When I first conceived of the idea of hiking across America, I envisioned an epic adventure, a journalistic tale of endurance and survival over 5,000 miles of American wilderness in which I played the lead role. Like the solo expeditions of good-ol'-day explorers, I imagined mine a low-tech trek: no phone, no internet, no gadgets. I'd travel along the very edge of modern society, and I'd "Bear Grylls" my way across the country surviving through sheer power of will and infallible instinct. Now, one month before departure, I've decided that I can still do all that. I just need an iPhone 4S.
I've adjusted my vision quite a bit since I dreamed up my adventure fantasy two years ago. I currently own ten pounds worth of gadgets.
Solar panel, DSLR camera, HD helmet cam, HD flip cam, remote controlled airplane for aerial photography, weather radio and altimeter, satellite tracking device, iPhone 4S.
The hike itself rarely raises eyebrows. When I tell people I'm about to spend a year hiking trails from New York to San Francisco with my two dogs they shake my hand, wish me luck and congratulate me for living out my dream.
But brows furrow and jaws clench when they realize I'm bringing a smart phone. Apparently I'm committing an outdoorsman offense. You can't be outdoors with gadgets. One person said to me, "Don't you feel like you're cheating? If you have Internet access [in the wilderness], it's like you're not really out there." Really? So if I'm huddled in my tent with my dogs on a remote mountain while a blizzard rages outside and 80 mile-per-hour wind gusts threaten to blow the very life out of me and I happen to be sending an email on my iPhone I'm not really out there?
Flying Across America
Now I'll admit, bringing three cameras is a bit excessive. But so is packing a five-foot Styrofoam RC plane. That's just how I need to do things. Life is more exciting when you're excessive. After all, isn't hiking 5,000 miles excessive in the first place? You can't expect someone like me to NOT pack a remote controlled aircraft in my backpack.
And though outdoors-purists are annoying, I do understand why communications technology and wilderness adventures seem so incongruous in peoples' minds. There's something wholly unromantic about staying connected in the wild. The image of John Muir or Henry David Thoreau typing away on a 17-inch MacBook Pro is disturbing; I'd say it's almost blasphemous.
The Life-Saving Gadget
But the truth is that we live in a very different age. These days there are very few young Americans who know how to handle themselves in the wilderness. And even those of us who've spent a lot of time in nature aren't as skilled as the generations before us. Can I trust myself to stay safe (and sane) for a year in nature without the option of communicating with my family and friends -- and local support should my dogs or I need it? Maybe. But I'm not risking it. The tragic story of Christopher "Alexander Supertramp" McCandeles provides the perfect example of a guy who desperately wanted to be in the wild, but who lacked the skillset (and technology) to do it safely.
This young bear grabbed and bit two of my campers on the Appalachian Trail last summer in its search for food.
My dogs and I will find ourselves alone and in dangerous situations frequently this coming year. That's why I'll carry a satellite emergency beacon in case something life-threatening occurs. For example, I have a genetic condition that predisposes me to spontaneous lung collapses, which I've suffered in both lungs. According to the surgeon who operated my left lung a few years ago, it is likely that one or both of my lungs will collapse again at some point in my life. If I suffer a fully collapsed lung on the trail, I'll be in too much pain to walk -- and the condition can be fatal if treatment is delayed. With satellite technology, I can contact search and rescue teams with the push of a button.
As much as I'd love to log out of modernity for a year while I journey across the country, I value my own and my dogs' safety more than bragging rights. And with all my gadgets I can blog and share my experiences along the way.
We depart on February 16, 2012, starting on the Appalachian Trail in Putnam County, New York.