I’d grown up in California, in the vast sprawling outer edges of Los Angeles, suburbs of suburbs of suburbs. And I’d come to the North Cascades to escape it…”
by ana maria spagna
This morning, like most mornings, I sit at my desk gazing out my window and cursing. Make no mistake. There’s nothing wrong with the view: a lovely mixed species forest-fir, maple, cottonwood, dogwood, cedar-and a still-snowy peak shadowed with early morning light. The problem is my Internet connection. It used to be fast when we first got hooked up. Satellite trumped dial-up. Then came DSL, and websites got snazzier, and our speedy satellite fell behind like a tricycler trying to keep up with the big kids. There are some solutions that might work: pay for more bandwidth, cut some trees, buy yet another new laptop. And then there’s the obvious: shut it off and go outside! I know I should. Instead I sit watching the proverbial pot, drumming my fingers (Come on! Come on!) and thinking about what’s become of me.
Twenty years ago, a friend-a man I respected for his kindness, his devotion to the
mountain valley and its inhabitants, and especially, his willingness to fix my run-down
Corolla for cheap-approached me at a memorial service for a mutual friend like an
evangelist. His voice dropped with sincerity, his eyes met mine.
The answer, he explained, was obvious.
The answer to what? I wondered.
He leaned closer.
The Information Superhighway, he said.
I was annoyed. Super-annoyed. Maybe I should have seen some humor in the ridiculous Jetson-esque name or the irony of a hippie-mechanic espousing it. The Information Superhighway? Who had heard of such a thing?
Well, I had. That was the problem. I’d read about ‘modem cowboys’ snatching up land in the Mountain West with no need to commute, citifying things, sending property taxes skyrocketing. I didn’t know what a modem was, exactly, but I knew about citification. I’d grown up in California, in the vast sprawling outer edges of Los Angeles, suburbs of suburbs of suburbs. And I’d come to the North Cascades to escape it.
I was hardly the first. My friend had arrived a generation before me with a slew of young back-to-the-landers who shirked the city to huddle in teepees and dance around bonfires, to start tree planting co-ops and organic farms. I aspired to that kind of life, even as I felt it dying all around me. Our mutual friend, a trails worker in his forties-a man so handsome I couldn’t look him in the eye without my knees going weak-had died of complications related to AIDS. A photo display at the service captured him in the early days: building soil for the flower beds he’d later tend to extravagance, camping in dense old growth forests that were long since gone. I was depressed. I’d arrived too late. And if I needed anymore evidence than clear-cuts or AIDS, now I had the Information Superhighway charging toward me.
I didn’t have any idea what to say to my friend, but just as I tried to figure it out, he changed tack.
When are you two going to move in for real?
He meant my partner Laurie and me. He told me there might be an open space in the land co-op.
We could use some new blood up here, he said.
I knew even then that I couldn’t move in for a bunch of reasons. The weather was too drippy, the woods too dense, the hippie legacy heavy as goat’s beard moss hanging from a silver fir. Dylan whined on a turntable-You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go-and suddenly I felt claustrophobic.
I haven’t yet grown my web feet, I said.
A lame answer. He’d been reaching out, and I’d turned to tourist cliché.
The room looked different. Not just the mildew in the community hall, built to mimic a Native American long-house or the scratchy outdated Blood on the Tracks. My friends were in their forties. Their sinewy bodies had worn knobby and off-kilter from too much physical labor. Their relationships had cracked under stress. What in the suburbs might have seemed like every day middle aged crises, out here scared me sick. They’d been so idealistic; they’d worked so hard. And still their connection to this bucolic place-with its green trees, wide rivers, tall mountains, cozy cabins-seemed tenuous.
I raced back home, and switched on Lyle Lovett. If I had a boat I’d ride out in the ocean. If I had a pony, I’d ride it on my boat.
Or maybe I’d just walk. Over the next two decades, I hiked ten thousand miles, more or less, working on trails through the mountains and forests, by creeks too loud to hear yourself think and past views so stunning words won’t ever do: blue glaciers and wildflower meadows and a thousand peaks staggering out toward the horizon like jagged incisors, like sails on the wind. Laurie and I did settle in, not in the Skagit but just over the crest in Stehekin – a word that means “the Way Through,” a place named for a narrow pass at the head of the valley that native people used for trade – where we built a cabin and screened soil for a garden. Hand tools and bonfires and trees, trees, trees! Life was good.
And over time it grew old. One night I left camp and hiked three miles at dusk just to sleep in my own bed, and then I woke at dawn to return the woods. In that jingle jangle morning light, watching the early bustling of folks in the valley with plain green envy, something broke. I wasn’t sure I could keep doing trail work. I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I’d later say the problem was my body – knobby, yes, off-kilter, sure – but really, my body was fine, just fine, maybe not as strong as it once was, but a whole lot tougher. The problem was that I was lonely, maybe, or bored or plain tired. The problem was that I felt disconnected from almost everything save my small crew and the dirt I slept on.
If I had a pony, I’m telling you, I’d ride it on my boat.
