I send you ice cream shop greetings from the glorious rocky middle of absolutely nowhere, which is also the site of a blood battle for workable WiFi. I am, as you have likely guessed, at a National Park in July.
“What’s the password?” people ask at ranger stations, balefully holding aloft phones, tablets, or, in my case, an entire laptop, electrical cord dragging woefully behind. No password. Not because the WiFi isn’t open. The electrons issue lazily through the wilderness at a slow trickle, however and whenever they will, and my fellow citizens are unable to access their YouTube accounts. They’re not even able to access their YouTube login screen. And they’re panicking.
It’s great to unplug. It is necessary to unplug. But as a freelance writer, I never have to report to work, which means work trails after me at all times like my sad laptop cord. The deadlines are daily and relentless, and finding myself with a single bar on the cell phone is akin to showing up at the Master’s with a tank top and no golf clubs.
So while I vanished far into the rocks and trees this morning on horseback (no pictures; the horse made me look fat), the evening was spent cruising slowly up and down the main street of the nearest town, looking for food, shelter, and an outlet.
I’ve been to this park before, years and years ago. I don’t need to tell you how many years ago; you can estimate when I tell you that I toted a Walkman. The isolation revolution was underway, but unimaginable in its current scale. For I don’t remember seeing then what I now see nearly every minute of every day on the giant lawn of the visitor center: Families. Families gathered on the grass. Families in small groups, couples sitting on benches, teenagers in rocking chairs.
No one held a phone, perhaps because they were taking a moment apart to grieve the fact that the TikTok feed wouldn’t refresh no matter how many times they tapped. But they sat in little circles, and I saw every pair of eyes.
For a massive introvert such as myself to notice such a thing is a marker of how far gone we are as a family of human beings. These same faces earlier choked the trail Josh the PIlot and I attempted to hike. Not a second went by when we weren’t seeing, hearing, or being seen by other people. I was fully prepared to personally finance and install however many Starlink satellites were necessary to make them and their Snickers wrappers go away.
That is the state of our National Parks at the moment; driven by Instagrammable views and two summers during which the only place to go was outside, they are smothered with love as they have been never smothered before. Gates that once stood wide open now charge $35 per car, and popular hiking destinations–not entire parks, mind you, but specific rocks within them– are visitable only by reservation and lotteried permits.
This makes a great deal of sense, given the concurrent pandemic of virtualness. Nothing is real and nothing is permanent, so by primal instinct we seek out the river and the skies, the trees and the mountains. They were here long before Wikipedia; they will be her long after. In an America in which we fancy ourselves in charge of our entire kingdom–the background on the laptop, the precise balance of the bass system in the base model compact car, the house climate down to the exact degree–we have long since forgotten that we’re not in charge of nature. We’re just visiting. We are but guests of this planet.
And yet, the same throwback appreciation has not extended to America’s pastime. If we’re suddenly rediscovering all that is slow, windblown, and naturally flavored, why aren’t our baseball stadiums full?
It’s because baseball has dragged the worst of 2022 with it. In some ways this is the only road: Athletes must have the best of care, in solidly-built stadiums, the farthest reaches of which enjoy the most robust possible WiFi. A trip to the ballpark is an invitation to instantly-delivered food, virtual payments, and looming, eternally flashing scoreboards.
In other words, we have brought our airtight living rooms into the ballyard.
I like a virtual queue as much as the next girl, but a family night at the Reds game picks the family up off the couch and plops it right back down into a plastic seat with cupholders, tablets still in tow. There’s Jonathan India, live and in person! And there’s Jonathan India right in the very palm of your hand between innings, complete with every stat he has ever amassed from his first trimester of existence.
There’s no way to cram the Google genie back in the bottle. In many ways, I don’t want to. But I also miss seeing grandfathers providing tutoring sessions in keeping score, boxscore debates, moms pointing out the birds swooping over the river, and groups of friends sitting together, smiling at one another instead of a strategically positioned glowing rectangle.
We can recapture some of that. But it will require a massive group project, and we’re not too good with that sort of thing at the moment.
Maybe it won’t turn out to be as tough as it seems. Two of the people I endured with such initial frustration yesterday consisted of a dad and his daughter. He’d pulled her over to the side of the dirt path, instructing her in basic trail etiquette, explaining that she must walk on the right to allow others to pass her on the other side.
“And,” he added, “you must look around. Look up and around. There are 360 degrees of views here.”
So it is at the ballpark; the first baseman hovering, the batter tapping, the pitcher gazing about, even the dugouts restless or complacent or bored. These tell the story; they write the story, they are all part of it and it, as much as the dirt and the grass and the sky. The game is enormous, enduring– here before us, and here long after. A titanic struggle indeed. But only if we tend to it.
The outfield is the nation’s front lawn. We just need to remember to sit there every now and again.