I spent the last several days at a campsite on a sprawling, wild ranch in the mountains of Northern New Mexico. It is a very familiar setting, though this was the first I’d seen it in about three years. There is so much to say about the place, about the annual event I was attending, about how it felt to be back, about what’s changed and what’s stayed the same. But for now, just one story, in three parts.
The first time I set foot on The Ranch, some 11 years ago, my cousin and I arrived by night. We were meeting her boyfriend, whose family owned the place, and she was eager fo me to see it. We got there in time for a late dinner of homemade pizza, and played cards with the young organic farmers who were working there for the summer in exchange for room and board — herding goats, milking cows, watering the garden. In the morning, we went scrambling around the rocky landscape nearby, keeping eyes out for arrowheads or pot shards, signs of the people that lived there long ago. We made stained glass mosaics in the boyfriend’s trailer and picked lambsquarters to make a kind of subsistence saag paneer with cheese from the farm’s goats. In short, it was a strange and magical experience, miles away from my life in Chicago — miles away from anyplace, in fact.
I have long chalked up the magic of this first ranch trip visit to the fact that, at the time, I got no cell service up there. Even a decade ago, being on the digital grid caused a certain disengagement with the here-and-now. Having that option removed, I felt, had forced me to look up and just be at one with my surroundings.
I’ve been to The Ranch many times in the intervening years, and each time, my cell reception is a little better. Sometimes there’s WiFi. And it’s always wonderful, and wild, and dirty, and a little exhausting, but never quite the same as that first time.
When I arrived this Friday, like many people returning to The Ranch and its campgrounds after a long absence, I was hoping for something like the first time, but was willing to settle for it simply resembling any previous time. In a way, that was why I had to go on this trip: I needed to see that this wasn’t one more thing that had slipped away over the 18 months past. Again, I drove in from Albuquerque with my cousin. Her husband (they got married at The Ranch some years ago) had already been up there for a day or more, cleaning and setting up to co-host what is essentially a multi-day, outdoor party1.
Stepping out of the car, just taking in the vast majesty of the place, was a (literal) breath of fresh air. I checked my phone: No Service2. Which was exactly what I’d been hoping for…right? Well, yes, BUT: I did need to find a little pocket somewhere where I could tend to a couple things. A friend back home had texted me on the drive up wanting to talk; my godson’s mother sent me a video of him that I needed to watch; I wanted to check in with my dad briefly; and I just had this one quick little Facebook Live video to do… So, once I got my tent set up, I went on a little double-tasking solo hike, part nature exploration, part service-seeking mission.
A word about the Facebook Live thing: I have frequently been leading a simple, Friday Compline service3 on Fridays since the pandemic hit in Los Angeles. It takes less than 15 minutes and comes straight out of the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, which I brought with me on my camping trip like a real nutso church lady. I’d thought of turning over this week’s broadcast to someone else, but the idea of sharing the majesty of creation with those seeking some spiritual food was just too enticing. And all I needed was a few bars of cell service, enough data to upload the video stream.
I did not find any bars on my hike. I had zero bars.
On my next trip back to the main house, I asked the ranch’s matriarch4 about the WiFi situation. She raised her eyebrows, puffed out a sigh, and told me that if I was desperate, she could make her phone into a hotspot. OR, there was this hill I could climb, past the campground, take a right at the fork, then another right. “The tower is right over on the other side,” she told me. “Sometimes I just sit up there.”
My Facebook Live Compline was broadcast from the top of that hill. If it was slightly less majestic than I’d hoped, it was because I had to prop my phone up between the branches of a piñon tree. If I walked the few feet to the better vista, the bars disappeared again.
But I knew the spot worked. I arranged to call my friend back home the next evening at 6:00pm — I’d simply return to the hill.
And on Saturday evening, that’s what I did. The hike from the campground down the road and up the hill only took 10 minutes or so, but I left a little early. I figured while I was up there I could take care of any other little online business that just couldn’t wait. I did Duolingo. I purchased an Early Bird check-in for my Southwest return flight.
Then, at 10 minutes to six, it started to rain.
It’s monsoon season in New Mexico. Google that last sentence, and you’ll find that, “on a typical monsoon day, storms will develop over the mountains where the most efficient heating occurs from the sun.5” And we were at above 7000 feet elevation. The rain was not initially a deterrent for me; it had been hot, and I see rain so rarely these days. I was wearing a hat, and I could take shelter under a tree. But, since I was on Mount Internet, I checked my weather app and saw that the rain was not forecasted to stop for at least an hour. In the distance, there were flashes of lightning. Under a tree on a hill on top of a dirt road in a lightning storm seemed like an unwise place to voluntarily sit. So I sent one last text, cancelling my call, and took the whole thing as a sign: give it up and go offline already.
Tired, muddy, and annoyed as I was, I could still appreciate the poetry of the situation. This new solo nature hike was just that. It was walk down a muddy hill in the rain to rejoin the party already in progress. When you turn down that particular road with your head up, you can see the Great Divide. That’s not even me trying to craft an artful, writerly sentence. It’s just a fact.
I’d long believed, and even purported, that simply going offline allowed us to be fully present with our IRL surroundings. But it just isn’t true — not automatically, not as a rule…not anymore. Disabling contact with the network of people and ideas who reside in the “outside world” doesn’t make the network ceases to exist. Yes, being “offline” means that you don’t HAVE to engage with that network, but it also means that you don’t GET to engage with it. The miracle of instantaneous connection, via text, phone, video, or Web, is an invention that I have certainly come to take for granted. And let’s get real: over the past 18 months, that virtual connection has been crucial for sanity and survival. A decade after my first visit to The Ranch, my relationship to the very Network had changed. And so, even when I couldn’t connect to it easily, I still carried it around in the back of my head for a day and a half before finding a way to set it down.
Once I gave up on the idea of finding that bar or two of service, I noticed that it became easier to engage with the clear and present beauty of The Ranch, and with the body gathered there in celebration of our very ability to safely convene. Maybe the two things are connected. Or maybe I just felt better because I’d carved out a few minutes of time for myself on that walk back down the hill, and changed into some warm, dry clothes. Either way, it felt good to look up.
This party is called “Julyber,” short for “Julyberfest,” which is itself (obviously) a portmanteau of “July” and “Oktoberfest”
I’ve changed carriers since my last visit, which is likely the reason why I’ve had service in the past, but didn’t this time.
My cousin’s mother-in-law, my…aunt-in-law? Sure. Just the greatest person, ask anyone.