Right then, the superhighway came charging in. Up until that point high ridges, wilderness regulation, and plain Luddite tradition that had kept roads and even telephones out of Stehekin. Telephones! And we liked it that way! Now satellite dishes sprouted like mushrooms on one cabin then the next. We were slow to connect, among the last. You’re either part of the problem, I figured, or part of the solution. But after that morning when trails lost their luster, I signed us up. Just like that. Here it was: the answer! A hunk of plastic the size of a small child’s saucer sled perched on a galvanized post among the tall firs designed to send a signal to a hunk of metal in the sky and back down. At least as ridiculous as a pony on a boat. And just as liberating.
No one needs me to recount the riches of the Internet, twenty years late, like the sweet baubles gleaned in trade. Email, of course. (Remember: we had no phone.) But so much more: politics, music, books, Latin names for plants, recipes for Swiss chard, statistics on bear populations. My world could not have changed more if I’d moved to Uzbekistan. What was the Internet the answer to? Restlessness. Ignorance. Loneliness. Middle-age. Everything.
When I was a kid outside Los Angeles, the so-called freeway capital of the world, we didn’t use the freeways that much. Not daily, at least. Surface streets got us kids to school, my parents to work. We used the freeway to get away. To go to Disneyland or Angels games or to the Museum of Science and Industry. Mostly to the beach. Forty five miles on three freeways. Six lanes each way, through Anaheim Hills past Corona, dry hills waiting to burn, then into the thickness, the sheen of Orange County until the ocean showed on the horizon like a thick swatch of oil paint, bluer than blue, the wide expanse of mystery and seduction. That’s how the Internet was at first.
Suddenly I lived in not one small community, but several. Most of them virtual. I wrote for editors online. I taught classes online. I had friends online who I’d write to daily but never met in person. I could connect with them any time from my solitary desk, from my mother’s hospital bed in California, from motel rooms when I traveled. From anywhere to anywhere. The friendships grew like all good connections, slowly over time. As did the amount of time I spent on my ass.
What I didn’t understand in those nearly ancient discussions of modem cowboys was that it wasn’t just that they would raise property taxes or that they wouldn’t contribute to the local economy or even – the reason that most miffed me at the time – that they wouldn’t earn their keep the old fashioned way, out in the rain in logger boots. It was that they’d both be there and not be there, like the residents of a bedroom community. Their real lives would be somewhere else.
Turns out the problem with Information Superhighway wasn’t the people who would come speeding into the woods but the ones – like me! – who would speed virtually away. Kind of like Cascade Pass, the trade route, the Way Through. Surely it made life richer. But it came with a price. No doubt the ancient Stehekinites worried about the strangers who would pass over, those who might decide to stay or to take the wealth and leave. But more often than not, I’d imagine, the problem was those who hoofed it over the pass and never returned. Opening borders is always a tenuous prospect.
Some 40,000 people were displaced in the 1960s when Interstate 5 came through downtown Seattle, the radio reported tonight. City officials and federal highway planners figured it to be the answer. The answer to what? To everything! Connecting the West Coast north-to-south, sure, but also to urban blight. That displacing was not by accident. As I sit and wait for the page to load so I can read the transcript of the story, I worry: have I displaced myself?
Here are my complaints: I can’t watch You Tube or talk on Skype. I can download photos but not upload them. I can stream radio but not in high quality sound. When it rains, I lose my connection or else it slows to a crawl. It might take twenty seconds for an email to send, full minute with an attachment. See? My life is hard.
If someday I get high speed Internet, I sometimes think I’ll have more time for other things. But I suspect I’ll just have more time for high speed Internet. That’s how addiction works, isn’t it? You’ll drink what you have. You’ll need more to get high. And it’s not just personal; it’s everybody needing it at once. (So many of us sitting on our asses!) The truth about those California freeways I knew as a kid is that they were not fast moving at all, but clogged bumper to bumper the entire way to the beach and home, six lanes either way. Other people may remember even older routes – the back roads and city streets of yesteryear – but it’s hard for me to believe they were any slower than the unmoving 91 on a glary afternoon. Anymore, if I lived in Southern California, I don’t think I’d bother going to the beach. I’d just stay home.
Some of those old hippies I knew and loved still live in the Skagit. They stayed put on that narrow two-lane highway, in those drippy long winters and the doghair forests, and I admire them for that. Just as I admire my sister for staying in the suburb where we grew up. I have always had a desperate admiration for those who lay claim and sit steady. I aspire to it, I believe in it, and until now, until the last ten or twelve years, I’ve almost always failed. Maybe the Internet will help change that. Maybe I can have my cake and eat it too: stay put and still sally forth.
Here’s the truth: I want the Internet. I do not think that giving it up would improve my life or my commitment to my neighbors or to this lovely place. I used to wear a Walkman in the woods in the pre-Ipod days and would face genuine scorn from hikers on the trail more often than not. Can’t you do without it? the scorners seemed to think. Even for a short time? I could, but I chose not to. I knew that I walked faster, worked harder, thought clearer, felt happier with it on. So why take it off? Ditto for the Internet. My life is richer for it. But sometimes (right now?) I need to shut the damned thing off. My slow connection dictates that; it curbs the speed-greed that seems the bane of our culture, the very stuff I meant to chuck when I left Southern California twenty-five years ago. My slow connection is the best thing I’ve got. And I hate it.
Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes happily in remote Stehekin, Washington, where there are no phones, no stoplights, no taverns and no churches, but a very pretty river and many many trees. Her next book, Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness, comes out in spring; her book Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus: A Daughter’s Civil Rights Journey won the 2009 River Teeth Literary Nonfiction Prize.