Life is crazy.
We all know that. It’s hard not to get caught up in life, too. Between your job, your family, your significant other, your friends, it feels like your phone, your email, your feeds, all of that CRAP is BLOWING up ALL of the time.
At least, for me, it was starting to seem that way. Granted, we, or I, rather, do it to myself sometimes, but staying connected is also a huge part of my job. Technology is the only means by which I can efficiently stay connected, but that means there’s rarely a day when I’m not without some sort of screen in front of my face.
I’ve read the studies. I know how bad that stuff is for your eyes, your brain, your godforsaken soul. But it’s the way of the world, and has pretty spectacular capacities.
That being said, you gotta step away from it every once in awhile.
The best place when you need to do that? West By God Virginia.
Really, you could go just about anywhere you wanted so long as you check ahead of time to make sure your cell carrier doesn’t have service. This is key. You don’t even want the option of checking in easily. West Virginia, particularly Green Bank (or anywhere within the 13,000-square-mile National Radio Quiet Zone (NRQZ)), is perfect for just that, and you can thank the nation’s Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, or the GBT. The telescope and surrounding facility is the site for some of the nation’s top research experiments, meaning for locals of the region that anything interfering with radio frequency is a no-go. Modern-day cell phones, wireless Internet access, forget about it.
Knowing this, I decided to head to the heart of that total disconnection for some research on an upcoming story (check back in our October issue). That place is the Cranberry Wilderness area. Located in central West Virginia, this nearly 50,000-acre wilderness resembles something you might find in Canada’s arctic backcountry. Between the mysteriously dreary weather, cold temperatures, and towering pine forests, stepping into the boundaries of the Cranberry feels like you’re stepping into a Narnia-like fairy tale.
Now, I’m by no means a backpacker, but I have done some of that nonsense in the past. Personally, it’s hard for me to adjust to the mechanical plodding along of day after day of…walking. Maybe it’s because I get blisters every time I go hiking, or perhaps it’s the way I’m wired, but backpacking has never been my “thing.” Ultimately, though, because it’s challenging for me, and because it forces me to slow down, that’s exactly how I found myself deciding to spend four days in West Virginia’s technology dead zone.
Recently, I’ve been feeling like my life has derailed from a fairly straightforward path into a visual vortex overload. Between updating social media, checking emails, researching, writing, editing, I was racking up more hours behind a screen than under the sun. A few weeks ago, I read one of those blogs about “how to be healthy” or “how to better your life” or something silly like that and one of the first bullet points on one of them was, “don’t let looking at a screen be the first thing you do when you wake up, and the last thing you do before you go to sleep.” I read that, of course, while still lying in my sleeping bag in the Go one morning.
I finally had to admit it; my vortex of a life was spiraling entirely out of control. I had lost touch with the very things that inspired me, fueled me. I needed some serious one-on-one time with Mother Nature and I figured the only way to genuinely achieve that, and get the real-deal wilderness experience, was to go to a place where technology simply did not work.
Enter backpacking in the Cranberry Wilderness area, my solution to disconnecting, unwinding, and slowing down. Now of course, as soon as I arrived at the trailhead for my planned three-day, two-night loop, the sun disappeared behind a wall of clouds, the temperature dropped to just above 50 degrees, and the sky opened up in a most miserably cold and soggy drizzle. I was determined to go, regardless.
It took all of three hours of hiking through ankle-deep mud on unblazed trails to finally slow the wheels in my head and force me into the present moment. It was glorious. For a while, I felt rejuvenated, energized by the uncertainty of what lay around the bend. I saw a bear, wildflowers blooming, mushrooms of every variety. I hiked and hiked, going deeper and deeper into the forest until I arrived at the bottom of the valley by McClintock Run.
I found a campsite of epic proportions (I’m talking stone fire pit, stone seats, flat rock shelves for the kitchen, and trees made for hammock camping). Exhausted from the day of driving and hiking, I made a semi-satisfactory meal of gluten-free pasta (really, just about anything gluten-free is going to be semi-satisfactory) and had a sound, albeit cold, night of sleep in my hammock. Everything was going, weather aside, relatively well, but after only 13 miles, a worsening head cold, and two days of being drenched to the bone, I decided I’d had enough of the backpacking thing and bailed early to find a campground.
I had never heard of Watoga State Park before, but remembered seeing signs pointing toward it on my way to the trailhead. Although it was a summer weekend, I was hoping that the dreary weather was on my side and had caused some RVers to bail early from their plans. Sure enough, the campsite at Watoga was nearly half empty, so I pulled in, set up camp in the rain, and made a cup of coffee. So, change in plans. Now I had two days of total off-the-grid disconnection outside of the woods instead of just one. If I was done backpacking, what on earth was I going to do now?
Well, I’ll tell you what I did. I read. I read Elizabeth Gilbert’s new book The Signature of All Things nearly cover to cover in just one day. I didn’t pick up a phone. I didn’t even check the time until I went to buy some groceries later that afternoon (at 3 o’clock). I went for a bike ride along the Greenbrier Trail and talked with some awesome motorcycle-campers (one particularly interesting couple all the way from New Jersey; the guy talked faster than a bid caller). I drank more coffee, toured the Cranberry Glades, chugged some orange juice, watched the campground chipmunks pick up my crumbs, went for some shorter hikes in the Cranberry, and napped in my hammock.
Quite honestly, it felt like I wasn’t doing much of anything and it was a strangely guilty feeling at first. But in time, I realized I was doing something. I was recovering. I was making up for all of the time I spent trying to do 7,000 things at once, none of which involved taking care of me. In the few days I spent away from the technological world, I caught up on my sleep, my love of books, my passion for exploration, and my need for quiet.
We all need quiet, and I think especially in this day and age, we tend to forget what silence sounds like. It’s amazing what can surface when your brain is left alone (see what surfaces to Ellen DeGeneres’ mind in her moments of quiet). Personally, I found myself singing bits of lyrics to songs I hadn’t heard in years like Brown Eyed Girl and Renegade. Right, I didn’t necessarily have any life-changing epiphanies or amazing big ideas, but for the first time in a long time, I felt like I wasn’t on anyone’s schedule. Heck, I wasn’t even on my own anymore. I was at the whim of nature and the anticipation of what lay around the corner. I could pee whenever and wherever (within reason), I could take breaks when I got tired, wake up when I wanted to, go to bed when I felt tired (even if that was 8pm), or I could just simply sit and be. I was truly, entirely, 100% in the present moment.
So, now that I’m all plugged in again, I’ve made a promise to myself that I urge others to adopt as well: disconnect from technology 100% at least one day a week. I’d say the majority of people reading this are not the President of the United States. The world will not end if you don’t check Facebook for one day or return your best friend’s text message 30 seconds after she sends it. Those things can wait. Be here. Right now.