Newsletter Advises City-Dwellers Who Long for the Sticks

CONCERNS about crime and congestion cause some city dwellers to turn a longing eye toward the country, where roads are unclogged and the living, supposedly, is easy.

It's those rural wannabes whom Lisa Rogak had in mind when she began publishing a newsletter called Sticks from her home in Grafton, N.H., last March.

Six years ago, Ms. Rogak was in the same position as her readers, eager to leave New York City after one too many jarring incident on the subway. Now, a 40-minute drive from tiny Grafton to the college town of Hanover for an interview is about as close as she comes to a return to urban America.

Some urbanites who moved to a rural home do return to the city, and the reason, according to Rogak, is that their motives for moving were askew in the first place. ``They should be moving because of what's in the country, not just to get away from something.''

Her newsletter attempts to enlighten people on that score with hints about social settings, warnings about such inconveniences as ``mud season,'' and pointers about job opportunities. High-paying jobs are not plentiful in Rogak's backyard - northern New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine - or in other rural parts of the country, for that matter. But if you're committed to life in the country, ``you find a way,'' she says.

The number of Americans willing to commit to rural life causes scarcely a blip on the demographic screen. Census Bureau data for 1990-91 show a slowdown in population loss for rural areas, says Carl Haub of the Population Reference Bureau, a private agency in Washington. Such ``nonmetropolitan'' areas - as distinct from urban or suburban - lost only 100,000 people over those two years, versus 300,000 between 1985 and 1986.

Small rural states are likely to remain small and rural, according to Census Bureau projections. Vermont, for example, is projected to stay the next-to-smallest state in the year 2020, with just over 590,000 people and growth of about 15 percent. Idaho, by contrast, will likely grow by nearly 46 percent, to 1.6 million. The West and South should continue to experience big population inflows.

Rogak views migration to the country as a two-way trickle. People may come for awhile to escape muggers or time pressures, but many of them won't stay. ``The reason people move back is not because they can't find work,'' she explains, ``but because their fantasy of what it's like up here is so far from what it's actually like.''

In her view, those fantasies include the notion that people can find their ``dream jobs'' in the country. Some will be able to start their own small businesses; others will find a way to telecommute. Many, however, will have to settle for what the local economy offers - being a waiter, working part time at a resort, or clerking in a store.

But some of these low-wage positions, Rogak says, may also provide a valuable interim during which someone can get to know a new community and its people. The newsletters, which appear bimonthly, have much to say about the process of becoming a part of small-town rural life.

``A lot of people I've known, they're going to enlighten the locals,'' Rogak says. She talks about newcomers who try to get roads paved or take over the school board. ``I tell people: When you first move to the country, keep your mouth shut and your eyes open.''

The most recent issue of Sticks has an article titled, ``How to Move to a Small Town.'' Among its advice: ``Never speak about your old place or residence, your excellent education, or your former job unless you are alone with other certified transplants.''

``During my first two years in Grafton, I felt that everyone was watching me - a single woman, not going to work each day,'' Rogak recalls. But she spent time at the general store and gradually got to know people. She also studiously got rid of her New York/New Jersey accent. ``I'm accepted now, sports car and all,'' she says.

Sticks is only one of a number of enterprises Rogak juggles in her computerized home office. She edits a second newsletter for the ``small travel industry'' - inns and bed-and-breakfasts - and writes books on job and lifestyle subjects.

Most of Rogak's 100 or so subscribers to Sticks live on the Eastern seaboard, from Connecticut through New Jersey (Rogak's home state). But she attracts some readers from the West as well, particularly from California, which for the first time is experiencing significant out-migration.

The Golden State hasn't lost all its sheen, however. The Census Bureau expects California to pick up another 16 million inhabitants by 2020 and remain by far the largest state.

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