Unfolding the Map
The immense sky, the land that meets it in an unending horizon that extends in a circle around us as far as we can see. It's hard not go get lost in the immensity. As William Least Heat-Moon (LHM) muses on his smallness, we muse with him. To locate yourself, click here for the map!
"I needed a hot shower. In Rolla, on the edge of the Turtle Mountain reservation, I stopped at an old house rebuilt into a small hotel. Despite a snarl of a clerk, it looked pleasant; but the floors smelled of disinfectant and the shower was a rusting box at the end of the hall. The nozzle sent one stinging jet of water into my eye, another up my nose, two others over the shower curtain, while most of the water washed down the side to stand icily in the plugged bottom. I lost my temper and banged the shower head. The Neanderthal remedy.
"In a hotel room at the geographical center of North America, a neon sign blinking red through the cold curtains, I lay quietly like a small idea in a vacant mind."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 7
Rolla, North Dakota
In the quote above about Rolla, North Dakota, I really like the imagery of LHM lying "like a small idea in a vacant mind."
I like the imagery because sometimes it fits in with my idea of the universe and the place I hold within it. In fact, this image is the direct result of what LHM is thinking as he drives through the immense flatness of North Dakota on his way to Rolla. You'll notice, if you look at the map, that whereas most of our stops have been very bunched up, this stop is a long way from the last one. Here is what LHM has to say during that long drive from Fortuna to Rolla:
"After a while, I found my perception limited. The Great Plains, showing so many miles in an immodest exposure of itself, wearied my eyes; the openness was overdrawn....
"You'd think anything giving variety to this near blankness would be prized, yet when a Pleistocene pond got in the way, the road cut right through it, never yielding its straightness to nature. If you fired a rifle down the highway, a mile or so east you'd find the spent slug in the middle of the blacktop.
"Here the earth, as if to prove its immensity, empties itself. Gertrude Stein said: 'In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is.' the uncluttered stretches of the American West and the deserted miles of road force a lone traveler to pay attention to them by leaving him isolated in them. This squander of land substitutes a sense of self with a sense of place by giving him days of himself until, tiring of his own small compass, he looks for relief to the bigness outside - a grandness that demands attention not just for its scope, but for its age, its diversity, its continual change. The isolating immensity reveals what lies covered in places noiser, busier, more filled up. For me, what I saw revealed was this (only this): a man nearly desperate because his significance had come to lie within his own narrow gambit."
Blue Highways: Part 7, Chapter 7
The reason I'm quoting so liberally from Blue Highways is that these quotes reveal what happens when we start thinking of our place in the vast scale of time and place. We are really nothing more than motes in time, hardly even specks in space. For most of us, we will live our lives and pass on with hardly a ripple to mark our passage. Even those of us who seem to make a big impact on Earth will in the immensity of time and space won't register beyond our own little tiny dust mote of a planet. When you consider things in that context, is it no wonder that LHM temporarily sees himself as "a small idea in a vacant mind?"
There are times when my mind wanders in these realms of thought. However, I find my insignificance in the cosmos and through the eons as strangely comforting. There are times when I wonder if scale doesn't really matter. I look at speck of sand, like Horton peered at the dust, and wonder if there are worlds that I can't see or fathom on that speck. I am struck how electrons orbit atoms much as our earth orbits the sun, and the sun orbits the black hole at the center of our galaxy. I wonder if, when we peer into these atomic levels, if we are really peering into universes where some type of life, so tiny that there is no way to perceive it, is building a civilization and contemplating travel to a neighboring atom.
I read a story once that ended with an archeologist, trying to decipher the symbols of an ancient culture, finds a carved image of what appeared to be a god, but which he discovers that instead is a being staring at some sand and realizes that in the level of universes, we could be simply on a speck of sand in some even greater universe and space where someone is peering down at us and wondering if our universe exists.
It's easy to get lost in this - it's not easy to write about because one can go around and around in circles. It is also easy to lose ones sense of one's own significance, just like LHM. But here's why I am comforted. LHM might feel like a small thought...but he is the center of his own universe and as he stares at a hotel ceiling, he is in the geographic center of North America (actually he's about 74 miles away, according to current calculations), which might be in the center of the whole universe as far as we know. In the grand scheme of things, does it matter if I make immense waves in time and space? If I'm significant to those around me, and hopefully my energy that transfers to them is positive energy and therefore my significance to them is positive also, then what does it matter? In my own universe, my perception of myself is that I can be a giant, hopefully a humble and well-meaning giant, but a giant nonetheless. It starts with my own awareness of self, which encompasses my thoughts and my senses. It has effects in my immediate vicinity, and as my field of vision decreases, my effects diminish until they disperse into the random noise created by all the rest of life on Earth. In other words, I carry my significance with me wherever I go, and even if I am in a place that seems so vast that I lose sense myself, all I have to do is stop, bend down and move some dirt, throw a stone, yell and watch my voice startle some birds before it fades into nothing, smile and say hello to a person and watch them react, or any other active thing that I do. I may be a small thought in the vastness of the universe's vacant mind, but I fill up the space right around me and, in that space, I'm a force that cannot be ignored.
I wanted to find a song that captured something of the immensity of the Great Plains that LHM is rolling through in the book. But I really couldn't find anything that fit the Great Plains, in my mind, that was actually about the Great Plains. But I remembered this song that my sister introduced to me to, Station by Call and Response. For some reason, this song always was a favorite and just seemed to fit when it came up on my IPod shuffle as I drove across the vast spaces of New Mexico.
If you want to know more about Rolla
Next up: Langdon, North Dakota