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What is it like to look out your window and see no people? That probably sounds kind of great to your average New Yorker, but how does it feel for people who live in isolated places full time?
I have a little bit of an idea. I grew up in Boise, Idaho, and almost every weekend, my parents dragged me to our cattle ranch two hours outside of the city, in a tiny town called in Ola. Activities included: cleaning out sheds, clearing cow manure out of ditches, mowing the lawn, and finding wasps’ nests around the property and spraying them with Raid (note: this does not actually kill them, it just makes them really angry). The worst part? I was totally cut off from my friends. There were no cell phones or computers, and electricity was sporadic. My lone tie to the outside world was a rotary phone in the kitchen that my father watched like a hawk. At night, I would get achingly lonely and lay awake, rubbing Neosporin on my wasp bites and wondering what all of my friends were doing: Who was getting together? Who was breaking up? What awesome parties and amazing tales were unfolding while I was stuck in the middle of nowhere?
I’ve always wondered if it’s like that for people who move to really remote places, whether they are, as I was, in a constant, suspended state of curiosity about what’s going on back home. But then cell phones have happened since then; the internet has happened. Which brings up: How far exactly into the jungle do you have to go to not know what Time had on the cover last week? Curious, I rooted out three people who live in faraway places—Antarctica, northern Canada, and the Amazon—to find out: Do people living in isolated places even feel isolated anymore?
REMOTE LOCATION: NORTHERN CANADA
I found The Nowhere Reporter through her endearing blog, The Nowhere Report. We talked on the phone for about an hour and a half, and I felt such a kinship with her struggles that I had a nearly uncontrollable urge to tell her all of the gossip I knew and send her a tube of Neosporin. I’m calling her The Nowhere Reporter because she prefers to keep her blog anonymous—and thus not be stoned in the square of her small town for her observations.
The Nowhere Reporter moved to a remote part of northern Canada a few years ago with her husband. She said she had vaguely romantic notions of a small town with quirky characters and cozy winters. “I had no idea how difficult it would be to make friends.” She said the town’s residents are extremely insular and there are almost no women her age (35) who don’t have kids. Her new town was tiny. Like no-bookstore, everybody-waves-at-everybody tiny. And then, there are the winters—it’s dark all the time and temperatures get down to 10 and 20 below zero. “I found them terrifying,” she said. “I was convinced that if the furnace went out, we’d be dead within hours.”
She sent out a cri de coeur on Metafilter: “I’m an out of place extrovert living in an isolated location with no friends and not a lot of hope of finding any real connections in the near future, and desperately need some sort of human contact, even if just online. Please help me find some.”
She got dozens of responses—people sharing their own feelings of isolation and offering to be her pen pal. And one person suggested she start a blog. “He said it would be a place to vent and a source for whatever it was I felt like talking about.” She said it has been but, more importantly, it’s made her feel less alone. “Knowing that somebody spent nine minutes reading my blog, there’s this connection with this random person who knows me.”
The Nowhere Reporter has kept up with many of her Metafilter pen pals and told me most of her friends are now people she’s never met IRL. “One girl I talk with every day on GChat. We made a very cool, very instant connection. We would be friends in real life.” She said the anonymity of online friendships makes people more open and more honest than friends you meet in person. “Friends from my former life, that’s what I call it, there’s a depth there, but there’s also a sense of having moved apart. Much of what the basis of those friendships was doesn’t exist anymore. Online, you’re starting with a clean slate. It probably sounds quite trivial, but, really, it’s like these little lifelines. It’s enough emotional sustenance to make it through.”
As far as getting news from the outside world and surviving the winters, the Nowhere Reporter and her husband watch “a shit ton of TV.” She also orders things off of Amazon and eBay almost every week. “It’s like having little presents coming to you all the time.” The best ‘gift’ she’s ordered? “A Keurig coffee maker, because the coffee selection in this town is terrible.” She said she tries to keep up with popular books. She just finished Freedom and she’s reading The Alienist. “It makes me feel like I’m in touch with civilization.”
The Nowhere Reporter said it’s still a hard life in some ways, but her online relationships have created a community for her. “I’ve got my little house, I’ve got my husband, who is my best friend, I’ve got two puppies and cats and my little life is here.”
One key to being able to appreciate all that? Deactivating her Facebook account, which she did last month and which, at first blush, might seem like a strange thing to do for someone who is craving connection. “On Facebook, people present this side of themselves and it gets really old,” she said. “I’d be comparing my life to theirs and no matter how good mine was, it felt like it wasn’t good enough. I wanted out of that cycle of checking it every day. The thing I felt every time I looked at Facebook, was ‘What can I saw about myself that everyone can read to know how great things are?’ I feel much better now.” Nothing like a social network to make you feel totally alone.
