Working Remote

Are we there yet?

I had to walk up into the hills to get a signal. On top of a rock overlooking a lake I got two bars. Slow and error-prone, but enough for messages in and out. I got to work. Color palettes for one client, for branding or something. Hot sun blasting on the screen made exact color theory impossible. I had to dust off an old palette and tweak it from memory. There was a spreadsheet for another client, much easier to work with in low contrast. We were mired in a lengthy email disagreement over contract terms, like a game with at least three more moves left.

The rock in question.

The rock was uncomfortable, the sun was hot, and I was mad. I felt stupid for sitting in a beautiful place and instead of appreciating that beauty, my head was two thousand miles away. It was real work but nothing actually important. Making up things to do, making up excuses. I angrily typed in some requisite polite boilerplate to advance the conversation and sent the email.

Then my screen went dark. I hadn’t turned off the computer, but it was off anyway. It was really hot. Whatever. I shut down the internet, hiked back to camp. That night I tried to get the computer to start again. It would begin its boot cycle, flash the maker’s logo, begin to load, and then… hang. Its cooling fans spun up like it was working extra hard. Nothing happened. Maybe it timed out and started itself again, maybe I forced shutdown, I don’t remember. It was stuck. From memory I tried the arcane key combinations necessary to perform a soft reset. Nothing.

It was supposed to be a working trip. Not even a week on the road and already I couldn’t use my computer. Was it terminally broken? Would I lose the stuff I’d been making since my last backup? The nearest shop I could find without reversing course was more than 700 miles away. 400 miles if I turned back. I decided not to worry about it.

After a night or two I was far away in another state. I decided to review some ideas I’d been sketching in my notebook. I discovered that using a red reading light I couldn’t read any of my annotations in red ink. On the pages with mixed colors, blue or black showed up fine but red vanished. Only subtle imprints remained. I remembered a toy I had as a child that had secret messages revealed by either blue or red filters. I realized I could use the red light to add another layer to my sketches. I could toggle the red layer on and off just by switching between red and white light. I decided to only write in black ink for a while.

Some time later (before finding the computer shop) I was in the deep woods fussing with video chat on my phone. My internet connection was great, somehow, even in the exact middle of nowhere. The forest was impossibly quiet. The nearest humans were at least a mile or two away. The most animal life I’d seen were chipmunks and birds. My phone was running down fast. I started my car engine to charge the phone and revel in a few minutes of air conditioning. The people on the call argued among themselves over some sticky point. They didn’t mention my colors. The call kept going on and I could understand maybe a third of what they were talking about. I watched the brush for chipmunks. They seemed to like hanging out by a stand of saplings over at the base of a big dead tree.

Maybe the call dropped, maybe I hung up while they were arguing, maybe we said goodbye. I don’t remember. I sent a followup email with what I thought were the key takeaways from the meeting, with a to-do list of next steps. When I turned off the car I wanted to suck back in all the noise I’d been making, and apologize to the chipmunks. I shut down my phone and put it with my dead computer. I decided to sit still in the forest for a while.


Much later I sat parked on the street in some suburban business district on everyone’s day off. A few people cut through the street on their way to a restaurant at the end of the block. Before lunch rush on a Sunday morning, or maybe Tuesday. I lurked at the edge of the empty parking lots, looking for where I would sleep that night. Turns out the computer was an easy fix, by the way. My memorized arcane key combos had not been advanced enough, but the guy at the store knew the right ones. Now I browsed federal agency websites, Department of Agriculture, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management. Someone had a place for me, just a question of finding it.

Off-season it was harder to find forest service land to access. Every state is different. It took about an hour to lock down a destination. I found a place on BLM property where I could park for free for up two weeks, and located a couple backup campgrounds just in case the first place didn’t work out. Most places were closed up until summer but a few remain open year-round with no services. Those were my targets. I set the first destination in my GPS, and cached the webpages for all the potential sites so I could keep going without needing to use the internet again.

I checked my emails one last time. Everyone’s flow was in a lull. Nothing urgent was happening. Nothing was breaking, yet. I wrote my updates. I confirmed appointments. Some days in the future I knew I would be back in the city, take a shower in a bathroom with hot water, put on the clothes of society, and go to some meetings. I would sit and work on bigger tasks, deliver on some promises, and continue the ballet of office politics. I knew all of that would be true again, but it wasn’t true at that moment. I used my phone only for GPS and music. I could close the laptop, forget the emails and the calendar and everything else. I put it all away.

I started the engine and headed back into the wild.