Back in the old days, the only electronic intrusion a backpacking guide saw on a hiking adventure was an occasional client with a transistor radio, which we strongly discouraged. Nowadays, folks have access to cell phones, GPS units, iPods, pocket pads, emergency locator beacons, Twitter devices, Kindles and goddess knows what else's fomenting in the technophiliac dreams of the next Mark Zuckerberg. What happened to a simple old paperback?
The Wilderness Act of 1964 defines wilderness as a place "where the Earth and its community of life are untrameled …" and "where man [humans] is a visitor who does not remain". The Wilderness Act also forbids motorized devices and all "mechanized" forms of transport. Thus, silence, self-reliance and solitude are three widely revered wilderness values. The way we see it, a backpack full of electronic gadgets is every bit the affront to the wilderness idea as a chainsaw or an ATV (all-terrain vehicle). Obviously, these devices are less physically destructive than those machines, yes, but they are no less of an insult to the quest to keep the idea of real wilderness alive in the American psyche. That's my story and I'm sticking to it.
Emerson once stated that "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds". To prove our company's lack of foolish consistency (with the thesis of this essay), I acknowledge that we now require our guides to carry an emergency communication device, such as a cell or satellite phone. As owners of Big Wild Adventures, Marilyn and I accept this as a necessary nod to the reality of today's culture, though we are not thrilled about this. But let's be clear: we do not carry such devices on personal recreational outings. Big Wild is a business, responsible for the safety of our clients. And we take that responsibility seriously. So we carry an emergency communication device and practice wilderness safety with experienced fanaticism in the hope that we never have to use the damn gadget. And besides, there are lots of lawyers out there, foaming at the mouth for an outfitter who fails to quickly secure help in a true emergency.
Lawyers and commercial guide enterprises aside, gadgets detract from the wilderness experience. They add to an increasingly watered-down view of wilderness. Real wilderness comes with storms, floods, wildfire, cliffs and large carnivores. Large carnivores force us to become part of the food web, and that makes us feel more alive! Too many people nowdays expect wilderness to be easy and convenient. No discomfort, please. And, good heavens, let's eliminate all risk (though driving to the trailhead is almost always the riskiest part of any wildernessness).
Here's an alternative: learn to use a simple map and compass , and a GPS becomes superfluous ballast. Maps require no batteries. A compass does not need to be re-charged. When your gadget fails, you will not be able to re-charge it by plugging into a currant bush. You can try, but good luck! Instead, glass the meadow edge for moose. Or grizzlies. Listen to the wind rustling through the aspirations, not your i-pod. Watch the sunset, not a mini-computer screen. Do not we get enough computer glow at home?
Then there's the fellow who activated his emergency locator beacon in the depths of the Grand Canyon to summon a helicopter because the water tasted salty. The chopper arrived, but the rescue was refused. This is, I admit, an extreme example of techno-abuse, but it illustrates a point: there are lots of morons out there. Some of them backpack. And all of these gizmos make it easier, at the very least, for idiots to inconvenience or endanger others.
Most important, the way we see it, is the need to get our brains, along with our bodies, out into the wilds away from techno-civilization's ten million distractions. And let's take responsibility for being safe in wild country. For if an emergency helicopter is always at your beck and call, is not it more likely that you'll let down your guard at some critical juncture? Is not it particularly that we're more careful when there's no way to easily contact outside help?
The Wilderness Act also discusses wilderness as a place "in contrast" to civilized landscapes. The more we add these civilized trappings to our wilderness adventure load, the quicker that contrast disappears. In this increasingly crowded and hectic world, the last thing we need is wilderness that further resemblance civilization. So please, leave your gadgets at home. Listen to the wind; learn the magic of a sunset, the wisdom of the wolf howl. Help to reserve the idea of real wilderness. And let's have the courage to accept the wilderness on its own terms and to be responsible for our own safety, with no easy way out.