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Know the West

Leave only footprints, and turn the darn phone off


Hiking the other day on a national forest trail, we passed a lone woman. Cell phone glued to her ear, chattering away, she stomped by us without the usual trail civilities 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 for our lives, what's commonplace has changed. No one bats an eye now when people prattle on seemingly 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 certainly no Luddite, but I don't think they belong in the backcountry.

Where does the buzz of a cell phone fit in? The backcountry is a place where 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. Picas scream warnings. Crickets drone. Waterfalls roar. On a drippy day, raindrops tinkle on alpine lakes. Nature speaks.

Just as a driver with cell phone pinned to ear forgets to signal when turning, 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 one yik-yakking isn't the only one to miss out; others nearby find their attention snagged by fragments of a one-sided conversation.

I was hiking recently with a group when two cell phones spoke from the bowels of two backpacks in unison. We all stopped on the trail while the two dealt with matters of great consequence, each cradling phone to ear. While I didn't mind the pause for breathing, 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 were camping out in tents on a secluded beach, cell phones competed with seagull squawks on a daily basis. While the users at least had enough courtesy enough 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, offering time to consider life from a different perspective that's free from work, meetings, possessions and obligations. Continuing 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 a place that's 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 sparse 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 people with emergencies. No doubt, lives have been saved by someone dialing 911 from a mountainside. Wireless companies and park rangers alike point to cell phones aiding the safety of backcountry travelers. So we gladly haul our phones in backpacks "in case of emergency." But these days, our definition of a crisis has expanded, and we no longer know what the term "life-threatening," means. It 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 need 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.

Becky Lomax is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She writes in northwest Montana, where a few trails get by without cell phone service.