Two years ago, I set out with two of my kids, Caroline and Emily, on horseback over Egg Mountain to find our way up through winding trails to the next town, about eight miles north as the crow flies. I was riding my twitchy paint, Concho; Caroline was on her half-blind Appaloosa, Dakota; Emily was on her 18-year-old pony; and Rhoda, a neighbor, was astride her great moose of a horse, Gypsy. (It’s like riding an overstuffed sofa.) The route is a series of twists and turns and requires a sharp memory. The problem was, as soon as we got high up, we found that loggers had clear-cut the mountaintop and the landscape appeared ragged and unfamiliar. After leading our horses through a large field of felled trees and swamp, I set out searching for the way forward. At one point, I got within a few yards of the trail but turned back, thinking it was a dead end. Eventually, we trotted home, disappointed and bone tired.
One of my favorite Westerns, The Searchers, was directed by John Ford and starred John Wayne. The story is bittersweet. Two sisters are kidnapped, one is found murdered, and rescuing the younger sister becomes the driving narrative. The screenplay is a tangle of conflicting morals and motives. At one point, Wayne even tries to shoot the abducted girl rather than let her live among the Comanches. Finally, Wayne reunites the girl with her family and he walks away alone, still an unhappy searcher. (The movie was loosely based on the true story of Cynthia Ann Parker, who was abducted at age 9; lived among the Comanches for 24 years; was the mother of the last free Comanche chief, Quanah Parker; and, once “rescued,” spent the remaining 10 years of her life trying to get back to her family. She died of heartbreak.)
This country was founded on searching for religious or economic freedom; take your pick. Then we headed west in search of better farmland, a pass through the Rocky Mountains, gold, and the Pacific Ocean. And my generation has been on an eternal quest for $40 vodka, bungee jumping, unpronounceable fruits from the Amazon basin, and colon cleansing, and it has a religious fascination with chakras. This week, my 14-year-old is stuck on Juicy Couture; last month it was architectural Legos. I can’t wait until she turns 15.
Searching is usually about the search itself, not the destination. If one listens to Buddhists, such as Pema Chödrön, one starts to think that life is nothing more than the struggle. She says, “The truth is that things don’t really get solved.” So one might start to think that The Searchers was some sort of Buddhist production—a training video, perhaps. Wayne moves through the narrative, mostly angry, often violent, and resolves nothing. He rides in at the beginning of the movie and rides out at the end. So what exactly does one do when one reaches the shores of the Pacific? Well, like Lewis and Clark, you turn around and walk back.
Lots of teenagers are anxious to leave small towns. Even the Amish provide Rumspringa, a period of experimentation when a teenager reaches 16. Eventually, one chooses baptism in the church or one leaves the life forever. But in our small town, we are not searchers. We do seek deer and rabbits, trout and turkeys, but many old-timers have never left the state, much less the town itself. I was in a Shaw’s supermarket recently—two towns over—and was recognized by a local. She asked where I lived, and when I told her, she looked gobsmacked and blurted out, “Where?”
The problem is that once you’re bitten with the search bug, it’s hard to kick the habit. Many sign up for yoga teacher training, Chinese lessons, bodywork, or early retirement with a heavy schedule of writing workshops and flying instruction. This whole menu of self-improvement is appealing, and as a searcher myself, I speak from experience. But when I step through the screen door of Sherman’s Country Store and I see the same crowd, seated at the same wooden table and drinking the same Green Mountain coffee every time I go in, it makes me wonder if life is indeed about evolution. It would be comforting to exist happily as a distant relative of Lucy, walking mostly upright, dragging my knuckles. All I would have to search for is food; survival was pretty much the only truth 3 million years ago.
In Lonesome Dove, Larry McMurtry’s Pulitzer Prize–winning epic, Gus McCrae is the ultimate searcher. He convinces his business partner, Woodrow Call, to ride a herd north. It wasn’t a business proposition; it was a search for adventure and romance—he was in pursuit of his old sweetheart, Clara. He found her in Ogallala, Nebraska, but he quickly turned away from the settled life. Gus died a few months later, ending up stuck with an arrow after recklessly galloping across an open prairie just for the joy of it.
Unlike John Wayne, Gus McCrae had it all. He was a searcher who also enjoyed the simple pleasures. He once said to Lorena, an unhappy working girl who was desperate to get to San Francisco, “If you want any one thing too badly, it’s likely to turn out to be a disappointment. The only healthy way to live life is to learn to like all the little everyday things, like a sip of good whiskey in the evening, a soft bed, a glass of buttermilk, or a feisty gentleman like myself.”
Gus could have survived as a cripple but decided instead to die of his wounds.
He chose death over life, explaining his decision to Woodrow by saying, “It’s not dying I’m talking about; it’s living.” As he slipped away, his last words were, “By God, Woodrow; it’s been one hell of a party.” At least Gus was clever enough to enjoy the ride.