Marj Satterfield, a tough and independent 40-something, refers to herself as a country gal. She bristles at suggestions that a woman needs a man. She resurrects her old battered pickup truck herself each time it dies.
But Ms. Satterfield gets lonely sometimes. She says she's not too picky, but a guy who knows the difference between a steer and a bull would be nice. The problem is, with the exception of her son, there are not a lot of males within 40 miles of her house.
About eight months ago, Satterfield, who lives on a ranch about 20 miles from the small town of Byers, Colo., bought a computer. Her son helped her set it up and turn it on. She signed on with three online sites for rural singles.
"I just put, 'Blonde, known to turn heads, come complete with own brand.' I got a bunch of calls on my voicemail," she says.
Satterfield is among a growing number of residents of small-town America opting to stare into computer screens as a way to look
beyond their horizons. In the process, these singles are writing another chapter in the life of the country, where singles services have appeared in various incarnations over the centuries as a way to unite lonely hearts separated by hundreds of miles.
"This phenomenon is nothing new at all. It is as old as recorded history," says Robert Billingham, a specialist on human development and the family at Indiana University in Bloomington. "When I started teaching, I'd get students in [class] whose grandparents had been mail-order brides.... Online dating is an extension of the same thing."
Wife-finding companies existed in Colonial America, and 100 years ago railroad companies published fliers with prospective mates for the lonely homesteader. The Internet is merely a new format, an urban tool gone country.
From the teenage surfer who goes by Lariet_Goddess to the 36-year-old mother who loves monster trucks, the Internet is full of single rural men and women who are searching for others with similar values, from similar backgrounds.
Small towns are on the decline, and the consensus is that the pool of prospectives gets smaller every year. In the country, faces get familiar fast.
In the earlier days of the personal computer, rural use lagged significantly behind urban. The gap is closing, according to a study published recently by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. About 43 percent of rural residents have access to the Internet, compared with 53 percent of city residents.
Mr. Billingham said it is impossible to estimate the numbers of rural singles who surf the Web for dates, but it is clear the phenomenon is widespread.
Every Internet service provider has numerous country-oriented chat rooms and clubs, and pay-per-use services abound. No one joins the sites unless they want to make contacts and establish relationships.
The Singles Press Association had 100 member magazines 10 years ago. This year it has 20. Janet Jacobsen, association president, has had her eyes on the singles sections in daily newspapers, and Ms. Jacobsen thinks they're getting smaller, too.
The business is heading to the Web, she says, adding, "One thing's sure, there aren't less single people."
Like Satterfield, Steve Husted, who ranches about six miles from Riverton, Wyo., bought a computer within the past year and cruises country singles sites for dates. It's calving season, and he checks on his cattle every two hours, day and night. When he comes in from the cold, he sits down at his computer to check his e-mail.
Mr. Husted was married until about three years ago. In a small town, gossip travels quickly and doesn't fade. Local baggage, like a divorce, stays with a person.
"You can think you're washed up at times. You think you're never going to get a date," Husted says.
Then Husted heard from friends about a singles service based in St. Ignatius, Mont., called Sweetheart Magazine. The business has publications in both the real world and in cyberspace.
He says he likes the online sites best. "It's easier to be yourself. You can kind of pour your heart out," he says.
Plus, the numbers look good to him. "You get on there and sometimes get 60 e-mails in a day. If I don't get any for a few hours, I'm like, Jiminy!"
He has gone on more dates in the past month than he went on in the previous year.
"I don't want to spend another winter alone," he says.
Neither does Satterfield. The two fit each other's descriptions of a good mate. Shortly after going online, Husted bought access to Satterfield's phone number. The two talked for several weeks before arranging a date.
The relocation issue is a sensitive one, but Satterfield says she is willing to move, as long as the move is to another rural area. Husted says that after calving season he would be more than willing to travel for a date; relocating would be harder.
Satterfield was surprised to find another woman on the plane on her way to meet a different Internet cowboy.
"I wasn't sure at first which one was mine," she says.
Husted and Satterfield enjoyed a quiet first date.
"There were some awkward moments," says Husted, who is a little embarrassed that his online excursions make him seem desperate. "To an certain extent, I guess I am," he says.
Sparks didn't fly.
"He's nice as pie," says Satterfield.
Both have moved on. Husted will soon have another guest. Satterfield is planning another plane ride for another date. She's still getting phone calls and e-mails.
Her recorded message ends with a thought for the week:
"If you think she's too much woman for you, you're probably right."
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society