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Getting Really Out There

Found in: | Inside | Wellness |

"It's a drifting time, people fascinated with screens/No idea what's on the other side . . . "

- Greg Brown, Billy from the Hills

Wilderness is boring now. Everybody knows this. Once we trudge beyond the embrace of a cell signal, what is there left to do, really? You can't check your email. There is no Google, no Facebook. After you park your car and check your iPhone one last time, you become a digital refugee.

The tech-starved backcountry pilgrim is fated to wander with no screen to stare at, no keyboard to diddle. He or she must merely walk around on the ground and look at stuff, maybe cook a meal, and then go to sleep.

Sure, a few birds will twitter (lower case, only). And yes, the scenery thing is nice. Fresh air has its virtues, too. But without access to the full range of digital technology, how much fun can you really have? Picture-taking and listening to the iPod only go so far in filling the gap.

Fortunately, the un-wired outback has recently been improved. Now there is "E-hiking".

As promoted by veteran outdoor journalist Bruce Grubbs (see "E-hiking" in Inside/Outside Southwest, February 2010) this latest development in high-tech-rec solves many of the vexing problems presented by wilderness excursions that interrupt our cozy relationship with the virtual world. E-hiking spares us the vague anomie, the twinge of angst that can strike when our terminals go blank.

Not only are we comforted, we remain productive and efficient. We are kept busy!


Using a GPS unit and mapping programs like Google Earth, Grubbs reports, it is easy to "accurately plan your trip at home, navigate the trip in the field, and then download the trip to your computer."

This orderly system for organizing and documenting our "adventures" provides a seamless experience in which a new set of time-saving electronic tasks replaces the ones we have temporarily left at home. Even when we are off-trail, we remain on-task.

In essence, E-hiking allows us to plan, execute, and recall our outdoor travels without ever really leaving our computers. The advantages, Grubbs says, are obvious. "As a guidebook author, e-hiking tools make my work easier, more accurate, and more enjoyable."

And if you're not out there to make a living, but simply out there, E-hiking can provide your trip with a sense of purpose. "For all outdoor adventurers," the author says, "the tools allow the sharing of electronic trip data over the Web with friends." It is easy to attach notes, symbols, graphics and videos to your digital trip report.

That's certainly good news.  In this adventurous time of social networking sites, we all know that direct, personal experience hardly matters any more. Unless it has been recorded and electronically shared in some way, so what? If your wilderness trip is not on the Web, it's fair to ask, has it really even happened?

E-hiking technology defends us from that nagging uncertainty.

With plenty of nuts-and-bolts advice, Grubbs lays it all out for the fledgling E-adventurer: what gear to buy, which software to install, how to calibrate the instruments and save data-the whole shebang.

And with the certainty of a true believer, Grubbs guarantees great results: "Sharing on the Web keeps the GPS and multimedia files together, so you can literally share the trip."

Well, no, Bruce, I'm afraid you can't. Even in this exciting digital age, "literal" still means literal. When someone "literally" sticks a pig, a real pig has been stuck. If a person "literally" dies, then somewhere on the scene there must be an actual human corpse.

This may seem like editorial nitpicking, but I'm brandishing the red pen for good reason. In fewer than 50 years, human life and consciousness has been changed radically. For the first time since the Big Bang, we spend hours of every day staring at electronic screens that eclipse the surrounding world. We watch the dancing pixels as if they were browsing deer, or swallows in flight, or the tumbling waters of a mountain stream.

This is dangerous. The virtual world of digital technology is many things - entertaining, educational, even thrilling, at times. But it is also a powerful distraction. Guidebook writers - all writers, in fact - need to remember the difference between virtual and literal. So does anyone who walks this earth and hopes to truly know it.

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