Life Without The Internet

I owned my first personal computer in 1983. In those days, the Internet was unknown to ordinary folks like me, but I did use online services.  I remember belonging to Compuserve, and then AOL (America-On-Line).  These portals were terrific, although they were primitive and slow compared to today’s Internet.  I connected to them using a dial-up 56K modem, which tied up both my landline and my patience.  Despite their limitations, they had useful features like email, local weather forecasts, news, and forums.  Forums were “bulletin boards” on topics that ranged from theoretical physics to teaspoon collecting. The only audio was bleeps and beeps, except for the iconic (and pre-recorded) “You’ve got mail!” when I logged into AOL email.

Most services were text-based, as even a good dial-up connection was glacially slow. To put their data rate into perspective, I did a speed test on my current home internet connection, which resulted in a 170 Mbps download speed.  My existing internet connection is approximately 3000 faster than my former dial-up modem. 

In the early 1990s, my future wife, Julie, started her Ph. D. program in Clinical Psychology. By that time, I was a self-proclaimed expert in MS-DOS (the precursor to Windows), and so she asked for my help to configure and buy her first computer.  I was excited to score her one with a “massive” 40 MB hard drive. My current home computer system has  14 TB of storage capacity, 350,000 times more storage than Julie’s first computer!

I loaded a DOS version of WordPerfect onto her computer. She used that text-based word processor to write all of her papers, including her Master’s thesis and her Ph. D. dissertation. Using a DOS-based word processor could lead to potential problems. Late one night Julie called me in a panic as she accidentally alphabetized every word in a 20-page school paper.  That was the evening that I taught her the power of the “undo” key.

Julie had to log into the university’s mainframe computer for some of her assignments. She did this using an amazing inter-university network called the Internet.  The Web had not yet been developed, and a text-based protocol called Gopher was used instead.  I recall sitting next to her as we explored this fantastic resource.  By typing text commands, we could leave the U of I system and “travel” to other universities.  We felt like 007 when we “broke into” Harvard’s weekly dining hall menu.  That simple exploration seemed beyond tremendous at that time.

During those years, I was enamored with computing. I started to build powerful computers for specific purposes, like photo editing. There were no computer building manuals, and I had to rely on logic to see me through my construction projects. For me, computers were creativity tools that I could use to edit photos and videos, record music, and do desktop publishing.

By the mid-1990s, the U of I developed a program called Mosaic, which eventually became the web browser Netscape. With Netscape, the Internet, as we know it, was born. Web browsers were graphical and allowed people to use their computers visually. The web browser introduced the hyperlink to the Internet, a feature used every time someone logs onto the Web  Web browsers made the Internet accessible to everyone. However, the Internet of those days was very different from what we use today.  YouTube and Facebook didn’t exist, and Amazon was just a third-rate online bookseller.

I have had a cell-phone since the mid-1980s and got my first smartphone in the early 2000s, a Handspring Treo.  Other phones followed, including a Windows CE phone that was so terrible that I called it my “dumb phone.” These primitive phones were slow, clunky, and very limited in their abilities.  However, I thought that they were magical as they were so much more powerful than the flip phones that I had been using.

Time went on, and I eventually took a bite of the Apple and bought a Mac and iPhone gaining their additional capabilities.  By then, I saw these electronics as things.  They had transitioned from the miracle category to the tool category, where they kept company with other former stars, like my CD player and microwave oven.

My usage of them also changed, and more and more of my time was spent on the Internet. When I needed an answer, I Googled. When I wanted to watch a movie, I clicked on Netflix, and when I needed to reminisce, I streamed songs from the 70s on Spotify. My banking was done online, as were most of my correspondences. YouTube became my personal DIY tutor, Amazon, my shopping mall, and the NPR radio stream functioned as my window to the world.

These changes didn’t carry the excitement of those early days when I peeked into a dining hall menu plan; they just happened.  Every day I would interact with the Internet dozens of times, and I was not even thinking about it. 

On trips, I would travel with my iPhone and iPad.  Sometimes I would bring a hotspot to a different cellular network just in case my Tmobile connection failed. I could research destinations, reserve hotels and campsites, and check out local restaurants.  Wherever I was, I was always connected… that is until I wasn’t.

Curt Gowdy State Park was full as were two campsites in the Medicine Bow National Forest.  We finally found a dirt forest service road and with it a dispersed primitive campsite. That would be our home.  It was a beautiful spot that lacked all amenities, including an internet connection. 

