Unfolding the Map
I once saw a "Demotivators" poster that had a picture of an isolated tree on an icy landscape. The caption read "Just when you think you are not alone, you are alone. So very alone." In the middle of the vast desolation of the Nevada desert, one can be forgiven for feeling that way if they have to stop. It just depends on our relationship with solitude and loneliness. William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) stops in Frenchman, Nevada and we consider what being alone in such a place might mean. Click on the thumbnail of the map at right to virtually share this space with us.
"Frenchman, Nevada, population four, sat on the edge of a U.S. Navy bombing range. A if that weren't enough, it was also on a fault zone that still wobbled the seismographic instruments around.
"Frenchman appeared on my map as a town, and, in the desert, it probably was a town, consisting as it did of a cafe-bar-filling station, four-unit motel, trailer, and water tower all huddled on an expanse of dry lakebed mudflats cracked into a crazed jigsaw puzzle of alkali hardpan. In a state abounding with uninhabitable places, Frenchman excelled. Without vegetation, suffering from unrelenting wind and extremes of temperature, no source of food or supplies closer than thirty-six miles, no medical care other than Band-Aids and Mercurochrome, frequently rattled by bombs and earthquakes, Frenchman somehow survived on a single source of income: highway travelers."
Blue Highways: Part 5, Chapter 9
I can't imagine living in the middle of the Nevada desert, in a town the population of four. I'm a small-town boy, from a town of around 5,000 when I was growing up there, and over my lifetime I've had to come to grips with living in cities. Even now, there are things that I will never get accustomed to living in populated areas. Like ground light blocking out the stars. When I grew up, the stars were prominent and brilliant when there was no cloud cover. I should have paid more attention when I was a kid, but I didn't know that one day, I would live in a places where, because of ground light, the number of visible stars would be severely reduced.
I'll also never become quite accustomed to the ever-present sounds of human activity in a city. At night, things get more quiet but never silent. There is always traffic on the main arterial street a couple of blocks away. There is always the distant hum of the freeway. In the early morning, the airport wakes up and military and civilian plane, helicopter and jet engines rev up. Of course, during the day, the activity ratchets up to a background hum that is constantly present.
In cities, people also contribute to the lack of quiet. During the day, there are people everywhere moving and doing. Noise accompanies their activities, whether it's building or refurbishing houses, firing up the old truck to work on the engine, driving by, talking to a neighbor, talking on a cell phone, talking to a dog, talking talking talking... At night, though the hubbub dies down some, there is still noise. The low murmur punctuated by laughter at a neighbor's party. A dog that barks at a cat which then causes the other dogs of the neighborhood to rise up in a canine racket. Late at night, gunshots that ring out in rapid succession a couple of miles away.
In other words, the city concentrates the human drama in one metropolitan setting. Sub-dramas take place neighborhood by neighborhood, house by house, each chronicling happiness, joy, ecstasy, fear, pain, sorrow, tragedy. In other word, the human condition on a grand scale.
Now, imagine that you are in a community of four people out in the middle of nowhere. Of course, you will be able to see stars because there is no ground light to interfere with your enjoyment of the celestial tapestry. The sounds of human activity will be limited to the people who are there. In that case, it's only four people, so the sounds will be less common, and on that day or evening you want to get away, you can just walk a while and you'll be surrounded with silence that is perhaps broken only by yourself, or the breeze or perhaps a small animal.
And that's the other side of the coin. For all of those things, you give up human community. You give up knowing what other people think about this or that, or how they spent their day, or what they want or desire out of life. Myself, while I like to be alone, I would think that such an existence would not only entail being alone but also leave one lonely. Being alone is something everyone wants once in a while. It is the physical reality of being by oneself. Loneliness is much more of an emotional state. It is feeling disconnected from others, even if one is near or among people. The two states are linked. If one is alone, one can always find others if one wants. If one is alone for too long, however, it can lead to loneliness.
Think about it for just a minute. Think about being under the vast sky, in the midst of the vast earth. You feel like the only person for miles. For a while, that might be desired. You are not surrounded by the busy-ness of everyday human life. But after some time, you might want to find a person, someone to talk with. The sky and the wind and meager plants and the occasional animals are fine companions, but they cannot offer advice or opinion or just friendly voice. People are social. We need other people, even if it is for short bursts of time.
I don't know how the people of Frenchman, Nevada battle loneliness, unless they snatch what they need from the occasional passing cars on Highway 50. It still seems like a pretty lonely existence to me. Or maybe, the sounds of military aircraft utilizing the bombing range remind them that they are still a part of a human community, even if they are just a remote outpost on the edge of the human existence. When I passed through that area in 2010, the immensity of the landscape and the realization that I was just a blot on something much bigger and larger than me was humbling. I was, at the time, in a lonely place in my heart, even with my wife by my side. Spending too much time in the Nevada desert would probably not have helped me, and may have exacerbated my loneliness. I breathed a little easier when we hit larger towns and other signs of human habitation.
Perhaps I should idolize the people of Frenchman that LHM describes and interviews in Blue Highways, and others who live like them. Much of my latest work to better myself has been to learn how to live without the clutter and the detritus that separates me from those parts of my psyche that make me uncomfortable, that are scary, and that are hard to face. If the people of Frenchman have learned to live alone, and still be comfortable in their solitude and not succumb to loneliness, perhaps they can be a model for me. Perhaps they are like the ascetic desert monks, or those hermits of all cultures who separate themselves from people yet hold keys of wisdom for all. Perhaps they can point me toward a place where I can be engaged with the world around me without running from the person within me.
I am not a person who knows a lot about John Lennon's music, partly because I came into my musical own during the late 70s and hadn't had the exposure to The Beatles because I had to figure out my own musical tastes. Now that I'm older and can go back to what I've missed, I have become more appreciative of the music of Lennon. Isolation fits the mood of this post, especially its counterpoint of being alone in a world that is "a little town."
If you want to know more about Frenchman
There's really nothing about Frenchman. I've seen a website that says that Frenchman is not a town anymore, but has been designated a site.
Here's a kitchsy thing that was, until December of 2010, near Frenchman that I missed and dearly wished I'd seen, the Tree of Shoes. But now, it's gone too.
Next up: Sand Mountain, Nevada