I stood at the display counter of my outdoor retailer looking at the array of satellite communication devices: a SPOT Messenger; a DeLorme inReach that promised 100-percent global coverage to send and receive text messages (“stay safe and connected anywhere in the world”); a personal locator beacon (PLB) that could summon a full-cavalry rescue at the flip of a switch.
Pocket-sized peace of mind for the price of a good restaurant meal? How could I resist?
Years ago the thought of carrying such a thing barely crossed my mind. Satellite phones and PLBs were expensive and rare. Going on a wilderness trip meant, by definition, being completely out of touch, disconnecting from civilization to connect with something greater, with essential truths. To discover, as Thoreau expressed in Walden: “a hard bottom and rocks in place, which we can call reality.”
Things generally worked out. A broken leg on a canoe portage was splinted and rushed into town by a couple of fast paddlers; a case of suspected appendicitis ended in a helicopter evacuation after we found a remote outpost with a telephone. Calling home at trip’s end involved an inevitable rush of missed news, both good and bad.
But now that we can carry civilization in our pockets, as we gain the ability to make a phone call in the wild, do we lose the ability to hear the call of the wild itself?
Back in the 1980s, academics and avid outdoorsmen Leo McAvoy and...