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Jewish World Review Sept. 6, 2000 / 5 Elul 5760

Bob Greene

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Consumer Reports


Oh, give me a home, where the megabytes roam . . .


http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- THIRTY SUMMERS AGO, just out of school, I volunteered to help out on a cattle drive. It started out in New Mexico, near a little town called Grants; 700 head of Charolais cattle were to be herded to market, more than 200 miles over the desert, to Pagosa Springs, Colo.

I was terrible at the job, but the time on the desert was wonderful beyond describing. I'd never even ridden a horse before; I was just getting into the business of going out and seeing things and writing them down, and this seemed to be an experience worth having. They gave me the oldest and slowest horse, and we slept on the desert floor, moving the cattle from dawn to darkness. The cowboys -- Joe Tiedjen, Bert Roundy, Doug Pettigrew, Al Clayton, Darrell Fischer, Joe Henry, Tommy Ellis, Mark Seat -- would herd the cattle over the desert in heat that exceeded 100 degrees; before the sun came up, and then after darkness, we would gather around a campfire and eat great, filling meals cooked by a chuckwagon man named Diamond Smith.

Besides the beauty of the desert, and the indelibility of the experience itself, the overwhelming sensation was one of glorious and complete isolation. We were as removed from the rest of the world as men could be; no telephones, no television, no sounds other than that of our own voices, and the cattle, and the animals in the hills around us. America was out there somewhere, but we couldn't reach it, and it couldn't reach us.

Which brings us to this summer. I signed onto my computer one morning, and there was the usual list of e-mails -- including one from one of the cowboys from 1970. Darrell Fischer.

The e-mail was somewhat formal. It was from Darrell and his wife, Teresa, and it said: "We have thought about you numerous times over the years. . . . I remember you being fresh out of college. How time has flown. I understand, thru conversations, that Mr. Bert Roundy (the trail boss) passed away some five years or so ago. We wish you the best."

As nice as the electronic letter was, and as pleased as I was to hear from Darrell, I couldn't get the two images out of my mind: Darrell out there on the desert in 1970, on top of a horse, wearing sun-bleached jeans and a cowboy hat, being as cut off from the rest of civilization as a man can possibly be . . . and Darrell now, tapping away at e-mail, as connected as a modern man can be.

I e-mailed him back and asked for a phone number; soon enough I had one, along with the news that he's now living in Yuma, Ariz.

I called him and he said he had found my e-mail address on the Tribune's Internet site.

I asked him if he didn't think it was kind of weird -- the world in which we had met each other, and the world in which we both live now.

"I did like it out there on that desert," he said. "I think we were out there 14 or 15 days, wasn't it?"

He said he had been 35 during the cattle drive -- he'd seemed about 100 to me, at the time -- and that he's 65 now. That desert isolation feels like something from another century to him. The onetime cowboy has a cell phone ("I carry it wherever we go"), a computer with Internet access and, as I already knew, e-mail capability, and a satellite-television system that can pick up 200 channels ("I've got the big dish and the little dish"). He's thinking about getting one of those global positioning devices for his car -- the electronic machines that can show, on a map, exactly where you are in the world.

He and his wife first became aware of the power of computer searches, he said, when a friend showed them how he could type their name into a search engine -- and within seconds find out where they lived, their telephone number and display a map showing their street in their town, and how to get there.

When his wife saw that on the screen, he said, "She like to went bonkers."

He's not certain that the world is any better this way -- "I grew up on a small farm, and that's what I was used to" -- but said that there's not much use worrying about it, because the old way is gone for good.

"They put me in charge of setting up the corrals on that drive you were on," he said. "When we got to the end of each day's drive, I was supposed to have the corrals ready for the cattle."

I asked him if the remoteness -- the unreachability -- is what he remembers most about the drive.

"No," he said. "What I remember best is Diamond Smith's cooking."



JWR contributor Bob Greene is a novelist and columnist. Send your comments to him by clicking here.

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