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The New West: Yes, we’re all addicts but do we have the will to unplug?



CREDIT: David J Swift

CREDIT: David J Swift

Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Those ingenious marvels of technology we carry in our hands—the deceivingly addictive screens of Huxleyan soma that literally, according to scientists, are rewiring our brains and altering the way we behave; the gadgets so many can’t live without or put down, accompany us everywhere, in order to confirm we exist.

How are cell phones disrupting the outdoor experience and becoming a bane to those who wish to unplug? I offer two seemingly disparate data points that invite reflection.

To begin, imagine this: You have reached a backcountry hideaway few others know about. You’ve pulled out the phone, posed for the requisite selfie and then posted it to Instagram along with a geotag. For a place you once held dear as special and secret, the result of your action is you’ve just provided GPS coordinates—therefore the location—to all of your friends and, if they share your picture, all of their friends too.

How many sanctuaries have been despoiled by loose lips or guide books? And how could this seemingly benign little feature of Instagram accelerate the loss of more?

Maybe you read the recent story “Is Instagram Ruining the Great Outdoors?” on Outside magazine online? Christopher Solomon’s excellent piece begins: “The great outdoors is all over social media. On Instagram, the hashtag #nature has been used more than 20 million times. Attach a geotag to your photo of last weekend’s campsite, and your followers can tramp to the exact same spot.”

Solomon interviewed Ben Lawhon, education director at the Leave No Trace Center for Outdoor Ethics, who said, “Most people do not wake up and say, ‘How can I harm the earth today?’ What it boils down to is a lack of awareness, a lack of knowledge.”

That’s hard to argue, but what’s the solution?

Should there be cell phone-free wildlands? I’ve been doing some spring hiking in the Bridger Mountains near Bozeman and each morning encountered the same group of mountain bikers with wireless ear buds, the sounds of muffled heavy metal so loud I could almost feel the guitar riffs as they passed.

When I offered salutations, one pointed to his helmet and waved his hand, indicating he couldn’t hear a word I was saying. (It could just as easily have been trail runners or equestrians because I’ve seen both with headphones.)

If one desires a workout accompanied by an artificial soundtrack, why does it have to happen in a wildland? What’s the point of cruising a national forest trail if you’re unaware of the singing meadowlarks or the perilous crashing sounds of a large mammal hidden in the brush only a few feet away?

Now, data point No. 2: The Masters Golf Tournament. A few years back, the folks at Augusta National Golf Club, where The Masters is played, pre-emptively implemented a ban on cellphones, deeming them disrespectful nuisances and distractions.

Despite protests, the rules have remained firm: “Cell phones, beepers and other electronic devices are strictly prohibited on the grounds at all times. Cameras are strictly prohibited on Tournament days (Thursday-Sunday) but allowed on practice rounds days (Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday). Anyone violating this policy will be subject to removal from the grounds and the permanent loss of credentials (tickets).” 

Analogous to a poaching offense, some offenders have been permanently banned from ever being able to get tickets again.

Is drawing lines in the sand (trap) really such a bad thing? “I just don’t think [allowing cell phones] is appropriate,” tournament chairman Billy Payne said in a recent story published by Business Insider. “The noise is an irritation to not only the players, the dialing, the conversation, it’s a distraction. And that’s the way we have chosen to deal with it.” 

Libertarians might argue that one person’s right to have their cell phone ring or their selfie taken at a golf tournament, theater, church or wilderness shouldn’t be abridged by those who find it offensive.

Is an experience in nature all about us, or does it involve giving ourselves over to a place on its elemental terms? If we don’t chronicle ourselves standing on the mountain, does it mean we weren’t there? If we don’t mug for the viewfinder holding a fish in our hands and post it on Facebook, does it mean the trip to the river wasn’t “successful” or that our memory of the catch and, more importantly, quiet time on the water, wasn’t good enough?

Getting away from it all clearly doesn’t mean the same as it used to.

Todd Wilkinson is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about the West for more than 30 years and his column the New West has been widely read in the Greater Yellowstone region for nearly as long. He writes his column every week, and it’s published on on EBS off weeks. You can also read and get signed copies of his latest book, “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” a story about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly 399 featuring photographs by Thomas Mangelsen at

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