Disconnected

I just got back from an epic road trip halfway across the North American continent. Unfortunately, we drove across several southern states where everything is deep-fried. Oh well, it was only 10 days. But in that time we witnessed a total solar eclipse, took part in Cherokee rituals, saw elk sightings, a bent tree, and many other strange and beautiful wonders.

During this time, I realized the 21st century has a stranglehold on us. We are constantly connected to our world via mobile devices and wifi internet. For most of us, this is a relatively new phenomenon; many of us were born before the web was fully realized, and we can remember when instant messaging meant passing notes in class. But by the mid-90’s, things were changing quickly. The generations that followed may not feel the change, like that proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water. For anyone born in the 1990’s, their expectation is that information is perpetually within reach, and like we modern, post-industrial, space-age humans who never knew a world without electricity, there is no going back. At least not willingly.

Deliberately ditching your mobile for a week is harder than you think. Being among the various parts of Appalachia, Great Smoky Mountains, Blue Ridge, Pisgah, and so on, where wireless coverage is spotty at best makes it easier to keep one’s resolve to remain disconnected. I must admit, I failed to maintain absolute isolation; my phone would periodically find a signal every other day, and a deluge of messages would drain the battery, forcing me to scramble for my charging cable. As a result, I actually turned off the device – yes, it is possible – when I could not find the cable. Problem solved: no signal, no phone. The device was reduced to a pocket calculator and a low-resolution digital camera.

This idea that being in continual contact with the rest of the world is to me a little absurd. Bear in mind I remember a time when being unreachable was a distinct possibility when leaving the house. Before we all had mobile internet in our pockets, going out into the world untethered was not as scary as it might seem to some of you. Pay phones were ubiquitous, and you always carried some change in case you needed to call someone to check in or ask for a ride. By the way, I saw more than a few pay phones in Appalachian North Carolina. Apparently, this is still a good way to connect. Wifi was available in our motel. And I took advantage of it to plan a route back home. But I felt a little guilty doing this, even though we really needed help finding our way out of the mountains. Like I said, I wasn’t perfect.

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Chimney Rock viewed from Lake Lure, North Carolina

I have to recommend trying this for a few days at least. Go to the Smoky Mountains or Chimney Rock or any of the small, isolated communities surrounded by peaks, and when you realize maintaining a connection is pointless, simply turn off the phone. After one or two days you may see things differently. I am not saying that these devices are inherently evil, although some have gone as far as to blame mobile phone use for an increase in brain cancer. Maybe we are too dependent on mobile devices. It seems tragic that we forgot how to follow a map using a compass. Maybe we have devolved a bit by losing certain skills. Without our phones, what skills do we truly have?

Most striking, I found that without my connection to the internet, and thus, no ability to instantly share my experiences, I enjoyed savoring the moments in real time. The pictures I snapped would simply have to wait until I returned. The stories, updates, comments –  everything – were being stored mentally. The experience was just mine. Naturally, I shared the moments with my wife, and in terms of the eclipse, that was a mass event, so that was pretty cool. Also, we rode the Great Smoky Mountains Railway, and we listened to stories from the people with us on the train. These moments are what life’s all about. They can be documented digitally, but they become the planar, two dimensional aspect, less than an echo, and the experience cannot be transferred with the degree of fidelity as first acquired. In other words, you had to be there.

I have been converted. I am a believer now. I’m sold on the notion of unplugging, disconnecting if only for a few hours. I was fortunate to have been compelled into isolation. That made it impossible to cheat, at least for a while. But now there is a larger question looming: if being disconnected makes life a little better for a short time, should that be our natural state? I spend upwards of 50 weeks all year getting stressed out, then take off for a few days here and there to “unwind.” Why would I not want to live my life unwound? Well, some of us have to work for a living. But it does seem a shame to put off living until retirement.

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The Middle of … Everywhere

I get a little bummed sometimes when I think about where I live. It’s not that I dislike my home, here in North Texas. It’s just that there are so many cool places, but they are several days driving distance. I hate having to pay outrageous fees to fly. My friends in Europe tell me about great airline deals there, and the trains. Travelling from Fort Worth, Texas to Houston only takes 35 minutes by air, and it’s only 3 1/2 hours by car. But it’s Houston, so yeah.

I was looking for some good hikes without having to travel very far. North Texas is remarkably flat, so you do have to drive at least two hours, depending on where you start. Palo Duro Canyon is a great place for hiking and mountain biking. But it’s 7 hours away, and there’s not a lot to see along the way. By contrast, there are a number of historic places and national parks within a few hours of Washington, DC. The nearest mountains to my location are in Arkansas, and I wouldn’t call them mountains. Mountains or decent beaches are 12 hours by car, 2 hours in the air. Now, I know it sounds like I’m complaining. I am, so you’re pretty observant. But I do have some things to be thankful for.

