The Meaning of Loneliness and The American Dream

Chad W. Lutz
It’s been decades since Mid-westerners have known what it truly means to be alone and in isolation. Electric lights, telephones, motor vehicles, the Internet; inventions that have bridged the gap between the most remote neighbors now make it almost impossible to find yourself any further than 100 miles from the nearest person, and those places being in the least populated states in the Union. We’re overlapping and spilling over onto one another. Even in the campground I’m currently sitting most of the tent sites are filled, and the sound of cars from the main roads can be heard even over the calls of the geese as they flock together for the evening.

The thought occurs to me: What affect does this have on the general population? The bats buzzing overhead don’t seem to care, nor do the bullfrogs croaking in the nearby pond, but what about the people in the site over? What about the drivers on the road? Do they know that a mere 100 yards down a dirt road they can barely see from the drag sit about a dozen and a half tents filled with families settling in after long days of fishing and friends ready to toast beers over raging campfires?

I live in a city of nearly 34,000 people. To our north borders a city of 22,000, and to our south sits a city of roughly 49,000. The main metropolitan anchor for the county, a city of around 199,000, resides just south of that. Somehow nestled within this same area is a 33,000sqmi national park. My community also calls home to several municipally operated parks; some only turnoffs for the bike path that runs northwest to southeast across the county, while others are what most would could consider traditional, with hiking trails, picnic tables, gazebos, and pavilions available for parties.
The particular park I’m camping at is owned by the city and features seven baseball diamonds and a campground on one half and a playground, pavilions, a dog park surrounding a lake, and soccer fields on the other. If I had to guess, I’d say the park encompasses no more than 20sqmi, but one can still get a sense of removal from society given the right time a day.

And yet, it is never really a true sense of isolation. The surrounding areas call home to over 700,000 people, and just thirty-five miles north sits a major metropolitan statistical area ranking in the top twenty (16th) nationwide and boasting over 3.5 million people. With the exception of the national park spanning the length of the county, human beings dominate the landscape.

Massive innovations in medicine, immigration, boredom, and other circumstances that spur population booms are of no shortage these days, and medicine will only get better. The U.S. population in 1960 sat at a modest 180 million and now tops 316 million. In fifty-five years we’ve nearly doubled what took this country’s entire existence up to this point to accrue. Nowadays we have to border off and legally allocate specific areas of land to ensure that expanses of the original wildernesses that characterized this country remain intact for future generations. We re-purpose abandoned and dilapidated buildings into things like playgrounds and community gardens and outdoor markets as part of major gentrification projects. We look at the old and think how we can make it new. And thank God we do. If cloning ever becomes a real viable thing on a mass scale, I really hope that someone bottled the brilliant foresight of Teddy Roosevelt because that shit is gold. But regardless, we're overlapping and running out of room, and no matter how many rivers and streams we fence, the fact remains there are more and more and more of us than at any other time in our country's history.

A 2012 figure based on vehicle registration suggests there are more than 250 million automobiles in the United States. Compared to the U.S. population in 1960, there are 70 million more cars on the road today than there were people alive back then, which coincidentally happens to equal the total population of automobiles in operation and registered at the time. We're not even talking about the portion of the population legally allowed to drive; we're talking every single individual alive and breathing. Even if we were to focus solely on the number of registered and licensed citizens legally able to drive, we still have a surplus of 38 million cars in the country. To put that in perspective, that is almost four times the population of the State of Ohio, or the entire Californian population. So, not only are there are a lot of us, but we're mobile, which means the odds of running into someone else are even greater than ever before.
Scenes like this are becoming common in America, as cars now outnumber registered owners. (www.yvarbelotte.com)
The parks systems in this country create awesome opportunities for Americans, Mid-westerners in particular, to reconnect with their native lands; native a loose term here, seeing as how anyone from a British or Scandinavian or German or Polish or Hungarian or (you get the picture) background could ever be rightly referred to as “native” in relation to North America, let alone the U.S. But parks offer those interested, and even those coerced into family outings, the ability to rekindle the spirit felt by the early settlers of these lands, and possibly even of the true natives themselves. We can camp, we can hike, we can canoe and fish. Ornithologists can bird watch, while horticulturalists can count the numbers of native and invasive species in the forests.

