Pondering, Photographing, and Writing about Wild Places

Alaska Time

What time is it? If you are like most people I encounter, when asked that question, you reached into your pocket and pull out your phone to answer that question. The age of extending your left arm all the way out to reveal your watch from beneath your cuff, then bending 90 degrees at the elbow to reveal your timepiece seems to be going the way of the pocket watch before it, the road map, and the home phone. I suspect that by the time my generation passes, wrist watches will be largely a thing of the past, looked back on with chuckles in the same way we now remember eight track tape players, typewriters, and marriage relegated to one man and one woman.

I am still fond of my wristwatch. It is a simple analog watch cased in a solid block of stainless steel with a white face and a black nylon band. I wear it less and less these days only because I play a character on stage who wears on watch, and I don’t like having an obvious tan line to tell the audience that I am really Jim and not my character. But I still wear it some, especially when I travel. I prefer leaving my cell phone in the truck, or when I am on the road, in the hotel.

Relying on last century’s technology does have its drawbacks, though. My watch relies on a battery which has died on me at less than ideal times in the past. And when I travel, unlike a cell phone, my watch does not automatically adjust to my current time zone, leaving me trying to remember when I last reset it, and if I went ahead and set to my destination, or to the current timezone. I like setting it as I go. If I board a plane in Charlotte, bound for Denver, I like to set it back an hour when I reach central time, then again when I reach mountain time. since I turn my phone off on planes, I have no place to check the time, and end up bothering other passengers for the time (usually more than once) as I try to keep my watch up to date.

Recently, I flew to Alaska and back, taking me from Eastern, through Central, Mountain, and Pacific, to Alaska Time. And, yes, I was confused more than once in airports where I found myself sitting leisurely with a newspaper then suddenly feeling flushed as I realized I was late for my flight, running to the gate terrified I had missed my flight, then realizing I actually had two hours to kill. All the while, my cell phone was in my pocket with the correct time, but rather than pull it out, I expended my arm, bent it 90 degrees at the elbow, and archaically looked at my watch.

But in Alaska that action seemed, somehow, less archaic. I found Alaska to be a place where not everybody had high speed internet, where people had home phones and got together to play board games, and where when I joined a dinner party, there weren’t ten smart phones on the table being coddled and stroked with every beep and blip. Don’t get me wrong, there was one at the table, next to the plate of the youngest among us, but enslavement to them was not the dominant paradigm.

I don’t like being tethered to my cell phone, being in constant contact with everything and everybody. In fact, I don’t like spending time with people who are tethered so. I don’t mean to say that I don’t like those people, but that I want my time with them to be our time rather than time with them and whoever texts, instant messages, posts, emails, calls or updates.

For a year, at the urging of a friend, I experimented with a smart phone, assured that after a short time I would be unable to imagine life without it. Clearly, I have a better imagination than she gave me credit for. For twelve months I carried in my pocket what seemed to me to be a rather unnecessarily fragile pane of glass that could have served as navigator, movie screen, status checker, shopping assistant, and who knows what else, but instead acted as a phone with which I had great difficult hearing or being heard by my fellow conversationalists. I am now back to a flip phone.

The camera was convenient in my smart phone. I photographed mushrooms and texted those photos to friends for help in identification. I captured young fawns bedded down in the woods, and frogs I rescued from the pool cover. But in Alaska, I found the limits of my iphone camera to be frustrating. For one day, the clouds parted and Denali showed her face. I pulled out my phone, held it out in front of me, and zoomed as far it was willing… Granted, the grandeur of such a mountain is a thing for the soul, not truly capturable by any instrument, but the result of my best effort with my phone was not even worthy of triggering nostalgic memory.

I do like the audio recorder in the phone.  I have great recordings of green frogs, spring peepers, chorus frogs, cricket frogs, and bullfrogs, towhees, and Carolina wrens. And I enjoyed the mp3 player when on the tractor or the mower.

In the end, however, the nuisance of a phone with a will of its own that I had to be extra careful not to drop, or scratch, or even rub the wrong way far outweighed the couple of features I liked. I have an ipod that will serve me fine for tractor work and frog listening, and before my next trip to Alaska, I will definitely buy a real camera.

That is the way I like it–the right tool for the right job that doesn’t try to do everything–a phone for talking, a camera for shooting, and a watch for telling the time.

Following my Alaska trip, I drove to the Midwest for a couple jobs, and that is where having my phone can be a time-keeping lifesaver. Time zones in the Midwest never cease to confuse me, and this trip was no different. Indiana, on time zone map, appears to be wearing an Eastern Time Zone thong, and it makes no sense whatsoever that the Upper Peninsula of Michigan  is not Central Time.

Point is that if I relied on my wrist watch while driving through the route I took up to Wisconsin for one job, over the UP and down to Roscommon, MI for the next, then around the south shore of Lake Michigan to the Chicago suburb of Rolling Meadows for my last gig, I would have been either late or early for everything! Having a phone that automatically sets itself to local time is, at times, a godsend. Nevertheless, without thinking, I pulled my watch out of the console and strapped it to my wrist as I began that final leg.

I planned a leisurely drive down the shore, stopping here and there to see the lake, sip coffee, stroll through small towns before beginning the stressful descent into Chicago. I wasn’t due in Rolling Meadows until supper time, and if I timed it right, the drive should only take me three hours. I had time to relax and It would be nice to know the time without having to carry my phone.

I looked at my watch. Eight o’clock? That’s not right, I thought. Battery must have died. No worries. I had plenty of time.

Stopping for a late morning cup of coffee in Benton Harbor, I turned to the barista in the lakeside cafe. “Do you know where I can get a watch battery replaced?” I asked, extending my arm, bending it 90 degrees at the elbow, and looking at my watch as if she needed a grand gesticulation in order to understand my question. “You see, I need to time my approach to Chicago, and my watch died at exactly… uh… never mind, I’ll have a cup of decaf with room for cream and one of those scones, please,” I said.
I walked back out to the truck and retrieved my cell phone. It was 12:56 pm in Michigan. I looked back at my watch. It was 8:56… in Alaska.

Navigating Chicagoland traffic is never fun, and I wanted to hit 80/94 at the right time to minimize my stress level and blood pressure escalation. The Metropolitan Chicago area has, last time I checked, around 9.7 million people in just under 11,000 square miles, compared with fewer than 750,000 people in 663,300 square miles in Alaska. While we’re talking numbers, I did a little research on the the Googlewebs before going to Alaska. Along with the three-quarters of a million people, there are roughly 130,000 bears in our largest state. Chicago has only 53, and they all live in Soldier Field. To my tastes (and for my blood pressure) the circling ratios of acreage to people, people to bears, and bears to acreage in Alaska wins hands down!

Later, as I jockeyed for the cash-only tollbooth lane, I felt my blood pressure rising, my chest tightening. I checked both mirrors then remove my left hand from the wheel and turned my wrist towards me.
My watch read 10:30, but I didn’t care what time it was. It didn’t matter, I was bound to whatever the traffic willed. But seeing that reminder on my wrist of a far off place where traffic is more likely to stop for wildlife than toll booths gave me a smile and a brief calm. As I slowed to pay my toll, I did some quick, rough math. For every five square miles in Alaska, there are roughly four people and one bear who I suspect carries neither phone nor wrist watch.

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