For one, it’s sunny about 80% of the time. Tomorrow, 1 February, is expected to be mostly sunny and 22ºC. Perfect, in other words. This is not to say it doesn’t get cold. Just the other day it rained. But the sun came out later the same day. And we haven’t seen snow in a while, like 2014. And it gets very hot in the middle part of summer, July-September. The rest of summer is actually nice. I have family in Southern California. I’d live there, too, but the house I own in Texas would be worth millions there, and I couldn’t afford the taxes.

I do like my home. I can’t really imagine living anywhere else, despite every street corner looking like any other one, or a proliferation of BBQ joints. It’s not so bad. But you really have to see it, this place. So flat, so hot, so dry. A dear friend of mine from Oslo loves it here. I suppose it’s the opposite of Norway, so that must be refreshing in it’s own way. But where else could you get sunburned in January? (Sydney, perhaps). Therefore, tomorrow, I will wake up to a mild February morning – I don’t think I’ll need a jacket. Then I’ll drive for 17 minutes to work. I barely have time to listen to the radio. I guess it’s worth being in the middle of everywhere. That’s the deal. The middle is equidistant from any point.

Did I mention the cloudless skies?
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Remote Places

Lately, I’ve been daydreaming about getting on a boat and travelling to places like the South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands, or some other remote place to find respite. It’s all relative to one’s place in the universe, I suppose. You see, I feel alien in my own country. I live 70 km from the place where I was born. I’ve never lived more than 280 km from my birthplace. Yet, I studied many languages and cultures to prepare for life abroad. I use the metric system, and I have worked to promote its use and have the US recognize it officially. (It comes down to money, of course). I stand out among my neighbors. In another post, I talked about Geoguessr.com, a geography quiz I enjoy, and I am pretty good at, if you will forgive my conceit. I sometimes feel that I could fare well enough if I were dropped on the earth someplace like in that game. I like to imagine living – for a few months only – in places like Cinque Terre, or Como Lake are beautiful, and I certainly understand why they are so popular, and have been, since the time of the Etruscans. This means they are likely crowded with tourists, all trying to capture the beauty of these places using their iPhones. By the way, nothing irritates me more than everyone capturing stills and video by holding up their phones at concerts and other events. All this aside, I still think about becoming a resident, even for a short time. People live there, I say to myself.

It more than irritates me that I am stuck here. I shouldn’t really complain: I know that most people in the world are not able to travel. I mean, some of my friends who have travelled to the poorest places on earth have told me that in a place like Malawi, they struggle to send bicycles there for the locals so they can get to work and other places. They not only do not have cars or the money to buy fuel for them, but there are few paved roads in that country. It’s just not practical, since there are more pressing needs to keep people fed and to halt the spread of HIV. So, I am grateful to have travelled as much as I have. We’ve been to California many times, also Oklahoma, Arkansas, and places in the Deep South. I’ve been to Florida a couple times, and last year, we camped in the Great Smoky Mountains last year.

It’s pretty clear to me that travel is something very important to me, and it has been so all my life. I can remember road trips with my parents and my brother when I was a kid, and I loved every moment. I’m sure my mother would have a different recollection of these events. Maybe I did ask, “are we there yet?” Who knows? But I loved it, and I still do. I subscribe to the notion of being an ambassador for one’s country when abroad. “When in Rome,” and so forth. But often people can be welcoming of the stranger in their midst. I think I just paraphrased Jesus of Nazareth; I’m not sure. Anyway, when you go to another country, it might be polite if you try speaking the language and following some of the local customs.Smokies_76

Do I know any Italian? Not enough to converse. I think I could negotiate a café and a train station. But I daydream about going to Tokyo or Seoul. There might be signs with Roman lettering, but I’d probably be completely lost. And these are among the Western-friendly cities in Asia. Yes, Singapore and Shanghai see lots of American travellers, but what about Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia? Tbilisi looks interesting. I’ve never seen “Amazing Race,” but I’ve heard it’s pretty good. If the show entertains and somehow educates the viewers a little about the rest of the world they live in, that’s good. I don’t usually approve of so-called reality shows, but this one seems better than most. In any case, perhaps with better education my countrymen can dispense with the concept of the “ugly American” sooner rather than later.

If you want to go somewhere outside your comfort zone, here are a few suggestions from my travel wish list:

Île de la Possession

Catlins Conservation Park, NZ 

Cascada Tamul, México

Arctic Circle

Nepal