An Unwilling Eavesdropper

Bear Basin is part of the Payette National Forest. Near town, in summer its network of single-track trails through tall firs and pines is popular with runners, mountain bikers and walkers. Dogs can be off leash. It’s also a great place for huckleberry picking. In winter, there are groomed, dog-friendly cross country ski trails. It’s a wonderful, accessible outdoor resource.

Conall especially loves running here because he gets to greet people and dogs. Most of our runs are on more remote trails where we rarely encounter others. I derive immense joy watching Conall happily greet strangers, human and canine. His body goes all soft and wiggly, saying, Hello! Can I meet you? I’m big and look like a direwolf but I’m really just a harmless, friendly floof!

There are three other vehicles in the Bear Basin parking area when we arrive at 8:00 am. As soon as I let Conall out the car, a mountain biker comes off the trail. Conall lets out of howl of joy, but the cyclist doesn’t stop as he rides through the parking lot and down the road. I smile at Conall’s reaction. He loves mountain bikers and trail runners because they almost always stop and say hello to him, telling him how fluffy or handsome he is. Positive reinforcement at its best.

raindrops on huckleberry leaves
Raindrops on huckleberry leaves reflecting morning sunlight.

Distracted Distraction

It rained last night. Everything looks and feels fresh. Raindrops on the foliage under the trees sparkle like diamonds in the early sunlight as we move along the trail. It’s a gorgeous morning and we’re happy to be here, running, taking it all in.

After several minutes, Conall and I see a woman walking on the trail ahead of us, near the top of a short hill. She’s dressed in hiking clothes, but isn’t wearing a pack. A casual walker, I decide, someone in her fifties or sixties. The woman stops where the trail ends at an old service road and another trail starts on the other side of the road. As Conall and I continue up the slope, she remains at the road, her back to us. I wonder if she’s confused about where the trails go. “Conall, easy,” I say, fairly loudly, both to keep Conall close to me but also as a friendly alert to the woman that we’re coming up behind her. No response; she remains standing, back to us, completely unaware of our presence.

People are often easily startled by Conall – he’s big, and despite his bright orange vest, some immediately think wolf when they see him – so I say loudly, “Friendly dog coming up behind you!” By this point Conall’s just 10-15 feet away from the woman. She turns, says “Oh!” and reaches a hand out toward Conall, who goes right up to her, tail wagging, and introduces himself. The woman tugs on a white ear bud that was hidden under her mid-length curly hair; the other ear bud stays put. She’s talking to someone on her phone. As I approach, she looks at me but doesn’t stop her conversation. Her hand is still outstretched, but she’s petting air; she’s not paying attention to Conall, instead focused on her conversation.

“I know it’s a negative,” she’s saying loudly, “but I just want you to try to turn the negative into a positive.” I move past her, onto the trail on the far side of the road. Conall follows, stopping briefly to lift a leg to mark the trail. Looking one last time at the woman, he catches up to me and resumes the lead as we continue our run.

Conall seems as annoyed with the woman as I am. Or hurt. I’ve seen him disappointed when someone doesn’t want to accept his gentle greeting.

Why am I so annoyed, though?

There’s something about being forced to eavesdrop on one side of a cell phone conversation in a public setting, especially an outdoor one, that just seems rude.

dog on trail
Conall leads the way.

Forced Eavesdropping

I’m not alone in my annoyance at one-sided conversations in public places. Research shows overhearing a one-sided cell phone conversation is more distracting that a normal two-sided conversation. It’s like your brain feels compelled to fill in the blanks of the unheard side. I’m not bothered at all when I hear other trail users talking to each other, and when I run with friends, we carry on a conversation. When I greet other trail users (who aren’t talking on phones) we engage in short, polite conversation. It’s the cell phone, the out-of-place one-sided conversation in such a sacred place – the forest – that feels so wrong.

Taking the woman’s snippet of conversation to heart, I wonder how I can turn the negativity her behavior brings to the trails into a positive. Ah! I know! A blog post urging people to leave the cell phone alone while in the outdoors, unless of course you’re using it to take photos. No phone conversations, please. Instead, soak up the quiet bird song, the fresh smell of the trees, the texture of the trail under your feet. Let nature works its magic on you, lowering blood pressure, improving mood, reducing stress.

