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Why I Went Off-line


10:35, Dec. 31, 1999, I went off-line.

I have used e-mail to stay in touch with friends, cohorts and my adult kids; to send out a weekly column on local and regional issues to hundreds. And, as do many Western cyber-commuters, I have used e-mail to live in natural beauty and work in our distinctly unnatural, unbeautiful modern world.

I e-mailed my friends and readers to announce my decision. Responses flooded in, most of them poignant: "It is my crucial connection to my professional status -- and I hate it"; "How did [e-mail] become so important to me in two years?"; "How will we keep up?"

My youngest son wrote me in pen, on paper, "This is a real letter. I'm ten times more joyful to receive a real letter than I am when e-mail appears."

One distant reader thought I was lunatic to leave easy access to so many. I am lunatic. It was the moon, itself, that brought me to my senses, and a little Mojave desert canyon, where you can sit on a huge wind-polished boulder and watch silver light melt up from the dark. The basalt cliffs bear petroglyphs -- spirals and bighorn sheep. Rock-mail. Centuries old.

It's easy to get to this place ... and it isn't. The canyon lies five miles west of a Nevada gambling town at the end of an easy dirt road. You don't even need to wear hiking boots. What you will have to do is pry yourself away from your slot machine, your TV, your computer.

I walked into the canyon in the middle of the last month of the last year of the last century of the millennium. In this place, those measurements of time mean nothing. An hour scrambling over river rock into dry plunge pools, brushing past rattling golden cattails, is forever.

I had come to the canyon for help. For nearly three years, I have cluttered my life with e-mail. Floods of environmental alerts and crisis chats, too many lousy jokes and juiceless intrigues. Often the light outside my window faded and I had not walked out into the pine and mountain weather, had ignored the rhythm of the moon, had not turned in toward the gift of my words.

I stepped through the canyon portal knowing the insentience of rock, and still, leaning into the ancient basalt, I felt held. I watched the moon move up in the late afternoon sky and felt my heart beat against stone. My thoughts faded.

It was only driving back to Flagstaff that thoughts returned. "I'm going off e-mail," I said and was instantly afraid, a fear as solid as that which followed my decision 15 years ago to leave a man no longer my love, a job no longer my work, a city no longer my home.

This vow has held for three months, and they have felt like a lifetime. I noticed every time I wanted to check my e-mail, when I was bored, when I was afraid, always when my pen stopped and the page in front of me seemed too blank, too big. I felt the jolt of loss, waited for panic. But the impulse faded and grew fewer and fewer.

The logistical chaos I dreaded did not happen. My phone and fax have been adequate, the speed of sound fast enough. My computer, which had begun to feel like a nagging and disappointing lover, is again my pen.

The seven-trunked pine, the ravens beyond my cabin, the real moon's passage welcome me. I meet people for dinners and walks. I write letters, call local friends and long-distance children, anticipate fat phone bills without regret. And, every evening, I come home to the lantern I have left burning in front of my door and the heart for which I have been most lonely. My own.

Yesterday, when one of my former on-line readers told me she and others are taking bets on how long I will stay off-line, I was startled. I'd almost forgotten I'd ever been on. "Let me give you a tip," I said. "Put your money on forever."

Mary Sojourner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News ( She is a commentator for National Public Radio and lives in Flagstaff, Arizona.

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