Text Mess

[by Steve Walburn]

I’VE COME CLOSE TO DYING THREE TIMES. The first was during my senior year of college while stuffed into the back seat of a Ford Pinto barrelhousing toward spring break, 1983. My second brush came while laboring as a house mover, when the hydraulic jack supporting a three-bedroom bungalow collapsed overhead, spitting me into the footer trench like a surfer shot from an exploding wave tube. The third time, I was just checking my email.

As I swooped down the highway with a load of lumber from a local sawmill, my BlackBerry dinged restlessly in the passenger seat. I picked it up, glanced at a message, then looked up to see a car stalled in my lane. At 65 miles per hour with 500 pounds of framing timbers in the bed, I instinctively swerved right and shot the gap in the emergency lane, clearing the dead car and the concrete median by about a foot on either side.

That was the last message I ever checked while driving, and one more tick in the “con” column of my long-standing love–hate relationship with personal technology. So on my way down to deer camp, with my new iPhone vibrating in the console among the loose pens, sticky quarters, and empty peanut hulls, it’s easy to ignore the incessant barrage of incoming texts and just try to decompress.

If I am to believe the NPR host droning through my old FM radio, mobile relaxation will soon come even easier. Autonomous vehicles are right around the proverbial corner, we learn, and the program’s guest is making fantastical claims of self-driving cars, infallible safety, and comfort.

“But what about people who like to drive?” asks the host.

This gives me plenty to ponder as the rural landscape eases past in a soothing blur of fallow fields and trees gone to winter. Pivot irrigators stand dormant, ready to roll with spring planting. Here and there, flocks of migrating songbirds erupt from the roadside like black pepper blown off a tabletop. The only green is that of monoculture pine forests passing by with the mindless rhythm of a picket fence.

As text messages pile up, my digital malaise is countered by the sight of vast hardwood tracts being cleared for more planted pines. It’s Saturday here in the breadbasket of American paper products, and the hulking carapaces of dozers and feller bunchers stand idle outside single-wide trailer offices, waiting on operators full of black coffee, sausage, and grits to fire them into service come Monday morning.

I pull over at a convenience store to pick up some charcoal for camp burgers, then check my texts. It seems one of our hunters has gotten his truck stuck out on a flooded back road. Bring a chain. When I arrive, he and others are standing in a mud puddle, piecing together a snapped tow rope. The truck’s left front tire is buried to the wheel well. He’s not going anywhere without more help, self-driven or not.

So someone texts someone else who has an even bigger truck and more cable, and 30 minutes later we’re heading to camp with a bag of charcoal and a couple of pounds of raw meat. At various times between lighting the Weber and dealing out the paper plates, we call up photos of the truck mired to its fenders, punch in our pithy comments, and hit send.