I just spent a week “off the grid,” disconnected from anyone not in my direct line of sight. I wasn’t living alone in Arches National Park, the way Desert Solitaire author Edward Abbey did for a long summer in the late 1950s, but I read his tale while taking in the eerie quiet of a Virginia forest at dawn. It was a week of many lessons on what our interconnected world means to me, and I’m still processing the experience. Perhaps your insights on life in a digital age can help me.
My week off the grid began with a family vacation in central and western Virginia, and occurred in three stages. In Phase One I was computer-free but still had a smartphone. That allowed me to tweet and Facebook when our restaurant in Fredericksburg, Virginia, shook violently; it turns out we were a mere 40 miles from an earthquake’s epicenter. That Internet access was quite helpful in filling me in on what had just happened, including the important fact that a nuclear power plant near us had been safely shut down. But this was a family vacation, so my focus was on face-time with my wife and two teenage children, not social media with non-family.
Phase Two found us in a rustic cabin in Shenandoah National Park with no wireless phone service or Wi-Fi. It proved to be a blissful three days, at least for me. I’d wake up at dawn and sit by our fire pit, reading Desert Solitaire, bonding with Abbey and his time alone in a national park. I shared his offense at the “petty tyranny” of technology created by human beings, whom he derisively called “tool-builders.” I lumped my smartphone in with his list of “automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephones… what intolerable garbage and what utterly useless crap we bury ourselves in day by day.” (Italics in original.)
Our second night in the Shenandoah we drove up to a lodge for dinner and discovered it had mobile access. My daughter and son pulled out their phones and hit Facebook. My wife checked her work email and quickly was sucked in to a crisis in her office she could at the time do nothing about. Me? I left my phone in the car and pulled up a seat to take in the large picture-window view of the sun setting magnificently over the Shenandoah Valley. To my left an older man stared at his Mac laptop screen, to my right a young woman’s face was aglow from her iPad. The sun was unconcerned, continuing to set despite its show being ignored. I basked in a sense of superiority, dismissive of those poor tool-builders with their electronic tethers. They were oblivious of my condescension as well.
By the time the vacation was done I discovered to my surprise I wasn’t quite ready to log into Facebook, to fire up Twitter. I felt unprepared for the onslaught, feared drowning in a digital flash flood, a less fatal form of the real danger Abbey faced on a raft trip through Glen Canyon (before the dam was built), the real danger I suspected many might be facing with the approaching Hurricane Irene. As it happened, Irene made the decision for me, knocking out our power and forcing me to preserve my smartphone battery for emergency purposes, not social media. Thus began Phase Three.
In the first two Phases I had chosen to go off-grid, to embrace nature and the Now. In this final phase, the choice was removed from me. Maybe I was channeling the libertarian independent spirit Abbey espouses in Desert Solitaire, but I wanted my level of connection to be my choice. After all, Abbey chose to live in Arches, and chose to leave when the summer was over. I would gladly have reconnected to the grid Saturday night, when I couldn’t watch hurricane coverage on TV, when my kids were at a relative’s home for the night, and when my wife had gone into work for an overnight shift managing her news organization’s hurricane coverage. I have friends, real and virtual, up and down Irene’s path. I was curious to know how they were doing. But to be honest, I was just hungry for personal interaction. I wasn’t up for Hurricane Solitaire.
Abbey celebrates his independence in Desert Solitaire, yet most of the narrative in the book involves his interaction with others — his colleagues in the Park Service, a cowboy he sometimes guides steer with, his companion on that Glen Canyon rafting adventure. At one point he admits that “Aloneness became loneliness and the sensation was strong enough to remind me (how could I have forgotten?) that the one thing better than solitude, the only thing better than solitude, is society.” It’s worth noting that he concludes the book’s Author’s Introduction with the following sign-off: “E.A., April 1967, Nelson’s Marine Bar, Hoboken.” It’s hard to imagine a place less suited for solitude than a bar in a New York City suburb. He’s recalling fondly his time off the grid in a place nearly at the center of it.
And here I am, recalling fondly my time off the grid in pixels displayed on the grid, in a blog post that hopefully will spread on Facebook and Twitter.
I’m still sorting out the lessons here. But my takeaways include the following: 1) Communicating with virtual friends comes in second to face-to-face time with loved ones. 2) A little time off the grid is a great way to reconnect with your environment, and with yourself. 3) It’s nice to have some control over whether you are on or off the grid.
Have you had any cold-turkey breaks from social media? Do you moderate your use of it? Would you consider it an addiction? I’d love to hear your personal insights and experiences.
UPDATE 9/2/11: It seems Mr. Bacon is on the lam, out of reach of my frying pan. He’s made his way over to Milliver’s Travels, the comprehensive travel web site run by Milli Thornton. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that guy.
UPDATE #2 9/3/11: My tweep friend Andrea (@yarnsuperhero) just informed me that today, the Saturday before Labor Day, is International Bacon Day. As if Mr. Bacon didn’t have enough reason to get a big head. I’m hoping he doesn’t know. He won’t learn here, he’s too important to read my blog.