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Cell Phone Weighs Down Backpack of Self-Discovery | High Sierra Backpacker

Cell Phone Weighs Down Backpack of Self-Discovery

Alex Wierbinski's picture

By Alex Wierbinski - Posted on 01 September 2011


I had to post a link to this cool article, Cell Phones Weigh Down the Backpack of Self-Discovery by Mr. Conley at Bloomberg.

I found that this article approaches the same issues of self-sufficiency and personal reliance that I advocate in the Art of Walking and the Navigation sections, but from a stimulatingly different perspective.

Mr. Conley is different from "us," as he seems to be an urban/suburban dweller looking back at his youthful "European Capitols" urban backpacking vacation with fondness. We, on the other hand, are the backpackers who carry their loads deep into nature.

Mr. Conley's article intellectually examines an external emotional aspect of the activity that conditions the physical, perceptive, and spiritual elements our lives: Backpacking. I say "intellectually," because Mr. Conley uses historical and psychological evidence to establish his contention that isolation builds better people.

Though our backpacking arena here on Tahoe to Whitney is the natural world, rather than urban, I agree with Mr. Conley to a degree. Absence does make the heart grow fonder. Natural engagement with your backpack, rather than urban, brings even deeper benefits.

Turning your pack on society and heading deep into nature enhances this "I miss you" effect even further. But it is different. Missing someone in nature is quite different than missing them in a city. 

Your appreciation of society is enhanced by its absence, as Mr. Conley observed. Your appreciation of Nature is even further enhanced by turning your attention away from society.

Focusing your full perceptive power on the natural environment you are traveling through is good for your view of man and nature. Nature keeps giving. Natural engagement helps balance your external perspective of society while giving you a natural  context which feeds and adjusts your internal spirit and your body.

The social and personal benefits of backpacking in nature are profound.Urban backpacking only scratches the surface of these potentials.

But urban backpackers are cool too. No big deal. I've done a lot of backpacking on the road between trailheads. I've hitched thousands of miles over the years. That's how I meet cool people, and the cool locals everywhere I go. Mostly.

Cell Phonies

Mr.Conley's "backpacking" mostly concerns urban isolation, and how cell phones have ended isolation, even for urban backpackers.

Though I don't equate not having a cell phone to "isolation," I do understand the idea...and the benefits of going "phoneless" in society. I cannot really take him seriously about the lack of isolation and how this relates to cell phones on the trail, as most cell phones do not even work on most trails.

But I do take Mr.Conley seriously about the need to "get away," without even getting out of society. Hard to do. It is really good for the kids to "de-cell," put on a backpack, and go not to the cities of Europe, but through the mountains of America.

If the benefits of finding some "isolation" out of the reach of my cell phone when I've got the pack on in the city are so great, just imagine what will happen when you toss the cellphone out in favor of natural engagement in the Sierra.

Maybe the difference between natural engagement and isolation depends not so much on if you have a cell phone or not, but on your actual degree of self-reliance.

 Check out Mr. Conley's enlightened social perspective on isolation:

Cell Phone Weighs Down Backpack of Self-Discovery: Dalton Conley, Bloomberg, August 20, 2011.

 Isolation vs Engagement

My gear list and my "getting ready"  for backpacking discussion pages are structured to induce, by degree, the complete personal self-sufficiency necessary to step up to the point where you can bury yourself deep within the bosom of nature for extended periods of time and distance while hiking between Lake Tahoe and Mount Whitney.

It's all about long-distance backpacking here. You can break off this trip into smaller pieces that suit you.

This is a far cry from Mr. Conley's urban "isolation," at least in the psychological sense. These backpacking sites pursue engagement with nature.

Self-Sufficiency and Social Relationships

The self-sufficiency required to support the solo long distance backpacker, alone, deep in nature clearly reveals the value, as well as the costs, of social relationships. If you think you miss your mommy without your cell phone, just wait until you are 50 miles from any trailhead...Mr. Conley speaks to the benefits that social "isolation" brings in terms of putting a higher value on one's external social relationships than one normally would.

Natural engagement adds physical "isolation" to the formula, which deepens the internal isolation far beyond what you will feel going without your cell phone. Abandoning the cell phone does not just deepen your physical isolation, but represents breaking the modern person's dependence on constant communication. Abandonening your cell phone is as much a psychological act representing cultural isolation as much as physical isolation.

Natural Potential: Fundmental Ethics

Natural engagement, rather than bringing "isolation," reveals a whole new and different set of values on the trail that are, for the lack of a better word, fundamental.

The internal psycological and physical effects of long term engagement with nature, when added to the benefits of Mr.Conley's well-identified external "isolation" from society, are the keys to accessing and reflecting both your basic character and spirit as well as the spirit of the terrain you are passing through.

