This is the second half of my post about taking time away from my phone, laptop, and many other distractions. If you haven’t read the first part yet, I’d recommend you check it out. It lays out the motivation behind the trip documented in this essay.
Ok, so here’s how it went.
It’s four o’clock Friday morning when a DING!!! followed by music that sounds like something from Disney’s Aladdin wakes me up. It takes me a few seconds to remember that I took the day off and that I must have forgotten to delete my alarm. Two emotions begin to fight it out—should I be mad that I woke up two hours too early or should I be excited that I get to start my digital detox sooner? I choose the latter and got my ass out of bed.
I packed most of what I needed the night before. All that remained was my toothbrush, film camera, and phone. Since I’d be going alone, my wife insisted that I take my phone with me—just in case. I reluctantly agreed but under one condition—I’d keep it turned off and locked up. I’d also leave the key at home so the only way I could get to it was by cutting open the case with my knife.
The ride to campground was a little over two hours. In between singing to myself and curses to the bugs that would sporadically kamikaze into my neck, I think about close to a million other things from how inadequate my leather jacket is against the chill of early morning riding and what I would eat for breakfast once I got there.
I realize that my monkey mind would be hard to calm down despite having shut off the digital distractions.
Instead of heading straight to camp, I stop by a little cafe in the city of McGregor. The cafe theme is retro. Clippings of old comic books and automobile signs like the ones in my father-in-law’s garage decorate the walls.
My hands, still recovering from handlebar vibrations, find it difficult to work the fork and knife. After the first bite of the poached egg and english muffin make it into my mouth, I forget all about it. My hands magically start operating like they always do when there are tasty things to be transported from plate to mouth.
I eye the pies displayed at the counter and order the pecan rhubarb. The eggs benedict and pie both seem to taste better than any other eggs benedict and pie I’d ever had. Maybe I owe the cafe a 5 star review or maybe food just tastes better when I’m not half distracted reading something like Seth Godin’s awesome daily blog posts. I was noticing the contrasting textures… the crunchy and smooth… and the ying-yang of salty and sweet.
In between bites, I wonder about the intentions I had for this trip. Will I reemerge inspired to be a better person? Will I feel rested or go out of my mind? Is this THE event that will finally bring calmness to my whirlwind life?
I noticed I was putting a lot of undue pressure on myself to make this digital detox something life-changing.
Upon arriving at the campsite, I stay on the bike as it idled and tell myself:
This trip is half about taking a digital detox and half about taking a break from the normal routine. Not everything has to be planned out. Goals, strategies, expectations, tactics… those are great… but for the next 3 days, just go with the flow.
As I set up camp, I catch myself reaching for my phone or having the sudden urge to stream a podcast through my ears so that I could at least be learning something while doing the mundane task of unrolling my sleeping bag. My inability to replace every millisecond of brain static with something else had me feeling anxious. Before admitting myself into this digital detox, I was free to replace boredom with my favorite blogs or the recent updates to my newsfeed. What do I do now?
I stand up to admire my simple shelter and chair. Then I worry—can I do this?
There was no better way to find out than to pack a few things and step out into the trails.
According to the Fitbit app, I hiked 16.12 miles on that first day. I wish I could tell you that it was epiphany-inducing. It wasn’t. That first day, I felt like I was looking for tranquility behind every tree. Inside every shrub. In essence, I treated that first day just like I would any other work day. I had a mission. And I, by default, went after it.
As I was falling asleep that night, I promise that I’d follow what I said to myself before I got off of the bike—go with the flow.
The next day, I chill and the birds wake me early enough to catch the sunrise. I dress and head out carrying food, water, my Pentax k1000, book, pen, and paper on my back. I learned the previous day that I had no need for the compass, flashlight, and definitely not the rape whistle.
I notice not too far into my hike that something has changed. My pace is slower and so is my breath. And I start to see and appreciate the colors around me. It reminds of being back in grade school and getting a new set of crayons. Green is no longer just green. There’s light chrome green, inchworm green, and granny smith apple green. Yellows are now canary, lemon, or goldenrod.
Throughout the day, I pause more. Looking back at the history on my Fitbit, I can see marks of little to no movement where I was either sitting down to read a book, capturing thoughts on paper, or listening to the tree branches sword fighting in the wind.
Here’s one of the places where I just sat and read that day. Look at that mango tango orange exposed under the tree bark! Side note: I love how the film camera makes the colors pop and amps up the perception of depth.
Even the annoying spiderwebs I remember peeling off of my face yesterday are now interesting—especially how they glimmer in the sunlight. It’s like I hit a rewind button that took me back to when I was just seven years old and everything was met with curiosity. I watch many of mother nature’s shows like the ballet of falling leaves followed by wind thrusts that sent them back up into the trees. By the time the sun is directly above me, I am out of snacks.
It was a good excuse to go into town for some food. Also, I started to crave human interaction.
As I weaved my motorcycle through McGregor and Marquette, I notice my hyper attentiveness to everything I saw. It’s as if being out in woods removed the blinders I didn’t know I was wearing. There’s an old woman driving a boat of a car wearing what looks to be a wedding vail, a guy driving a Jeep Wrangler with the steering wheels up to his eye brows, and a lady walking into a buffet who looks like a life-sized fishing bobber. I ride on Main Street into Prairie du Chien and smell something that makes my stomach perk up—a signal that it is time to park.
As I was taking my helmet off, a guy in his 60’s, wearing a pony tail points at my bike and shouts—“That’s not a Harleeeey!”
