Where life clears its mind
In Los Angeles and every other city in the country and the world there's something more precious than oil, diamonds, silver, mineral rights, 70-plus virgins, a genie in a bottle, Picasso's paintings, Sinatra's voice, the ability to foretell the future and a gold brick; it's solitude.
You see, real solitude requires more than just being alone. You can feel alone at a Super Bowl, in an airport, at a crowded mall or bar, in the midst of rush hour traffic or with a Dallas Cowboy cheerleader on your lap, though the latter might be slightly more difficult. But a place that offers real solitude also offers replenishment and revitalization.
Solitude in a city is about as easy to find as a new car in Cuba, golfers in Antarctica, vegetables at McDonald's, terrorists in Tahiti and miniskirts in Iran. Whereas solitude in the Badlands, on the Great Plains or in the middle of the Mohave desert is as easy to find as Tiger Woods with a golf ball, Madonna without clothes, Hugh Hefner with Viagra, President Obama with the Secret Service, Steve Martin with a joke and Jeff Bridges with an Oscar.
I lived in Los Angeles for more than 20 years and during part of that time I also had an apartment in New York City, three blocks from the Empire State Building and a few more blocks from just about everything else, like Radio City Music Hall, the Rockefeller Center, the Trump Tower and a really good burger joint. There was an endless stream of sirens and car horns echoing through skyscraper canyons at all hours of the night, joined by a chorus of jack hammers and shouting street vendors during the day. Anyone who lives in New York City learns to filter it out or leave. But renewing themselves in the midst of the clamor requires a recipe that includes a sprinkle of solitude and dashes of revitalization and inspiration that aren't available on store shelves in the concrete jungle.
"Everybody needs places to play in and pray in, where nature may heal and give strength to body and soul," said John Muir, author and early advocate of preservation of the wilderness areas of the United States.
It wasn't long after I moved to Los Angeles that I knew I had to leave. Instead I stayed too long to sample the fun, food, money, excitement, Dodgers, Lakers, sunshine and valley girls, which eventually led to marriage and then a child for whom Los Angeles became home. You see, years stack quickly upon years, and before you know it there's a heap of 20 or more piled on top of each other like golden leaves under an aspen tree, each unique and memorable in it's own way but lacking in re-energizing solitude, and it wears on your mind, body and soul like a dull razor on a four-day-old beard.
"I've never learned anything all that significant in a crowd. I love to be with people, but solitude helps filter out the essentials and sift away the nonessentials," said Charles Swindell, evangelical Christian pastor, author, educator and radio preacher.
Fortunately, I did have roots in North Dakota to escape to from time to time, and rolling hills that I could walk, ride and drive through like my grandfathers did, where I could raise some dust and sort things out, though not nearly often enough. In addition, I traveled more for business than the Beatles did for music and rode in enough rodeos to pick up handfuls of concussions and broken bones, which ran me through the nooks and crannies of this country like 30-weight oil through a hemi engine.
Yet, countless millions who are stuffed into cities like bees in a hive, pizza in a box and donuts in a policeman's hungry mouth know nothing of the solitude that people on the Great Plains bathe in every day. And when they do visit or move to the area it takes years for reverse claustrophobia to dissipate to where the open spaces aren't too open, silence too silent and horizons too endless to savor.
"It's in solitude, where we are least alone," said George Gordon's Lord Byron in "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage."
So, let's be clear about this as we watch our small towns disappear and America urbanize: it's in the midst of solitude that life clears its mind.
-- Holten is the Dickinson State University Foundation communications coordinator.