Byline: Stephen Goode, SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON TIMES
The great Western films conveyed the loneliness of frontier life just about right. They did it by showing the illimitable spaces, the sparseness of population and the often great distances that separated homestead from homestead or one ranch from the next.
After a neighbor drops a letter by the home of a settler in John Ford's "The Searchers," the settler, who had received another one several months earlier, exclaims to his wife in utter amazement, "Two letters in one year, by golly!"
The scene provokes laughter, but it also gives pause. Would we be able to endure the isolation our ancestors experienced daily when they moved beyond settled areas and cut themselves off totally from family and friends and the life they'd known before?
Loneliness is the subject of Louis Fairchild's superb "The Lonesome Plains." Mr. Fairchild, who is a professor of psychology at West Texas A & M University, in this book uses none of the jargon of his specialty. Nor does he put the frontiersmen and their wives he writes about on the couch or spin idle theories about their mental makeup.
Rather, he wisely allows them to speak for themselves, making deft use of journals, letters, interviews, and much else to tell the story of the surpassing loneliness of plains life and how folks learned (or didn't learn) to cope with it.
Mr. Fairchild's sources come from West Texas and the Texas Panhandle and from everywhere the Great Plains stretched. They include regular ranchhands and hardworking women, but from time to time he springs on readers a name most everyone knows, quoting about how painfully lonely was the late, great Sam Rayburn, a colorful Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives and one of the ablest of American politicians in the mid-20th century.
"Many a time when I was a child and lived 'way out' in the country," Rayburn told an interviewer in 1942, "I'd sit on the fence and wish to God that somebody would ride by on a horse or drive by in a buggy." Rayburn then warned: "Loneliness consumes people. It kills 'em eventually. God help the lonely."
Some people just gave up. On a board nailed to the front door of an abandoned log cabin in Blanco County, Tex., in 1886 a passerby noticed a sign that read:
250 miles to nearest post office
100 miles to wood
20 miles to water
6 inches to hell
God bless our home
Gone to live with the wife's folks.
Others found ways to cope. Texas frontierswoman Temple Ann Ellis, for instance, befriended the cows: "Believe it or not, I have found myself seeking the company of cattle," she wrote late in life. "I would go out to the watering places and stroll among them touching them, rubbing their hips, talking to them about their calves, asking questions which I knew they couldn't answer. Their contentment though served as balm to my tense nerves."
Ellis was lucky she had her herd. Other women suffered enormously from the isolation, more so that the average man, Mr. Fairchild shows. "Men like it out here and don't go crazy," but "women don't, and they go loco from pure lonesome," was an observation made by Paul Patterson, recalling a covered-wagon boyhood in early 20th century West Texas.
Cowboys weren't always happy, far from it. They grumbled that they had to work from "can't see to can't see," meaning from predawn to after dusk. Winters were cold and summers hot and dry. The work dangerous. The author cites several sad tales of the men being crushed beneath their fallen horses.
The loneliness, the hard work, the endlessness of the plains brought many to God. "The loneliness of the high sky makes men see God," observed the great Texas writer A.C. Greene. Ramon F. Adams, that great collector of cowboy and Western lore, observed that the average cowhand was no regular churchgoer, "but in his own way he knew God had something to do with nature . …