a five-mile radius of where they were born.
I was getting out.
I’d never really appreciated my hometown until I got to Princeton, until I cried in my dorm for the first time. I called my family and told them how much I missed them, how wrong I was about leaving home, and how badly I wanted to come back. I made a similar call almost every day. They listened to me cry and told me that they would be just as proud of me if I attended our state school. I knew it was true — they would never think less of me for leaving Princeton — but I knew I could never let myself do that. I worked so hard to get here — who would I be if I gave it all up?
So, I would wait until I could go home. The countdown on my phone screen was a constant reminder that I would be home again soon. I would see my family, friends, and boyfriend. I just had to make it to fall break. Then winter break. Then spring break. I just had to keep going until I was home again. It felt like a sick, paradoxical joke: waiting my entire life to get out of my boring, small town, and then begging to go back as soon as I had left.
After spring break of my freshman year, I realized how truly alone I felt. Even though I had friends at school, a piece of me was always longing for home, and an empty feeling would persist until I was back in Kentucky again. When you spend so much time running away from something, it always catches you. And this time, my hometown wouldn’t let me go.
As I sat in my dorm attempting to do homework, my heart would find its way home. The things that used to annoy me became things that I couldn’t wait to see again: my little sister barging in my room to wake me up, the coffee shops that got my order wrong half the time, the mountain my house was built on that I constantly trekked up.
I hated them until I no longer had them.
Yet, in the second half of the semester, something amazing happened: I went one day without calling my dad crying. Then it became two days. And then a week. Even though I missed home, I found moments where I realized that Middlesboro, Kentucky and Princeton, New Jersey weren’t completely different from each other.
As a group of high schoolers crowded by Wawa one afternoon, I saw my hometown friends in their faces. They laughed, making inside jokes that I could barely hear. The girls listened to the boys playfully argue, while the latter teased the former about some celebrity crush; it was no longer a bunch of random teenagers. Instead, it was my friends and I in a random parking lot talking about life and what we wanted to do after high school. Maybe teenagers are the same everywhere. Maybe my friends would be there when I got home.
I looked at the night sky and saw the stars. When my parents called me to say goodnight and make sure I was safe in my dorm, I saw the night sky and knew that no matter how far away I was, I was still sleeping under the same moon. My sister was looking at the same constellations, and I would be home soon enough to point out a new one. For the time being, being under the same sky was enough.
The first time I ordered coffee at Starbucks on Nassau, I hated it. I ordered a basic iced vanilla latte with oat milk, and it didn’t taste like the other vanilla lattes I had drunk before. I laughed, thinking about my first time getting the same drink at Crater City Coffee (we really are only known for being built in a crater). They gave me the beverage, and I took exactly two sips before tossing it. What a waste of six dollars. At least I know that no matter where I am, there’s always mediocre coffee.
My hometown may be 500 miles away, but I am here. My small town, with all its mountains and monotony, came with me. Thank you to my small town. I’m sorry for running away. You’ll just have to keep catching me.
Mackenzie Hollingsworth is a contributing writer for The Prospect from Middlesboro, Kentucky. She is a member of the Class of 2026 and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.