Is It Time To Unplug?


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folks on the farms and ranch­es could sud­den­ly read the lat­est nov­el, and could get news­pa­pers only a week or two out of date.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.