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for people who care about the West

In wilderness, don't phone home


A man recently fell and broke his leg while hiking in the wilderness area above Boulder, Colo. While I wondered aloud how anyone could meet this fate in such a well-worn area, it was his rescue that piqued my attention. The lost hiker carried a cell phone and a hand-held Global Positioning System (GPS), a precision electronic navigation aid that locks onto orbiting satellites and calculates your exact position and movement.

He called 911, gave them his exact coordinates, and rescue was fast and efficient.

Yes, things are a changin' in the Wild West. A study by Duracell Battery finds that 38 percent of vacationers now pack a cell phone or pager. Eighteen percent bring along a notebook personal computer or electronic personal organizer.

On a recent hike into the high country, a friend of mine pulled out his cell phone at 13,000 feet, sat on the edge of a stunningly beautiful rock precipice and dialed his wife two states away. I didn't know that he had taken the phone, and was immediately torn by strong, opposing opinions. On one hand, the romance of it all. I mean, what woman wouldn't love to hear her lover's voice from a mountain top? To know that amid such beauty he was thinking of her? But the pit in my stomach told me that deeper feelings prevailed; feelings that had to do with the cell phone's immediate transformation of the wilderness.

I go to wilderness to leave linear time behind. I also leave behind the world of instant access, where phones, e-mail, cars and airplanes provide fast contact with anyone in the world. It is a step from the planned, organized, domesticated world into the realm of the unexpected. Whether a meadow of mariposa lilies or a sudden lightning storm at tree line, the beautiful and dangerous surprises of wilderness keep me well-honed. I must plan carefully. I must be aware of changes in wind and weather.

A cell phone changes all of this. Suddenly, I don't have to be responsible for poor planning, silly mistakes or bad luck. Like the hiker who broke his leg, I don't even have to take a map if I have my toys. In today's world, rescue teams with helicopters wait to save me from myself.

Colorado has approximately 3 million acres of wilderness and multitudinous millions of acres of national forest. Like its neighbors, much of its land is public. Public lands are, in fact, the partial definition of the West. For years, people have come to the forests and filled darkness with Coleman lanterns. Then, they filled silence with ghetto blasters. And now, they fill solitude with instant access to the technological world.

Next week, I'm riding my horse into the wilderness to camp alone for a few days. I'll pack a .357 on my hip. Three shots, three whistles, three of any noise is a distress signal. This is closer to the West I came to live in 20 years ago. A place where danger and beauty coincide, where I am part of the food chain, vulnerable to weather changes, dependent upon instinct. A place where personal responsibility gets the utmost test.

Yes, part of my gear will be a space-age fabric, lightweight tent. I will take a down jacket for warmth, and a small cooking stove. I do not wax negative on the products of technology. But somehow, my gut tells me that we've crossed the line with cell phones in wilderness.

It's about taking chances. In today's sanitized world we've minimized risk so much that the psyche deadens, and violence becomes more and more perverse. There's a reason why old cultures ritualized violence. The psyche and soul need tests. This is why rodeo still lives in the West, why cowboys still brave the elements with their stock across miles of dangerous terrain, and people leave the safety of their homes with a pack on their back and head into the mountains.

Phones and computers change the wilderness as much as forbidden roads and chainsaws. Perhaps more.

Christina Nealson is author of Living On The Spine: A Woman's Life in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains; Papier-Mache Press, 1997. She is a regular contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News.