But do they count themselves?

The stars have just come out and the bats that were chasing the twilight earlier have found their homes again for the evening. The tent sites at this small campground are now mostly huddled around modest fires. Kids play flashlight tag and their parents tell stories and reminisce of their youth. A group of twenty-somethings has been keeping tabs on the crowd to see when they can get away with lighting their first joint. Meanwhile, a man in isolation, or at least attempting isolation, hacks away at a keyboard surrounded by the melodies of the night and absorbing their rhythms as the darkness draws over suburbia.

In the summer of 2013, when I was twenty-seven, I took a week-long trip to the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in southeastern Tennessee. My original hope was to find adventure and come away with some great stories to tell great nephews and nieces in the future. I was single and working full-time. Most of my friends were still working part-time, which they tell me makes it much harder to call off; especially since most of the time you’re still on-call. So, I went alone. I figured if the pioneers could do it, why couldn’t I? They didn’t even have AAA, let alone paved roads to wheel their wagons down. The trip ended up reminding me that there are still parts of America that you can wander and find yourself as alone as maybe the settlers felt, if only for quarter-mile stretches at a time. I spent a lot of my time down there cornered by the rain in a tent reading local folklore and watching scary movies about getting stranded in the wilderness, the latter of which I mildly regret, but only mildly.

Last October, I visited the Grand Canyon with my girlfriend and her father. It was my third time visiting the Southwestern U.S. landmark, but my first in ten years. Not much has changed. The rocks are still indifferent to the progress of humankind and stand in defiance to the urbanization of once small trading-post towns like Flagstaff, Scottsdale, and Sedona. But we were away from all of that in the national park. I had the unique opportunity to hike from the South Rim to the North Rim during my trip. The journey took about seventeen hours. At times, the three of us were the only people around for what felt like miles and miles. As day gave way to night, the moon was so bright and unobstructed by city lights that you could walk the trails without using a headlamp. In all actuality, the trek only took thirty-one miles (I say only…), but there were times when we would walk for an hour or two and never come upon another human being. During those times, the natural landscapes held our attentions, much like I’d imagine they held the attentions of the early pioneers. I think my trips to the Grand Canyon and certain instances during my trip to Tennessee, notably my day-hike along the Appalachian Trail, are the only times in my entire life that I’ve ever truly felt isolated or at the mercy of the environment.

Maybe it's just me, but I feel like sometimes you just gotta get drunk and watch the bats dart at the twilight every now and again; howl at the moon bare-chested or retreat into the wilderness for hours on end only to come out bloodied, sweaty, and muddied to really appreciate all this country have to offer. Every now and again, I think human beings should find themselves miles from the chaotic mess that is society; to walk on the wild side; to dash daringly up to what Hunter S. Thompson referred to as The Edge and peer over into the abyss, and perhaps  even let fly a few choice obscenities. Sure, Google can tell you there’s a great diner just up ahead in the road, or that the local grocery store is open 24 hours, but can it solve how you're going to get down a mountain face without getting struck by lightning in a thunderstorm? Can it light a fire in Gail-force winds? Until they come up with avatar technology, I’d say it’s safe to assume no.

It’s good for the soul. Put yourself out there. Properly lace yourself on the fray. Even if it’s just a night’s stay at a local campground surrounded by one of the country’s largest megalopolises, then so be it. Midwest America will never be what it once was in terms of a true frontier, no matter how much Jack Kerouac and the other beatniks fought to preserve that aspect of society. But what it does have still is just as remarkable as what it held in the times of the early settlers. You just have to know where to look and how to escape.
No Sympathy for Google…