This new, "well-adjusted" you cannot help but view society differently.

Backpacking breaks through cases of "seeing what you want to see." The reality created by backpacking through nature can break through and clarify your asssumptions by showing you what is really there, independent of what you think about it.

This process balances and tunes your shifting internal perceptions with a real external reality. The result is often a fundmental understanding of your own experience, which subsequently adjusts all of your social relationships. You can find yourself on the trail.

The sensations you percieve  as hunger, as hot and cold, and as levels of fatigue can be artifically stimulated in individual when no such condition exists. Whats up with that?

What is the difference between thinking your are hungry, cold, and tired as compared to really being hungry, cold, and tired? It's really hard to tell the difference in the city.

Backpacking will not just show you the abstract value of man and nature, it will show you the physical basis and value of your own feelings, and give you the power to determine which are valid, and which invalid.

Hell, you can stay in the city for all I care.

All of this natural engagement will balance your fundamental relationships between pain and pleasure, and ultimately show you the role of man in nature.

The Cosmic Balance

 Backpacking highlights the external importance of social ties against the internal importance of natural ties, through natural engagement. 

 Backpacking also submerges its practicioners in the logic and reason of the trail. Finding this logic also reveals, and hopefully preserves, the space in the minds of humans that nature put there to reflect and observe the magnificance of its own genesis.

One of the most important lessons that engagement with nature teaches is that we must preserve the last remnants of nature to preserve the parts of our own spirit that only come out when engaged with nature.

Though we backpackers are describing a different type and degree of isolation on this guide and forum as Mr. Conley is describing in his article about urban backpacking, he does pay respects to the long-distance backpacker in nature. 

The Technology Trap is Cultural, not Physical

As a backpacker the real practical issue I see here is not what "techinical" tools you are bringing into the wilderness with you, but what cultural and social attitudes and assumptions are you bringing with you into the mountains when you bring phones, GPS, and the various music "pods?" I believe that the social and cultural "weight" of these small bits of technology represents a very heavy social and cultural load.

I believe that these music devices take up space in your consiousness that are much better served by natural sensory input. I think it is plain crazy to bring music devices into the wilderness. GPS brings this disconnect to an even deeper level.

The use of a GPS radically decreases tuning the backpacker's senses towards refining the skill of situating the map to the terrain to the compass, and directing yourself within the physical constraints of your skills.

Reliance on the GPS also dulls one to the importance of the positions of the Sun and Stars as the fundamental compass points. GPS is handy, quick, and efficient. I won't use one as long as I have my physical and perceptive assets. If my experience is not good enough for a particular trip, I will train and educate myself, and not try to replace experience with a GPS.

These are some of the practical detremints to cell phone and GPS use. The deeper restraints are found in the mindset that carrying technology into nature perpetuates.

I am a solo High Sierra backpacker for exactly the same reason I don't use cell phones or GPS: The social environment created by "company," electronic or human, fends off the engagement with the natural reality that comes through the long-term silence of the solo backpacker.

This is not isolation, this is quiet engagement.

Your reference points become mountains, your compass is the stars at night and the sun during the day, and your senses stretch out to bring you information no cell phone or GPS could ever transmit. ("mother nature" left a message...wants you to call back soon...)

By keeping your eyes and your analysis focused on on a digital display you are keeping your eyes and your spirit from focusing on the natural display.

It's my belief that the more natural references you replace your "normal" social references with, as your experiences bring you deeper and deeper into nature, the more clearly you will see of the logic of the inherent consciousness that moves through the material world. It is invisible in the city.

Oh, though the GPS will give you your position, more or less, and your cell phone will sometimes connect up, rarely, they will at the same time chain your perception to an abstraction of nature, when the real deal lays before you. You will reach the point where you don't need the training wheels of a cell phone and GPS.

It's really quite amazing, but you must eliminate all the sensory and social distractions that draw your perception away from observing and reflecting the natural terrain you are traveling through.


 Disclaimer: I've had the pleasure of dealing with lots of trail crew. The kids nowadays really like their "pods," and have camp "base stations" where they dock 'em & rock 'em. I figure since they work out there in the deepest wilderness 24/7, they got the right to rock. I've got to say I enjoyed the tunes last time I was out, but the costs are the same as I described above, if you work out there or not.

I liked it better when they relied on their own instruments and talents, you can plainly see.

Disclaimer II: There are a lot of expeditions into rough territory that utilize GPS. It would seem crazy not to. I'd likely have one on any such trip. But only as a backup to natural navigation.

Disclaimer III: If you need a GPS or phone to provide extra physical or psychological security, it's ok. Bring 'em. But don't rely on either. Use and develop your own map orientation, natural observation,  and trail and camp skills.




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