Mapping A Mental Frontier

The idea of a true frontier has always been romanticized and is almost always a false notion.

What was a frontier to the American settler was actually home to the Tribes. They knew what it meant to walk a true frontier — a blank canvas.

They didn’t paint all over it like we did, though. We painted the hell out of it.

The world is a busy place.

What used to be empty wilderness is now mapped and trod, lined with the litter of the ignorant to prove it. There must be a clear separation between what is and what you wish to see in order to conjure images of a land untamed; of a time before cars, before electronics, before pop culture.

Not everyone can do that, and it’s not because they lack imagination. It’s because they have invisible tethers pulling them back to the real world should they stray too far from their responsibilities.

But why do they even need to try?

Because when you can get away from it all, even if it’s just in your mind. You can discover an unrivaled peace that calms you from the inside out. It centers you. It acts as a safe haven where retreat is always possible. It’s your space, and no one else’s.

The gentle shift to my personal imagined frontier begins slowly, on the highway, heading east from San Diego.

The land turns red and brown and tan. Civilization disperses. The mountains flatten except for the occasional rock that juts up from the earth as if hammered like a nail from the other side.

I’m in Arizona now. The American southwest. Scottsdale is a nice town, smaller than Phoenix, thank goodness, but clean and welcoming. The roads are wide, and most drivers seem content to obey the speed limit. Perhaps one of the only other U.S. towns I’ve experienced this phenomenon has been in New Orleans, but maybe I was just there during a full moon.

My wife and I (and now my son) have been wandering the globe for three years.

Things get loud on the road. I need to visit my own frontier every once in a while, to chase that calm. When I can’t physically escape for a short while, it’s the next best thing.

Traveling frequently means facing certain truths about yourself you may not have been aware of before.

Truths about what you honestly enjoy, along with truths about what you thought you might enjoy, but can in fact only tolerate in small doses.

With each passing day, my capacity to endure large crowds shrinks.

I’m trying to find a way to fight it, since part of me thinks it’s mental. It seems like tolerating crowds would be a good social skill to cultivate. Yet I get headaches if I’m in a big group of people for too long. Maybe it’s a form of claustrophobia, or maybe I’m simply turning into a grouch.

On the other hand, I can’t get enough open space.

I’ve always known I wasn’t a big-city person, but my second trip to Iceland solidified the suspicion.

I will take a blank field of ice over a crowded city any day of the week.

Likewise the desert. Looking out my hotel window now, I see a vast stretch of sandy ground, punctuated by tall cacti. The only scar on this “frontier” is the highway that cuts through it half a mile away. It’s too far to hear the traffic noise but not far enough to ignore.

There are many places to go where you can look to the horizon and see nothing but the vastness of nature; views unimpeded by power lines or freeways. These aren’t frontiers. Not anymore. We know what’s on the other side, or at least we know that someone knows.

Can the idea of a true, personal frontier exist for us in our burdened lives?

Can we still create a private oasis where our minds are free to discover more of ourselves? Can it ever live up to the promise of untethered freedom if you know you have to get back to your job, your mortgage, your taxes?

I like to imagine my frontiers brimming with the promise of possibility. I believe that’s the real purpose of this mental exercise: to construct a place without barriers or obstacles, where the horizons are wide open…to let the imagination wander anywhere it chooses.

When I look out my hotel window, I paint that highway out of my mind.

I see only a wide desert as it once was, stretching to all points of the compass. I imagine a cowboy sitting alone by a fire, leaning back, his fingers interlaced over his stomach as he waits for the aches of the day to slowly fade from his muscles.

The sky is a deep orange near the horizon because the sun has just set.

They won’t build any highways here for some time, but when they do, this man’s personal frontier will be gone. But he doesn’t think about that. He’s lucky. All he’s thinking about is tomorrow and the bright sunrise that will be there to greet him.

I chase a frontier like that every day,  and I think I’m getting closer.

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