Guest column: Technology claims the great outdoors

If American frontiersman Daniel Boone went into the wilderness today, he would probably take a cell phone.

Or perhaps a handheld computer, so he could update the Web site documenting his trip.

Technology can give rise to some of the weirdest juxtapositions: witness the unrivaled popularity of sex, a fundamentally tactile experience, via computers on the Web, in essence a tactile-free medium, unless you count the typing.

Technology's strange bedfellows were underscored for me recently during a long-distance hike from the Mexican border through California, Oregon and Washington to the Canadian border. Armed with a six-month leave of absence granted by my fabulous bosses (is this praise too transparently a set-up for requesting another?), I anticipated leaving the implements of my day-to-day work behind. For me that means computers, keyboards and the phone. But even on the 2,658-mile long Pacific Crest Trail, which runs through some rather remote territory of the American West, there was no escape from technology. What's worse is that I was glad.

Each year around 200 people attempt to thru-hike the entire length of the Pacific Crest Trail, carrying everything they need in their backpack for the four- or five-month journey. Gear weight really matters on a long-distance hike. The thru-hiker attrition rate is high, even with attention to carrying the least weight possible. Many thru-hikers hollow out or cut off the handles of their spoon and toothbrush to save weight, and some people sleep on the ground, rather than carry an eight-ounce sleeping pad. I myself had just one pair of underwear. (Yes, I know, but hey -- it's 2,658 miles.) But for many people the ruthless paring down of stuff did not prohibit carrying electronics designed to keep them in touch with the world off the trail. Several thru-hikers carried handheld computers on which to record and transmit their daily journals back home for posting to their Web sites, including those found at http://www.pcthiker.com and http://www.znet.com/~martin.

Not that the fresh air made the handhelds immune from glitches which more typically take place in the office: More than one machine was hoisted to a payphone only to screech fruitlessly as its signal went untransmitted. Cell phones, too, were only intermittently functional, thanks to spotty cell coverage in the big empty spaces out West.

I didn't carry any electronic gizmos, but I confess to having benefited from them, most memorably to secure an indoor bed on an inclement night. One August afternoon, twenty miles into the day's hike in central Oregon, I ran into four hikers who planned to thwart the rain and the incredibly huge mosquitos by racing to a hotel at Crater Lake, thirteen miles away. We used their cell phone to reserve what turned out to be the last room at the hotel, the only lodging available for miles. Using a cell phone caused me no pangs of principle, but the ethics of electronics usage in the wilderness is a hot topic at the equally hot and increasing number of Web sites devoted to hiking. A search of the archives of one site -- http://www.backcountry.net -- yielded 31,592 messages related to cell phones. If you want to make a call in the woods, should you do it discretely by first scuttling off to a distant tree? If you have a cell phone buried deep in your pack for emergency use only are you nonetheless compromising others' self-sufficiency and sense of getting away from it all?

These burning issues aside, no one is arguing whether technology in the wilderness is here to stay. It is. Weird juxtapositions are simply a part of our new wired world, like sex via computer. On second thought, maybe the latter isn't so weird after all. Perhaps, with a crisp IBM keyboard ...

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