To my fellow Montanans and other westerners, few boundaries are so sacred and inviolable, few walls between church and state so absolute, as those that divide the great outdoors—the mountains and rivers and forests—from the electronic communications networks that, some say, have infiltrated the natural world to the point that it no longer exists. For these purists, who consider the wilderness a perfectly separate, primordial realm of ancient relations between wild organisms interacting in elemental ways determined by their deepest genetic drives, paradise is fragile and easily lost. It doesn’t take a mechanism so crude as a smoke-belching ATV or a roaring snowmobile to brutalize the tender membranes and subtle equilibriums that constitute the soul of wilderness.
I used to think this way myself, until several years ago, living on a ranch in the Crazy Mountains of central Montana, I found myself stuck on a novel I was writing about a profoundly lonely businessman addicted to transient, shallow human relationships and the amassing of frequent-flier miles. After three months of writing cooped up indoors, with only a square patch of sky framed by my window, I drifted outside one day into a field frequented by herds of pronghorn antelope and set up an improvised writing desk on an abandoned, weathered wooden spool that had once held telephone wire. I opened my laptop, powered by a battery, set my cell phone beside it so I could handle work calls, and rigged up a little iPod stereo with speakers that looked like Lucite tennis balls. Above me, in the immense blue August sky, gray cumulus clouds fattened and roiled and towered, blocking the sun, and between them neat white contrails unfurled, tracing the curvature of the vast planet as jets bore their passengers between great cities. The sight was evocative and monumental, and it would have been lost to me, locked up as I was in my office. The novel took on an extra dimension then—broad, expansive, melancholy. Unless I’d brought my computer onto the prairie, I never would have caught the scene.
I spent that whole summer writing in the open, surrounded by scrambling gophers, hunting badgers, and patiently circling raptors that abruptly changed their headings and furiously dove straight at the grass, rising again with limp rodents in their talons. The nonstop drama at my periphery affected my book at levels I’ll never be sure of, giving it a slightly frantic tone and reminding me that human business, the selling and buying that underlies our economy, is also a hectic, survival-driven enterprise. I don’t know that I could have conceived of this thought consciously. It was a gift from the thriving ecosystem in which I, a stranger, had briefly set up shop.
The lessons of this experience stuck with me, convincing me that nature and technology need not be kept at a distance, as though they might spoil each other if they should touch. Recently, on an empty, windy expanse of coastline outside Malibu, California, a lithe young man who was running along the cliffs spotted me holding an iPad under one arm as I was about to slide on my butt down a gravelly chute toward the blue water. He frowned in a way that made my neck kink with embarrassment and shame. “Not nice enough all by itself down there,” he said, cutting his eyes at my expensive device. “Why actually surf when you can surf the Net?” Then he rolled his gorgeous blue sun-bright eyes. I felt puny and silly, shrunken to the core, so I didn’t reply, just continued with my mission.
Down on the sand, with the iPad on a towel, I sat cross-legged and shirtless for two hours, watching one of my favorite movies, Chinatown, about the corrupt and deadly war for water that determined the developmental course of modern Los Angeles. Early on in the movie, there’s a scene where a body is found at the bottom of a drainage ditch, inches from the ocean, carried there by a secret release of water from an inland irrigation canal that the crooks want the county to think is drying up. For some reason, viewing this moment on my iPad brought it to life in a way I’d never previously imagined while sitting comfortably in a home theater. The whole movie, in fact, felt deepened and invigorated by my decision to screen it in the wild, out where it was really set—in the hot, rocky, scrubby deserts and wave-lashed coastlines of L.A. County. I’ve done the same thing with other movies, too. The best was a midday shoreside viewing of A River Runs Through It on the banks of the Gallatin, where it was shot. The trout weren’t biting that morning, so I lost nothing—except, some would say, two hours of peace and quiet. I’ll make them up somewhere else, I tell myself. Another thing I tell myself is that solitude, like everything else, is best enjoyed in moderation.
One high-tech habit my friends find irritating is my tendency to log on to Twitter during long day hikes and sometimes on overnight trips. The presence of weak but usable cell-phone signals in areas generally considered remote never ceases to surprise me. I’ve pulled down three bars in the middle of Montana’s Flathead Lake, miles from shore, and on ledges and crags in the south-central Beartooth Mountains, where all I can see around me in every direction are vast fields of scree and thready, icy waterfalls.
This is grizzly country in the summer, a place for encounters with primeval monsters that could crush an iPhone with one bite and devour the rest of you in a few more, but somehow the streams of directed radiation that serve civilization down below, transferring funds between distant bank accounts, flashing election results from coast to coast, and routing parcels of books and sporting goods from warehouses in Kansas to homes in Florida, continue to operate up where they’re not needed, except by me, as I thumb my tiny keypad, sending out quips and opinions on events that have nothing, absolutely nothing, to do with the wild scenery I’m passing through. I don’t know what it is about steadily climbing a switchback toward a mountaintop still silvery with glacial ice in August, but the journey gets me thinking far and wide on an assortment of seemingly random subjects.
Something about wetting my battered feet in a freezing alpine lake turns my thoughts to politics, to issues of war and peace and economics, and I just can’t resist the urge to speak my mind. Perhaps this is the impulse of ancient prophets, who also tended to utter great declarations from spots where society is just a dream and civilization a dim abstraction.
To sever our experience of wilderness from our use of technology now seems to me an unnatural act, shortsighted and unimaginative. No one appreciates a ringing cell phone while they float on a muddy river through western badlands or stand in the saddle between two massive mountain ranges, but short of such rude interruptions of heavenly moments, technology has a mysterious way, at times, of providing the perfect contrast, the happy counterpoint to scenes and experiences and settings that are easy to take for granted or grow numb to. Along with harmony, contrast is one of the two great rules of art. It wakes the senses, jars the tired mind, breaks up routines that threaten to grow mechanical. If you don’t believe me, try it. Travel to that secluded spot you keep returning to, the one where you go to leave the world behind, and turn on some music, play a movie, capture a passing thought and send it onward, out of the forest, out into society, and then wait, while the wind blows and the treetops sway and the clouds pile up a mile above your head, for someone, some faraway stranger, to reply. Even when we’re alone, we’re not alone, this proves, and in the deepest heart of every wilderness lurks a miracle, often, the human mind.