Ghosts in the wild

The cult of the Amer­i­can cow­boy amid echoes of empti­ness

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Holiday Reading Special - A A GILL

AL­MOST as soon as the [Amer­i­can] west was broached, there were calls for tranches and ranges of its pris­tine hori­zon to be pro­tected; re­minders of that great, God­given oth­er­ness; that for ev­ery hectare that was built and tilled, a hectare of wilder­ness was buried and lost.

And there is some­thing else that is a whis­pered leit­mo­tif that sighs through Amer­i­can life. It is the keen­ing of lone­li­ness, the ghosts in the wild. The first sto­ries of Euro­peans mov­ing west are of the empti­ness of the land. When­ever I read the mem­oirs of the trap­pers, who worked from Louisiana to the Hud­son Bay and some­times spent years ex­plor­ing the trib­u­taries and streams of the un­mapped high coun­try, I can never over­come the ter­ror of be­ing alone in that vast­ness.

Then there are des­per­ate let­ters and di­aries from the first fam­i­lies who farmed the Great Plains of Ne­braska and the Dako­tas, Min­nesota and Wis­con­sin, par­tic­u­larly from the women. The creak­ing wind, the whis­per­ing empti­ness, the un­end­ing toil, punc­tured by set­backs and oc­ca­sional small tri­umphs. Many of them were Ger­man or Scan­di­na­vian, peo­ple who had come from tight, sup­port­ive lit­tle com­mu­ni­ties; the sad­ness of miss­ing, the warm pity of home­sick­ness, the truth of be­ing tiny and alone, was ac­tu­ally of­ten mad­den­ing.

Sui­cides were not rare, and to an­swer the empti­ness Amer­ica cre­ated a ver­nac­u­lar to cel­e­brate it, a lonely char­ac­ter and a form that was the em­bod­i­ment of the tri­umph of the soli­tary — the cow­boy.

Cow­boy films are built out of lone­li­ness. The over­com­ing of it, the ac­cep­tance, the sin­gle, defin­ing riff of a man of few words. One of the most de­spair­ing im­ages in all cin­ema must be the fi­nal shot of Shane, when a small boy, whose fa­ther is dead, shouts af­ter the only man who is left in his life, the only man he loves: ‘‘Shane! Shane! Come back!’’

The man is con­demned to be a wan­der­ing hero. His at­tempt to graft on to a fam­ily, to be part of it, is thwarted by his in­abil­ity to over­come his own na­ture and call­ing. He rides away into the in­fi­nite, dis­in­ter­ested land.

The jaunty, whis­tled sad­ness of rid­ing into the sun­set, the lonely, ever-af­ter end­ing of clas­sic west­erns, haunted my child­hood. Not only were cow­boy films soli­tary, they also ex­tolled the virtue of peo­ple who are bad com­pany; who can’t or won’t make con­ver­sa­tion. Cow­boy films are al­ways au­then­ti­cally, ex­plic­itly mo­ral, and rig­or­ous in the ac­count­ing of ac­tions and con­se­quences. French in­tel­lec­tu­als may take the soli­tary cow­boy as an ex­is­ten­tial para­ble, but there’s noth­ing philo­soph­i­cal about them at home in Amer­ica. Here, the cow­boy is a prac­ti­cal role model, a man who copes with the vast alone.

The New World con­stantly refers back to and touches its lone­li­ness. It’s the back beat of coun­try mu­sic, in Ed­ward Hop­per’s pic­tures, Ansel Adams’s pho­to­graphs, the con­stant si­lence and re­flec­tions of Amer­i­can fic­tion, all in a way that is quite alien to Euro­pean — and in par­tic­u­lar, English — writ­ing, which al­ways seems so crowded, re­plete with char­ac­ter. To drive from coast to coast, to tra­verse the great heart­land is not some­thing you should un­der­take if you’re feel­ing in­se­cure or unloved. The small towns rise out of the road, a sin­gle street of con­ve­nience stores, un­skilled restau­rants, a cou­ple of mo­tels, a church, a school, the fi­nal gas sta­tion, and you’re through them and away.

Some­times you see some­one on the street — an old man and woman jog­ging, a face in the win­dow of a shop, a dog bark­ing be­hind a link fence — and you’re made sud­denly to con­sider what a life must be like here, the hol­low nee­dle of em­pa­thy, the in­sight too in­tense, like a bone in the throat.

Th­ese places are still within hail­ing dis­tance of their hard birth. They still crave com­fort and con­ve­nience above aes­thet­ics. It’s what I like about them — they are cre­ated from an am­bi­tion that life should be softer and eas­ier for your kids than it was for your par­ents, not as confections of civic van­ity or the toy­town fan­tasies of pa­tri­cian land­lords. You catch the flash of a red barn in a stand of trees, cast like a me­te­orite into the land, and you try to imag­ine the life that sprouted here, the first per­son to break the sod, who, ex­hausted or sat­is­fied with the jour­ney, set down their be­long­ings in this place that was to be the end of a long trek.The great in­te­rior of Amer­ica still feels like it’s on pro­ba­tion. It has not con­quered the wilder­ness but rather come to an un­easy truce. Dot­ted in the great mid­land are the oc­ca­sional, sprawl­ing herds of trailer homes with their sag­ging pick-ups that mock and mimic the old cov­ered wagon trains, sur­rounded by wonky bar­be­cues, plas­tic garden fur­ni­ture, kids’ bikes and bits of picket fence and fairy lights (there’s al­ways a string of fairy lights im­ply­ing some des­per­ate fes­tiv­ity).

Com­mu­ni­ties are au­di­tion­ing for the land that they gin­gerly squat on.

It may not work out — it’s not un­usual to come across the wreck­age of th­ese failed trysts: ghost towns, the rem­nants of com­mu­ni­ties that gave up, sep­a­rated from

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