Last Saturday morning, as we drove eastward along Colorado Highway 14 through the Pawnee National Grasslands in northeastern Colorado in the family bus, the thought struck me that, in spite of the intrusion of humanity into every remote area of our shrinking world, there remain vast spaces of unexplored territory.
I’ve entertained such thoughts before, while hiking in remote, off-the-trail areas of the Rocky Mountains, for example, but this reality was especially poignant on Saturday with the grasses of the Great Plains waving at me for attention as I passed them at 70 miles per hour.
They say (whoever they are) that over a lifetime, human brains develop ruts along neural pathways; that our thoughts actually follow the same worn courses through our brains after many years of repetitively processing repetitive ideas, biases, routines, and cravings.
Rural, less-traveled paths through our brains sit lazily by with little electrical stimulation as the years pass. We find our comfort zones and we stick with them. We find our neural super-highways and wear them out. We find our favorite pair of socks and wear holes in them while newer, less-appealing, slightly more abrasive pairs sit idle in the sock drawer.
Parts of our minds, our lives, our potentialities seldom see traffic other than the minimally-sustaining required bloodflow.
Highway 14 is a relatively quiet road, but it supports steady traffic. Going half a mile to the north or south of that pavement will put you in entirely unexplored spaces.
In my odd little, rutted mind, I think about a square foot of grassland out there in that space and imagine a world within a world. Tiny critters roaming freely, almost invisible and leaving no footprints, across terrain made of microscopic boulders, a.k.a. sand, and newly sprouted grass seedlings venture out among ancient stalks, vying for sunshine while stretching their roots to find anchor against the relentless winds.
That little space has a story to be told, but it has no voice, and few happy explorers, being so far from the beaten path.
The people in my old hometown of Sedgwick, with a population smaller than a two-block area in my Greeley neighborhood, are like that little space – a world within a world, off the beaten path.
Interstate 76 was built two miles south of Sedgwick, usurping the elder authority of Highway 138 which goes right through town, and the 80-miles-per-hour traffic along that corridor can only see, even with great effort, a clump of trees and an old-fashioned water tower as signs of civilization off the exit ramp.
I spent six years in Sedgwick – middle and high school years – and I’ve been back to visit several times, and even with that investment I’ve found I know very little – I’ve explored only a small portion of the surface of that community.
Of course, they’re private and proud people, silently going about their deeply-connected lives, seldom venturing out of their own ruts.
I think we take the superficial signals put off by people, signals of sufficiency and capability, strength and privacy, as insurmountable obstacles to exploration. I think people put off those signals as some sort of sick defense mechanism to hide their desperation.
I think the unexplored grassy spaces along Highway 14 have waved in such desperation for so long they’ve developed a harsh appearance as a polite, but uninviting, facade to prevent further disappointment. “No, no, we’re fine. You go right ahead. It’s a beautiful day isn’t it? Well, you must be getting on now. Have a good day! We’ll see you as you pass by on the way back. Goodbye now.”
What we presume is unapproachable is the presentation of a learned response to disappointment. Furthermore, our presumption is our own defense against the discomfort of engaging in the inconvenience of exploration.
The truth we all know is that a small investment of our time, unfeigned compassion, and genuine curiosity, easily break down all of those defenses. The truth is that there is no greater tragedy than the unexplored, seldom-acknowledged, under-valued, unloved depths of the human soul.
They also say, whoever they are, that the neural pathways can be modified. With some effort – some intentional exercising of the brain – new pathways can be developed.
We can change our minds.
You can take your foot off the gas, apply the brake gradually, slowly. Turn left onto the dirt road into the wide-open spaces. Pull your vehicle to the side of the road, open the door and step out. Walk a few paces off the beaten path into unexplored spaces. Kneel down there. Look real close. Poke around a bit with your finger. Sharpen your gaze and study that world. Listen carefully.
Hear that? That’s the cry.
Maybe you could stay a while?