The Wacky World of Wi-Fi

Last fall, Barry and I stopped in to see his best friend from high school, who lives in Columbus, Ohio. Mowgli has the most wonderful collection of toys, from old computers to new computers, music, videos, and books. He’s an expert on just about everything related to networking, so Barry asked him for a recommendation on which wi-fi card to buy. Rummaging around, Mowgli produced a little hunk of plastic and metal and handed it to Barry. In his usual low-key way, he told us it hadn’t worked right for him, so we could just have it.

I’d never seen one of these gizmos before. Every time I use it, it feels like a miracle.

In New Orleans, Brian took us to an internet cafe with wi-fi, where we could try it out. We sat at a table with tea and coffee, our laptops’ power cords plugged into the wall. The internet signal didn’t come from a wire, but through the air, from a spot near the ceiling. If I sat between the laptop and the transmitter on the ceiling, I was sure I could feel a little Google tickle, just below my right shoulder blade.

A few months later, we were anchored in the middle of the harbor at Wrightsville Beach. I don’t know what possessed Barry to put the card in the computer, but suddenly he announced that we had signal! He quickly took advantage of it, checking e-mail, updating our website. Then, as quickly as it had appeared, it vanished. We studied the houses on shore with binoculars, but there was no way of telling which house it came from.

When we took off in the Squid Wagon, Barry introduced me to a concept known as “war driving.” You fire up the laptop, put the wi-fi card in, and drive around, watching to see if there’s any signal. The only problem is that the place you find signal and the place you find parking aren’t usually the same place. The other problem is that the signal isn’t always right in your lap, where you want the laptop. Sometimes, you have to kind of stand on your head to find it, a process that involves holding the laptop over your head or propping the computer sideways with a lot of pillows. Reminds me of those cell phone commercials: Can you hear me now? Can you hear me now?

At cozy Moose River Campground in Vermont. Mary had a little wi-fi transmitter in her living room window, mainly so she could take the laptop outside and work. That meant that from some of the campsites, you could access the internet without leaving your RV. Or, in our case, your picnic table. We got a lot of work done on the website there.

The weirdest place we got wi-fi signal was on the freeway, in Halifax. Barry was driving, and I was navigating through construction. I forgot the card was in. Suddenly, I heard that distinctive little chime, and I quickly downloaded our e-mail out of thin air. The traffic cleared up, we started going 60 kilometers per hour, and the signal disappeared.

By the time we’d been on the road for a month, it became commonplace for us to find wi-fi hotspots, park the van, and just sit inside. We’d take turns reading and writing to friends, and we’d post limericks and essays. Barry would always check his online comic strip, Sluggy Freelance. We’d read Google News to find out what was happening in the world.

Ottawa was one of these places. We parked on a quiet side street and spent hours updating the website, surfing, and taking Prussia for walks. Spokane wasn’t quite as pleasant. Despite the fact that there was free signal everywhere, provided by the city itself, our parking space was on a terribly noisy highway at rush hour. The light behind us would change and dozens of cars would zoom past, shaking the van. Grand Forks, North Dakota, was also strange — we found signal near the university, but then I became uncomfortable when I realized that we were being watched. I was certain those big burly college guys were going to come down and beat us up for stealing their Internet.

In St. John’s, Newfoundland, we were sitting in the parking lot of a small shopping mall, surfing the net for a few hours. A rented panel truck pulled into the lot near us, misjudged, and as we watched, creamed a small sedan parked there. That was enough surfing for me, time to get out of that parking lot!

So where am I right now, as I write this? Not parked on 10th Avenue across from the Ben and Jerry’s truck, that was yesterday. Not drinking apple-ginger juice at Victrola, the wi-fi-enabled cafe on 15th Avenue. That was a couple of weeks ago.

I’m sitting in the dining room of my own house, the one we own in Seattle. There are a few contortions necessary — last night, Barry was standing at the dining room window, holding the laptop on his shoulder and mousing with one hand. Today, I was able to rig a tall chair and two phone books to catch it. I doubt it’s the elderly hermit next door, or the lady on the corner who drives a black VW bug. But whoever you are, all I can say is, thanks!