“You didn’t have cell service?!”
“Did you download music, podcasts, or movies?”
“Didn’t you take earbuds or something?”
“Weren’t you bored to death?”
I’ve heard all these questions and more regarding my hike of the Colorado Trail this past summer. When I tell folks that I did not take, nor want, any form of modern entertainment on my almost six-week adventure, they look at me like I’m from another world! Bored to death? No way! I was “bored to life!”
On June 29, 2007, the world changed forever when the first iPhone was released. When I was growing up, television was the culprit – creating “lazy kids who didn’t want to go outside anymore.” Next were video games, tying people to the couch even more. But the iPhone was different. Where television and video games were mainly distractions from boredom at home, the iPhone infiltrated every aspect of life, including school and work. No longer do we have idle minutes because when we do, most reach for their phone. It also made everyone accessible 24/7. Some see this as positive. Others, of which I am one, see it as a negative. Regardless, everyone’s expectation is now of immediate access to information and response. I am as bad as anyone, and this is why I wanted to unplug – to return to the good old days when I couldn’t just pull my phone from my pocket while fishing and post a picture to Facebook.
As I planned for this hike, one of my primary goals was to unplug and get away from the constant tug of the smartphone. I wanted to disconnect from email, texting, the internet, the phone – anything that could distract me from my goal of finishing the entire trail and focusing on the natural wonders I would see. This was hard for me because, as has almost everyone, the ease with which I could get in contact with people, and they with me, had become my new normal. I am as guilty as the next person, reaching for my phone when I have a minute of downtime. Having information and entertainment at my fingertips made it almost impossible to mindfully engage in other activities. But that is exactly what I needed to escape for a while, so here is how I did it.
It might seem to the bystander that the easiest way for one who wanted to completely unplug from the world for six weeks would be to ditch their phone completely. That was my intent until I started looking at shaving ounces from my pack. I realized how much weight a book, maps, compass, and camera can add. I decided that leaving those items behind and using my phone’s technology for those needs was a better option than carrying the real things. Because I really wanted to be phoneless, it took me a while to become comfortable with that idea. I had to condition myself to only use my phone for the purposes of taking photos and finding my location. In reality, I was already using all kinds of technology: tent and backpack fabrics made to be light and waterproof, sunscreen, water filters, clothing designed to wick moisture, an air mattress that weighed 12 ounces, and tent stakes made from titanium to increase strength and decrease weight. We don’t often think of these things as “technology,” but they all were created to make life easier by using modern materials.
Lightweight fabric technology–waterproof and less than 24 oz., but not much privacy!
After that decision to carry my phone, I had to decide how I would ensure I was unplugged from the things I needed to get away from. Cell service was rare on the trail, but there were some spots that had it. I didn’t want my phone blowing up with messages when I hit them. Nor did I want to risk seeing messages that would distract me and potentially cause me to get off trail. So, I deactivated my number! This took care of unwanted phone calls and texts. Next, I set up an out-of-office email telling anyone who emailed (friends, family, colleagues, and members) what I was doing and who they should contact with their questions. I also mentioned that their email would be automatically deleted (and it was!), so if they must visit with me personally it would have to wait until I returned. Finally, I purchased an emergency satellite communicator. This allowed me to let my wife know daily when I began and ended hiking and even track me on my route throughout the trip. This gave her peace of mind, and honestly, me too. If she had emergency news, she could also text me through the device. If I had an on-trail emergency, I could send an SOS for a rescue (I also purchased Emergency Rescue Insurance) and let her know.
Next, I committed to not downloading any media (movies, music, podcasts, books, etc.). When I walked, I was focused on my surroundings and my own thoughts only. It forced me to get creative in my entertainment. It actually forced me to enjoy “boredom” and appreciate what I was missing in my normal life. I kept my phone on airplane mode the entire trip, saving my battery and ensuring I didn’t sneak a peek at the news! So, while I used technology on the trail, I was able to unplug from that which consumed so much of my time unnecessarily in the real world while also easing my and my wife’s anxiety in case of emergency. It worked out well, and I’d do it the same way again.
The results of this strategy were life-altering for me. I turned off my technology three days prior to the hike and literally felt the weight of the world lift off my shoulders. Surprisingly, I didn’t miss it at all. Most importantly, everyone I knew personally and professionally survived as well. I realized I wasn’t as important as I thought I was! Granted, I had set up a system so anyone who “needed me” had another contact, but still, life and business went on. I believe many of us forget this. While others seem to rely on us, and we begin to feel that “no one else can do the job in the way I do,” the fact is that most who rely on us do so because they know they can. But they also know they can rely on themselves if they must. Remember this next time you think you can’t go on a date with your spouse or take a family vacation without being tied to your phone. Frankly, it’s simply an excuse. If you want to get away, you can. Everyone will make do.
