As I See It: Restless
September 23, 2019 Victor Rozek
The more entangled I become with technology the more restless I feel when I’m away from it. The nervous system gets accustomed to the stimulation, the steady drip of dopamine from the little validations, the comforting illusion of wide-ranging intimacy, the ease of attachment without exertion. The Internet is fast food for lazy, twitchy synapses. And I’ve become conditioned to crave it.
Like an alcoholic past due for a drink, I look around for my digital bottle.
It’s on the coffee table. A swipe of a finger and I have access to a distorted world of dramatic headlines, lurid images, and meaningless filler; click bait for those not too finicky about mental nourishment. It’s all there: the racist tweets, the weekly mass shootings, the cute dogs, the cage-fighting women, the dilettante bending the knee to the dictator. And a lot of what used to be called “celebrity scandal” but now is just brand marketing; not to mention the latest contrived drama staring one or more surgically-enhanced Kardashian.
In truth, I could care less about most of it. Internet content is often toxic and habitually mindless. The things I do care about are typically presented without much nuance or context; it’s dine, dash, and repeat. I know these things, and yet there I sit scrolling compulsively, like a trained pet replicating a learned behavior in hope of getting a treat.
Which is pathetic and how I know it’s time to detox.
For me that means only one thing: wilderness. The Southern-most jewel in the Cascade crown is Mt. Lassen in Northern California. It’s a volcanic region where the Earth gave birth to itself and celebrated with pyrotechnics. And, it is the only place in the country where you can see all four types of volcanoes: composite, shield, cinder cone, and lava dome. It also has another virtue: cell phone coverage is spotty and uncertain on the single road that traverses this national park. In the backcountry, it’s virtually nonexistent.
That’s where I’m headed.
One of the great values of wilderness, and a reason it has the power to cleanse, is its elemental nature. Almost nothing you need to survive, thrive, and remain safe in city settings matters much in the wilderness. The backcountry is a great leveler. The status-determining material clutter so important back home means nothing here. None of the affectations, titles, or honors matter. None of the programming, system administration, or database management skills are of much use when city-dwelling, latte-drinking, tweeting, texting, technology-dependent beings, find themselves miles from the nearest trail, wandering a vast, uninhabited, and largely alien landscape.
Even credit cards, those little emblems of affluence that amplify financial power, instant gratification and boundless choice, become what they originally were – worthless pieces of plastic. While the value of paper money is reduced to fire starter.
Wilderness reminds us who we are without the trappings and gadgets. It gives us an opportunity to rediscover our essence (and innocence) before we were painted with layer upon layer of progress, expectation, and refinement.
There are only three rules in the wilderness: Drink before you’re thirsty; rest before you’re tired; and get warm before you get cold. Although it also helps to know where you’re going and how to find your way back when the GPS fails.
As I begin to pick my way through forest debris, the first thing I am reminded of is that, unlike cities covered in cement icing, unlike technology which, for all its connective power, is cold and impersonal, everything here is alive. Not just the towering firs and pines, or the hardy Manzanita, or the alpine grasses, or the dazzling wildflowers, or the thick riparian vegetation. Just one teaspoon of dirt can hold up to a billion bacteria, several yards of fungal filaments, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes. Above, invisible insects sail on shifting winds. Below, worker ants in colonies that span hundreds of acres, commute in secret tunnels. Things seen and unseen that form the complex fabric of life. From a ridge top I look out over seemingly endless forest, hundreds of acres of which could not adapt to the rapidly changing climate and stand lifeless and barren. The Earth is our lifeboat, and its fabric is fraying.
I breathe it all in as I climb the spine of the ridge. My breathing is controlled but deep. Most people are chronically under-oxygenated. Sitting at desks, looking at screens, requires little exertion. Here, my cells are hungry for oxygen and I feed them. And while computers are primarily visual/kinesthetic devices, here, my other neglected senses come alive.
I can smell the sweet scent of butterscotch pine, the tang of wild mint, the subtle fragrance of silverleaf lupine. Even before I hear it, I can smell the nearby creek running full and angry with deep-snow runoff. I can feel the slight drop in temperature on my skin and taste the moisture permeating the air.
I have to cross this creek and here I get in touch with my vulnerability. The likelihood of injury goes up substantially during stream crossings. A badly sprained ankle would be problematic. A broken bone, incapacitating. I carry a whistle in my pack but even on the slim chance that another person was in the area, against the roar of the water and the muffling effect of trees, it’s about as useful as the credit cards in my wallet.
But risk often partners with faith. Here, I take calculated risks with faith in my own abilities. Back home much of that faith is transferred to technology that is often created to minimize certain kinds of risks, but unintentionally creates others. Just ask the families of Boeing 737 Max passengers, perhaps the first people ever to be killed by software in a non-military context.
As beautiful and life affirming as nature can be, it is also vast and, like technology, indifferent. In its many forms and hues it is a wondrous backdrop, and although it sustains us, it doesn’t care about us. It is humbling to realize I am no more significant than the forest debris crunching beneath my boots or the decaying log I step over. Through countless eons nature has hosted an unimaginable variety of life. But it doesn’t care if it is populated by humans, tree frogs, or three-headed trilobites. It will endure long after the last of our kind is gone. It’s an eloquent reminder of the blinding limitations of ego: I am a part, not apart.
There is a crater on the flanks of Mount Lassen. Its sides are very steep, mostly loose volcanic rock, covered with thick Manzanita. I pick my way through the maze of vegetation, my feet sliding on the loose pebbles. Eventually I make my way inside the crater. It is a crescent-shaped cathedral, with a shallow bowl and towering stone walls.
I have been without technology for four days now, exploring the inner and outer landscape, and perhaps the most important thing wandering in the backcountry has re-taught me, is to be present in every moment. When distraction is not an option, what’s right before me is enough, I don’t need to scroll for self-soothing, and the restlessness and small desperations evaporate. I come down the mountain feeling peaceful, confident, and self-contained. Even without the amplifying power of technology, I am enough.
Driving home, my cell phone is on the seat next to me. Even though I didn’t hear it ping, I pick it up and glance at it anyway. Old habits die hard.