If You Go Down To The Woods Today

July 20, 2011

The other week, we went camping. Like, in the woods, which is where you expect to go camping, except that this was really in the woods, the kind of ‘in the woods’ that you only get if you get in a canoe and paddle for two hours. Yes, we did this with two children under five. Yes, we’re crazy.

The craziest thing about the whole exercise was not, however, the fact that we wandered into the woods with our wee rabid honey badgers (the biggest concern there being, of course, that they’d recognize their true home in the wild and revert to their feral natures and overpower us. That was a very real possibility, do not doubt.) No, the craziest – the totally batshit crazypants craziest – thing was that the whole exercise required us to go more or less completely off the grid. There are, after all, no electrical outlets in the wild, no charging stations, and certainly no WiFi. There was, if we paddled out to the middle of the lake, a faint 3G signal, but that required taking electronics out onto open water, and iPhones, as we all know, don’t swim. So, yeah. We were unplugged.

The predictable thing to say here, of course, is that being unplugged was wonderful. Amazing! Exhilarating! Liberating! Free, free at last from the tyranny of THE GADGET! And it was, a little bit. A very little bit. I love having a break from checking email and keeping up on Twitter and Facebook feeds and uploading posts and all that socio-digital stuff. It’s why I love long airplane rides, and weekends. But I don’t need to go to the woods to turn off the Internet feed. All I need to do that is just, you know, turn off the feed. Shut the laptop. Keep the apps closed. Easy.

What is not so easy – and not so desirable, if you’re me – is unplugging all the other stuff, the stuff that I use to create, and to recreate. Cameras and videos and iPhone camera apps. iTunes. E-readers. I use gadgets to document our adventures and our misdaventures, and to make stuff out of all that documentary material. I love doing that. It relaxes me. As does reading, and listening to music, which I mostly do with the help of gadgets, especially when I’m away from home, because books are heavy, as are pianos. Once upon a time I might have just purchased a disposable waterproof camera and some cheap paperback novels and gone without music for a trip like this, but that was a different time, and a more inconvenient one. I live in an age in which I can hold a camera and a video camera and a music library and more books than I could ever carry in one palm-sized device. That is AWESOME. It’s also perfect for backcountry camping and canoe trips, which don’t allow for transportation of a lot of stuff unless you travel with a Sherpa, which I don’t.

So I missed my gadgets, sort of desperately. I managed to eke a bit of use out of my iPhone by doing everything in my power to preserve the charge (we brought a solar charger that turned out to be only marginally less useful than a pine cone), which allowed me to do a bit of photo-editing and Instagramming, and I brought a waterproof point-and-shoot for general photography, so it wasn’t dire, but still. I’d have liked to have been able to bring my e-reader and lounge around on the rocks reading vampire apocalypse novels (the paperback version of The Passage will totally sink a canoe; you can’t go backcountry with that kind of book unless it’s on an e-reader, for real) and enjoying the lake breeze. I’d also have liked to have been able to shoot some app-enabled Super-8 video of my kids frolicking in the water, and to have played a little quiet music over dinner, and to have consulted GoogleMaps to figure out exactly where we were relative to transcontinental flight paths (we saw a lot of really big planes in the sky.) I mean, I survived, and even enjoyed myself – I’m not a pathological tech addict – but it was would have been nicer if I’d had a functional solar charger, and a waterproof case for my iPhone. Way nicer. So maybe I’m not going to be totally out of sorts when the Apocalypse comes and the grid gets wiped out, but I will be kind of irritated.

How about you? Could you be comfortable off the grid? Could you give up all your gadgetry – the cameras, the videos, the iTunes, anything that requires power – and still be reasonably happy? Am I a twisted, twisted soul for feeling lost without my camera? Should I have just sucked it up and carried my shit-ton weighted paperback copy of The Passage on my back and, you know, learned from it? Dare I try to go completely without gadgetry the next time we do this, like, this coming weekend? IS IT EVEN POSSIBLE? 

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    thepsychobabble July 20, 2011 at 9:51 am

    Can I? Yes. But I’ll be honest, the first couple of days are always a little rough.

    Sara Hamil July 20, 2011 at 10:02 am

    This weekend I’m going camping with the vast majority of my boyfriend’s extended family, many of whom I’m meeting for the first time. This tribe includes his 8-year old niece and 4-year old nephew from he east coast (he loves them like they were his own. He’s REALLY excited that they’re coming). I’m insanely excited and terribly nervous all at the same time, ha ha.

