Virulent Word of Mouse

August 27, 2009

Connectivity where the buffalo roam

Virtually every August my wife and I leave Illinois, head west, and take our children to places with little or no connectivity. Though lack of Internet and cell phone service, per se’, might attract some people, these do not motivate us to visit unconnected locations. Lack of connectivity just happens to come along with beautiful and remote natural beauty, such as found in mountains and national parks.

We took our first trip of this sort more than a decade ago, after the birth of our first child. The lack of connectivity hardly entered into our conscientiousness then. As I recall, we rented a house in Tahoe and it lacked Internet access. I just let the email pile up on a server at work. I do not recall if we even brought both cell phones with us. It was no big deal.

Things have changed. That goes for both the destination and the dependence on communication. That is the point of these musings. Our recent foibles illustrate how communications became embedded in every day patterns; it has risen far above “no big deal” and become an everyday priority. This post will illustrate how the lack of connectivity turned out to be central to this summer’s vacation experience.

Perhaps others will relate to this experience. I do not sense that our experience was unusual. My wife and I do not differ in many respects from others in our use of on-line and wireless services. The importance of communication just crept up on us.

More concretely, at first it did not matter. Then some years ago we began dialing in from wherever we happened to be on these trips. Then I began to search out cyber café’s. My kids grew accustomed to their father mysteriously leaving every couple of mornings to get a coffee and check his email. This year both my wife and I brought along mobile devices that have voice, email and web capabilities. In other words, demographically speaking, my wife and I are not frontier users of the Internet and cell phones, nor do we employ information technology as intensively as a teenager, but we are not laggards either.

If the Bison had cell service, what would they do with it?

This summer we went to northern Wyoming, visiting Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton National Park. This year I anticipated some of the struggle with the following tongue-in-cheek automated email response:

“I am away until August 31. I am doing field work with my family on the availability of commercial services meeting universal service goals for advanced communications technologies in remote parts of Yellowstone National Park. I will have limited email access while this field work continues. Sorry for any delays.”

This message pokes fun at my own research interests. Some years ago Tom Downes and I investigated the spread of the Internet to low density locations, making maps of where commercial firms offered service. But I digress.

The automated message turned out to be prophetic.  We stayed in two locations during this vacation. That translated into two distinctly different types of experience, one in a place with little connectivity, and the other in a place with quite a lot. The difference in our reaction was telling.

We started without much connectivity. For the first five nights we stayed just outside the Eastern entrance to Yellowstone, at a cozy place called the Shoshone Lodge. I would recommend the place. One morning a buck with only partially formed antlers came near our cabin to eat the nearby grass for breakfast — that experience is pretty hard to beat. If we go back to this part of the country I would happily go back there.

“Lodge” is a bit misleading as a label. There is a building called the Lodge, but most people experience it as the front desk and a large dining area. Most visitors sleep in one of 21 cabins. It all resides on a lovely little property three miles away from the eastern entrance to Yellowstone.  It is on Highway 20, which connects Yellowstone with Cody, a city about an hour away from the eastern entrance. This is in the Shoshone National Forest.

The grandfather of the present proprietor, Mike, established the lodge long before the Federal government took control of the forest (giving new meaning to being “grandfathered in”). Mike took over a while ago, and – judging from the enthusiastic reaction of locals to learning we were staying there – he brought some new energy to the lodge, sprucing up the place in a variety of ways.

I noticed the connectivity. Mike had satellite Internet service to his office, and ran a couple wifi routers out of it for the cabins. This worked just fine for email as long as (1) my computer was reasonably close to Mike’s office; and (2) Mike’s office computer was on, which it was most mornings until the early evening. That would have been fine for most people, but it was mildly incompatible with the way my wife and I operate. We rarely rest and relax on vacation.

More to the point, we often did not have much time in the morning to use Mike’s Internet. We have four kids under the age of 13, and, though the older ones have begun to display traces of self-sufficiency, they collectively require considerable attention in the morning. There was time to check the weather online, and maybe scan email, but not much more. You see, Yellowstone is a big place and covering ground requires an early start. Usually by the time we got home from a day in the park Mike had gone to bed and turned off his computer. For this and other reasons, the emails piled up on servers at work.

Lack of service

Once we stepped a few yards off the property, the situation was not any better. There was no cell phone service in the Shoshone Forest or on much of Highway 20, for that matter, not until we got reasonably close to Cody. The ranches and lodges along the highway must get their phone service the old fashioned way, with a landline. <sarcasm alert> Altogether, this was the sort of territory that makes the Motorola Iridium project look like a good idea. <end of sarcasm>

The Forest Service is not to blame. I know from firsthand experience in the Sierras that cell phone companies can and do place cell towers in some pretty remote locations, even in national forest land, if it supports auto traffic. For example, Highway 80 – which supports lots of car traffic between Reno and Sacramento with a Tahoe turnoff in between – has pretty good coverage through the Sierras. Responsibility for the lack of cell coverage on Highway 20 outside Yellowstone must lay with AT&T, who happens to be my carrier. Somebody inside that firm must have decided there was insufficient traffic to support the cost of installing towers, and maintaining them, and so on.

