Being outside civilization is good for you
This August is a perfect time to be outside of civilization. I recently experienced this when I went camping with my family in the Catskill Mountains, about 100 miles north of New York City.
City dwellers take pride in being in the center of it all, in being connected to what is happening here and now. Our ability to navigate our asphalt jungle is another source of pride, the result of finding our way, learning the ins and outs of each place and its peculiarities, being able to surf upon this insider knowledge smoothly.
But it was vacation time and I took pains to be ready to unplug. My boss told me to enjoy my vacation, and that he didn’t want to hear from me unless I had video me wrestling a bear into submission or something equally sensationally bear-related.
On the way up to the mountains though, real life interfered and I got some work-related calls. I felt they could wait and I kept driving, vowing to look at my phone again only when we managed to get our tent set up and hot dogs on the grill.
It was raining when we pulled into the Woodland Valley Campground, which has plastered bear warnings on almost every single surface imaginable. It even has wooden bear silhouettes attached to its fence by the road as you enter; there is no missing these warnings unless you are blind. Even then, the woman at the campsite office reminded me to lock up all of our food in our car, noting that a young male black bear, recently made to live on his own by his mother, was known to frequent the area.
The heavy tree canopy allowed us to set up our tent and get a fire going before things got soaked. Once things were settled, I looked at my phone again, and realized that the emails and calls I had received could not wait. I tried to respond only to find that we had no signal. None. We were less than 100 miles away from the greatest metropolis in the history of the Earth and we could not connect to that great civilization.
I went to the campsite office to see if there was any information on getting a Wi-Fi connection. I’d even pay a little extra for it. They must have that, surely. ‘Need Wi-Fi?’ read a sign, it was followed by the address and the infrequent hours of operation of the Phoenicia, New York public library, which was about six miles away.
“I have to respond to these emails,” I told my wife. They were the result of a lot of work on my part and not doing so would let down a good friend I have known personally and professionally for a long time. I prepared an email on my phone asking people to email me back and schedule a call for a few days later, so I could drive back into town the next day to retrieve whatever emails they had sent me. A few hours later, after we had feasted on hot dogs and s’mores and put the children to bed, I made the drive into town through the dark mountain roads in the rain. I hoped that I wouldn’t have to go very far before I got reception, and kept my phone within sight.
I wound up driving all the way into town and parking at a gas station in Phoenicia that was across the street from several bars and restaurants and an antique store called The Mystery Spot. It was night and I didn’t even know if the gas station was open. I tried to get signal, and then tried again. Finally, after several tries, I had signal long enough to send my email. I was joyous. I celebrated by walking into the convenience store and buying some diet Pepsi and two cigarillos.
I drove back to the campsite and was the last one awake in our tent when the rain became a deluge. Moisture on the inside of the tent would occasionally rain down on my face, and I examined every sound outside the tent for its likeliness of being a black bear.
The next afternoon, I drove back into town and parked near the same gas station in order to get mobile phone reception. I got the emails I needed and learned I had a call scheduled in two days. I collected whatever other messages would register on my and my wife’s phones and then bought some supplies at the gas station convenience store.
Two days later it was time for my important work phone call and I had to drive to several different locations in town to get reception, even then the call dropped three times and I begged forgiveness of the person I was speaking with and his secretary.
I got through the call and after buying more ice at the gas station, drove back to the camp site, stopping here and there to take some photos along the way. We left later that day, as rain was forecast for our final day and we didn’t want to pack up during another downpour.
So in total my vacation saw me with only one full day completely unplugged. That’s not good. The trip was a success in every other way. My family got to experience nature, see interesting (non-bear) wildlife and get fresh air. My children spent four days with no television or tablet games, only family and books, and the weather was much cooler than in the city. I got to spend time playing with our children and take them to wade in the Esopus Creek. We hiked the trails of the campgrounds and ate lots of hot dogs, even for breakfast.
Arriving back, we found civilization had not improved much. Civic life continues to become more vile and violent, and to comment on events of the day has become a futile exercise.
Being outside civilization is a good thing. We cannot escape it but in short bursts, and we must learn to savor these.