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21st century solitude

Staff writer Dan Neil takes on Joshua Tree National Park alone, except for his GPS, his PLB, his 9505A sat phone and (of course) his U2-loaded iPod. He's getting away -- but not getting away from it all. Is that so bad?

May 04, 2008|Dan Neil | Times Staff Writer

JOSHUA TREE NATIONAL PARK — "Whoso walketh in solitude, and inhabiteth the wood . . . into that forester shall pass . . . power and grace." -- Ralph Waldo Emerson

But what if I snap my ankle? Or blow a cardiac gasket? Or fall or get stuck on a mountain where I can't go up or down, what climbers call getting "cliffed out"? What then, Ralph Waldo? I won't give a tinker's damn about power and grace then. I'm going to be looking for that orange-and-white rescue whirligig in the sky. Swing low, sweet Stokes litter.

Going solo into the backcountry -- or on a sailboat around Catalina, or on a mountain bike in Moab, Utah, for that matter -- always implies a trade-off, the exchange of safety for reverie. Nearly always, the risk is worth it, and for all the reasons Emerson made a career of. To be alone in big-N nature is to challenge yourself, to calibrate yourself, to fully inhabit the body you were born with, to feel the chill of the absolute run up your spine.

But things can go very wrong. The patron saint of doomed solitary rapture is Chris McCandless, the subject of last year's film "Into the Wild," based on the Jon Krakauer book. In 1992, the smart and charismatic McCandless marched into the Alaskan bush desiring nothing more than to disconnect from civilization utterly, a transcendentalist Garbo wanting to be alone. He never walked out.

It's my life's ambition not to be the subject of a Krakauer book. I have kids, a wife, a cat who'd miss me terribly. But sometimes, I want to be alone too. Why? Because I have kids, a wife, a cat etc. And so, for my planned six-day solo hike across Joshua Tree National Park, I have armed myself with the latest generation of backcountry electronics, devices that split the difference between the pleasures of being alone and the potential for dying alone -- call it "e-survival."

Hiker's little helpers

To navigate 75 miles of gorgeous but punishing chaparral, I've brought along a Garmin Colorado 400t GPS unit, with which I've electronically marked the water caches I buried earlier in the week while driving across the park. If I fail to find even one of these caches, I will wind up very miserable or worse. Also on my utility belt is an ACR Microfix 406 Personal Locator Beacon. Essentially one big panic button, when activated the unit sends a signal to a station monitored by the Air Force, which in turn mobilizes search-and-rescue resources.

In 2007, PLBs helped rescue 88 people in 38 incidents. Between these two devices, I cannot get lost, and I cannot help but be found.

Finally, I'm carrying the mother of all communications devices, an Iridium 9505A satellite phone. Heavy, expensive but hugely versatile, the sat-phone is the high-tech prayer line, dial-a-deliverance for hikers in a jam. I also have a Solio Classic solar charger for my iPod, which is loaded with U2's "The Joshua Tree." I know. So predictable.

It all adds up to about 7 pounds of hardware and batteries, a small anvil of circuitry in my 40-pound backpack. But there's another burden, and it occurs to me only as I trudge away from my truck, parked at the park's northwestern entrance. In the process of making myself safer, I've changed the experiment, the backcountry experience.

Short of being hit by an asteroid, I will probably not encounter any critical situation that can't be remedied with a press of a button or a dial of the sat-phone. Foreclosing the possibility of a defining moment, have I turned soul-searching in the wilderness into mere sightseeing? What would Ralph Waldo say?

Upward bound

Day 1, Black Rock Canyon to Upper Covington Flat: This was supposed to be the easy day, a warmup, a distance of a mere 8 miles. Yet the gentle uphill slope that seems so manageable in the orderly 3-D topographic display of the Garmin turns out to be a thigh-killing trudge through ankle-deep kitty litter. My heart is going like crazy. The sun is beating through the crown of my hat. My pack feels as though I'm carrying my own corpse in it.

Garmin users can plot their route on their home computer, then download it to the hand-held device, generating an elevation "profile" for the terrain covered. This information would have been useful in my trip planning because 8 miles of uphill exertion equals 16 miles downhill. Unfortunately, Garmin does not yet make Mac-compatible software for its devices. Breathing heavily and feeling resentful, I fantasize about a Mac-versus-PC commercial in which the hip young Mac dude is face down in the sand, being picked at by vultures.

With all its easy-to-sort readouts -- odometer, altitude and real-time guidance to way points -- the Garmin seems like an utterly vital piece of equipment. Yet I am having a hard time relying on it solely. I frequently stop to consult my conventional map and compass, which, by the way, never need batteries. Advantage: map and compass.

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