After some initial traveling friction, all was good between Tom and me, and we were having a great time.  However, there was still an issue that had to be addressed.  Tom wanted to camp at the Echo Canyon campground at the Dinosaur National Monument, and I didn’t. The campsite was 13 miles down a dirt canyon road that the park service advised could be treacherous. “In rainy conditions, we advise a high clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicle.” Violet, the campervan was neither 4 wheel drive nor high clearance.  Tom felt that she could handle it, but he is an adventurer, and I am a planner.

I told Tom that I would be splitting off the journey, and we parted under the best terms.  I decided to spend another night at our campsite, and my mind was already planning on what projects I would do as Tom and his son pulled away.  Instead, I was immediately struck with an immense sense of aloneness. It covered me like a leaded blanket and slowed both my actions and thoughts… I fell into a deep sleep that lasted for hours.

I woke up to a loud buzzing sound.  I had made friends with a hummingbird who liked to fly in and out of the campervan’s sliding door.  We named the bird “Frank” for some unknown reason, and I started to address him as such. His actions changed as he would fly in, turn towards me, chirp, and fly out.  His behavior made me laugh, and I felt less alone.  As Frank was flying in and out of the van I heard a thump and looked down to see that the world’s largest chipmunk had jumped into the van.  I startled and shouted, “Get out of here!” He jumped out, only to repeat this behavior many times in a fashion akin to a game. “Did I just wake up in a Disney cartoon?” I thought to myself.

I checked my phone and saw one signal bar until it quickly faded away.  I set up my Verizon hotspot, linked it to my Tmobile phone, and powered up my Wilson cell phone amplifier.  All of that effort allowed me to very slowly send a text message and not much else.  I had no internet.

I didn’t have a sense of panic or loss, but I did feel a bit bewildered as this was the first time in a long time that I was disconnected. I decided to undertake a little project, and I organized some of Violet’s drawers and swept her floor. I started to think of other ways to entertain myself, which didn’t involve a high-speed connection.  

I’m a planner, and on this trip, I brought an old-style AM/FM radio.  I pulled it down from its storage compartment, extended its telescopic antenna, and slowly turned across its slide rule style dial. At 88.3 MHz, I found KVXO, an NPR outlet from Fort Collins, Colorado, and with a little antenna twisting, I was able to get a strong signal.  I settled into a broadcast of “Fresh Air.” I have become used to on-demand programming, but it felt more comfortable being just a listener than a programmer.  I had no choice in what I would hear next, and that was perfectly alright with me.

After some time, I tired of talk radio, and I powered up my Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker.  I have a lot of music on my phone (from my pre-streaming days), and I selected a playlist of light classical music mixed with some straight-ahead jazz.  

The music played in the background as I decided on my dinner plans.  I remembered that I had a can of corned beef hash in my pantry, which seemed like a perfect gourmet camping meal.  I plopped the contents onto a paper plate and carefully sliced it into 4 “hash burger.” I set up my Gas One mini butane stove outside the camper’s door, put the burgers into a frying pan, and cranked up the heat. They sizzled, popped, and spattered as they went from typical processed food to a delectable treat.  I put half of the burgers in my Dometic 12 volt fridge and placed the other two on some Pepperidge Farm white bread.  They would be my dinner.

The evening idly wore on, and I settled into the night by reading from my Kindle.  Dear readers, I am not much of a novel reader, but I have had several books on my Kindle for many years.  I pressed a few tabs and soon was engrossed in Tom Brokaw’s The Greatest Generation.  My eyelids became heavy, and I drifted off to sleep.

Much of the rest of my trip lacked an Internet connection, but I didn’t seem to mind.  I felt informed and entertained with those devices that I had. I had less compulsion to blindly waste hours of my time in the pursuit of needless knowledge.  I found peace in hikes, walks, and in conversations with random strangers.  When I needed information, I found ways to find it, including asking others for help.  I lost the urge to see what was happening on Facebook, and I had no desire to obsess about the day’s news story. There were no impulsive purchases from Amazon. I was at peace.

I didn’t feel less connected, I felt more connected.  I was present in my environment and aware of my surroundings.  I felt the joy of simplicity,  It was good.

Making hash burgers on my Gas One butane stove.
An old portable radio provided all of the information that I needed.
These devices kept me company. From left to right: My Wonderboom Bluetooth speaker, A very old AM/FM radio, My Kindle Paperwhite.