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for people who care about the West

An argument against internet access in parks

Tethered by their devices, “younglings” of today don’t want to camp.


Backpacking was made popular by the dropout generation in the 1960s. We were going to eschew the trappings of civilization and live intimately with Mother Nature. All things natural were good and groovy (except maybe hemlock and arsenic and stuff like that). Turn on (to nature), tune in, and drop out, baby. 

Today, backpacking has leveled off. Baby boomers, those hippies of yore, are too old to sleep on the ground. The younglings of today want to get into the wilderness, but they don’t want to camp. They need to return to civilization by nightfall so they can plug in their devices. 

The Park Service plans to implement high-speed internet in all national parks by 2018. Visitors, it seems, complain that they cannot access their devices when visiting the parks. On social media, novice hikers seek advice on recommended solar panels to recharge their gadgets. Some new backpacks have built-in solar panels. So much for ultralight travel.

Yellowstone at Artist Point.
Brook Ward, Flickr user.

My generation disparaged civilization. Today’s hikers revel in it, indeed, demand it. Take music. The ubiquitous iPod rides in a tiny arm pack, streaming tunes as one marches along. If the iPod-user has ear buds, it is not my concern, unless the hiker is trampled or eaten because he or she can’t hear an oncoming elk or bear. But that is natural selection at work. Exterior speakers are my concern. 

More hikers carry “weatherproof” speakers on their packs so they can share the love. But natural quiet is impaired when tinny music pumps from every corner. If you cannot be alone with your thoughts for more than five minutes, keep it to yourself.  

Take cellphones. More backcountry places are phone-accessible.  In emergencies, this can be a lifesaver. Often, however, Search and Rescue responds to “life-threatening” calls that involve blisters or ennui. 

Most phone calls on the trail seem to be made because hikers are bored. “Hi, guess where I’m calling from!” Or even, “Did that repairman ever show up?” I don't know why it is more irritating to listen to someone prattling away to an invisible person than it is to hear them chatting to a companion who is actually present, but there it is. I am currently spreading the rumor that talking on the phone while hiking attracts predators.

And then there’s texting. Kids don’t even look at their surroundings if they can text to their friends, mail their selfies, their updates, and their instant pics and videos, then check their “likes.” Perhaps it doesn’t really happen unless everyone knows about it in real time. Again, it’s not my problem, unless, while texting, they inadvertently walk off a cliff or into a hot spring.

It does seem a shame that these busy hikers aren’t satisfied by the real world. Our wild areas are becoming more crowded. The national parks all had record visitation last year, and this year seems to have been the same. Wouldn’t it be more, I don’t know, appropriate, to appreciate where one is, rather than making sure everyone knows what one is doing? To be in the moment, rather than adding up one’s online hits?

The difference between a traveler and a tourist has been defined thusly: The traveler wishes to experience the area visited. The tourist wants to be able to say he/she was there. The traveler looks and feels and experiences. The tourist posts online and waits for the emojis.

The traveler sits and listens to the wind. The tourist cranks up the speakers. The traveler contemplates the void and shares insights with companions. The tourist chats with his/her broker on the phone. 

The traveler writes in a journal. The tourist uploads to the world. The traveler is changed by the experience. The tourist rushes from place to place to get more and more selfies. The traveler considers what he/she has learned and plans a longer follow-up visit. The tourist checks off one more item on a bucket list.

Is it hopelessly old fogeyish to suggest that mindfulness is part of the wilderness experience? There is the opportunity to revel in your surroundings. Observe the clouds. Harken to the birds. Or at least turn off those speakers so the rest of us can harken to the birds. Stare off into nothingness, for goodness’ sake. We can text and Facebook and YouTube anywhere, and you are welcome to check into those services as soon as you’re back in civilization. Your followers will still be there. There is only one Yellowstone, or Grand Canyon, or Mount Whitney. Turn on, tune in, drop out and log off, baby. 

Marjorie “Slim” Woodruff is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She unplugs at the bottom of the Grand Canyon.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].