Mel Monroe, a 32-year-old nurse practitioner in L.A., is suddenly widowed, and decides to take a job as the only nurse and midwife in Virgin River, an unincorporated village of 600 in the mountain forests of Northern California.
Will she stay? It’s no idyll. While she connects with the hunky Marine veteran who owns the town bar, Mel finds that she can’t escape the drugs, violence, economic struggles, and health care problems of Los Angeles. Rural California has all those same problems too.
You won’t find Virgin River on any map. The town is the fictional setting for Robyn Carr’s series of 20 romance novels that have sold more than 13 million copies since 2007. While Carr’s geography is vague, Virgin River appears to be in Trinity County (pop. 13,000), one of only four California counties still considered fully rural.
I’m no fan of the romance genre, but during the COVID-19 lockdown, I started streaming the new Netflix series Virgin River, which is based on Carr’s books. Despite the predictable plots, I kept watching— Virgin River’s portrait of rural California is unconventional and timely, particularly as the uprising against police violence spreads to rural communities.
Conventional wisdom is that California is divided between two separate universes, the rural and the urban. Under COVID, our media obsessively notes the differences between how urban and rural counties respond to the pandemic. And political narratives, by dwelling on the alleged chasm between blue urban regions and red rural places, polarize us and spread the self-fulfilling prophecy that the country is too divided to be governed.
These narratives are dangerously wrong. In California, America’s most urban state, our data, our experience, and, yes, Virgin River suggest that city dwellers and rural residents should stop sniping and instead embrace each other as partners in addressing our many common problems.
The Virgin River novels, like Netflix’s series, are about the union of urban and rural. In the plots, a struggling city person moves to Virgin River to seek a new beginning. Among them are a Sacramento prosecutor nearly killed by a criminal; a twice-divorced LAPD officer shot in the line of duty; a San Francisco sous-chef whose career has collapsed; a burned-out Silicon Valley public relations warrior; and a Native American rancher from the urbanizing Inland Empire.
In Virgin River, these arrivals find attractive local residents hungering for heterosexual coupling. But they also can’t escape the problems of the urban environments they left behind. The plots emphasize domestic violence, post-traumatic stress, housing, healthcare failings, addiction, and criminality in the marijuana industry. Virgin River is mostly white, but there is growing diversity, just like in the real rural California. Carr, a former California resident who now lives in Las Vegas, has said that Virgin River could be a community anywhere.
She’s got a point. Our constant talk of urban-rural divides has obscured the real story: the convergence of urban and rural, particularly as Californians, priced out of mega-regions, move to less populous places.
California’s biggest challenges now transcend region. Poverty rates are similarly high in California’s most populous and least populous places. Pre-COVID, unemployment rates were nearly identical—under 5 percent in both rural and urban California. California jobs, both rural and urban, are heavily skewed to healthcare, retail, tourism, and government. In both rural and urban California, civic leaders worry about decaying infrastructure, housing affordability, healthcare costs, and a lack of skilled workers.
Cities, once seen as centers of crime, have become safer, while urbanizing remote places have fallen in health and safety rankings. And police misconduct, now dominating the news in cities, also plagues California’s small towns, which have seen George Floyd-inspired protests.
The mixing of urban and rural is actually quite Californian. Most people in counties that are considered remote, from Inyo to Humboldt, live in urban clusters. And 32 percent of California’s rural population lives in the far-flung corners of large counties that are at least 91 percent urban.
Our winner-take-all politics obscure how mixed-up we really are. In 2016, Trinity County, which appears ruby red on political maps, saw 49 percent of its voters cast ballots for someone other than Trump. Meanwhile, polling shows that blue L.A. County has a few million supporters.
Virgin River, especially in the Netflix version (which was shot in British Columbia), testifies to the lack of borders between rural and urban. The “old country doctor” with whom L.A. nurse practitioner Mel Monroe tangles was once a medical hotshot from Seattle. Mel’s love interest, that outdoorsy barkeep, grew up in Sacramento and spent his military career in the Middle East.
“Small towns can be nice,” the hunk, Jack Sheridan, says. “And they can have their own brand of drama. And danger.”
Virgin River is not so far away from the rest of California after all.
Joe Mathews writes the Connecting California column for Zócalo Public Square.