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Know the West

Leave only footprints, and turn the darn phone off


The other day on a national forest trail, we passed a lone hiker. Cell phone glued to her ear, chattering away, she stomped by us without the usual trail civility of at least a smile. Engrossed in the world at her ear, I doubt she even registered the beargrass blooming at her feet.

Since cell phones became required appendages, what’s commonplace has changed. No one bats an eye now when people prattle on apparently to themselves while they walk down sidewalks, wait for luggage in an airport terminal, push a cart through a grocery store or drive a car. I own a cell phone, too. I’m no Luddite. I just don’t think they belong in the backcountry.

Where does the buzz of a cell phone fit in outdoors? In the backcountry, sounds are part of the experience. Mule deer snort in the woods. Wind rustles aspen leaves. Cedar waxwings gossip to each other in their trilling squeaks. Pikas scream warnings and crickets drone. Waterfalls roar. On a drippy day, raindrops tinkle on alpine lakes. Nature speaks.

Just as a driver with a cell phone pinned to an ear forgets to signal when turning, a hiker’s attention to nature diminishes when a private conversation takes over. Eyes merely gloss over detail — the number of needles on pine trees, miniature hairs on a mariposa lily — as ears focus on the electronic drone. But the person yik-yakking isn’t the only one to miss out; others nearby find their attention snagged by fragments of the one-sided conversation.

Recently, I was hiking with a group when two cell phones spoke in unison from the bowels of two backpacks. We all stopped on the trail while the two hikers dealt with matters of great consequence, each cradling phone to ear. While I didn’t mind pausing to catch my breath, the hiatus wasn’t a normal rest stop, where we could check out the season’s huckleberry picking by combing the bushes at our feet. We couldn’t help eavesdropping.

Last fall, when we camped in tents on a secluded beach, cell phones competed with seagull squawks on a daily basis. While the users at least had enough courtesy to walk away from camp to talk, the calls gnawed at their ability to dive full-bore into the outdoor experience. Out in nature, the pace of life slows. It offers time to consider life from a different perspective, free from work, meetings, possessions and obligations. But our constant connection with the outside world derails that letting go. In our attempts to do it all — get into nature while maintaining control of our home world — we lose sensory touch with the wild.

Thank goodness, there are still canyons in the Southwest and glacier-gouged valleys tucked under peaks without cell towers. But even these remote places are becoming scarce, as national parks allow wireless companies to invade. Since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 opened up federal lands to cell towers, each land-management entity can grant or deny permits for wireless companies to install intrusive communication spires. Lake Mead National Recreation Area has three, for instance. Yellowstone National Park has six.

Proponents argue that cell phones help in emergencies. No doubt, lives have been saved by someone dialing 911 from a mountainside. Wireless companies and park rangers alike can point to examples. So just "in case of emergency," we gladly haul our phones in backpacks. But these days, our definition of an emergency has expanded, and we no longer know what the term "life-threatening" means. A crisis can include those times when the fridge is out of milk, or Johnny wants to stay overnight at a friend’s house, or the stock portfolio needs adjustment. We’ve confused emergency with convenience.

We can erect cell towers virtually anywhere, but do we need to pincushion the earth with them? Some places deserve to be left remote, where rescue is more than a phone call away. And for those wilderness places with three bars of cell service, maybe we should add electronic etiquette to our backcountry credo. In addition to leaving only footprints and taking only pictures: Let’s turn off the phones.

The author writes in northwest Montana, where a few trails get by without cell phone service.