Parks turn off phones, but switch on life

THREE RIVERS, Calif.—“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe,” writer John Muir, known as the “Father of National Parks,” once said.

Muir was trying to explain how all life is interrelated and why we should preserve nature. He pioneered this field of thought and his actions played a major factor in creation of national parks.

I hoped to channel some of my inner John Muir on a weekend trip to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. I imagined myself sitting peacefully by serene meadows and giant trees while contemplating the questions of life. I pictured long walks in solitude, trying to discover nature.

Yet, my trip vastly diverged from the picture in my head. I never went on a walk by myself. In fact, I was barely alone the entire trip. However, I still managed to find the connections that Muir spoke about in a different way.

The group I traveled with consisted of 11 students and two professors in my travel writing course. I would say we all had a good working relationship, but I wouldn’t have labeled any of them as friends. I had never spoken to any of them outside the confines of our classroom.

By the end of the trip, we had become great friends through the experience.

While the nature was beautiful, it wasn’t the trees and wildlife that brought us together.

Once we arrived at LAX (on two different flights), we began our trek to Three Rivers about four hours northeast of LA and about 10 minutes from the parks. As I sat in the passenger’s seat, I listened to music, checked Twitter, and changed my fantasy football lineup on my phone. In fact, everyone in the car was mainly looking down at a phone and struggling to make good conversation with one another.

As we reached the parks, my service went out. The other six phones in the car lost service as well. An awkward silence followed and I thought the trip might not be all I hoped.

But, something else happened. We went from sporadic, short conversations to long talks only interrupted by laughter. We learned more about each other in those 45 minutes than in all the time we spent together combined.

I would discover later that the lack of cellular service was, in fact, by design.

Michelle Fidler, a park ranger and spokesperson for Sequoia National Park, told me that the parks will not allow cell towers to be built within their boundaries.

“Installing cell towers in these parks would go against our mission to preserve them,” Fidler said. “It could disrupt the wildlife and put a blemish on the natural beauty of the parks.”

Beyond that, Sequoia and King’s Canyon don’t receive enough funding to buy expensive cellular towers. Fidler also alluded to what I experienced without cell service.

“This is a place where people come to escape everything and understand nature, we’d like to keep the focus on that,” Fidler explained.

For most of the trip, our phones had no service and our conversations kept getting better. By the end of the trip, we were all friends and developed a long list of inside jokes between the 11 of us. It felt like we had known each other for years rather than just a weekend.

Without our phones, we were able to focus on the people around us rather than the people we could communicate with on our phone. We related on a level that I’m not sure we could have with our phones on. Another interpretive ranger, Frank Helling, summed up the experience for me.

“When you come out here, you feel something different,” said the 26-year veteran park ranger. “You sense the interconnection between everything around you.”


If You Go

  • Sequoia National Park Foothills Visitor Center: 47050 Generals Hwy, Three Rivers, Calif. 93271. 559-565-4212. Open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
  • Driving Directions from LAX: Take I-5 N to California 65 North. Head to Three Rivers by CA-198 East. The drive takes about four hours total.
  • You will start to lose service on CA-198 East and there are no gas stations once you reach the parks so plan ahead.
  • Accommodations: Sequoia Village Inn; 45971 Sierra Dr., Three Rivers, Calif. 93271; 559-561-3652 (about 10 minutes outside of Sequoia National Park).

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