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Pull the plug on expanding national park wireless service

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POSTED November 8, 2013 12:46 a.m.

I am not a Luddite.

Nor am I a minimalist.

And I don’t consider myself cranky.

But enough already with trying to make sure every square inch of the earth can have access to the Internet.

The National Park Service — perched on a tight wire trying to balance preservation with access — is working mightily to bring technology to nature.

Park rangers see value in visitors being able to scan coded signs to access additional information about various park features. They also believe visitors being able to use their cell phones to tap into weather information and traffic conditions rate are pluses.

But there is also a growing number of people who use technology as either a dangerous crutch or let it seriously cloud their judgment.

It is becoming too common for people armed with nothing much more than a cell phone to go wandering off into the back country on the spur of the moment. They are confident if they get lost or something happens that they weren’t prepared for they can just call 9-1-1.

Cameras have been around for years. But it wasn’t until the advent of the cell phone that a sharp increase of people started doing downright dangerous things while snapping photos. The Mist Trail along the treacherous Merced River in Yosemite is a prime example.

The bold and careless behavior has a lot to do with the fact we treat cell phones as extensions of ourselves. It also demonstrates a growing reliance on wireless technology that — while convenient — tends to negate common sense.

Then there is the experience factor.

Hiking 11 miles up to 14,505 feet to the top of Mt. Whitney losses its charm when you crest the summit and half the people up there are talking rather loudly into their cell phones. Communing with nature requires reaching out and texting someone these days.

Cloud’s Rest — a precarious perch in Yosemite reached by a treacherous trek across a granite spine — has no cell service. That in its self would qualify as a charm. One hiker last summer thought otherwise cursing the fact he couldn’t shoot and send instantaneous feed video from his smartphone to a couple hundred friends,

It kind of makes you yearn for the Dark Ages when people waited until they got back from vacation to torture you with their vacation pictures and slide shows.

My favorite respite from the clamor of daily life is Death Valley. I stay in Stovepipe Wells where there is no phone, TV or wireless access in the rooms.

If that seems prehistoric to some, there is virtually no cell service in all of Death Valley that encompasses almost as much acreage as the State of Connecticut. My favorite escape involves a pure desert hike four miles cross country to the imposing Panamint Valley Sand Dunes. From atop the highest dune soaring some 400 plus feet high you can clearly see geographic features for 60 miles plus. You might occasionally see a car in the distance crossing the valley on Highway 190 or a Navy fighter jet out of China Lake dancing along mountain sides, but that is it.

There is no one else there. There are no cell phones with their incessant ringing. When a hawk approaches you can hear the wings flap for almost a mile away. The quiet is so deafening you can hear the air move.

It is an experience hard to replicate. You used to come close, though, by simply going into the back country in any national park. But as wireless technology has advanced so has noise pollution.

I am not against smartphones or tablets per se. I have both. I even ditched a personal computer because it was tethered by a cable to broadband. But there needs to be sanctuaries where we can’t take it all with us.

I am sure Thoreau would embrace today’s communication technology.

As a complex and engaging man he did more than retreat to the simplicity of Walden’s Pond to reflect and write. And given his views as an abolitionist, tax resister and development critic he’d applaud the reach of social media and the class free empowerment of the Internet.

But one can’t be himself, ponder things, or rejuvenate one’s mind or soul if you are constantly plugged into a world of instant communication where you seek answers and the meaning of life while helping a cell carrier to prosper.

Yosemite — or any national park for that matter — isn’t Disneyland.

Wiring it to supposedly enhance the experience only dilutes it. And as we grow more and more reliant on wireless devices it also makes the experience much more dangerous as we erroneously believe that help is just a couple of keyboard taps away.

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