Whenever my daughter Alison comes home to visit, I enjoy taking her to the airport at the end of her stay. During the 30-minute drive I get a chance to have one-on-one conversations with her and, because she’s a digital native, I also get updated on developments in technology. On our drive this past December, I was surprised to see her answer a phone call by talking into her watch, just like Dick Tracy did with the two-way wrist radio that he stretched out from the sleeve of his yellow trench coat. As usual, I asked Ali to check the traffic ahead on her smartphone to make sure we were on the best route to get to the airport without traffic delays. She brought up the app and when I glanced at her phone’s screen, I could see the blue bull’s eye indicating where we were with the map sliding in the background. I noticed there were other similar dots, something I hadn’t seen during previous drives. Ali told me they indicated the locations of her friends and other family members.
Ali mentioned that when one of her friends had gone on a first date with someone new, she and other friends tracked her in real time, and if the route her dot took gave them cause for concern, they could call her to see if she was okay and find her if she needed help. And in late November, while all of us in the family were waiting to hear from my son Nate about the birth of his first child (my first grandchild), Ali was watching, in real time, the signal from his wife’s phone as he drove her to the hospital for the labor and delivery.
In the ’80s, when I did my longest cruises, that technology didn’t exist. I could keep track of where I was only by paying attention to my surroundings and keeping an eye on my chart. And, for days if not weeks at a time, my friends and family back home wouldn’t know where I was.
I took whatever safety equipment was available and affordable at the time, but that didn’t amount to much more than a weather radio. If compact handheld VHF radios, tracking devices and phones equipped with GPS, and satellite messengers and emergency locator beacons had existed, I might well have purchased them. Fortunately, in thousands of miles of cruising, I had the good fortune never to have an emergency that I couldn’t manage on my own. I did get lost a few times, in as much as being lost meant finding myself unsure of my location and not knowing which way to go. Here are three of those occasions, all occurring on a paddling trip from Quebec to Florida:
Getting found again was just a matter of moving to a place where I could correlate landmarks around me to the chart or map. I was in no hurry to get somewhere, so I didn’t mind being lost. It was invigorating and heightened my awareness. I don’t think I’d have such lasting memories of finding my way if I’d had my head down taking my directions from the Global Positioning System.
Two years later, when I rowed a sneakbox solo down the Ohio River and the Lower Mississippi, it was virtually impossible to get lost. Both are just corridors between riverbanks, easily followed with no route finding required. While I was never lost, no one back home would be able to find me; I called my parents, collect, from pay phones, every week or so and in that time between calls I might be anywhere along a 200-mile stretch of river.
The Mississippi was especially remote; levees along both banks blocked towns, farms, and homes from my view from the river. And rowing during the winter, I had to myself all the land and water I could see. I recall seeing only two other recreational boats underway along the 950 miles from the Ohio River confluence to New Orleans.
I might still find the same wilderness along the Lower Mississippi, but if I carried even just a smart phone, the experience likely wouldn’t be the same. Being connected by this century’s technologies brings undeniable advantages in safety, but with it come invisible tendrils that make it difficult to find one’s own way and fully inhabit the “emptiness” of wilderness.
I count myself fortunate that I took advantage of the opportunities that I had 40 years ago and traveled without today’s technology, not by an unwise choice to dismiss it, but because it didn’t exist. I was drawn to solo wilderness travel when I was 18, in part to find out if I could meet the practical challenges but also curious to know what kind of company I could be to myself if I were alone. And in 1985, lost to the world on the Lower Mississippi, I’d found what I was looking for: aloneness without loneliness.