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Alaska wilderness: Escape civilization to survive it

Craig Medred

ARCTIC VALLEY -- All of the technology that was supposed to make lives easier in 21st century urban America oftentimes, paradoxically, only makes things more hectic and disconnected. It is during these times, when you just have to get away, that the simple beauty of Chugach State Park beckons.

Tucked up tight against the only real metropolis in the 49th state is a half-million-acre chunk of wild getaway. Turn off the personal communication device, lace up the ski boots, click into the skis, grab the poles, and drop down into the Ship Creek valley just north of town, and you will find a world free from phone calls, text messages, emails, screeching traffic, beeping microwaves, talking gas pumps, blathering supermarket intercoms, the ping and pongs of the kids' video games....

Enough. Everyone reading this knows the litany. The more the inventions to make our lives faster, simpler and better, the slower, more complex and difficult the days seem to become. This is our America whether you're in Anchorage or Atlanta. Everyone knows the feeling. You seem to work harder and longer and communicate more every day to get things done only to end the day wishing there were more hours to finish the long list of things still undone.

The stress of it is killing us, according to the American Heart Association, which cites a study that concluded "perceived mental stress was associated with increased mortality from stroke for women and with CHD (coronary heart disease) for men and women."

It seems that evening walk or jog you're squeezing into your busy schedule to lower your risk of CHD might not be helping all that much if you're stressing over everything else in your busy schedule, not to mention cutting back on sleep, as many are, to get everything done, whatever everything is. Yes, the lack of sleep is killing us, too.

Tweet this: Hyperconnected multitasking kills

One European study concluded that people regularly making do with less than six hours per night were 12 percent more likely to die in the next 25 years than those who get six to eight hours per night. How many Americans these days have time for eight hours of sleep? Whose cell, smartphone, iPad or laptop idles that long without dinging away about incoming messages, chirping or playing some goofy ringtone in disturbance?

The ubiquitous nature of these devices has to leave the saner folks in-country wondering that the U.S. is now only the 15th "most connected" country in the world because of holes in the nation's broadband network. What the hell would life be like if we were No. 1? You can't get through lunch now without someone checking their Blackberry or iPhone. Sports arguments in bars, the last bastion of old-fashioned socialization, even get interrupted by texting.

We couldn't get much more wired short of cranial implants, which probably aren't that far off. They will make your life better and more efficient, or so you are sure to be told. What all this technology appears to be doing so far is making your life shorter, at least compared to that of citizens of many other developed countries where people aren't quite so focused on staying constantly in touch.

Improvements in U.S. life expectancy have been lagging behind those of less networked countries where people are less likely to walk around, gadgets incessantly plugged into their ears to satisfy the constant need to communicate. Look around on your next commute and count the people talking on the phone, or worse, texting (which is even more dangerous, not to mention illegal).

Americans no longer use personal-communication and electronic-entertainment devices. Americans are addicted to personal-communication and electronic-entertainment devices. We have to have a TV in the back seat of the the family vehicle to keep the kids entertained on a short drive to the mall to pick up a new load of personal entertainment and communication devices.

Could this addiction be taking a toll on us? You have to wonder given that researchers at Columbia University concluded the American lag in life expectancy isn't due to smoking, traffic fatalities, gun violence, health care or even our big, fat, overweight butts dragging us down when compared to Australia and the European nations.

"When the researchers compared risk factors among the 13 countries,'' one website reported, "they found very little difference in smoking habits between the U.S. and the comparison countries -- in fact, the U.S. had faster declines in smoking between 1975 and 2005 than almost all of the other countries. In terms of obesity, the researchers found that, while people in the U.S. are more likely to be obese, this was also the case in 1975, when the U.S. was not so far behind in life expectancy. In fact, even as the comparison countries pulled ahead of the U.S. in terms of survival, the percentage of obese men and women actually grew faster in most of those countries between 1975 and 2005. Finally, examining homicide and traffic fatalities, the researchers found that they have accounted for a stable share of U.S. deaths over time, and would not account for the significant change in 15-year life expectancy the study identified. The researchers say that the failure of the U.S. to make greater gains in survival rates with its greater spending on health care may be attributable to flaws in the overall health care system."

Human evolution needs no HMO

Yes, let's blame the health care system. There's only one thing Americans love to fret over more these days than the health care system, and that is who should pay for the health care system. Take it from the ex-governor of this state, Mama Grizzly Sarah Palin, that the government paying for the system will bankrupt the whole country, whereas individual Americans paying for it is likely to bankrupt only individual Americans.

Sometimes you have to wonder why we don't spend a fraction as much time talking about how to keep Americans healthy as we spend talking about ways to pay to treat them when they get sick. And there's a good argument to be made that we could make some significant strides in health in this country by just telling people to relax a bit.

Calm down people! Take a breather. Actually enjoy some leisure time. It feels good.

Granted, the Arctic to Indian Traverse trail on the Seward Highway might not seem leisurely to most. It took eight hours one day earlier this month. Snow bridges across the creek were hard to find in places on the Arctic side, and the trail was only partially broken through the fresh snow of a week earlier up high. There appeared to have been only three people across the route in that time. The silent and sunny spruce forest showed a lot more evidence of moose, wolverines, coyotes, foxes, spruce grouse and clucking ptarmigan than of humans.

And those were all good things. This was a journey back into the world that guided human evolution for tens of thousands of years. We evolved to live in that world. We are now living in one unimaginably different. It is a wonder the stresses of it doesn't kill more of us.

Sometimes it's a good idea to escape it if you hope to survive it.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com