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Originally published Thursday, April 18, 2013 at 8:53 PM

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Traveler disconnects, kicks up fuss

For a Whidbey Island woman traveling alone in South America, six days off the grid — out of Internet contact — was liberating. But her time offline left family and friends panicked something more ominous had gone on.

Special to The Seattle Times

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A week ago a young woman from Whidbey Island, Alec Zimmerman, went missing somewhere between Buenos Aires and Peru. When I read the news release, sent by one of my former students who is close friends with Zimmerman, my heart sank.

Zimmerman, 27, had been intending to hitchhike the almost 2,000 miles alone and was last seen, the release said, by the man she was staying with in Buenos Aires. She’d met him through couchsurfing.org, an online service that helps travelers stay with locals. He said she was headed out to catch a ride with a trucker named Angel.

It was Saturday and Zimmerman had last been seen on Tuesday. The trip was only supposed to have taken about two days.

Everything about the scenario sounded bad. My publication, The Seattle Globalist, along with other media outlets immediately started circulating stories about Zimmerman in hopes of drumming up additional information. Social-networking and travel sites lit up with references to Zimmerman’s disappearance.

I followed the progress of the story with growing dread. I remembered hitchhiking with girlfriends as a 20-year-old in Spain, of following strangers home for meals in India as a young traveler — all this long before I had the wisdom-building experiences of international reporting under my belt.

I considered the young women I’ve encouraged to travel and wondered: “Am I giving them good advice? Or is it just that I’ve been lucky?”

By Sunday morning, the FBI had been alerted, as had the Argentine and Chilean embassies. Alec’s Dad was at Sea-Tac airport poised to board a plane to begin the search for his daughter.

Then the couchsurfing buddy — who had spent days at the truck depot circulating a photo of Zimmerman — sent news.

A driver recognized the photo and remembered who had picked her up. Cellphones rang, walkie-talkies crackled and truckers confirmed that Zimmerman had crossed the Chilean border. A few hours later Zimmerman logged onto the Internet from a bus station in Peru to be confronted with the disconcerting news of her own disappearance.

“I was very surprised,” Zimmerman told me via Facebook chat as she waited out rain in Cusco, Peru, where she intends to visit Machu Picchu. “It took me awhile to figure out what was going on. ... Facebook notifications with clips like ‘Alec Zimmerman spotted in Chile!’ [It] freaked me out.”

It turns out Zimmerman wasn’t missing; she’d just done something fewer and fewer travelers do these days. She’d gone off the grid.

“It’s a big controversy how connected you should be,” says Beth Whitman, founder of Wanderlust and Lipstick, a Seattle-based organization devoted to providing encouragement and resources to female travelers.

“When you are off the grid for a few days and your family doesn’t hear from you, there’s an assumption that things did go wrong.”

Marie Lincoln, Zimmerman’s mother, says that Alec had checked in online every few days since she first arrived in Latin America six months ago. It was that broken pattern, coupled with the dangers of solo hitchhiking, that had raised alarm.

Zimmerman herself says she hadn’t anticipated that Internet connection would be so irregular. And while she’s sincerely apologetic for the worry she caused, she admits that after months of juggling constant contact with home, she kind of liked it.

“The grief I caused aside, being off the grid for six days was a liberating experience,” she said.

The other thing she liked was the hitchhiking experience (though she’s promised not to do it again, at least on this trip).

Ironically, one of the reasons Zimmerman’s trip took longer than anticipated was that the truckers she rode with were too friendly. Concerned with her safety, they insisted on arranging a series of rides for her with people they deemed trustworthy.

Zimmerman and her mother have caught a little flak for the false disappearance.

Travelers in particular are upset that six days without Internet contact can equal “disappeared” in the minds of so many, citing the overreaction as evidence that the world outside the U.S. is too often assumed to be inherently dangerous, even when it’s not.

“You only hear the horror stories of what’s happened,” says Whitman, explaining some of that fear. “You don’t hear about all the great experiences women have had traveling abroad.”

Well, except in this case.

Sarah Stuteville is a multimedia journalist and co-founder of The Seattle Globalist, www.seattleglobalist.com, a blog covering Seattle's international connections. Sarah Stuteville: sarah@seattleglobalist.com. Twitter: @SeaStute

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