Unfolding the Map
We travel the unending lonely miles with William Least Heat-Moon (LHM). His narrative self doesn't necessarily know we are riding along with him in Ghost Dancing, but as we see him tackle the vastness of Texas we reflect upon loneliness. Click on the map thumbnail to see where Mason, Texas sits on our journey.
"The land was fenceposts and scrubby plants and not many of those. It was the country of the San Saba River, a route of deserted stone cavalry forts built six generations ago to control the "Indian trouble." In 1861, the post at Mason was under the direction of a lieutenant-colonel suddenly called to Washington by President Lincoln and offered field command of forces being readied for a civil war. The officer declined, and Fort Mason became his last U.S. Army duty. Robert E. Lee never forgot the isolated place."
Blue Highways: Part 4, Chapter 7
When you are out in the middle of nowhere, life takes on a new meaning. I think that if you're a person like Robert E. Lee, in the years before the Civil War when Texas was a newly acquired state and you are commanding an isolated fort somewhere in the middle of nowhere to protect against Indians, your perspectives would have to change. You would struggle with loneliness, especially in the days where "texting" meant a letter that would take weeks, if not months, to reach you by wagon train, and your reply would take just as long in return, and only if Indians or some disaster didn't intercept your correspondence and leave it forgotten and rotting by the side of the trail. I wonder if it changed Lee? He was a brilliant soldier and commander, but he was a reluctant warrior. He was not eager for the nation to split, he was not eager to join the Confederate Armies but did so out of a commitment to his home state of Virginia. He opposed Virigina's secession, saying that no greater calamity could occur than the dissolution of the Union. I like to think that his experience in the vastness of Texas did have some impact on Robert E. Lee, especially as LHM says he never forgot Fort Mason. I wonder if, under the unending sky, surrounded by Texas hill country giving way to the endless and vast horizon, and hearing the coyotes yip and just maybe a lone wolf howl, he felt his insignificance arrayed against forces much bigger than him, and realized that we humans and our petty concerns are really nothing more than emotional winds blowing on a speck of dust somewhere in the vastness of the cosmos.
I've never had to put that theory to the test. I've never lived in an isolated fort, though some might say my hometown of Fort Bragg was somewhat isolated. I have sometimes felt like I was living in isolation. My recent sojourn in Lubbock, Texas, where I lived for a year from 2008-2009, gave me some sense of isolation. It wasn't that I was alone on the prairie. In fact, I was in a city of some 200,000 people. However, I felt isolated. All my friends were many miles away, my wife was in a city some 5½ hours distant, and I didn't really know anybody. As far as my mind was concerned, I might as well have been on my own in the middle of nothingness.
In thinking what Fort Mason might have been like for Robert E. Lee, I am drawn to my only experience at a place like it - a day visit to Fort Craig in New Mexico. It was an isolated fort on the banks of the Rio Grande south of present day Socorro, and the descriptions of camp life in that arid, dusty, windswept region make it seem like the garrison was at the end of the known world. In between chasing Indian raiding parties and a battle engagement with Confederate forces in the Civil War, the soldiers at the fort would have endured long times of boredom with only the camp duties to keep them occupied. At the time, there were few settlements in the area, so even companionship of friendly or romantic varieties would have been limited. As I stood in the middle of the remaining foundations and the crumbling walls of the fort on a very hot summer day, I could hear the wind blowing through the desert grasses and I thought that it would be very lonely indeed for a soldier to realize, if he thought of it much, that the only thing separating him from unending silence was the human activity at the camp.
LHM, in a way, is traveling through a representation of his own inner desert, made barren by the difficult experience of the dissolution of his romantic relationship and other life troubles. As he begins to drive through vast, lonely Texas expanses, he has to confront himself and understand what it is to be his own companion. He occasionally is relieved of this loneliness - in this chapter he spends a good part of the drive with a hitcher name Porfirio Sanchez. But eventually Sanchez will get out of the van and take his own road and LHM will be forced to drive hours with only himself as his companion, confronting the harsh and rugged landscape of his own loneliness and loss.
We really don't need to go find the end of the world to see how close we are to loneliness and emptiness. We don't need to buy a van and drive around the country unless we really want to live a lonely experience that way. We simply need to move forward in our lives and realize that sometimes, our lives' roads will take us through amazing vistas, and sometimes, we will be led through dark lonely valleys. We might experience our loneliness in within the teeming masses, or feel connected with everyone and everything around us in the middle of an uninhabited jungle or a barren desert. In the end, we will experience whatever we are led into, and we will be better for it.
A song by Asleep at the Wheel, a Texas band that has made two sets of very highly regarded homage recordings to Bob Wills and his Texas Playboys, really captures the loneliness of the west, from the perspective of a cowboy driving cattle. Enjoy Dusty Skies.
If you want to know more about Mason
Next up: Grit, Texas