Mike is trying to revise a moribund ski resort next to his lodge (like I said, the guy has brought some new energy to the place). Perhaps that will bring more traffic through and AT&T will change its mind then.

There was just no way around the lack of service. Mike had a policy of letting all customers at the Shoshone Lodge use the phone at the front desk. That was a nice gesture, and helped us schedule a few things, but it had its limits. Many customers wanted to use the phone, as did the hotel staff. In addition, though the lobby was nice, it was not private. Nobody would want to have a private conversation in such a public location.

In other words, we were not entirely cutoff, but it was a bit like living with phone service of, um, the late 1970s. It is still pretty civilized, just not what my wife and I have grown accustomed to.

Yellowstone itself was only mildly better. Cell phone service was non-existent except at the most popular locations, such as the geyser, Old Faithful (more in a minute). Many interesting locations were dead zones – such as the big plains where, um, the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play. (By the way, there are no antelope in North America. The species is called pronghorn. But, once again, I digress). To put it bluntly, most of Yellowstone is a deadzone, or “off-the-grid,” as my friend Joshua Gans cheerfully said about the place.

In short, finding connectivity became a priority. On multiple occasions my wife and I would discuss whether we had connections when we reached a destination, often coming up empty. To say it another way, when we had connectivity, we used it intensively.

Here is an example of the result. We each – somewhat pathetically – stood with our devices reading messages while standing with our kids waiting for Old Faithful to go off. We went to that geyser on two occasions, and on the second visit Old Faithful erupted more than ten minutes late. That was a relief, as I got through all my messages.

Here is another example. On our fourth day of vacation we took the children to Cody, the town established by “Buffalo Bill” Cody – yes, the same guy who toured the world more than a hundred years ago with a Wild West show, starring himself, Annie Oakley and the rest. We went to Cody to ride the Whitewater, visit the hotel Buffalo Bill built, and observe an authentic rodeo. At the latter we were pathetic again. While the cowboys and cowgirls roped cattle and bucked horses and bulls, my wife and I sat behind our children, reading our iPhone and BlackBerry, respectively. We were out of place.

This is what I am trying to say. Even though we were in one of the most beautiful and engaging locations on the planet, we could not go even five days without checking our email or making phone calls. And despite some pretty poor conditions, we made effort to do so.

A comparison

Our dependence on connectivity became even more evident when we moved locations. The constraint lifted and, accordingly, our behavior changed.

As planned, after five days we moved to new digs in Teton Village, just south of Grand Teton National Park. The primary city, Jackson, has a permanent year-round population about the same as Cody, just over 8K.

There end the similarities. The surrounding area supports quite a few more developments, and the amount of tourist traffic is much higher. The demographics of the visitors also differed — we encountered a few visitors to Jackson who flew in for a short visit, expected/demanded the same type of service they receive in Manhattan, and whose behavior would have set back urban/rural relations by a decade had they visited any of the attractions in Cody. Not surprisingly, the cell phone service was much better.

There we stayed at the Teton Mountain Lodge in Teton Village, which is seven miles from Jackson (yes, I would recommend this one for its “soothing service and modernity”). The lodge really was not a lodge, once again. It was more like condominiums embedded in a building with most of the trappings of a upscale hotel — concierge waiting to answer questions and arrange things, aspiring restaurant on the ground floor, a door man to help with luggage, nature photographs on the walls (for sale), a real estate agent nearby, and trendy bars within a stone’s throw. We were not exactly high rollers — we just bought our own food at the grocery store, made our own meals in the kitchen, and mostly avoided the local social scene — but the concierge was useful, and so were the local restaurants for a birthday meal.

More to the point, the Internet worked, and so did the cell phone service, so long as we stayed within a few miles of Jackson. Our mobile devices even worked in parts of the park — not everywhere, to be sure, but enough to sate our obsessive checking a couple times a day. And the service surprised us occasionally. For example, we got it on a hike up to the Hidden Falls and Inspiration Point, just behind Jenny Lake, which is one of the loveliest spots on the planet.

Because we had such frequent service my wife and I stopped talking about it. The Internet and cellular phone service blended into the background, almost fading from view. It became like all infrastructure on which we depend. That gave the second five days of our trip a different color than the first five days.

Parting lesson

What did we learn about communication in the land of the bison? A decent Internet or cell phone connection was not as ubiquitous as the sewage or water system. The availability of connectivity was comparable to the availability of a hamburger or ice cream, but with one difference. It was easier to go a day without fast food.

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