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Rants from the Hill: How many bars in your cell?

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Michael Branch | Oct 18, 2011 10:00 AM

"Rants from the Hill" are Michael Branch's monthly musings on life in the high country of Nevada's western Great Basin desert.

The rural pocket of Silver Hills where we live is so remote as to be virtually uninhabited, though I am delighted to be among the virtual uninhabitants here. This status comes with some logistical challenges, though: roads that are often impassable, the real threat of wildfire, long response times for emergency services, and the constant risk that a tragic miscalculation might cause a guy to run out of beer during the World Series. The most interesting liability of our isolation, however, is that the cell phone companies aren't sure if we exist. 

Their coverage map for our area looks like a Great Basin gopher snake: a long, slim, sinuous band of human contact wriggling through an ocean of incommunicado wild lands. Out here on the frontier of digital terra incognita we're on the map, but barely. This liminal status has never bothered me, and since our move out to this big country I've missed almost nothing I've lost and have treasured nearly everything I've gained. When I'm asked why I've chosen to live "in the middle of nowhere," I'm reminded that, from my point of view, I have the privilege of living in the middle of everywhere.

One practical problem with being a virtual uninhabitant of the middle of everywhere is that it is an easy place to pull an Everett Ruess -- to go out for a stroll and simply vanish into the vast labyrinth of unnamed hills and canyons that extend west from here to California. For this reason my wife -- in acknowledgment of my charm, wit, and habit of bringing home a paycheck -- thought it best to ensure my safety by getting me a cell phone to carry out into the wilderness. 

Because I average 1,200 miles of solo walking in these wild lands each year, she reckoned that at some point the odds could catch up with me, in which case I might want to just sit in the sage and call a relief helicopter to Medevac me back to the world of bourbon and baseball. When I protested my looming enphonement -- not because I'm a Luddite purist but rather because I'm incredibly stubborn and cheap--my wife mentioned my obligation to our young daughters, which rendered further resistance futile. Besides, I rationalized, a phone might be handy out there in case of a real emergency, like remembering that I failed to put a fresh box of Sierra Nevada Torpedo India Pale Ale into my beer fridge.

So my bride stuck me with the phone, and off I went, back into the wilderness, where after a series of methodical trials I discovered that the phone has reception in one spot, and one spot only: the very peak of our local mountain, about five miles from home and two thousand feet above it. In effect, there was only one place where I could afford to have an accident -- though, in fairness, it was a good place, and I could easily imagine clasping the swinging rope ladder as the chopper plucked me off the face of the mountain's sheer granite palisades. Nevertheless, the reality is that the near total lack of coverage makes the phone useless, and until pronghorn and coyotes start making calls there's just no profit margin in pointing a satellite at me. But here's the strange part: before getting the cell I rarely contemplated the real risks I run out here; now, because I have the phone and know it won't work, I worry constantly that this unreliable piece of emergency equipment will leave me vulnerable to fires and lightning, rattlers and scorpions, driving snow and freezing winds. Before acquiring the phone I was a blithely happy guy walking around alone in the desert; since getting it, I've become a guy walking around alone in the desert obsessing that he won't be able to count on his phone to save him.

On the other hand, carrying a piece of emergency equipment that I'm perfectly certain can't help me has profoundly altered the way I think about the thousands of miles I walk out in the Silver Hills. Rather than harboring an unexamined and cavalier assumption of my own invulnerability, I feel humbled, and in that humility I have become more vigilant. I now routinely carry a hefty daypack with extra food, water, and clothes, and I take the compass, headlamp, and bivvy sack. I check the weather before I head out, and I think more carefully than ever about elevation, hydration, and time of day. I notice the direction of the wind, or a sudden drop in temperature, or the behavior of wild animals when a storm is brewing. Maybe Emerson was onto something when he observed that civilized man "has got a fine Geneva watch, but he has lost the skill to tell the hour by the sun." My cell phone was my fancy watch, but because I knew that I couldn't rely upon it I watched the angle of the sun more carefully than ever before, and in this new habit of attention I became, as Uncle Waldo himself put it, more self-reliant. In a strange way, my worthless phone had helped me to escape some small prison of dependency. 

