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A dot-commer in the wilderness

Or, does a bear chat in the woods? Pursuits hed: A dot-commer in the wilderness dek: or, does a bear chat in the woods? by Nelson King

It’s hard to have a lot of sympathy for people who take rides in a hot-air balloon and then get hurt when it suddenly deflates. They knew–or should have known–the risks going in. What I’m referring to is the dot-com bust and the thousands of ex-employees who flocked to Internet jobs in search of stock options and the Big Score. I suppose that some day the history of Silicon Valley and the Web will read much like the history of the Klondike. Not all the gold miners were greedy, but the lure of a quick strike brought them hither.

I’m not prepared to point fingers or draw moral judgments. Some very good friends work or worked for dot-com companies; some succeeded, some didn’t. I am interested in their story, so when Fred called to tell me his company had tanked and he was unemployed, I did more than commiserate. Fred and I go back many years, including stints of trekking in the mountains. Since I now spend a good part of my summers living in those mountains, I asked Fred if he’d want to come out for some hiking-to have a complete change of pace and to walk off some steam.

A few days later, we assembled at a trailhead parking lot. Even at the altitude of 8,000 feet it was hot and dusty. Summer came early this year, and drought scorched the flowers and threatened once again to make the trees into torches waiting to be lit. Already, a fire threatens far to the east, and more will surely come. Last August, all travel was banned in the local wilderness area, and it looked like this year would be the same if not worse. Although we had loaded the packs before driving to the trailhead, as usual, a certain amount of repackaging and juggling was necessary. Gear was spread out everywhere, including on the hood and on top of Fred’s SUV. I was aghast, shocked, taken aback, and scandalized by his inventory: a solar cell array, PDA (PalmPilot), portable computer with a wireless antenna, GPS locator, cell phone, digital camera, and last, an MP3 player. Plus, all the stuff needed to keep things running: batteries, cables, even a manual or two. It looked like roughly 20 pounds of weight–extraneous weight, to my way of thinking.

Some people demand what they consider a “pure” wilderness experience and would ban all modern materials, electronic or otherwise. I’m not in favor of replacing my nylon tent with an old cotton tent, though; cotton leaks and weighs a ton, especially when wet. And I do compromise on capturing my wilderness experiences for future reference. On most trips I take a camera, which these days tends to be digital. On the other hand, I’m aware that modern equipment can get between a person and the experience of the wilderness. After all, getting away from modern life is the point of going into the wilderness. Where should the line be drawn? I suspected Fred was about to provide a test case.

“Fred, why in the world did you bring all this stuff?” I asked.

He smiled. Fred has a cunning little smile that I’m sure he never uses at work. “Because it’s there,” was his reply. It’s not like Fred to be cryptic, so I assumed he was being defensive. He added, “What if we run into trouble? Like a forest fire cutting us off from the trail.”

If I was quicker on my feet, I would have come back with a snappy one-liner, but the best I could do was, “It looks like you’re on assignment to test this stuff.”

“Just a personal assignment,” he said, “I want to see just how good this stuff is.”

It seemed an awful price to pay–once for the weight and twice for the hassle. I kept my mouth shut, though. If it isn’t fatal and doesn’t hurt others, I’m inclined to let bad enough alone. If he wanted to pay that price, I was willing to let him.

You don’t need to be a Luddite to understand that moving uphill with a 70-pound pack doesn’t leave much opportunity or energy to fiddle with technology. Neither does going downhill, for that matter. Thinking deep thoughts is also difficult. As the great Russian actor and director Stanislavski once told his students, “Pick up the end of a piano and see if you can do arithmetic.” I tried to think about what it meant to hate technology, how it would be to live like a Luddite, but soon found myself thinking about catching fish for dinner. That’s about as deep as I could muster as we trekked towards the campsite A few hours later we stopped for a breather. Normally Fred would let me do the map work, since it’s my home territory. This time he hauled out the map and his GPS device and started to determine our position. It took about five minutes, his device claimed accuracy within 30 meters. Because we were on a trail and not in the middle of a lake, a hundred feet or so didn’t matter.

The interesting thing about navigating in the mountains isn’t so much a question of where you are but of how to get from point A to point B in the best possible way (shortest, easiest, safest route). For example, in most of continental America if you get lost in the mountains, you go down. Sooner or later you’ll hit a trail or road. Unless you go over a cliff, run into a canyon, or find an uncrossable river. To avoid these problems you need a topographical map or a lot of experience. Position is only part of the story, even when it’s important. In other words, the GPS was almost useless to us. A trusty topo map, on the other hand, got us where we needed to go.

We arrived at a suitable camping spot by mid-afternoon. After pitching the tents, ever the optimistic fisherman, I bee-lined to the lake. Fred set up his solar-cell collector. It wasn’t very big, but it claimed to be able to run a portable computer. It did, too, for about 10 minutes. Then the clouds came, the voltage dropped, and then so did the rain. Fred tripped over one of the power cords from the solar collector. The solar panel never made another appearance. Score one for Mother Nature.

The cell phone and wireless portable computer were often unleashed. In the evening as I sat by the fire, I could hear Fred talking on the phone in his tent. Twice the phone made a cheerful little chime. (I think it was “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”) Many people like going into the wilderness to get away from it all, all being work, responsibility, humanity, and so on. With such an ethos, it seems that tapping back into all that with electronics is heresy. Other people, like Fred, are amazed and pleased to discover that technology can keep them in touch even out in the middle of nowhere.

After a while Fred joined me at the fire. “Sorry,” he said. “I miss my wife. I have to keep up with the e-mail. You know how it is.” Yeah, I do. The real reason Fred wanted the electronic gear was to stay in contact. He wanted contact with his wife. He also didn’t want to miss any e-mail or voicemail about a possible job offer. His trade-off was, either stay in communication or don’t go to the mountains.

Fred and I both make a living from technology, but Fred can’t conceive of being separated from it; I can. For me using technology is more often than not a conscious decision, like whether I bring a camera on a hike. For Fred, technology simply goes with the territory and Fred goes where the technology is–like working for a dot-com company.

Out in the wilderness, did it matter? Perhaps it’s like hunting. I don’t particularly like the idea of hunting for wild animals, especially in the wilderness; but many people do. Mankind has been doing that kind of hunting forever. At this moment in history, I don’t think it’s appropriate. Hunters do. And away we go into realms of both subjective and speculative argument about the future of the planet.

Fred and I spent hours that night feeding small branches into the fire and talking. Fred talked about how the company he worked for was run by a guy who went straight to jail after bankruptcy. He talked about being afraid the sour economy was going to ruin his chances for re-employment. He talked about his touch-and-go marriage. When it gets down to specifics like this, global issues don’t resonate quite so loudly, and technology is of little help, especially out in the wilderness.

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