Unfolding the Map
We cross out of California and into another state, our eighteenth if you're keeping track. I revisit an old theme about state of mind, particularly the state of being alone. Go to the map to see where we are, and enjoy some alone time reading this post!
"...then crossed into Oregon, where the Cascades to the west blocked a froth of storm clouds; but for the mountains, I would have been in rain again. A town of only fifteen thousand somehow spread across the entire bottom of a long valley; when I saw the reach of Klamath Falls, I kept going."
Blue Highways: Part 6, Chapter 1
Klamath Falls, Oregon
There is something very poignant when LHM sees the lights of a small city in Oregon and decides to keep going. In the long, lonely drive across America that he has completed so far, where he has spent time mostly with himself in Ghost Dancing, I can imagine being a little shy of people. After all, being alone is not a bad thing. Alone time, especially for certain people (and I count myself one of them) is a way to recharge one's mental and emotional batteries. For introverts, just being around a lot of people and activity is work. It takes emotional energy that can be draining. Those with the extraversion trait seem to get their energy around other people, and find being alone difficult.
I'm not sure what LHM is like in real life. Perhaps he is an extravert, and therefore given the circumstance of losing his job and losing his romantic partner, he is in a time where he is simply more inclined to be by himself. Or perhaps he is an introvert, and this is his way of recharging and healing.
As an introvert, I have been thinking about these types of questions. I am married to an extravert. My wife enjoys people and putting herself into the thick society and all its events. For many, many years I thought that my duty as a husband was to go along, even when I didn't feel like it. As a result, I found myself getting more unhappy and irritable. We began to fight more at events as she mingled and I, tired and not happy about being there, seethed in the corner. It became assumed that I would go to every event and happening, and I bought into the assumptions.
I also snatched at any time alone. Hiking, driving long distances, even my year-long stint as a visiting professor in Lubbock where I lived alone during the week and then commuted back to my wife in Albuquerque on weekends, were like little oases of sanity to me. I found myself happier after getting some time to be alone, to be with myself.
Being alone isn't all wonderful. I must say that I have a very love-hate relationship with being alone. One thing about being alone is that eventually it makes you reflect on your life, and makes you confront your own inner demons. I have a few of them, some due to family circumstances in my youth I couldn't control, some due to my own choices and mostly from a negative self-image. As an introvert, this was difficult because it forced me, even though I had fears of being alone, into social situations that in high doses was difficult for me to maintain. In other words, I had to go to events and activities to stay away from self-loathing thoughts, yet doing too many of those was not the answer for me.
Thankfully, I'm getting past this. A commitment to a new form of therapy, somatic transformation therapy, has helped. I am also making a commitment to say what I want and need, especially my need to take time for myself. This includes allowing myself to be alone. The demons? They're still around but save for a couple that pop up regularly, their voices are getting more muted and I can ignore them better than before. In fact, doing these little essays around Blue Highways has been part of that process.
I want to make a distinction between being alone and being lonely. Being alone is a choice that one can make. LHM chooses to remove himself from his circle in Missouri to travel alone around the country. People can choose remove themselves for a while from the society of people. However, loneliness is not a choice, it is a feeling. One can be lonely even in the midst a crowd. I've felt loneliness as well, and it's never a good feeling. Loneliness is a lack of connection with others, and not necessarily by conscious choice. While we all feel lonely sometimes, a persistent and chronic feeling of loneliness can lead to self-destructive thoughts and behaviors. I'm never happy when I'm feeling lonely, whereas it is possible for me to be happy when alone.
I worry, however, about our ability to get away and be alone. I think that one can become too engaged. We may be social animals, but we also need time to ourselves, just like we need to sleep and dream. Being by ourselves allows us to reflect upon our lives and what's important, and make the adjustments in our attitudes that we need to navigate a life that often throws us surprises. In a world with a growing population, where more people are moving to cities and people are becoming more and more engaged socially via computers and communication, can we ever truly be alone again? I walk around with my smart phone, which is always connected to the internet, and I am always within beck and call of someone. It's becoming harder and harder to disconnect, and harder to find places where one can be truly alone for any length of time. As more people seek ways to get away, national and state parks and campgrounds are becoming utilized by growing numbers of people. Even going for a long drive to get away is getting more difficult, as our roads become more and more crowded. Places that 20 to 30 years ago hardly had any cars now suffer traffic jams.
It's only going to get worse with population growth and as people crowd together in cities by choice or by necessity. Hopefully, it won't result in a dysfunctional and dystopian society (though some may argue that we are at that point already). I would like to think that as we become more crowded together, people might actually begin to appreciate their time in solitude. I hope that such appreciation becomes a means of valuing society, not turning away from it. Personally, when I flee the lights, I want my flight to be temporary, so that I can come back to society putting a greater value on myself and on others.
This song, from the Stephen Sondheim musical Into the Woods, is ultimately about being alone, loneliness, and the companions we sometimes don't realize we have. The song often brings a tear to my eye when I hear it, and this is an especially poignant version sung by the incomparable Bernadette Peters.
If you want to know more about Klamath Falls
Next up: Fort Klamath, Oregon