Solitude in Open Spaces
I drive north on I-25 to Albuquerque or Santa Fe once a month or more. Friends in the East who have never been to the West or Southwest ask me, what it that like? They are picturing dense forests and hills that go on forever as the “out of doors.” Even if you were out beyond the cities in the rural east, the vast panorama of New Mexico is simply unimaginable, way beyond anything they have ever experienced.
Despite talk about America as a mobile society, I know many people who have never been farther west than Ohio and who think that Chicago is virtually the far West. Maybe they have flown over places like Kansas or Colorado but they’ve never set foot on the soil or walked the ground. To turn the matter around, perhaps readers in the Southwest all their lives cannot picture the 287 around New York City, a six lane interstate highway with wall-to-wall traffic where eighteen-wheelers roar along at 85 mph.
I tell my inquirers that I go north like an arrow out of the Mesilla Valley and then it’s wide open spaces with incredibly broad vistas and few houses until I hit Truth or Consequences, then it’s wide open spaces with broad vistas until I hit Socorro, and then…well, you get the idea. It is hard to describe the solitude and solace driving on the 25 North through the State with the radio off and only road hum in my ears. To be able to see a panorama sixty miles across is beyond comprehension to my eastern friends. I love it.
When I was a little child, I sought out places of solace and solitude like most kids do. You want a secret place that feels like it belongs just to you, that is your secret fort or castle or refuge. This spiritual urge comes early in life, as far as I can tell. You search for a place at once universal and yet specific, where you find yourself. Time and eternity overlap. You feel a sense of community in the midst of being completely alone.
A small creek flowed not far from the house where I lived. I walked through fields of corn stubble and down a little embankment to get to it. The water’s edge was damp and cool. Muskrats scurried when I approached. Frogs jumped into the water galumphing as they splashed. There were no other people, usually, so the place was mine. I don’t know if I would say I knew God there. I’ve always been reluctant to identify my experience of holiness as the presence of the divine. But it felt holy there, like a sanctuary, holier than the sanctuary of the church we attended in that little town in Pennsylvania.
Solitude can be found everywhere. Gretel Ehrlich wrote a reflection called The Solace of Open Spaces, about life in Wyoming. She celebrated the resources we need in what many people consider bleak landscapes. Henri Nouwen named the inner resources: “without silence words lose their meaning, without listening speaking no longer heals, without distance closeness cannot cure. Somewhere we know that without a lonely place our actions quickly become empty gestures.”
Solitude affords us the chance to drop out of competition and noise and the need to respond to others. This is an opportunity that many people pass up. Some folks cannot take silence and seek refuge in noise or ceaseless chatter. Solitude requires a centering and quietude that many people have lost in our restless world. But rewards await us when we finally arrive. Solitude both demands and evokes true gestures and genuine speech, as Henri Nouwen knew. In New Mexico, in the solitude of our open spaces, we may find a presence we call God.