Taking a Tech Detox: When Mobile Devices Interfere with Life

This week hundreds of school kids in Ventura County will be released on fall break, some of them headed off on adventures where soul-stirring memories may or may not be made.

Young adventurers, I have a short story for you.

Rafting down the Colorado River is said to be one of life's greatest adventures, lauded for the more than 160 rapids squeezed within the Canyon's confines, some of them among the most hellishly hair-raising whitewater on earth. Approaching certain rapids you hear a sound like the thunder of stampeding horses and mist rises in billows and you sweat in places you didn't know you had.

Rafting down the Colorado is certainly adrenal at points, but my favorite reasons for drifting (much of it is a leisurely drift) down the Colorado are different.

Rafting down the Colorado gives you access to remote places otherwise reached only with great difficulty or a very long fall.

On my own trip down the Colorado, we strode into side canyons serene and glorious, hushed places pressed in by walls smooth and cool as satin sheets, where clear creek trickles ran, and here and there sat truck-size rocks deposited at times when the creek was nothing like a trickle. Some side canyons were dry; tomb still and quiet. Others drummed; waterfalls cascading into pools with a sonorous boom, blowing sprays of rainbow mist. One canyon held turquoise pools so clear and still they appeared to be not pools at all, but vast emerald gems set in the earth. First we plunged into these pools hooting like ten-year-olds who had discovered their parents' hooch. Then we went quiet. We sat in a hush so silent we felt its weight. We sat for a long time. We might still be sitting there if our guide hadn't gently ushered us back to the boats. I'll never forget the silence, or the rising joy. It didn't seem possible, but with quiet observation the hidden canyon grew in beauty. It was like watching my bride walk down the aisle.

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Sometimes very good things take uninterrupted time.

Walking back to the river, I relocated my voice.

"That was magic," I said to our guide.

He smiled.

"No cell phone reception," he said.

Recently, I happened on a trend that would have been a head scratcher twenty years ago, but sadly makes sense now. I speak of so-called "tech detox" vacations. Yes it's a clever ploy to sell vacation packages, but there's sound reasoning behind it, too.

eMarketer -- "providing marketers with the most comprehensive view into the state of the digital marketplace" -- claims that 78.8% of smartphone and tablet owners take them on vacation, noting "they're constant travel companions." This is about as surprising as political stalemate, but in response to this behavior some predict that "tech detox tours" will be the trend 2014.

Why?

"I realized that I was at my most relaxed and slept best when I was in areas where my phone didn't work and there was no Internet connection," says Jacada Travel founder Alex Malcolm. Demand for the company's trips to out of the way places like Tanzania and Mozambique are at an all-time high.

My job as a travel writer has made me something of a professional vacationer. Please don't misinterpret this. Travel writing is not the fine dining and 1,000-thread-count sheets endeavor so many mistake it to be: you try noting the minute details of your South Pacific surroundings from between your knees aboard a vessel rolling and pitching like some nightmarish, never-ending carnival ride. Travel writing is strictly the domain of hardened professionals. Because I am a member of this stalwart group, I have spent the past twenty years traveling to some out of the way places, places removed from everything but the place itself. Lightning strikes high in the Andes. Silent Sierra snowfall. Rivers of stars in outback Australia. Detox tours before they were detox tours.

Let me state clearly that I have nothing against technology or modern advancements. I am glad I do not live in an age of yurts and medicinal leeches. But I do object to technology when it interferes, and perhaps the best time to realize how much technology interferes is when it doesn't.

We had no internet access on the Colorado River. Most of the time, our cell phones didn't work either. Our tour company had radios, but at points within the Canyon they didn't work either. No one seemed to mind. One by one, everyone put their gadgets away. First we dissolved into the present; then we dissolved into the past. On one hike we came upon stone troughs and hand stones used by the Anasazi Indians to mill corn. They were scattered about as if the Anasazi had just up and left moments before we arrived.

Our guide picked up a shard of pottery, turning it slowly in his fingers.

"How old is that?" I asked.

"Close to 1,400 years old," he said.

The heat hummed.

The two of us looked out toward the Colorado, running brown beneath the sun.

"Yep," our guide said. "That's the same river they saw."

In another silent side canyon, our guide crouched and splashed water on a rock.

A shape appeared, trumpet shaped and maybe five inches long.

"Crinoid," said our guide. "Probably 400 million years old."

It was a comprehensive view of our place in a world far beyond the digital marketplace.

We returned to the river, floating lazy as a dream, our travel companions Great Blue Herons and dragonflies and gossamer strands of spider webs wafting past on a breeze you had to strain to hear.

Back to you, today's young adventurers headed off on fall break, or soon enough summer vacation, or, when you are on your own, adventures at the time and place of your choosing.

The world waits. What you choose to bring along is up to you: odds are, you'll bring the things that matter to you. But perhaps at some point those things will falter, or maybe, for a moment, you will put them away. And then you will sit quietly, absorbing a world not remote at all.

About the Author

Ken McAlpine’s latest book “Together We Jump” was praised by Sunset Magazine as “lyrical, evocative and deeply moving…a luminous American novel.” He is based in Ventura, California.
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