“Disconnected” in Lassen Volcanic National Park

August 7, 2013

in Travel Essays

  • SumoMe

Thirty years ago when I had a real “day job,” I often vacationed in western U.S. national parks for a simple reason: It was difficult, if not impossible, to reach me by phone.

Unlike city motels and hotels, national park lodgings generally did not have in-room telephones. A phone message left at the front desk might not be delivered. And even if it was, the call could only be returned if there was a pay phone available.

Mobile phones wouldn’t be in the hands of the average traveler for a decade or more, and when they first became available they weren’t portable enough to carry in a pocket, purse, or on a belt. And they didn’t work in the mountains.

But that was then, and this is now, when owning a smartphone—many times “smarter” than Captain James T. Kirk’s communicator or Dick Tracy’s wrist radio—makes it more difficult to remain “disconnected” when traveling.

But as I discovered last week in Lassen Volcanic National Park, you can still enjoy being “out of touch.”

“Connections” are important to travel writers like myself. We need Internet access to send and receive e-mail, check out Websites, and post to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and our blogs. And, if you followed my “Live Updates from ‘The Road to Lassen’” story last week, you saw that when I had an Internet connection during the trip, I could send live streaming video to my Website.

Having “connections” during the drive up I-80 and I-5 wasn’t a problem. I had a strong 4G or LTE signal over AT&T’s data network all the way from my San Francisco Bay Area home to Redding.

But sometime after I turned east onto a two-lane highway for the final 45 minute drive to the Manzanita Lake entrance station on the west side of Lassen, the digital umbilical cord linking me to the modern, outside world was almost completely severed.

“Can you hear me now?”

“No Service.”

“No Service.”

“No Service.”

For the most part, that was what my iPhone screen displayed during my stay in Lassen.

iPhone No Service

(Brent D. Payne Flickr Photo)

Sue, who along with her husband, Bob, operates the campground store and cabins at Manzanita Lake said some visitors had been able to use their cell phones at the trailer and RV “Dump Station.” But two motorcycles took up all of the available parking when I drove by it, so I couldn’t test out my phone there.

A park ranger who saw me trying to get online with my iPhone at Manzanita Lake told me she sometimes could access the A&T cellular network at roadside marker 14, opposite Chaos Jumbles on the park road. But I only got a one-bar signal at that location—not enough to send a text message, let alone make a phone call or surf the Web.

After seeing a woman talking on her cell phone on the trail to Bumpass Hell three days later, I tried without success to post a video to Facebook.

“Connecting.”

“Connecting.”

“Connecting.”

But my iPhone never did connect to Facebook.

“Hot Spots,” But No Wi-Fi

It’s called Lassen Volcanic National Park for a reason. But although you’ll find evidence of vulcanism and hydrothermal activity going on, there are no Wi-Fi “Hot Spots” there.

Drakesbad Guest Ranch connects to the Internet via satellite and has a computer guests can use. But Pat, who manages the place along with his wife, Valerie, told me that it’s almost as slow as a “Dial Up” landline Internet connection, so I didn’t even try getting online with it.

Staying in Touch

I had to pass through the town of Chester (pop. 2,144) once or twice a day during three of the four days I spent at Lassen.

image

After filling up my car’s gas tank, I’d park alongside the Chevron station and check my e-mail.  Then I’d phone my wife to let her know that I had neither been attacked by wild animals nor been cooked alive after falling into one of the park’s bubbling mud pots or roaring fumaroles venting steam and volcanic gas.

But on those days, I was “A Man On a Mission,” either rushing, pedal to the metal, to reach a trailhead, or rushing back to Drakesbad to jump in the shower, wash off the trail dust, and put on clean clothes before dinner. So my Internet sessions in Chester were very abbreviated.

Off-Line Survival

I checked the AT&T cellular service map for the area surrounding Lassen before I left on my trip, and it seemed as though there would be decent voice and data coverage there. But that proved not to be the case.

image

Having no cellular data service in Lassen meant that Google Maps or iPhone apps with “GPS” functions were useless. So I relied on memories of previous visits to the park, and on the tried-and-true “old technology” of printed trail guidebooks and maps, to find my way around.

Since I couldn’t upload photos or videos during the trip, I simply stored them in my iPhone’s Camera Roll and on my digital cameras’ memory cards so I could share them online once I returned to “civilization.”

DSC00287My cabin at Manzanita Lake had no electricity, so rather than using my iPad, I wrote notes in a paper journal by lantern light.

Most of my accommodations at Drakesbad had electric lighting and wall outlets that I could use to charge the batteries in my phone, tablet, and digital cameras, although a cabin where I bunked one night had neither. But even with plenty of light and power for my iPad at Drakesbad, I opted to continue using the paper journal to jot down notes about each day’s activities

Knowing that I would lack Internet access during evenings prompted me to bring along a paperback copy of Ian Frazier’s Great Plains and read, rather than write, about places far from where I live. Some nights after dinner, I read the book in my room, on other nights I sat in the lodge’s lounge and read it while other guests read book, or played cards or Monopoly.

At home, I would have spent part of the evening sitting in from of my desktop computer or watching TV. At Drakesbad, I wandered across the meadow as the sky became deeply dark after 9 pm, and gazed up at something I can no longer see at home: The Milky Way.

I didn’t miss out on anything important while being “disconnected.” In fact, a certain aura of serenity enveloped me because it was impossible to get online.

Forty-five minutes after checking out of my room at Drakesbad I was back in Chester, the closest outpost of the digital world. I e-mailed my wife to let her know I was heading for home and pointed my car in that direction.

Two-hours after leaving Lassen in my rear view mirror for the last time, I was reading The New York Times on my iPhone over lunch in a Red Bluff coffee shop.

As I drove south on Interstate 5, I was surrounded by increasingly dense knots of cars, semis, and pickup trucks towing boats and trailers.

My iPhone showed that I had LTE cellular network access.

Reaching me by phone, text, or e-mail was now easy.

And that, my Facebook Friends, was the problem.

(Read “Lassen: Off-The-Beaten National Park Path” to learn more about visiting Lassen Volcanic National Park where Dick Jordan stayed as a guest of the park concessionaire. “Stay tuned” for more stories about Lassen on Tales Told From The Road.)

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