Before I set out on my latest cross-country journey, a friend of mine accused me of Luddite tendencies. Luddites, for those (including me) who are not in the know, were busy trashing loom machines in England at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution.
Luddites are not, as I had guessed, in any way a religion that shun modern innovations for religious convictions (nope, not the Amish). Rather, Luddites were angry at the changes in their industry brought about by the introduction of loom machines. Here were these machines doing what they had done for generations, machines taking away from their own income and livelihood, changing things, and not, as far as they were concerned, for the better. First Luddites organized and threatened. Then they occasionally stormed into buildings and destroyed the monstrous textile looms that were ruining their world.
My better-educated friend accused me of Luddite leanings because I stoutly refused to purchase a cell phone for my trip. I planned to be traveling by car some 5,000 miles around the country visiting friends and accompanied by my two cats.
While the cats are a new addition, my affection for long car trips is not new. Twice before in the last ten years I've traveled for over a month. However, since my last trip (in 1995), the cell phone has become omnipresent. An amazing number of people, when I started gearing up for this trip, asked about a cell phone as their second question. (The first question: where are you going?) When I answered, they looked at me, variously, astounded, alarmed, and amused. They were stunned at my apparently hopelessly irresponsible approach to the trip when I responded that I would be utterly phone-free. My weak defense was that I was bringing a calling card and my laptop for e-mail. These communication tools were deemed inadequate. I was going to be out there for hours, perhaps days at a time and would not be immediately accessible. Clearly, I was having Luddite leanings and was hostile to new technology. (Never mind about that laptop or my e-mail obsession-- why didn't I have a cell phone?)
Let me say that I understand that cell phones do provide a real service in the case of emergency. If I were a doctor and needed to be immediately available, I would have a cell phone. But the truth is, most people aren't that important. I'm a graduate student. There aren't any graduate student emergencies. And the personal emergencies, well, they can wait until the end of the day when I check my e-mail.
Besides, I am fairly certain that if I had an emergency, I would be in some out of the way place that was out of cell phone range. As for automotive emergencies, since I am possibly the last human being alive without a cell phone, the odds are good that if I had a problem, someone with a cell phone would drive by and call in my crisis. People notice car wrecks, and explosions, and they want to call someone to talk about it. Okay, yes I can change my own tire and I have emergency road service on my insurance. But I do believe in the occasional decency of people, and that someone would stop or use their cell phone to call for help.
The reality is I didn't and don't want to be accessible 24 hours a day. Another friend pointed out that he knew people who used cell phone strictly for their own convenience; they leave the phone off unless they need it.
But here's what I'd see happening with me: On a 10 hour drive across, say, the open expanse of Route 70 in Kansas, I'd get bored and start calling people. I'd drive up my bill, but more importantly, I'd also interfere with the sense of voyage I've come to love about distance driving.
That one call to set up my next visit could easily slide into "emergency" chats about the weather on Route 70.
Once you own a cell phone, it's a slippery slope. Soon you're the person who talks loudly in the supermarket, chronicling the exciting voyage down each aisle for the lucky person on the other end of the phone. That's not why I set out on the trip.
A lot of this trip was about, in a way, being bored. About giving my mind lots of wide-open space to ruminate. To see the scenery going by and being awed by its beauty. To daydream and to notice the changes in accents on the radio stations. To pay attention to the way the hills roll into mountains or sink into plains. To notice the way light reflects differently through humidity or desert air.
This trip and the mindless hours of driving and moseying and hiking and walking was about letting my mind wander and explore far away from the confines of my normal structured day-to-day life. And it gave me time to pay attention to what was right there in front of me. Not what was down the road, or what I had just seen, but the moment as it is, right there.
On a side road in Colorado, I got stuck in evening commuter traffic. Ahead of me, a guy was babbling away on a cell phone, gesticulating wildly. Behind me, a woman was also talking on her phone.
When a glorious double rainbow appeared around a bend, arching over a canyon, the man ahead of me kept on driving, completely oblivious to the rainbow. I pulled over to the side of the road, got out of my car, stood in the drizzle and marveled at the physics of light and color. I noticed the woman, who had been behind me, was closing up her phone as she drove by. I saw her pull over a few curves down the road. She stopped and rolled down her window to look at what -- too easily -- we might drive by and never see. I take great hope in that woman's actions.
So maybe I do have Luddite tendencies. I hope that woman throws her cell phone away and never misses it (unless, of course, she's my doctor).