Sitting by a river watching the sun glint off the rocks, I wanted to take a photo. I reached into my bag and took out my phone. And that’s where the problem started. With smartphone in hand, I felt the inexorable desire to check my email, sitting on a river rock on a day off when I was “getting away from things.” I took the photo and put my phone back in my bag, the ringer silenced. But the nagging sensation that I might have an email I should read kept gnawing at my brain.
We’ve made getting away harder than it should be. Of course, it’s nobody’s fault by our own. It’s time to unplug more deeply, more often, for longer. And not just from phones. Otherwise we’ll never truly appreciate wild places.
First, let’s face the facts: technology in the outdoors is phenomenally useful. A marine VHF radio saved a friend of mine from an awful accident at sea. I can recall two backcountry accidents before cell phones, where getting word to mountain rescue took over 24 hours instead of 24 seconds. A GPS is handy navigating in fog.
And sometimes connectivity it’s what makes trips possible. A year or so ago, I was that obnoxious guy, taking a conference call from the tip of Point Doughty on the tip of Orcas Island in the midst of a five day trip. But if I hadn’t done that, I’d have had to stay home. And the only ones who had to endure the discussion of nonprofit fundraising were a few harbor seals. It reminded me (gasp!) of the age even before answering machines, when you had to stay home if you expected an important call. Technology also brings us new ways to combine forms of beauty. Photographer DeWitt Jones describes the joy of listening to a Bach sonata on his phone while watching a full moon rise over the Grand Canyon.
Nor is the perpetual infusion of technology into the outdoor experience at all new. For a research paper back in college, I read narratives written by early settlers to the Pacific Northwest. When telegraph and train lines connected Oregon to the nation more easily, folks on the farms and ranches could suddenly read the latest novel, and could get newspapers only a week or two out of date. Their journals evoke the same combination of wonder, convenience, distraction and regret at lost simplicity that I felt when I dialed in from the tip of Orcas. It’s just a question of degree. It’s not the technology that we don’t trust, it’s our willingness to shut the damn things off.
It’s Good To Be Bored
One of the reasons we should shut everything off, at least most of the time, is that being bored is actually good for us. Strange as that sound, studies of creativity and cognitive function show that we get our best ideas after we’ve been bored for a while by doing menial tasks that leave the brain free to roam, or by just sitting still, which we’ve become very bad at doing for more than a few seconds. The leaps of intuition and ideas that seem to come out of nowhere don’t really come out of nowhere. When we’re unoccupied, our minds percolate on them slowly, and it’s only after periods of boredom that they spring into fuller form.
Since the beginnings of time, wilderness has always been a place we’ve gone for inspiration, as well as for thrills, challenge, and exercise. Wordsworth and Byron’s long rambles through the Lake District, the mountainous retreats of Himalayan monks, and modern programs that take troubled teens into the wilderness all rely on the same basic element: the combination of wildness and isolation to press a reset button of sorts, even if the tradition started centuries before we had any actual buttons to press.
This isolation also teaches us a notion of self-reliance. My early experiences in the wilderness taught me some basic facts about consequences. Misread the weather and leave your raingear in camp, and you’ll get soaked. Make a navigation error, and you’ll be hiking in the dark. If you don’t pay enough attention to the stove, you’ll eat burned food. The isolation, along with the built-in time to reflect that the backcountry provides, makes the lessons stick. Even better, it taught me that you can be happy even when things go badly, at least most of the time. Burned food and a sunset over the mountains still beats a fancy meal in a crowded restaurant under fluorescent lights.
The best analogy is that the desire to check your email when you’re sitting by a river is like the craving for red meat or sugar. It’s enticing, and challenges our reward sensors in the short term. Some is OK, but too much causes problems, and every day is even worse. And it will always be around us, so the only rules will be those that we impose on ourselves.
When I venture into the wilds, I impose some rules of my own. The cell phone gets turned off and buried. The only devices that run on batteries are the ones those directly related to the experience: headlamps, cameras, weather radios. No mp3 players: I’d rather listen to the river or the wind in the trees. Do I follow my rules all the time? No. But like red meat, you can indulge every now and then and still be healthy.