“The middle of nowhere” is a loaded idiom. It’s a vague-yet-precise phrase that invokes a certain situation or location, which can be positive or negative depending on who says it. It offers up visions of amber waves and orange plateaus, of abandoned filling stations and faded glimpses of the past’s future. It is a place devoid of the decades of social construction required to populate a city with its traps and trappings.
The Middle of Nowhere lies squarely in the heart of America. Not geographically, though its geographic center (2 miles northwest of Lebanon, Kansas) may well qualify as such. No, the Middle of Nowhere is an idea deeply engrained in the American frontier psyche. From the times of pioneers in chuckwagons on through their great grandchildren in postwar automobiles getting their kicks on Route 66, we have been drawn toward faraway places and their implacable, fearsome beauty.
Recent times have marked a dramatic shift in our collective attitude toward B.F.E. We fear its lack of 4G LTE and Wi-Fi hotspots, we believe its few inhabitants to be uneducated and frightening, we think it involves hours of dreadful driving and no meaningful raison d’etre.
And yet, as the world races toward hyperconnectivity and density and automated everything, some people find the Middle of Nowhere to be more appealing than ever. I hear in its howling winds a siren song, see in its wide open spaces some reflection of reality that proves elusive elsewhere, feel my blood pressure plummet when I spy a gravel road and go careening down it toward the unknown and the certain solitude it promises.
There is another merit in these supposedly forsaken places. The problems you encounter out here are real in the best sense. Who wouldn’t prefer inclement weather to toll bills or mechanical troubles to waking up in civilization groggy, questioning the nature of existence and human consciousness? Theoretical quibbles dissolve once social media is inaccessible and the responsible parties are safely left whence they came. And it’s blessedly hard to get a parking ticket when nobody else wants your parking space.
The silence of the Kiawah Grasslands and the back country of the Rocky Mountains is as powerful metaphorically as it is literally. With shale underfoot and big skies ahead, loves spurned and principals violated are a million miles away. Hot transmission fluid on the hands is Holy Water in a time when most pain is of the theoretical variety, inflicted by petty humans and cyber strangers and overanalytical brains As the magnetism of Northern New Mexico’s plains pulled me towards a small herd of pronghorn antelope, it also seemed to draw out of me so many layers of confounded concerns. The stress of losing a few dollars donating discarded possessions instead of selling them, the Estimated Time of Arrival on Google Maps, the people who have inexplicably wronged me (and each other) along the way, the unbearable midnight dreams of being smashed into an embankment or hit by a car or shot by a rifle from far away all fizzled into the knee-high brush. There was no cell signal to power Spotify, nor any FM radio stations that my truck’s half-mast antenna could detect. With nothing but the whir of an ancient straight-six motor and Hank’s vigorous panting at the sight of cattle and antelope and a gusting breeze, I could hear myself not thinking. What a blissful sound that is.
People speak of the Middle of Nowhere fearfully. There’s nobody out there. What if you need help? They bemoan when other humans encroach on their sense of solitude in the Middle of Nowhere. I was on Shafter Trail in Moab, but so was everybody else today. Of course, “everybody else” means seeing five or six cars in the leading edge of the Grand Canyon over the course of a four hour drive. Neither assessment is wrong, though the Middle of Nowhere means something more nuanced than a simple lack of humanity. It is a changed relationship with the space-time continuum, a shift in priorities, a return to the elemental experience of simply being.
In 2017, it is astoundingly difficult to find oneself more than an hour’s walk away from cell service, and even in these places, there are a myriad of ways to prevent being truly lost. Most people compulsively check their phones dozens of times a day. We are so far removed from truly pressing issues that we gorge ourselves on the lives of others, as if our own are not intriguing and complex enough as-is. Reality television is the most popular form of entertainment, and with the advent of the internet, everyone has turned their lives into a curated highlight reel. This fogs our ability to think clearly. It skews our perception of ‘normalcy,’ should such a thing exist at all. It robs us of the profound enjoyment of the moments we’re in and the people we know, for there’s always a sense that something bigger and better is happening elsewhere, all because we saw it on the internet.
So, it was with some perverse pleasure that yesterday I mountain biked across the slickrock and high plains of Moab, Utah as the sun just began to peek above the horizon. I exchanged waves with one couple who was headed the opposite direction from me at the trailhead. And then I turned the lines I’d seen on a map into a form of hyper-reality, free from distraction or conscious thought. Remembering what the folks at the bike shop had told me the night before and soaking in the scenery were about my only concerns, and they were plenty for my mind at that early morning hour. The ride went gloriously, the second in a twelve hour span of bike rides with zero negative connotations—a true blessing after the last year. I returned to town to clean up and collect Hank, then pointed the truck straight into the canyon that, a few miles downriver, gains the name Grand; where roads give way to double track trails, which give way to suggestive tire tracks across an otherworldly expanse of red rocks and sand.
The scene was beyond description. Though I’ve visited Utah’s wild lands a few times before, I’d never dug deep into its canyons and hills by mountain bike or 4×4. The occasional passerby in a Jeep is met with a brief, knowing wave from the steering wheel, which is the highest form of camaraderie in these sacred places. More could be said about the divine fingerprints in Utah, though the scenery is but a supporting actor in the Middle of Nowhere, even if you think it’s what you’re there to see.
Shortly after climbing the entirety of the Shafer Trail (http://www.dangerousroads.org/north-america/usa/591-shafer-trail-road-usa.html) I disengaged 4WD and unlocked the front hubs for the first time in a solid three or four hours. I eased onto the highway only to be greeted with ferocious gear slippage and transfer case whine.