Zoning out and dialing up

Fresh from a rigorous hike, several visitors joined a queue forming inside the lodge at Zion National Park in Utah. They waited patiently, wiping sweat from sun-kissed brows and shifting straps on bulky backpacks. Not for water. Or even a bathroom break.

They waited to surf the Web.

Forget the plush leather sofas, breezy fans and other features that have long lured travelers into the lodge's rustic lobby. The main attraction, judging by the line, is a computer workstation — and its connection to the outside world.

"They use it all the time," said Dick Ebbert, front desk lead. "And they're astounded that it's free."

Their surprise isn't, well, surprising. Although most lodges provide Web access for employees, few have expanded the service to the public, according to park officials. But if Zion is any indication, demand for expanded Internet access may be on the rise.

"It was something new and we thought, 'Maybe our clientele will like this,'" said Bart Smith, management information systems director at Zion, Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon North Rim lodges — three of the numerous properties Xanterra Parks and Resorts operates for the Interior Department's National Park Service (NPS).

As a sort of experiment, Xanterra first brought a premade, pay-for-use Internet kiosk into Zion's lobby, according to Smith. But the servicing that came with the booth proved substandard and "not really cost-effective" for Xanterra to take over, he said. So earlier this year, the company installed its own free workstation.

Situated next to the horse-riding and post office stalls in the lobby, it has been a popular addition, enabling fishers, campers and other outdoor enthusiasts to step from nature to the Net without leaving the park.

Linda Ellison, a visitor from Sugarland, Texas, is a fan. "There's no [television] here and I was surprised there's a telephone," Ellison said as she logged on one evening in June. "It's just nice to be able to check my e-mail so I don't have 100 [messages] waiting for me" when she gets home.

"I haven't checked my e-mail now in a week because we've been traveling and I don't have a laptop," she added.

Information technology experts say putting public computers in national parks makes sense. "Certainly, it's very logical that we would begin to see that," said Bob Cohen, a senior vice president at the Information Technology Association of America. "It's another very positive indication of e-government using IT to provide services to citizens no matter where they happen to be."

Potential uses for travelers include looking up information about the wilderness or an unexpected health problem, Cohen said.

But park lodges face unique challenges. At Zion, for instance, Xanterra relies on a dial-up connection. "We're out here in the boonies and the phone service out here is not the best," Smith said. The connections are "not the fastest, but they're not the slowest."

Apparently, it's good enough. Xanterra plans to put a second computer in Zion's lobby this month and could take the service to Bryce Canyon and Grand Canyon North Rim lodges in the future — a move that would require Park Service authorization, Smith said. However, that plan is in its infant stages.

The agency, for its part, isn't tracking which lodges offer public Internet access, according to spokesman Gerry Gaumer, but some concessioners "guess...that there are very few Internet connections available in the lodges.... They haven't had any new lodges built recently, so they haven't really upgraded them too much yet."

And for some, that means escaping the trappings of digital lives, particularly the Internet. Even Xanterra advertises its lodges on its Web site as "ideal for spending quality time with the family or taking that much needed 'disconnect getaway' to get back to nature with hiking, fishing, camping or simply exploring."

Yet mixing wilderness and the Web is hardly a foreign concept. The Park Service has already established an online rapport with the public; Internet reservations for campsites and other e-services are so commonplace that when Interior went off-line as part of a court-mandated shutdown in December 2001, officials petitioned to reconnect just four days later and won approval soon thereafter.

For most Zion visitors, the kiosk is a welcome surprise. "Oh, they have Internet access!" one woman exclaimed as she entered the lobby — a typical comment these days, employees say.

Lisagor is a freelance writer based in Chicago.

***

Zion online

Free public Internet access came to the lobby at Zion Lodge in Zion National Park, Utah, earlier this year. Zion seems to be ahead of the curve. The National Park Service doesn't keep data on which lodges provide the service, but a random sampling shows it's not the norm: Zion was only one of six properties — all managed by Xanterra Parks and Resorts as a concessioner of the Park Service — to offer it.

More workstations could be on the way, however. The front desk attendant at Saratoga State Park's Gideon Putnam Hotel and Conference Center in New York said, "Hopefully, eventually, soon.... We're working to get one eventually."

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