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WILD WEST CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

Asserting the right to go unplugged

Election day escapees dodge the nattering masses on hilltop trails and in duck blinds. Freedom of choice, indeed.

November 02, 2004|CHRISTOPHER REYNOLDS

CHANCES ARE YOU'RE WELL-WIRED TODAY, ONE EYE ON the Internet, another on a news channel, antacids at hand. But on this tossup election day, some Americans just can't bear to look.

While the rest of us gulp down data and speculation, these people will be romping in fresh Sierra snow, or kneeling in duck blinds, strolling in the park or roaring down singletrack red rock trails, unrepentantly unplugged.

"The fate of the free world is important, but not enough to disrupt hiking," said Mike Eberts, a 49-year-old mass communications teacher at Glendale Community College.

Eberts, who has hiked twice a week in Griffith Park for the last 20 years and has written a book about the place, expects to cover a 5-mile round-trip route with a Sierra Club group tonight. They'll top off at Mt. Hollywood overlooking the Hollywood sign, probably about the time Dan Rather starts hollering about the early returns.

Some take this evasive action because they care so little. For others, it's because they care so much; they've cast their ballot in advance and realize matters are out of their hands. Either way, it's easy to see the temptation of leaf peeping, or mountain climbing, or deer hunting or kayak paddling, versus a six-hour huddle with Brit Hume.

When the polls opened today, 66-year-old Bill Nichols, a ranch manager in the Owens Valley, planned to be sighting ducks at Green Head Hunting Club outside Fallon, Nev. While the rest of the country counts toward 270 electoral votes, he'll be counting to seven -- the duck limit in Nevada. His only company: a yellow Labrador named Amy.

"I'll start a half an hour before sunrise," said Nichols, who voted absentee. As for the returns, "I have a lot of curiosity, but there's no sense wasting my time worrying about it.... It's gonna be pretty ugly."

On election day four years ago, "I watched it until very, very late in the evening, because of the Florida situation," said Joe Lacey, a 47-year-old business owner from Lake Tahoe. This year, having voted by mail, he'll be fly fishing in the Eastern Sierra, and sleeping in a cabin at Hot Creek Ranch, without telephone or television.

"We'll fish all day. In fact, I'll be there all week," said Lacey. "I wouldn't say whether it was conscious or unconscious, but frankly, I'm kind of glad to be away."

Meanwhile in Moab, Utah, "I'll be riding," said Billy Snyder, a 32-year-old mountain bike shop worker. "Probably Porcupine Rim."

Snyder, who voted absentee in Texas, figures that trail -- 20 miles of red rock and technical challenges, including a 3,000-foot descent to the edge of the Colorado River -- will take him three hours or more. But he'll be in no hurry to get home, he said, because "we don't even have a TV."

This is not a trend sweeping the nation. Some outdoorsy destinations will be just as lonely as usual, maybe lonelier. At Channel Islands National Park -- which would, by the way, make a fine St.-Helena-on-the-Pacific for somebody's political exile -- not a single overnight camper had booked Tuesday night. (Given the season and day of the week, spokeswoman Yvonne Menard reported, that's typical.)

Terry Prichard, who co-owns Sea Kayak Adventures and spends a big chunk of the year at sea off Canada and Mexico, will be plugged in at his Idaho home. But he's seen the rewards of walking away from civilization on a difficult day.

In September 2002, Prichard recalled, he was leading paddlers in the Johnstone Strait, between Vancouver Island and mainland British Columbia. The group included three friends from New York. One had seen the towers fall from his office window the year before.

On the anniversary of the attacks, Prichard said, "they wanted to be out of the city, in the outdoors." And that night, at their remote campsite, "it was very calm. One of the New Yorkers had brought prayer candles. We all made little cedar boats and put candles on them. And everybody launched their little boat into the sea.... You could see them drift a long way, and everybody took a moment of silence."

Back on the day of the 2000 presidential election, Jim Sano of San Francisco was one of 15 Americans, Republicans and Democrats, aboard a Russian icebreaker, on the 18th day of a voyage tracing the explorer Ernest Shackleton's 1916 route through Antarctica.

While distant chads dangled, their ship heaved in seas of 25 to 30 feet. The winds approached force 10. Yet every several hours, one of the Russian radio operators would catch a brief burst of BBC news about the U.S. election returns, and the officers would summon the Americans to the bridge to listen in.

United as they were in the same boat, the Americans did not stoop to partisan squabbling. Some shrugged the election off, but others woke at odd hours and padded upstairs to plead for updates. Of course, there was no resolution. Not at landfall in Ushuaia, at the tip of South America. Not in Buenos Aires, and not in Miami, where their return flight to the U.S. landed.

"It was surreal," said Sano. "The rest of the country was on the edge of their seats and getting barraged by the media left and right. And here we were getting maybe 30-second snippets every half a day."

One minute per 24 hours: That seems a healthy ratio, and an efficient investment of time, especially on a day when millions squander hour upon hour. And in truth, it may be a more reasonable goal to aim for than full electoral ignorance.

Remember Mike Eberts, the Griffith Park hiker? Under questioning, he confesses: In one pocket tonight, he'll probably carry a transistor radio.

To e-mail Christopher Reynolds or read his previous Wild West columns, go to latimes.com/chrisreynolds.

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