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Should Campgrounds and Parks Offer Wi-Fi?

September 14, 2011 by   - () Leave a Comment

Photo courtesy of Adventure Journal.

Editor’s Note: The following opinion piece was written by Steve Casimiro and appeared in Adventure Journal, an online magazine devoted to outdoor adventure in all its forms. He can be reached at steve@stevecasimiro.com.

Earlier this summer, I organized a neighborhood camping trip to California’s San Jacinto Mountains with four families and 20-some people. We pitched our tents in a rustic Forest Service campground, with no host, no running water, pit toilets, and, despite the encroaching ubiquity of phone towers across the land, no cell signal. Once we turned off pavement and onto dirt, we went dark.

It was absolute bliss. There was no temptation to check email, baseball scores, or Facebook. The grownups talked. And the kids — the kids were amazing. They did what kids do when there’s no digital opiate — they climbed rocks, explored, threw pine cones at each other, made up games, and shortly before sunset decided they wanted to pitch a tent a quarter mile up the mountain, where they could be more wildernessy.

Unplugging has benefits that probably don’t need to be listed here. One of the biggest draws of going into the backcountry, after all, is that it’s a refuge from the 24/7 connected demands of modern life. We all know this.

The other, hugely powerful side of the equation is that those same demands of modern life often mean we can’t disconnect. The strict mores of professionalism have relaxed dramatically in the last 20 years, fueled to a great extent by the flattening and empowering forces of portable technology, but the cost of a more chill working structure also means that work has bled into our once-personal lives like paint on watercolor paper. You’re allowed to leave the office, but you can’t unplug — not if you want to do your job right, anyway.

Meanwhile, private campgrounds are adding Wi-Fi as quickly as they can, and national parks are wrestling with the issue of whether and where digital signals should be allowed. In 2009, Yellowstone developed a new wireless communication plan that recognized that cell phone and internet signals are inappropriate in certain areas, including the backcountry and campgrounds. It strove to balance the desires of homo digitus with the timeless hunger for solitude and peace — an effort that might be fruitless in the face of ever-spreading cell networks.

If we had self-discipline as a species, none of this would be a problem. We could accomplish our digital tasks discretely, briefly, and with a minimum of pollution to our vacation mentality. Sadly, we can’t. Social networks have proven hopelessly addictive to many, and even receiving email can release the same dopamine that rewards our brains for such necessaries as eating and sex. We’re hooked and the only way to guarantee being unplugged is to cut the end off the cord.

That said, on to the poll, which asks whether campgrounds and parks should offer Wi-Fi. Note that we’re just asking about the appropriateness of wireless Internet. In remote stretches of country like Yellowstone, a park can determine the spread of cell signals; in most spots, however, it’s out of control of the campground or park.

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