Elie and I lean against a boulder at the exposed section of trail, drawing in crisp mountain air as we take in the sprawling vista. It’s another short, wooded stretch of hiking until the trail splits between Cascade and Porter Mountains, but we always make it a point to sit for a while at the open outcropping. It’s the second best part of the hike, and, on blustery days when the summit is tundra-cold, sometimes the best part, offering a great view while requiring only a fraction of the burliness. Since we live at the base of the mountain, Cascade is, for my husband, Elie, and I, quite literally a walk out the front door. The hike is one of the most popular in the High Peaks, but living so close means we are able to head up the trail during off-peak times, avoiding the mass of weekend crowds looking to add a couple of 46ers to their list. It is one of our favorite places to spend a handful of free hours, enjoying that particular calm that comes from being above everything, out in the wilderness and surrounded by the natural world.
It becomes obvious that we’re not alone anymore when a loud voice breaks through the rustling leaves and chirping chickadees. The voice is attached to a woman making the final push to clear the woods at the bottom of the landing, and when she turns toward us it is clear that she isn’t talking to a hiking partner, but instead into a phone. Laughter and one-sided conversation ring out toward the expansive valley, and it’s a little like being shaken out of a dream.
Full disclosure on the role of technology in our family—I just learned how to use an iPod Touch this past December. Neither Elie nor I have smartphones, instead opting to keep (and to share between the two of us) my old reliable flip, an artifact that I plan to bring on Antiques Roadshow someday. Facebook, which started while we were in college, is a universe left unexplored. When forced to use friends’ phones—usually for directions while they’re driving—it generally reinforces my appreciation of the old-time paper road atlas wedged between the center console and passenger seat of our car. So for us, the concept of technology-use in the backcountry has been not so dissimilar to the concept of technology-use in the frontcountry. In a word, minimal. It’s not that we don’t understand the merits of quickly retrieved information—to find out a barbeque stand in Arkansas is closed before driving fifteen miles out of the way for fried pickles, for example—it’s just that we’ve always been content to stay the old paper-maps-and-quiet-ascents course. Hiking into the wilderness has meant getting away from the everyday noise, and camping in the backcountry has meant spending days on end with two pairs of daytime socks and one pair of nighttime socks, and considering the nighttime socks a luxury. It simply never occurred to bring technology into that picture. Or, at least, it hadn’t until recently.
Things changed this past year, when we embarked on what will forever be known as That Time the Dogs Got Old. For everyone who’s had a rugged, outdoorsy animal in their life—or, as in our case, two—it is hard to imagine hiking and camping without them. Our dogs came with us when we moved from the Arizona desert. They spent the last ten-plus years hiking all over the Southwest, West, Northwest, and East Coast with us. And about a year ago, as our dogs both moved past the ten-year mark, it became clear that our backcountry camping and hiking days with our dogs were at a close. One moment they were bounding up trails, and suddenly they weren’t interested or able any longer. The gorgeous Jay Mountain was their last big hike, on a vivid red and yellow autumn day that rivaled any I’ve ever seen—the perfect way to close out long years of exploring as a family of four. They’re still happy goofballs, still love a good dirt-dig or grass-roll. They’re just slow. And stiff. And have grown to appreciate rest and leisure in a way we never would have expected from the dogs that used to run frantic circles around us on the sand.
Enter the world of frontcountry car camping, and enter the world of some technology. For us, having technology while out in nature came in the form of a laptop and solar panel. It meant we sometimes listened to folksy mellows while cooking dinner over an open fire. It meant that we could occasionally, while camping all summer, check the weather and find out, for example, that an issued tornado warning meant that we should probably alter our overnight plans.
As people who can no longer claim to be device-free when in the great outdoors, the lines we’d painted about technology use out in nature have blurred some. While I still go to the wild for quiet, it no longer comes as so much of a surprise to see others bringing their constant companions of iPhones, and their less-constant companions such as solar panels and SAT phones, camping or on hikes. And while it can certainly alter the experience, I don’t think it necessarily has to. People enjoy the outdoors in different ways, and it is a spectrum that has ample space for our varied habits and choices.
The woman talking on her phone on Cascade that day seemed surprised when she saw that she wasn’t alone, and, after ending her call, told us with contagious excitement that she was on her first hike ever. Her very first venture into the wilderness, in her estimated forty or so years, was a four-thousand footer in the majestic Adirondack Mountains we were lucky to call home. Her elation and urge to share made sense all of a sudden. And we were suddenly proud of her, happy to be a part of her accomplishment. While Cascade is a less challenging forty-sixer than many, it’s a pretty ambitious first ascent, and with a payoff-to-difficulty ratio that rivals most others, especially on an autumn day like that one.
And that simple framing, knowing the why of her phone call, changed everything about how we’d read the situation. And that’s what it ultimately comes down to the majority of the time, doesn’t it? Understanding what someone’s individual story is, and how they chose to include others into that story, or not. The woman on Cascade wanted to share her excitement and pride with someone, and brought us into that experience with her after ending her (seemingly short) call with a friend. Meeting her on the landing made our experience better, not worse, since we were able to participate in the newness of something that we’ve done countless times.
Certainly, not all experiences with technology and others in the backcountry are quite so lovely, but many are innocuous and speak to the different ways we all enjoy our time out in nature. Sure, if someone is playing loud music on the trail, that is likely to negatively shape my experience—and has definitely changed some nights of camping for us for the worse in the past. But if someone is listening to their own music quietly with headphones, if that’s how they best take in the beauty of the world around them, then perhaps that is the right choice for them. If I’m choosing to spend my afternoon on the summit of Algonquin, peering across the great divide at the blue–and-green layers and watching the turkey vultures ride the thermals through the valley below, relishing the quiet calm of wind rustling leaves, do I have more right to that moment than someone making a loud phone call next to me? Perhaps, like the new hiker on Cascade, this is their first summit, and they are excited to share the accomplishment with a loved one. Is that really so different than if they were celebrating with a hiking partner who was there with them, or do I just perceive it differently?
I’m not sure what the answer is, but since nature belongs to all of us and none of us simultaneously, ultimately I think we’re tasked to look at outdoor ethics as something fluid and flexible. At how individual behavior impacts the environment, the wildlife, and other humans around us. I believe it is as simple and as complicated as striving for mutual respect, and often the solution lies in conversation. Asking others if something will disturb their experience, for example, will likely smooth the way for many potentially fraught interactions. I’ve found that the vast majority of those enjoying the outdoors to be warm and friendly. Yes, there are obvious outliers to this assumption, but it is often easy to see these for what they are at the pass. Most of the time, if we all partake in the natural beauty around us with a question in the fronts of our minds and on the tips of our tongue, a simple “would it bother anyone if…”, we will likely all be able to enjoy our surroundings without coloring that experience for others in a negative light. Being respectful, leaving things the same or better than you found them, and prioritizing the needs and wants of others (and the natural world) as highly as your own, will help ensure that the trail you love or camp site you’ve always come back to will still be there for the many years you hope to visit them. Technology use is just one more, ever-evolving, piece in that puzzle.
Because ultimately, most of us are just looking to get out and participate with the beauty and the wonder around us, and that similarity is greater than most other differences. And maybe what is a regular trek up a mountain for you is a life-changing experience for someone else, and what a privilege it is to be a part of that.
Written by Becca Miller
Becca works at North Country School in the horseback riding, outdoor, and Edible Schoolyard programs.