If you’re driving across America, with the dawn rising in your rear-view mirror and the sunset ahead, you enter a zone of transition on the third or fourth day. The trees thin out. The land turns from green to brown. The sky yawns open and the horizons stretch out. Towns and villages grow farther apart and seem dwarfed by the vast, empty, unpunctuated space that surrounds them.
In the Texas Panhandle, or the High Plains of Wyoming, or the Sandhills of Nebraska, the scenery looks more like Outer Mongolia than New Jersey or Florida. Parts of Arizona and New Mexico look like the Serengeti with a different cast of birds and animals. And anywhere in the world you see these long horizons and big austere landscapes you will usually find a history of wandering and nomadism.
It has everything to do with aridity. In lush, fertile, well-watered regions there is no reason for people or animals to move unless overpopulation, disease or tyranny takes hold. But where rain is scarce and seasonal, falling in some places and not others, grazing animals have to migrate to find water and grass, and so do the people who hunt or herd them.
If you trace the lure of the open road back through Tom Waits songs, Jack Kerouac novels and Walt Whitman poems, back through thousands of commercials for cars and jeans, films like Easy Rider and Thelma and Louise, and all those celluloid cowboys riding off into Technicolor sunsets, you reach a kind of genesis on the Great Plains in the late 17th and early 18th centuries. A cultural revolution was taking place among the Plains Indians and it was driven by a wondrous new creature they named “holy dog”. Horses had evolved on the Great Plains of North America but they had departed 40,000 years previously, trotting across the Bering land bridge into Asia. It was the Spanish conquistadors who brought horses back into the Americas, and as the soldiers and settlers pushed north into Texas and New Mexico some of their horses escaped and multiplied, thriving on their ancestral ground.
At first the tribes hunted them for meat, like elk or deer. Then, copying the Spaniards, they learned to ride horses, and that’s when everything changed. Before horses, most of the Plains tribes lived in Stone Age riverbank farming villages and grubbed around for roots and spiders to eat. When the migratory herds of buffalo came within range they attempted to hunt them by surrounding them with fire or by running them over the edge of a cliff, techniques which required too much luck to be dependable. But with a fast pony between his knees, a man could gallop alongside a running buffalo and shoot an arrow just behind its ribs – a far more effective technique once you had mastered it, and an adrenaline thrill to boot.
Horses revolutionised the tribes’ concepts of space, distance and velocity. Instead of standing there on foot watching the buffalo disappear into the vastness of the plains it was now possible to follow the herds and shrink that vastness. Seated on the back of a horse the rider commanded a wider stretch of land, and this alone gave a feeling of lordly confidence. One by one the Plains tribes gave up farming, abandoned their villages, threw away their grubbing sticks and embraced a nomadic life on horseback. They developed a powerful conviction that this was the best of all ways to live and what the Great Spirit had always intended for them.
“The life of my people is a life of freedom,” said the Lakota Sioux chief Sitting Bull as he realised it was coming to an end. “I have seen nothing that the white man has, houses or railways or clothing or food, that is as good as the right to move in open country and live in our fashion."
The Comanche chief Ten Bears, facing the prospect of living in a house on a reservation, said: “I was born upon the prairie, where the wind blew free and there was nothing to break the light of the sun. I was born where there were no enclosures and everything drew a free breath. I want to die there and not within walls.” This nomadic creed of freedom does not exist in the European political tradition, which evolved under monarchies and sedentary civilisation, but it still persists in America. Lurking like a low-grade fever in the national psyche is the idea that liberty is impossible within the confines of society and the only true freedom is the freedom to roam over the land, beholden to no one. “From this hour I ordain myself loos’d of limits and imaginary lines,” wrote Walt Whitman in his poem Song of the Open Road. “Going where I list, my own master total and absolute… I inhale great draughts of space.”
It’s the flipside of the American Dream, calling out to the restless and disaffected, and anyone else who feels trapped by their mortgages and white picket fences. “I’ve had one dream all my life,” said the American writer Charles Bowden. “Burn down the house and saddle up the horse.”