Sowerby forgoes cell phones in N.Y.

The flight from Los Angeles to New York’s JFK airport was nonstop, nearly six hours of solitude in what had become a hectic summer.

Up there, there was time to unwind, make notes and plan. And one of the things that made it so peaceful was my refusal to use those seat-mounted sky telephones.

We landed right on time and I bolted for the car-rental area to pick up my vehicle to hit a series of meetings. Before exiting the parking lot, I did all the right stuff. I spread out the map and selected a route that would get me to the hotel in the town of Rye, near the Connecticut border. With the cell phone plugged in and the mirrors adjusted, I found a rockin’ radio station. For quick access, I laid out the notes from the airplane ride on the empty passenger seat. There were a lot of them along with a list of people I needed to call.

I did two loops around the airport arrivals level before finding my way out of the massive JFK complex and onto the Van Wyck Expressway. Then I called the hotel to get detailed directions. In the middle of the conversation the guy in the next lane was wagging a finger at me. It wasn’t a rude gesture that someone you just cut off would flash, but a side-to-side motion as if I had done something naughty.

Then I called my wife to tell her I was only one time zone away. She filled me in on the status of life at home while another driver gave me a nasty look, too. That’s when I remembered reading something about New York’s law prohibiting hand-held cell-phone use while driving.

All of a sudden I felt dirty. I cut the call and stared ahead in panic. After all, how could I exist for the next 10 whole days without talking on the phone … while piloting two tons of metal through some of the most congested roads on the continent? Hmmm. What about the call list I had so diligently prepared up there over Nebraska? And what about all those people who just had to hear from me?

Looking around in the congestion, I couldn’t see one person on a cell phone. Lane upon lane of creeping traffic, prime cell time and nobody on a phone. What could all those commuters be doing in there?

Then it hit me. Relax, Garry. I changed the radio station from the rockin’ oldies to a classical one and thought about how I ever drove before there were cell phones, back when getting in your car was getting away from it all. The road was a place to be on your own. It was a haven where no one could get in touch with you except through one of those radio announcements looking for someone who needed to call home for an important message. Time was spent considering the big picture instead of dealing with all the small details that phoneaholics like me are constantly worrying about.

I thought about that “out of contact” all-night road-trip in 1977 when Ken Langley and I dreamed up the idea of driving a car around the world in record time. On that expedition, Motorola supplied us with the latest in mobile communications and although we only managed to get three successful calls off in 74 days, we still shaved more than a month off the record.

Then in 1997, during another around-the-world drive, we were able to send and receive e-mails, faxes in addition to taking and making a zillion calls. At times it was like a virtual trip around the world. Lots of information on the go, but in reality a boring venture compared to when Ken and I were out there out of touch and by ourselves.

I began to relax, creeping along with the evening New York commuters and over the next week I became used to driving rather than running a mobile office. Once in a while, I found myself dialing up a number but then catch myself. I’d pull onto a side street and watch kids play while I used the phone.

Once, pulled over into the parking lot of an abandoned amusement park, I was chatting to my travel agent about changing a flight. I got a beep and transferred to the incoming call. I was staring at the bumper-to-bumper mess out there on the Bronx Expressway when I heard my twin brother Larry’s voice.

“What’s up?” I asked. “And what’s that racket in the background?”

“Just cruising the new motorboat.” He was excited to be on holidays.

We chatted. He handed the cell phone to a buddy who was with him and we laughed about old times. It seemed odd the he was talking while driving the boat. Then I hung up, fired up the rental car and headed back into the concrete jungle. I thought about New York’s cell phone law and I grinned realizing that it had a long way to go before reaching the rest of the world … but hopefully not too long.


Garry Sowerby, author of “Sowerby’s Road: Adventures of a Driven Mind,” is a four-time Guinness World Record holder for long-distance driving. His exploits, good, bad and just plain harrowing, are the subject of World Odyssey, produced in conjunction with Wheelbase Communications. Wheelbase is a worldwide provider of automotive news and features stories.

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