Notes from the Rural/Urban Divide: Isolation

Earlier this year, there was an accident. Somewhere along the miles of telecommunications lines connecting me with the outside world, a truck crashed into some optical cable, and communications went down, because almost every provider relied on that one cable to get services to residents. Phone lines remained intact, but data service was nonexistent – no cable, no cell phones, no internet service. At first it was a few hours, and then it stretched into days. I was reminded of how dependent I’ve become on the internet and my phone.

I couldn’t make several calls I needed to make because my cell phone wasn’t working. I could occasionally text people and apparently some of my attempts at Tweeting got through, but that was it. If I tried to dial out, I got nothing. I couldn’t look things up online, I couldn’t work. I couldn’t buy groceries, because their credit card machines were down, and I don’t carry cash, and my cheques were in the Bay. I couldn’t deposit cheques at the credit union, because their acceptance system was down.

Luckily I had mobile numbers for some of my editors and I was able to text them to let them know what was happening. I texted friends out of the area to ask them to spread the word through my networks, to let people know that I was fine, that I’d be back up and running soon. I waited. I entered a sort of contemplative state of calm. There was no one to yell at, no one to blame, really – I guess I could have blamed the truck driver, but I was beyond that. Line crews were working, somewhere.

In a strange relay, I had to text a friend in the Bay Area to ask her to text her mom here to get information about what was going on, because her mom works for the local radio station and thus has access to reasonably accurate information. While I listen to the radio sometimes, I listen online – and the internet is where I look for information when things are going wrong. So I would try to text her, and when fragments of my texts would get through, she would text her mom. When the fragments of her mom’s texts got through, she would relay them to me, and if I got them, I’d let her know they arrived. Otherwise, she’d keep trying.

Isolation in rural areas is something that people don’t really understand unless they’ve lived it. I’m not talking about the casual, sweet, cute vacation in a nice B&B where you can disconnect for a few days. I’m talking about prolonged isolation, and the fact that when you are cut off, you are cut off.

In an urban area, redundancies make such outages virtually impossible. There’s no way all data telecommunications would go down simultaneously in San Francisco, for example, unless something was majorly wrong. Short of an EMP, some systems would work. All it took for us was a single truck running over an optical cable. And it took days to restore service due to wildfires, isolation, difficulty in getting supplies and line crews in, and other obstacles that urban areas don’t face.

If a truck knocks out a telecommunications hub in an urban area, it’s easy to bring in repair crews and equipment. It’s easy for people to find alternate modes of communication. People don’t wait for days to see their service restored. Their service providers know who has service and who doesn’t – here, ATT was shocked and surprised on day three when it found out that customers were still without service, in that lovely incompetent way that only ATT can muster.

This is what isolation looks like. To live in a rural area is to have a highly precarious connection to the outside world. We joked about not being able to Instagram it, about not being able to turn to Google to look things up, about being tormented by not knowing what was in our email. But also, we feared what was going on in the outside world that we didn’t know about. I watched the clock tick, skipping wildly between hours because it couldn’t settle on a time since it couldn’t access the network, and watched money slip away. For every day offline, I missed deadlines, missed opportunities, missed chances to connect. A completely finished piece that was ready to publish sat on my hard drive; I had been about to email it when the internet went out.

They say that in the event of emergency, you should have 72 hours worth of supplies ready. That’s such a joke, to me; in 72 hours, we have no hope of getting basic services restored, let alone relief supplies. I’ve been without power for a week or more, and not for lack of trying on the part of line crews, who go into overtime and work in dangerous conditions to restore electrical service. If there was an earthquake, a major storm, a tsunami, I can’t imagine receiving supplies within 72 hours, and neither can anyone else I know.

Isolation. It’s something people say they want, something they talk about wistfully when they romanticise rural areas, but it comes with a dark side, too. It comes with the inability to work and connect with the world for days at a time when a truck crashes into a line of optical fiber. It comes with the bitter knowledge that in a disaster, you’re on your own. It comes with the awareness that your backup generators need backup generators, or your patients are going to die when the power goes out, because no matter how hard PG&E tries, it can’t be everywhere.

If you’re intrigued by the urban/rural divide, there’s more where this came from — and there’ll be even more if you choose to join my supporters on Patreon.

Image: Untitled, Daniel Oines, Flickr.