Totally off the grid

What's it like when you're one of the last to know? Also, 7 other things worth your time.

I’m not exactly totally off the grid this week, but I am still on vacation. (No, really, I promise; Kate’s holding down the fort and I’m only checking in six times a day…)

Apropos, I wanted to share some interesting stories of people who actually were off the grid during major world events, and who returned to find that things were suddenly very different.

For instance, meet Zach Edler, who went on a weeks-long rafting trip with a dozen friends on the Colorado River and through the Grand Canyon … beginning in February 2020.

By the time they came home on March 14, 2020, it seemed the whole world had changed (New York Times, $):

[A]s they took the last paddle strokes of their journey, Mr. Edler and his friends were some of the last people on the planet unaware that the novel coronavirus had exploded into a once-in-a-generation pandemic, setting off a global health and economic crisis and shutting down large parts of American life. 

In moments, the man waving to them from the banks of the river would tell them that the world they were returning to looked vastly different. […] He had one question: Have you been in contact with the outside world? 

They hadn’t. [T]he friends hadn’t heard anything in more than three weeks. No cell service. No news. Not even a passing dispatch from fellow travelers.


Slightly less dramatic, but featuring a much longer timeframe, there’s the story of the isolated researchers who spent months on a remote island—apparently with very limited internet access—and returned in December 2020 to learn just how extensive the pandemic really was.

"I had definitely heard a few things about it," crew member Matthew Butschek II, 26, told CNN. "But between other diseases like SARS and swine flu, I thought, 'It's just the next thing. Nothing big.' I really thought it'd have already passed by the time we all got home."


Less confirmed (but we’ll give the benefit of the doubt here) is the guy who lived off the grid—somewhere in California or Oregon, I think—who came into town for the first time in a year last December, only to wonder what the heck was going on with all the masks.


Of course, as big as the pandemic has been, for my generation, the real “where were you when it happened?” moment will probably always be 9/11.

This couple was on the road in a remote part of Australia back then, going days without contact with the outside world.


We forget, perhaps, that in 2001, we were not quite yet tethered to our phones, ready to learn even wildly inconsequential news at a moment’s notice. Doubly so, if you were traveling abroad, and didn’t have international coverage.


Similar, but for a completely different reason:


Let’s end today with a story that’s sort of the opposite of the stories we’ve shared so far. I heard this one only second-hand, and quite a long time ago. But there’s no simple way for me to check it out, so I’ll just share it and let you decide if it’s plausible.

It goes back to the first terrorist attack on the World Trade Center: February 26, 1993. That was a Friday, which becomes important. The story stars a friend of a friend I knew in college, who was working his first “real job” in the WTC at the time.

When the bombing happened, he was fine, but trains were down; he couldn't get back home. So he did what any recent college graduate might do: He picked up a case of beer and headed to a friend’s apartment to crash for the weekend.

They hit every bar, hit on every girl—I mean, he had a great story, right? Never a dull moment. The next thing he knew, it was Monday morning.

And the reason I’m sharing this story 28 years later … It turns out it had never occurred to him to call his parents to say he was OK. (Like 70% of my stories, I have to add the context you might already know: This was “pre-cell phones.”)

One result: News stories at the time shared the terrible news of the deaths of six people and injuries to more than 1,000 others—along with at least one person missing.

That missing person, if I’ve been correctly informed, was this friend of a friend. Moral: Well, it’s easier now, but when something big happens and people might be worried about you, let them know you’re okay.

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