in commentary

Going Offline in Maine

We’re about to head North to my home state of Maine for a couple of weeks, a place I haven’t lived for 20 years. Over the past two decades, I’ve moved from Colorado, to Boston, to Guam, to Germany, back to Boston, to Germany again, to Hawaii, and (most recently) to Washington, DC. For work and pleasure, I’ve had the privilege of traveling throughout Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and around the Pacific Rim. Yet I still consider myself to be from Maine.

What I’ve missed most about Maine over the years, aside from family, is the remoteness of the place. At points past Bangor, you can still get properly lost. There’s the Allagash Wilderness Waterway, a natural water park over 90 miles long best seen by canoe. There’s Baxter State Park, where you can hike to a distant pond, cast your fly rod all day, and not once hear or see another human.

And there’s a vast section of unnamed townships between Bangor and Eastport riddled with lakes, covered by trees, and connected by logging roads. It’s one of many places in Maine where moose and deer outnumber people. It’s here that we’ll be staying with my folks at their camp on the edge of a very large lake sparsely populated with a few camps, cabins, and campsites. It’s a quiet place. It’s far from other people, electricity, running water, or many of the other amenities we’re accustomed to in our urban environment. And we can’t wait to get there.

When I was a kid, I used to explore the world with the aid of a small shortwave radio and dream about leaving Maine. I would often spend hours at night, alone in my room, slowly churning through the channels. I could usually get Voice of America and the BBC. I would often pick up French language stations from Quebec. I once picked up an English language broadcast from Cuba. And, weather permitting, every so often I would pick up broadcasts in German, Chinese, or Russian. It was exhilarating.

These days, I experience much of the world through the glare of LCD screens. At work, I spend the bulk of my days in front of dual monitors, shuffling between applications and responding to e-mails. At home, I often find myself sitting in front of another set of dual monitors, shuffling between a similar bunch of applications. And wherever I go, I carry my trusty iPhone. When I’m not working on a project, I’m likely managing multiple e-mail accounts, or floating between different social media sites, or surfing the Web, or doing something online.

While I’m a big fan of technology and gadgetry, the amazing ease and convenience many of us have grown to expect comes at a cost. Today, I can casually read news, hear radio stations, or watch broadcasts from all over the world. I can chat with friends in Europe as if they were next door. I’m never disconnected from the Internet. Yet I rarely feel that sense of mystery and exploration that I experienced surfing for distant voices over the airwaves.

That’s why I still like to listen to shortwave from time to time. It takes work. You need to find the right bands, you need to dial slowly, and you need to rely on chance because reception is tied to atmospheric conditions. Sometimes you find interesting broadcasts, sometimes you don’t. Sometimes you only pick up the background radiation of the universe. In all cases, you can only listen. I like that.

I’m looking forward to visiting Maine. It’ll be nice to get away from the city and unplug for a while. I’ll also be taking a shortwave radio. For an hour or so during the trip, I plan to canoe out into the lake at dark, put on some headphones and see what I can tune in.