Boredom. How did I deal with it? Many find this hard to believe, but I was never bored, even on the few days I spent hunkered down in my tent waiting out a storm for 12 – 14 hours. I became hyper-sensitive to the sights and sounds around me. It’s amazing what you “hear” in complete silence. Often in the mountains, the wind sucks the energy out of you, especially up above tree line. I lucked out and experienced nearly perfect weather most days I was above 12,000 feet. If you’ve never experienced a day above the tree line without the city’s sounds, voices, wind, or water, I’d highly recommend it. At first, the silence was a bit alarming, even deafening, if that makes sense. I could hear every sound my feet made on the ground, every breath I took, my heartbeat, my old hips popping! It was surreal. Once I got used to those sounds, I was able to tune them out and hear other things in what I thought was “dead silence.” One evening, as I lay in my ultralight tent, I saw the silhouette of a beetle crawling on the fabric above me. I could actually hear it’s “footsteps!” One night, I woke with a start to what I thought was a bear nuzzling up against my tent. It was a mouse! The sound of silence fascinated me, and I became obsessed with trying to hear something, anything. I heard rocks tumbling down a distant cliff and paid extra close attention as I neared it. I spotted six huge mule deer bucks grazing on the slope above. Another time, I heard a noise I couldn’t describe, only to cross a ridge to see thousands of sheep grazing on the open range, surrounded by the highest mountains in the lower 48 states. Boredom? No way! Had I had earbuds in, I would have missed it all.
The most memorable “sensory” moment I had on the trail occurred one early morning about 4 am. One of my goals was to hike in the dark. I hit the trail with about 2 hours until sunrise. It’s amazing what you can see in the dark when your eyes have adjusted. It’s almost like daylight in some ways. In fact, I had a headlamp to help me, but I turned it off when I realized I could see better when it was off. (The green eyes I saw all around me when the light was on also made me a little uneasy – probably just deer and moose, but…). As I walked, I heard a very quiet “flutter” (that’s the best I can describe it). It came right past my ear, and I could have sworn I felt something brush my face. I stopped in my tracks, thinking a bat had just sent a warning shot. Then it happened again! I quickly turned on my headlamp to try and get a look. The next thing I knew, a little white owl flew right in front of me, turned, hovered, and looked me dead in the eyes from about 10 feet away. Once it was satisfied, it simply flew away. I am sure the whole incident was over in a matter of seconds, but I swear I looked into those big, dark eyes for minutes. The image of that owl is still incredibly vivid in my mind. Had I been listening to music or a podcast, think of what I would have missed! Bored? Nope!
My favorite moments were in the rain. I love laying in my tent, listening to the rain hit the fabric and the thunder boom. In the mountains, thunder sounds like it’s right on top of you. You are over two miles higher than in Missouri, and there are no trees or buildings to block the sound. Some find it disconcerting; I find it mesmerizing. One day, during a particularly long, flat trudge, it began to hail (I’m not sure why, but I rarely got rained on when walking – it always hailed!). I happened to be below tree line and sought out a lone pine tree big enough to shelter under. I sat down and watched a herd of free-range cattle, wondering what they did in the hail. Apparently, they also used my tree to seek shelter! I was soon surrounded by curious (or angry) cows, giving me the stink eye! As I carefully watched their behavior so I could bail out of my shelter if needed, I could hear the hail bouncing off their hides and, soon thereafter, their “moos” of irritation at me being in their place.
I’ll let you in on a secret I haven’t told many people. Following the completion of the trail, I had a few days left to enjoy the mountains. I used them backpacking other trails in South Central Colorado. I decided to try an experiment and download one episode of one of my favorite shows to watch one evening after setting up camp. As I finished the show and settled into my sleeping bag, I noticed something. It was raining, and it had been for some time. I hadn’t noticed. I got away from my core principle of “no screentime on the trail,” and it robbed me of one of my favorite trail experiences.
I see it all the time – physicians leaving the room at a conference to answer a call or text. Rarely can you look around a room and not see many (if not most) people on their phones. Our ability to focus and work through “boring” events has declined. Creativity has diminished, too. How many great ideas, let alone experiences, are being lost to “screentime?” Instead of thinking, playing, and experimenting, we are lost in our screens, binge-watching “Suits” or “Friends.”
I don’t know the answer because I’m an offender too. While we may find it extremely difficult to unplug in our daily lives, I believe it’s essential that we do from time to time. The sheer quantity of information we are inundated with (useful and useless) prevents us from not only strengthening our relationships with others but also being creative, mindful, and appreciative of the world around us. We need more “boredom” in our lives. If you have access to Wifi, it makes it difficult, if not impossible, to unplug. For many, it’s an addiction. For many others, it will be an addiction. I realized I was not addicted when I was able to unplug for over a month and not even think twice about it, let alone experience discomfort. But I also realized how easy it is to get back into bad habits.
While I have not mastered the art of unplugging (really unplugging), I am now more mindful of it. I find myself reaching for my phone when I’m bored, then asking myself, “Is there something else I can better use my time for at this moment?” The answer is almost always “yes.” Then, it’s up to me to make it happen. Whether it’s pausing and taking my dog out to throw him a ball, reading a real book, or just sitting on the back porch watching deer eat and squirrels play, I find myself more relaxed and more satisfied with how I use my time. (Even if it was “unproductive.”)
I’m biased, but I do not see many other ways to completely unplug other than putting yourself in the middle of nowhere. Thru-hiking can help you accomplish this, but I realize this may not be for everyone. If not, rent a cabin in the woods where there is no cell service (it can be done, but you have to commit to not driving to find cell service!).
There is one other option that is available and doable for everyone if you can get rid of all the excuses you have to notdo it – just leave cell phones, computers, and other technology at home. Start by planning a short time period (two hours) each day when you simply commit to no screentime. Then commit to a day, then two, then a week, and so forth (remember the one-cairn-at-a-time approach?). Don’t say you can’t do it! You can! We survived for most of human existence until 15 years ago without this stuff! Uncomfortable? Maybe. Inconvenient? Maybe. Dangerous? Some might convince themselves it is, but it’s not. Start small. Drop the excuses. Unplug. “Bore yourself to life” a couple of times a year and see the difference it makes!