Over time, I also found that I enjoyed an ever more profound sense of my own isolation. I was utterly alone out there, and I knew that not because I had no phone, but rather because I had a phone with which I couldn't possibly contact another human being. The difference somehow seemed important. It was a sweet liberation to feel the modest rectangular bump in my pocket and be reminded that I was, just as I wanted to be, entirely on my own.

While it is easy to wax rhapsodic about the ennobling virtues of my useless phone, I confess that I often find myself contemplating what purposes it might serve were the worst to happen -- if I were to be incapacitated in the wild by snow or fire or buzzworm venom. Just as a broken clock is right twice each day, I have some reason to suspect that my useless cell phone might someday prove useful after all. While I couldn't call for help, maybe I could use the phone to dig, like a pawing coyote, through the sand in search of life-preserving water. Would it work to strike it against granite to spark a fire? Or maybe I could use it as Cactus Ed Abbey used his rock in Desert Solitaire, to bean a harmless jackrabbit and thus keep myself alive another day or two. Or perhaps I could get a glint off the screen sufficient to improvise a signal mirror, alerting rescuers to my remote location. And if, after all, it did not work to use the phone to secure water, fire, food, or salvation, at least I could, after bashing my fist against a boulder in a fit of helpless frustration, use it as a splint to support my fractured wrist.

Cellphone goner

Even in a case so dire that my phone did nothing to aid my survival, it might at least allow me to orchestrate and record my demise. For example, I could use it to play soothing music, say Bessie Smith moaning "Nobody Knows You When You're Down and Out," or perhaps something nostalgic and pastoral from my lost youth, like John Denver's "Take Me Home, Country Roads," or maybe something more folksy and western: Tex Ritter or Roy Rogers crooning "Bury Me Not On the Lone Prairie." If the phone had not been repurposed as a splint I could use it to take a picture of myself -- perhaps looking manly and stoical, like Kit Carson or Jim Bridger. Or maybe I'd just flash a peace sign as my final gesture. 

And of course I could create a text message which, although it couldn't be sent, could later be discovered and might thus allow me to shape my own legacy. I'd want something profound, of course. All Henry Thoreau came up with for last words was "moose…Indian," which set the bar for expiring environmental writers mercifully low. (By the way, Thoreau's penultimate words were far better than his final words; when asked if he had made his peace with God he replied, "I didn't know we had quarreled.") But I hold with Mark Twain, who insisted that nobody should leave something so important as their final words to the last minute. Preparing in advance, he wisely admonished, would enable a person to "say something smart with his latest gasp." I have taken my fellow humorist's advice to heart and, after a great deal of consideration, have resolved upon texting these poignant and incisive final words: 

"crawling 2k ft up mtn 2 call fr hlp     pls put IPA in fridge    bbs."

 

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.

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Image courtesy Flickr user neil banas. 

Pete Flanigan
Pete Flanigan
Oct 18, 2011 05:51 PM
As much as I feel these things are over-utilized, emergency transmitters might be something you should look into given the lack of cell reception in the backcountry. Obviously this piece is written for numerous and though provoking effect but if you actually need a piece of equipment in case of emergency and the cell phone isn't cutting it, look into devices like Spot.
Rosvita Rauch
Rosvita Rauch
Oct 20, 2011 05:30 PM
Excellent rant, Michael! Living in the far beyond of Argentina, and often riding a horse out into the cordillera, I also lose contact with the madding crowd because of a lack of services. But, okay, while there is a twinge of anxiety around the possibility of something going awry, I actually enjoy being untethered from all the electronic beeps and tweets. Riding along, I often wonder if the need to be constantly "under surveillance and in reach of emergency services" is actually a sign of how distanced we have become from death. Of course, no one wants to think of anything bad happening, or of dying, and it always takes us by surprise when something does happen (accidents, by definition, are surprising), but life and death walk more closely than anybody really wants to recognize. Ask anyone who rides horses, it's an always present possibility that you do your best to prepare against, but is best to remain alert. The day I stop being aware of it, and stop preparing against it is the day I should stop riding. It's good to see that your going out better prepared, but the freedom from EVERYTHING is a freedom I, for one, would never want to lose. I don't want to hear cell phones everywhere! Cheerio!
Steve Snyder
Steve Snyder
Oct 20, 2011 10:00 PM
At Canyonlands National Park, at least in the Needles district, there are signs explicitly saying "cell phone service is limited."

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