    I’ve made it my plan to completely shut down the tech while we’re away. I NEED to unplug and I’m actually looking forward to it (which is big. I’m the girl that hyperventilates when she forgets her iPhone at home). I want to enjoy these few days getting to these people (especially the kids), relax and just chill.

    I think it’s overdue too ;)

    Julie Marsh July 20, 2011 at 10:09 am

    I loved being off the grid when we went to the dude ranch. There’s a difference between choosing to disconnect and being literally unable to connect, and the latter is more liberating for me.

    pamela July 20, 2011 at 10:11 am

    I could totally do it. I have done it

    But it IS very hard at first.

    Then later on.. you’re like What twitter?

    Mrs Catch July 20, 2011 at 10:20 am

    Can I unplug? Yes. Do I enjoy it? Not really. Like you, most of what I really enjoy is done on a gadget. And leave my camera? I’d rather leave a limb behind.

    I’m not much of a camper anyway. I like my hot showers too much. As the old saying goes… Yes, I love to camp out under the stars – 5 stars.

    Anthony from CharismaticKid July 20, 2011 at 11:17 am

    The times when I am hiking on a mountain with no technology, those are the times I am most happy.

    I feel like one of those monks in asia climbing those mountains. Ya know what I mean?

    Too bad my eyes are going sore from just looking at this screen right now. My livelihood depends on this computer!

    Issa July 20, 2011 at 2:20 pm

    I go into the mountains every other month or so for a weekend. Cell service is horrendous and I’ve learned to not attempt to update anything while there. It’s always nice. A weekend without Twitter/texting/Facebook or email. It’s sort of freeing. However? I’m staying in my great aunts HUGE cabin. With TV and satellite (although we never turn it on, it is there). There is also electricity for my Kindle/Phone/Ipad. While there is no wifi, we have our music, books and games when we want them.

    In the end, I guess I’m saying, while I like to unplug in a way, I don’t want to all the way. I despise camping anyhow. I have and can go days without all of it. But I don’t enjoy that type of thing, so I don’t go by choice.

    Christina D. July 20, 2011 at 4:47 pm

    I’d like to believe that, in theory, I could do it. But my family doesn’t do outdoors stuff because my body really doesn’t like sleeping on the ground. And we’re lazy in a peculiar kind of way. That said, I’d feel really naked without a camera and a phone. And not naked in a good way, either.

    (Love the new website layout – crisp and clean with an overlay of elegance. Nice choice!)

    MomZombie July 20, 2011 at 7:25 pm

    I just posted about this myself. Although we weren’t “off the grid” on our vacation, we definitely were without signals to interact with anyone electronically. I realized the sham of my so-called nature girl status. I am an Internet addict.

    Jen July 20, 2011 at 7:47 pm

    I’m a canoe tripper (or was, pre-kid – you’re motivating me to get back out there again and introduce her to camping). My first trip after getting a blackberry was disconcerting. NOT because I missed my blackberry at all, oh freedom of Algonquin interior with total lack of cell service) but because I heard the d@mn thing beeping constantly. For five days. And it was three portages and four lakes away, locked in my car.

    I turned off all notifications upon my return, and have never reinstated that beep.

    Jen July 20, 2011 at 7:48 pm

    I’m a canoe tripper (or was, pre-kid – you’re motivating me to get back out there again and introduce her to camping). My first trip after getting a blackberry was disconcerting. NOT because I missed my blackberry at all, oh freedom of Algonquin interior with total lack of cell service) but because I heard the d@mn thing beeping constantly. For five days. And it was three portages and four lakes away, locked in my car.

    I turned off all notifications upon my return, and have never reinstated that beep.

    I need to get out there again. I need an unplugged vacation.

    Sherry July 20, 2011 at 8:19 pm

    I could if I truly had to and I have but never for long periods. Now that I have FINALLY gotten a smartphone (I used the fact that I’m returning to the working world as an excuse for why I now “need” one) I think it’s only going to be worse since I can now check my email, Facebook, Twitter, upload photos, etc all while waiting for the bus.

    Alexicographer July 20, 2011 at 10:07 pm

    Since you asked.

