Many time travel episodes are about traveling to the past. This one is about traveling to the future, and then returning to the point in time from which one traveled, that is, back to the past. If you go to the future and discover that p, while p seems unlikely to occur from the perspective of the past, that you inhabit, can you go back to the past and try to make it the case that p?
It’s 1847, in what is now the desert of New Mexico, and Christian Horn and his family are enroute from Ohio to California, by wagon train. It doesn’t look like they are going to make it. Supplies are low, and one of their children, the eldest boy, is deathly ill. Christian decides to take a peek “a hundred yards over the rim,” just over a sand dune. When he does he arrives in the late 1950s desert, on with electrical wires, a road, trucks, and a roadside cafe.
Time travel can be disorienting both for the time traveler and for the people he or she visits. When Christian is met by Joe, in front of Joe’s diner, Christian has already had an almost fatal encounter with a monster – a large truck, and his appearance and demeanor are shockingly strange to Joe. But Joe realizes that Christian is hurt, and disoriented, and in need of help, and he sees past Christian’s strangeness and offers help. This is yet another form of diversity celebrated in the twilight zone. How would you deal with a stranger in need who appears from another time?
Although Joe’s kind and caring disposition kicks in and he cares for Christian, and even calls in his doctor, he maintains that Christian is not rational. But the doctor disagrees, noting: “He’s suffering a delusion of some kind, but it’s a delusion of the purist form.” That’s based on the clarity of Christian’s description of his life on the wagon train. The problem is not Christian’s rationality, but everyone else’s. Christian has the steadfast resolve to get his family safely to California. It’s those confronted by Christian who seem lost, unfocused, and unable to understand what is going on.
Christian’s resolve is strengthened by what he learns from the future, namely that he and his family will make it, that his son will survive and flourish. If the wagon train will arrive in California, then Christian (and or other causes) will make it happen. Christian makes this inference from effects to causes, and while it doesn’t provide a logical guarantee, it does provide further reasons for pushing west, reasons he didn’t have until he peered over the rim. That comes from a vision of the future – of what is possible for his children and for others and he forges ahead because of that vision.
Before visiting the future, Christian faced skeptical fellow travelers, who questioned the wisdom of continuing on the journey. Does Christian travel forward in time, where he is caused to form the resolve in the past to continue on? Or does he stay put in 1847, and make a straightforward inference about the future, about the effect of staying the course? It’s not clear how he could acquire the evidence needed for such an inference without time traveling. But does he really need to know that they’ll make it and his son will become a physician, or does he just need to imagine it in the right way?
Christian also gains the unique perspective of being able to understand the significance of their westward struggle. He says: “There were people like us. We made it happen.”