I often think of myself as Bilbo Baggins from J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and Russellville as The Shire.
In Tolkien’s fantasy novel, the Shire represents home. It represents the way things should be — at least in Tolkien’s mind. Tolkien wasn’t the biggest fan of the industrial machine. He was against building a straighter road when a gravel one through the country did more good for the soul.
And so you have The Shire — a place where things change slowly, “if they ever change at all.” And you also have the orcs, who burn down trees and burn fires in furnaces to ignite the war machine.
It makes sense. Tolkien fought in World War 1. He saw exactly the kind of damage the wrong sort of industry could bring.
The Shire is a land of hobbits, untouched by the politics or struggles of the world. And yet, through his adventures and experiences with The One Ring, although he loves it very much, Bilbo finds he does not quite belong among the simple folk of The Shire. He adores the land, and he adores its people. And yet…he does not quite fit in.
”I want to see mountains again,” he tells his friend, the wizard Gandalf. And so often, I feel the same way. I love this place. And yet I wonder whether I truly belong here.
I’ve been running a lot lately on a strip of road near my house I’ve started calling “The L,” so named because it’s the L-shaped stretch of road around my neighborhood with the fewest hills.
It’s not much of a strip, so I end up running up and down this same patch of road over and over.
It’s the same thing every day. The routine. The same rugged asphalt thudding against my feet.
There’s a creek along the right and lefthand side filled with minnows and crawdads. Sometimes, you can see the gnarled shell of a snapping turtle darting through the water.
The trees overhead sway in the wind or and glimmer gold in the sunlight.
Neighbors wave. Cars give me a wide berth.
It’s the same, but I’m rooted here. Running. And running. And running.
Russellville isn’t as quaint as you might think. It’s no “Shire” by any true metric. Believe me, I know. I covered crime in the area for several years. Three days per week I sat in court and wrote about drug busts, murders and other unspeakable crimes that happened in our area.
But I still feel safe within its limits if for no other reason than it’s familiar. And I think that’s what Tolkien’s Shire is all about. Time and life may destine you to leave this place, to scale mountains and battle dragons, and your personal growth may depend on it, but Russellville is the good thing worth remembering. Places like this are what we fight for.
Blink and a place like Fayetteville or Conway will evolve around you. But Russellville? “The L” is the same as it was when I was 12. The roads connecting with it are the same, and the roads beyond that also seem untouched by time.
For me, Russellville is the place you can always return, and it’s always there, and it’s always comforting.
For me, it will always be, “There and Back Again.” l