    First of all — me when I’m *on* the grid: I don’t blog. I do read blogs and comment on them (duh). I don’t tweet or follow twitter (except occasionally if someone is tweeting a story/event I’m interested in, but I think this has happened thrice since the advent of twitter, and I’m not kidding. I try to post status updates to Facebook roughly monthly so that my extended family won’t forget that I have a kid, nor completely lack information about what he’s up to. I do use email and a landline regularly for my work. I have a cellphone that is capable of both making and receiving calls (And texts! But I rarely use that functionality) but not, e.g., taking pictures. I have a Skype number that I give to people I don’t want to chat with so they can leave me messages. I have a camera that runs on 2 AA batteries but I’m not a huge taker of pictures though I like having pictures of my son and am grateful others often document his childhood for me (when we went on a 2-week trip to visit family in late April I intentionally did not take my camera as I knew lots of others would take and share pictures. I literally, today, grabbed off the table the memory stick my mother gave me ages ago with her pictures on it so that I can download those pictures, which I have not yet looked at, to my computer).

    In short? I am not nearly as connected as you are (and am happy about that, though I also enjoy — notice the length of this comment and I haven’t even started to answer your actual question! — those connections in which I participate).

    All that said, before we started camping with the tot, we … bought a travel trailer. Now this is ostensibly (and mostly truly) about my husband (not, not, not a tent camper), but having made that decision, we pretty much always have full hookups. This is limiting in some ways, but it means the laptops always work (we do not have TV in the rig), and I can get up in the morning and punch the button on the coffee maker as I walk the … hmmm … ~15 feet to the bathroom (inside our trailer). That said, we’ve done plenty of camping where we had neither internet hookups (most sites) or cell phone service (a few sites absolutely and many where one of us could get a signal somewhere in the campground) and generally the internet connection if any is enough to check emails quickly, send one or two, and nothing more. And I enjoy it and, to date, have managed to bite my tongue rather than let my husband and son know that I actually have video clips of the sort that will sate my son’s energy, at least temporarily, downloaded on my computer (they were very, very useful for a long plane trip though).

    (Oh, and another nice thing about the camper is that it dramatically extends what we consider the reasonable camping season. We went out for 2+ weeks last Christmas when highs some days were only in the 40s and lows some nights down in the 20s where we were.)

    If I’m vacationing truly wired (i.e. in a hotel, or whatever) I do actually prefer to be able to check my work email nightly just so I don’t get too far behind.

    Er, since you asked.

    Lisa July 20, 2011 at 10:14 pm

    I was surprised to read that you missed all the editing & post-production work. Actually, I was surprised to read that you do that while you are in the midst of what is going on. I get that it relaxes you, but it was a really foreign concept to me. It seems like you would miss so much of what’s happening now.

    Or maybe that is just how it is for me. There are so many events/moments that I haven’t documented because I just don’t want to pull myself out of them, or more precisely, I don’t even think to do it as they are happening. And then when I do set out to take pics, I have so many photos/videos on my cameras because to transfer them and edit them takes a chunk of time I rarely feel like giving it. It has never occurred to me to even do any of that while it’s happening. My first reaction is that I’m afraid I’ll miss something.

    Lisa July 20, 2011 at 10:18 pm

    It also strikes me that with all of that distraction, it wouldn’t have left you any time alone with your own thoughts or just to watch the clouds go by. I think I find that the most enjoyable part of unplugging, is stretching those mental muscles, working on quieting down the chatter in my brain.

    Leslie July 20, 2011 at 10:22 pm

    Wow! I admire your camping skills lady! Canoeing in? That’s hard core! I grew up camping, but married a non camper, so we’ve done it only twice. Once with a massive camper that had a bed in it and once in a tent in our backyard. Lame, I know. I aspire to do better, but I worry that I have this romantic idea of it. The same goes for unplugging. Especially when it comes to a camera! I didn’t even think of that part. Like you, I adore documenting things, I have a terrible memory, and it just doesn’t feel like enough to take a mental picture. And it takes too long to draw something. (There was a Toot and Puddle episode where his camera broke so he just drew everything he saw!) Anyway – totally unplugging is a wonderful, romantic, unrealistic idea. Once we lost power for a couple days in the middle of a snowstorm and honestly? It was scary. You can’t do very much without power.

    Sarah July 21, 2011 at 8:23 am

    It wouldn’t be a problem, since I’m pretty unplugged as it is. I’ve gone days without realizing my pay as you go cell phone needs to be charged. When we went to the beach we brought a Polaroid 320 Land Cam from 1971 and a Holga. (I’m sure your iPhone has an app for that, but this shit is REAL.) However, I’m all for downloaded episodes of Sesame street on airplanes.

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