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Staying connected in the outdoors may require uplugging yourself

29 Sep

The following originally appeared in the September 17 edition of the Tooele Transcript Bulletin.

by Clint Thomsen

From the top of Deseret Peak in the Stansbury Mountains, the communities in Tooele Valley look like tiny collections of etched traces and capacitors on a vast computer circuit board.  That was one of my first impressions of the view when I crested the 11,030 foot peak last summer.

There’s a reason why topographically prominent peaks—called “ultras” in peak bagging circles—are the most sought after summits.    In addition to elevation, ultras have high independent stature.  So they offer the best views and the most tangible sense of isolation.  Deseret Peak is one of just 57 ultras in the lower 48 states.

I had driven 8 miles up a canyon and hiked 3.25 miles, climbing 3,613 feet via switchback and rubble fields to reach this jagged quartzite platform.  If I wasn’t on top of the world, I was sure close.  Exhausted and satisfied, I threw down my pack and sat at the edge of the summit to ponder my feat.

After chugging a bottle of water, I reached for my cell phone, which doubled as my watch.  As I turned it on, I was surprised to see that I had full service—both voice and data.  Instinctively I checked my email.  Then I called my wife, Googled some information about the return trail, checked my work email, and read the latest news.

By this time, my hiking companions had also discovered this miracle of connectivity and were calling spouses and dialing up info too.  Others were busily checking pedometers, shooting video, and programming GPS receivers.  For a little while, Deseret Peak was a regular cyber café.

While the knowledge that I had this technological lifeline in one of the most remote and dangerous places in the county was truly a comfort, I felt like the whole internet part of it was somehow wrong.  Not morally wrong, but out-of-place wrong– like listening to Christmas music in July or drinking milk from a Coke can.  I couldn’t help but feel like I had violated some unwritten outdoor code.

Part of me wished I would have left the phone on my belt.  The other part spent a good chunk of the return hike wondering what other cool gadgets I could employ in the wilderness.

Aside from my wife, Meadow, I have two other loves: the outdoors and technology.  Regular readers of this column are no doubt aware of the first.  And when I’m not outside (or at work or changing diapers), I spend what little free time remains in front of a laptop—shopping online, reading news, and drooling over electronic gadgets I’ll never be able to afford.

Meadow says I’m addicted to computers, to the internet, to my phone.  I assure her I can stop at any time, that I’m in complete control.  She remains unconvinced.

Despite what some may think, technology and the outdoors often complement each other nicely.  I blog, Facebook, and tweet—mostly about the outdoors.   I do most of my research online and I get many outdoors ideas from online forums.

In the field, who can argue against the benefits of GPS and the ability to call for help in emergency situations?  And if you can check email and stream YouTube– all the better, right?

Some outdoor purists consider these assets as cheating.  They argue that wilderness should be experienced solely on its own terms.  The tougher the mental and physical challenge, the greater the reward.

I get the idea,  but I wonder if experiencing nature in full is always practical or even desirable.  The great explorers and pioneers were more in tune with nature than I’ll ever be, yet they probably would have given anything to enjoy modern technological conveniences.

We casual adventurers sometimes forget that while our predecessors enjoyed the wild, more often than not they were there out of necessity, not hobby.  They aimed more to survive nature than to fawn over it.

Still– if only at the subconscious level– their connection with the mountains, trees, and trails must have given them a certain fulfillment that the modern outdoorsman can only attain in fleeting bits and pieces.

I’m not an ideologue when it comes to these matters.  If my goal is to experience nature in the raw, I ditch the gadgetry.  If the kids are along, it’s got a dedicated pocket for it in my pack, with extra batteries.  The point isn’t to abandon technology altogether.  It’s to prevent the entertainment aspects of it from overshadowing the greater outdoor experience.

I’ll admit that balancing the organic experience with the digital isn’t always easy.  It’s difficult for me to check my tech tendencies at the trailhead.  If I’ve got a connection and I start using it, I tend to focus on it until my head is completely in cyberspace (though I of course remain in complete control).

I faced such a temptation last month on a hike in the Deseret Peak Wilderness area.  I was delighted when, after a 3.4 mile hike to South Willow Lake, I pulled out the smartphone and noticed I had full data coverage.

I had made the hike with the Transcript Bulletin’s editor, Jeff Barrus and our sons.  When we reached the lake, the boys happily waded into its shallows.  The view of the 10,685 foot glacial cirque surrounding it was amazing.  I sat down on a large boulder on the lake’s shore.  My first thought: How cool would it be to post a Twitter update from up here!

I fired up my web browser and feverishly navigated to the Twitter home page before finally catching myself, remembering Deseret Peak.  I assured myself that I would thoroughly document the hike online, but later.  Right now it would be, well, just wrong!  I put the phone away and didn’t get it back out that night.  And I didn’t even open my laptop until the next day.  Funny how that worked.

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