I murmur—“Oh great, here’s that human interaction I was craving.”
I acknowledge him and say, “You’re right, it’s not!”
“Is it a Kawasaaaaaaaki?!”
“No, it’s a Triumph.”
“Oh, a Triumph Spitfiiiiiire?!”
“Nope, a Bonnie” I say.
He introduces himself Neil, a sixty-two year old who had just retired from thirty-nine years of making sponges. He’s been married twice and apparently, all the ladies tell him he looks younger than his age. He urges that I grab a “Gokey burger.” That smell that made me stop he says is coming from the Gokey burger stand. My stomach starts to pull me in that direction but it didn’t feel right leaving the conversation so abruptly… so I tell my hunger to hush. And for the next 10 minutes, I listen to Neil’s story. He continues by telling me that he’s a psychic.
“Ask anyone! I’ve predicted the maiden names of 7 different women… on the first try! By the way, where’s your woman?”
“She’s in Nashville at a bachelorette party.”
“You see, how did I know you’re married?!!!”
I chuckle and think to myself “Well, most guys don’t wear a wedding ring just because.”
“Well, I should get going. Come over any time! I live just right there up on the 2nd floor”—pointing to the building caddy corner from where we stand.
“See you Neil, great to meet you!”
I waddle down the hill in my stiff leather jacket and spot the burger stand. There’s a line and it’s already two in the afternoon—a great sign. I can see inside the grill inside of the stand which couples an image with the aroma. It’s surprising I don’t drool on my shirt. The burger ends up being half satisfying and so I shrug and think—just goes to show that people have different tastes.
I stumble upon a place called Driftless Edibles down the street. I’m on a mission to find dessert and instead I run into another interesting guy. Roy is wearing a leather flat cap that matches his weathered skin and the tattoos on his ears. The conversation is kicked off by him pointing at my old camera while commenting that it looks older than I am. He tells me that there are a lot of good areas to shoot around these parts… and that it’s one of the most popular places to photograph, especially in the fall. He sends me off with a strong hand shake and I walk to the cash registers wondering how many people are like Roy—menacing on the outside, nice on the inside.
While paying for my sweets I bite into a grape tomato which explodes onto the counter. Lucky that a mustached woman with a raspy voice had the attention of the lady behind the counter! They were chatting about an ice cream shop across the street. I wipe up my mess and head off to my next treat.
A heavyset guy, probably in his late teens, welcomes me. I pace the buckets of ice cream then point to the flavor I want.
“Would you like one scoop, two scoops, or ten?”
I laugh and settle for one.
“Will that be in a bowl, a cone, or in your hands?”
I’m so entertained that I leave him a 100% tip before heading outside to enjoy my maple nut ice crea..
I was admiring an older couple who walked by while holding hands when suddenly, I hear someone yell “Millie!!” He walks up to a red pick up truck waving his finger no at the woman inside. He lets out a belly laugh. “Wrong red truck honey!” They came out of a bar so you can judge how this could have happened. Whatever the cause, it was a worthwhile thing to witness.
I ride back to McGregor to explore its own Main Street. It’s a city of no more than 1,000 people so there wasn’t really much there but a place called the Little Switzerland Inn catches my eye… well, actually the plastic pies displayed on their windows catch my eye. I step inside and meet the only person in there. Randy, a retiree of 5 years who now works for his wife at the bakery told me all about his viking ancestry then twists my arm into sampling about 6 or 7 different flavors of ice cream. He says his wife never makes money when he’s running the store. I wonder what it would be like to work, motivated not by profit but by genuine conversations with people.
He offers me a tour of the bed and breakfast but I decline. I wanted to get back to camp. Back to the quiet to let the events of the day sink in.
So… how do I summarize it all now that I’ve had a couple of months to process the experience?
In the end, I realized that there was more to this trip than admiring the effortless beauty of nature without interruptions from my devices.
It brought me back to the lesson I keep learning over and over. The path to tranquility and dare I say happiness can be found in the most basic things like positive interactions with people and taking time to think about whether I’m still living in alignment with my values.
Being free from the distractions of my digital devices gave way to the path to going back to the basics.
I also learned that it was about finding ways to relax and stay present despite the distractions. Life without distraction, digital or otherwise, just doesn’t exist. Even as you’re leaning on a tree trunk looking out over hills and rivers, thoughts about work, money, love, and exotic travel will still interrupt your tranquility. Distractions are an ever-present part of our reality no matter the setting. Being distracted by other things doesn’t mean that something’s gone wrong. It simply means that you’re human.
All of this however is not to say that there isn’t a better approach to living with it.
Since my return from this digital detox trip, I’ve committed to make these small changes:
- Enjoy food without distractions… and whenever possible, with good company.
- Embrace boredom and be ok with doing one simple thing for hours.
- Cut my dependency on the internet for finding the best of everything. For example, when deciding where I want to eat, I would ask a local a question like “Pretend that you moved away from this place and happened to be passing through town. Where would you choose to eat?”
- Turn off all push notifications on my iPhone and laptop.
- Check email only twice per day.
When I got back and told people how it went, they responded that they wish they could do the same. The truth is that we all can. It doesn’t take a special trip like this to slow down… to look up from our devices and enjoy the simple things in life.
Thanks for reading,
Like this essay? Get an update via email when I publish something new. Oh and the best compliment you can give me is sharing this with a few of your friends using the social share buttons below!