Islands in America – seeking aloneness

Dirt road in eastern Colorado. Yep, lonely.

Americans are “the loneliest people on the face of the earth.” – James Michener

James Michener’s massive, sprawling historical novel Centennial devotes much of its attention to the lives and trials of men, women and families in Colorado from the 1700s to the 1970s — French fur trappers, Arapaho Indians, early settlers from the East, immigrations of Russians, Germans, Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans and others, all seeking to grab the gold ring of the American Dream. Central to that dream was cheap (or even free) land – 160 acres, 640 acres or more – whatever one could afford or manage for ranching or farming, knowing that such large tracts offered a singular, ironclad guarantee: isolation and loneliness.

In the final chapter of the book, around page 1000 or so, Michener dives eloquently into how and why this came to be in the West, and why it still is in much of this country today.

…there had been that ultimate in isolation, the snowbound mountain man passing the winters in some forgotten spot, allowing the drifts to cover him during the silent months, reading nothing, conversing not even with animals… This was a form of exile difficult to comprehend, but there were always men who sought it…

When the west was opened, people did not live in communities. One ranch was thirty miles from the next, During the period of Indian raids no one gave the remote settler hell for trying to make it alone. He was cheered for being brave enough to face the Indians on his own.

Abandoned homestead, central So. Dakota

Without saying it directly, Michener is talking mostly about Anglo people, generally of European descent, and mostly men in particular. He continues, lapsing from the past into the present tense:

As a consequence of this, Americans became the loneliest people on the face of the earth. We’re even lonelier than the Eskimos, who live in close units. We’re much lonelier than the Mexicans, who occupy the same land to the south for Mexicans retain the extended family in which people of all ages live together in reasonable harmony.

Old abandoned “soddy” on the prairie, eastern New Mexico

The terrible price of loneliness

Likewise Native Americans of the West, Asian immigrants, and other ethnic pockets where communities formed for the sake of being a community. But not so the average white person of the West, especially of centuries past:

One courageous man building a solitary log cabin and calling it home. Any self-respecting family must live apart, by itself, in its own little cabin, and any unfortunate who failed to achieve this alone-ness was either pitied or ridiculed…

There were compensations: living alone meant that men had to be more ingenious, which led to inventiveness. Old patterns had to be surrendered so revolutionary new ones could be more easily accepted, Forward-seeking led to the development of the brash, resolute, outgoing man. The world needed him, but he evolved at a terrible price in loneliness.

Centennial has accounts of more than one person going mad from loneliness and isolation, with horrifyingly tragic consequences… being on your own in the West wasn’t for rookies or the faint of mind.

It goes on: Those were the patterns of our past, and for Michener they persist to this day, in slightly altered forms:

… Some of the loneliest men … were the heads of corporations, trusting no one, confiding in no one, living out their lives in quiet despair… each wealthy man immured within his own castle.

If a man was inwardly afraid of loneliness, he had small chance of adjusting to the terrible isolation… A predisposition for living alone became almost a requirement for survival in America, and even now… the world held few places so lonely as the average American city.

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When we were looking for land in this area some seven years ago, we heard of the parcel we’re now on. A tidy 1.3 acres on a back cove of the Weskeag River. The realtor told us, “You’re not alone. You do have neighbors.” My wife and I agreed that this was a good thing, a neighborhood that had a sense of community. Others come to Maine (and elsewhere in rural New England) for the other reason – to test their alone-ness, to thrive and revel in isolation. We did not want that.

But many people still hearken after that romantic ideal of a mostly empty nation beckoning people of grit and frontier fiber who seek what most other cultures in the world long ago abandoned: the glory of a lonely struggle against adversity, triumph over it, the glory of being on your own. Having seen huge swaths of the rural west and Great Plains over the decades, with crumbling “soddy” houses and shacks half-blown apart on the prairie, I can no longer think that that “lonely struggle” is worth more than an idle daydream. But then I did take the photos in this post, and that says something — that at least I admire the courage it takes to live this way.

It also says something that out of a thousand pages I’ve read in Centennial I dog-eared only the page from which I’ve taken these excerpts.

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Everyone has different tolerances for being by themselves. It’s a lot easier if you find yourself amusing or interesting, and don’t need to explain what you’re thinking to others who may not understand. I write and make up crossword puzzles, so I’m used to working and thinking alone. But I also enjoy sharing with my wife – who also writes and thinks for a living – what we’ve both done or thought during the day. Good to have it both ways.

I wish you just the right amount of “me” time – no more, no less.

My books here:

Ned White

About Ned White

Ned White is a writer, novelist, crossword puzzle constructor, humorist, traveler through 49 states, and at times a danger in the kitchen. He lives with his wife in South Thomaston.