REMOTE LOCATION: THE AMAZON
Getting in touch with Maria Aldea Guevara, a former New Jersey resident who now works as a biologist in the Amazon rainforest, was not easy. I tracked her down on Facebook and we were finally able to coordinate a video chat—although the video part didn’t work, so we just messaged back and forth.
Guevara lives in Iquitos, Peru, a town in the Amazon. She spends a lot of her time living by herself in the jungle—taking water samples and monitoring fish.
Once during our conversation, the reply took so long, I thought our connection had dropped. She wrote, “Relax… In Iquitos, we have a very bad connection.” Slow as it is, the internet is the main way Guevara communicates with friends and family back in the States. “I spend a lot of time chatting with them on Skype and Facebook. Most of my Latin friends use MSN chat.” Guevara said it’s hard to keep up a friendship that way (and I can tell you from our conversation, it is hard. We chatted for an hour and I was barely able to ask ten questions): “I think it leaves an emptiness. A gap between people.”
I asked Guevara what it’s like when she goes into the jungle—where there’s no cell reception and no internet at all. She told me she’s working hard when she’s there and she doesn’t feel isolated: “I don’t get lonely, I love it there. It’s so beautiful.” Guevara said privacy and personal space are hard to come by in town. Apparently, in Iquitos, everybody is all up in everybody’s business all the time. “There’s no time to get lonely.” Guevara made the isolation sound all zen and Walden Pond-y. She often goes three weeks without email or phone and said she doesn’t miss it.
REMOTE LOCATION: ANTARCTICA
Peter Rejcek has the undeniably awesome job of being the editor of The Antarctic Sun. As editor, he flies all over the continent, interviewing scientists and astrophysicists about the amazing projects they’re working on, and then writes about it. He moved to Antarctica in 2003 with his then-wife to work as a carpenter, and has lived there off and on ever since.
I tracked Rejcek down in Denver, where he lives most of the year. He spends most of his time in Antarctica at the McMurdo Station—a US research center on the coast. The population is roughly 1,200, and the whole place functions like a little town. (As he described it, it sounded weirdly like Brooklyn, but colder.) McMurdo has a coffee shop, a wine bar, a gym, a rock-climbing wall, a library, a rugby team, a video store (so they do still exist) with free movies, and even its own marathon.
Communication with the outside world is a snap. They have VOIP services and even Wi-Fi. “I’m starting to see iPhones and iPads there,” he said. Social media is also very popular among the “ice people” (the term Rejcek used for the Antarctic population). Rejcek has a popular Twitter account (@poliepete) and posts on the Antarctic Sun site frequently. He can even get packages mailed to him at Antarctica’s very own post office. For other residents, ordering things from Amazon is popular, although shipping can take a while. “Lots of people going down for a full season will mail themselves packages with their favorite candy, clothes, whatever they need.”
Rejcek said, in his opinion, McMurdo is just isolated enough, and he tries to always be there for the holidays. “People wear gowns and suits and there’s live music. You don’t have to deal with the crazy commercialism. It’s special.”
As far as how they get their news, Rejcek said there are TV rooms with military channels and everyone is on the internet and is pretty up to date (there was an Occupy Antarctica movement). There’s even online dating (attention, ladies: ratio is about 70/30! Must love long walks in the snow and generator fumes). As Rejcek described it, there’s no shortage of local news, because all of the brilliant scientists and researchers can’t help but break off into cliques to gossip about each other.
There’s a more remote Antarctic station at the South Pole. Only about 150 people live there and the conditions outside are a lot more extreme. “It doesn’t get much above 0 degrees. It’s pretty darn cold,” Rejcek said. Apparently, the air is so dry, your skin starts to crack if you stop moisturizing for even a second. One favorite pastime of the locals is hanging out in the greenhouse, where they grow fresh vegetables. “It’s warm and humid and people go there to refresh their skin a bit.”
Rejcek said to stave off the Shining crazies, people there function like a big family. “There’s a real community spirit. Everyone pitches in with everything: dishes, cleaning, cooking, things like that. There’s a bingo night, movie nights; cribbage is really popular.”
Communication is trickier there. There’s only internet for part of the day, and phone use is limited to those times as well.
Rejcek said in some ways, he feels more connected in Antarctica than he does in Denver. (A lot of “ice people” live in Antarctica for only part of the year, keeping a second home elsewhere.) “When you’re in the States, you get caught up in things like fixing your car and going to appointments and stressing about work,” he said. “On the ice, everyone’s in the same boat, living the same dream. It draws people closer together.” Rejcek said people get addicted to the tight community and isolation. “I know a lot of ice people who talk about Antarctica and they say they’re ‘coming home.'”
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Stacey Vanek Smith is a reporter for the public radio show “Marketplace.” She grew up in Idaho and currently lives in Brooklyn. Picture of mailboxes in an industrial area courtesy of The Nowhere Report.