A couple of miles later, Conall and I are completing a loop. He stops to listen and look through the trees. There’s the woman, walking along a bisecting trail maybe 100 feet away, still talking loudly on her phone. She doesn’t notice us; she’s looking at her feet. I’m tempted to take a photo of her to include in the blog post I’m already composing in my mind, but decide public shaming isn’t my thing. I can describe what she’s doing without publishing her photo.

Conall and I keep running. I’m puzzled by someone completely wasting the benefits of time in nature by talking on her cell phone the entire time, oblivious to what’s around her. I’m glad she doesn’t have a dog with her because she would be ignoring it, a double bad.

dog on boulder, trees
Conall paying attention to our surroundings.

Annoyance Transformed into Article

Ironically, while seemingly trying to boost and support the person she’s conversing with, the woman is increasing my blood pressure and stress, and reducing my mood. Temporarily, but still. Opting for a Stoic response, I choose to not let her rudeness ruin my morning run with Conall. It’s not directed at me, after all; she’s just clueless, lacking trail etiquette, a faux pas similar to someone talking on their phone during a movie or play. I decide to treat her as a writing prompt, remembering the details for later use.

Nearing the trail head, Conall and I see her a third time up ahead on the trail. Conall barely acknowledges her as he passes, having written her off as unfriendly. She’s not carrying on a conversation this time, but…she’s staring at her phone, texting. That’s quieter, at least.

It seems so simple: when in nature, be in nature. Be present and pay attention to the bounty around you.

It’s risky to be so unaware of your surroundings. But mostly, when you’re that distracted, you’re wasting the gift. You might as well stay home.

(All photos mine, taken during our run in Bear Basin with the camera in my Pixel 3a cell phone, which is always on Do Not Disturb when in the forest.)

5 thoughts on “An Unwilling Eavesdropper”

  1. My first thought was OMG she isn’t paying any attention too her surrounding which is dangerous. And I am so on board with your viewpoint of why did she bother to come out in the woods and bother other people. Oy.

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  2. The corollary is if someone takes a cell phone call while in church.

    Father Boniface told the story of conducting a funeral mass, when a cell phone rang. Normally if this happens the owner rushes to shut it off. That happened during my mothers funeral, but not this time. Instead the woman took the call.

    Her one-sided conversation revealed she was planning a meal. “No, he doesn’t like broccoli,” she said.

    Cell phones are a flaw in the First Amendment.

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  3. That’s interesting. A couple weeks ago, the ladies in spin class were going on and on about dogs running off leash. One was telling the story of getting bit on the arm while walking in a park…as she talked on the cell phone. She said the owner kept stating that it was so unlike his dog. Then she said she had another dog become aggressive with her and again the owner said it was not like the dog. As I listen to the neighbors dogs bark, I realize there are a lot of bad dog owners out there but twice to one person seemed odd. I was wondering if the cell phone changed the person’s energy and the dogs sensed it then you wrote about how the woman changed your emotions. Just a thought.
    I never was able to get a word into the conversation so they still don’t know that I run with 2 German Shepherds (one of their problem breeds). I should have taken a picture of the 2 five year olds with their backpacks on petting them on Sunday’s trail run. The dogs were putty in their hands.

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    1. Interesting observation, Peter. Dogs read people well. That the one woman was bitten by two different dogs suggests there’s something about her behavior while walking and talking on the phone – maybe she gesticulates oddly? or speaks loudly? – that the dogs found threatening to themselves or their human. Or she was so distracted by her conversation that she invaded the dog’s space despite warnings, postural or verbal (growling), and when finally aware of a situation, made it worse with her own fear or dislike of dogs? Hard to say. Yes, sadly, there are a few bad people who let their dogs ruin it for the rest of us and our well-behaved off-leash dogs, but I’m with you – the odds of two bites, with both owners commenting how unusual their dog’s behavior was, points to something to woman is doing as at least a contributing factor.

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