When I Unplugged from the Grid

I just spent a week “off the grid,” disconnected from anyone not in my direct line of sight. I wasn’t living alone in Arches National Park, the way Desert Solitaire author Edward Abbey did for a long summer in the late 1950s, but I read his tale while taking in the eerie quiet of a Virginia forest at dawn. Β It was a week of many lessons on what our interconnected world means to me, and I’m still processing the experience. Perhaps your insights on life in a digital age can help me.

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I learned that for me social media is like a cigar. I’ve never smoked cigarettes but I very much enjoy smoking an occasional cigar, yet I often feel guilty when I do so because I tell myself that time could be better spent with more productive activities. And I find after a good smoke that for a day or two the nicotine continues to call to me: “I see you have a few minutes to kill. Why don’t you pull out that humidor and have a quick smoke. It’s better than just standing around, right?” That voice becomes softer with time, however, meaning I know I am capable of enjoying cigars as an irregular indulgence.

My week off the grid began with a family vacation in central and western Virginia, and occurred in three stages. In Phase One I was computer-free but still had a smartphone. That allowed me to tweet and Facebook when our restaurant in Fredericksburg, Virginia, shook violently; it turns out we were a mere 40 miles from an earthquake’s epicenter. That Internet access was quite helpful in filling me in on what had just happened, including the important fact that a nuclear power plant near us had been safely shut down. But this was a family vacation, so my focus was on face-time with my wife and two teenage children, not social media with non-family.

Phase Two found us in a rustic cabin in Shenandoah National Park with no wireless phone service or Wi-Fi. It proved to be a blissful three days, at least for me. I’d wake up at dawn and sit by our fire pit, reading Desert Solitaire, bonding with Abbey and his time alone in a national park. I shared his offense at the “petty tyranny” of technology created by human beings, whom he derisively called “tool-builders.” I lumped my smartphone in with his list of “automatic washers and automobiles and TV machines and telephones…Β  what intolerable garbage and what utterly useless crap we bury ourselves in day by day.” (Italics in original.)

Our second night in the Shenandoah we drove up to a lodge for dinner and discovered it had mobile access. My daughter and son pulled out their phones and hit Facebook. My wife checked her work email and quickly was sucked in to a crisis in her office she could at the time do nothing about. Me? I left my phone in the car and pulled up a seat to take in the large picture-window view of the sun setting magnificently over the Shenandoah Valley. To my left an older man stared at his Mac laptop screen, to my right a young woman’s face was aglow from her iPad. The sun was unconcerned, continuing to set despite its show being ignored. I basked in a sense of superiority, dismissive of those poor tool-builders with their electronic tethers. They were oblivious of my condescension as well.

By the time the vacation was done I discovered to my surprise I wasn’t quite ready to log into Facebook, to fire up Twitter. I felt unprepared for the onslaught, feared drowning in a digital flash flood, a less fatal form of the real danger Abbey faced on a raft trip through Glen Canyon (before the dam was built), the real danger I suspected many might be facing with the approaching Hurricane Irene. As it happened, Irene made the decision for me, knocking out our power and forcing me to preserve my smartphone battery for emergency purposes, not social media. Thus began Phase Three.

In the first two Phases I had chosen to go off-grid, to embrace nature and the Now. In this final phase, the choice was removed from me. Maybe I was channeling the libertarian independent spirit Abbey espouses in Desert Solitaire, but I wanted my level of connection to be my choice. After all, Abbey chose to live in Arches, and chose to leave when the summer was over. I would gladly have reconnected to the grid Saturday night, when I couldn’t watch hurricane coverage on TV, when my kids were at a relative’s home for the night, and when my wife had gone into work for an overnight shift managing her news organization’s hurricane coverage. I have friends, real and virtual, up and down Irene’s path. I was curious to know how they were doing. But to be honest, I was just hungry for personal interaction. I wasn’t up for Hurricane Solitaire.

Abbey celebrates his independence in Desert Solitaire, yet most of the narrative in the book involves his interaction with others — his colleagues in the Park Service, a cowboy he sometimes guides steer with, his companion on that Glen Canyon rafting adventure. At one point he admits that “Aloneness became loneliness and the sensation was strong enough to remind me (how could I have forgotten?) that the one thing better than solitude, the only thing better than solitude, is society.” It’s worth noting that he concludes the book’s Author’s Introduction with the following sign-off: “E.A., April 1967, Nelson’s Marine Bar, Hoboken.” It’s hard to imagine a place less suited for solitude than a bar in a New York City suburb. He’s recalling fondly his time off the grid in a place nearly at the center of it.

And here I am, recalling fondly my time off the grid in pixels displayed on the grid, in a blog post that hopefully will spread on Facebook and Twitter.

I’m still sorting out the lessons here. But my takeaways include the following: 1) Communicating with virtual friends comes in second to face-to-face time with loved ones. 2) A little time off the grid is a great way to reconnect with your environment, and with yourself. 3) It’s nice to have some control over whether you are on or off the grid.

Have you had any cold-turkey breaks from social media? Do you moderate your use of it? Would you consider it an addiction? I’d love to hear your personal insights and experiences.

UPDATE 9/2/11: It seems Mr. Bacon is on the lam, out of reach of my frying pan. He’s made his way over to Milliver’s Travels, the comprehensive travel web site run by Milli Thornton. I don’t know what I’m going to do with that guy.

UPDATE #2 9/3/11: My tweep friend Andrea (@yarnsuperhero) just informed me that today, the Saturday before Labor Day, is International Bacon Day. As if Mr. Bacon didn’t have enough reason to get a big head. I’m hoping he doesn’t know. He won’t learn here, he’s too important to read my blog.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

46 Responses to “When I Unplugged from the Grid”

  1. Hi Patrick!
    First, we were at VOLT, a restaurant in Frederick Md, where they served us BACON DONUTS. You and Mr. Bacon might want to hustle on up there on a Sunday morning for brunch sometime….make sure you have the mimosa with them (or two).
    Second, I got off Twitter because I realized I had nothing to say. Perhaps if I were more established then maybe I’d go back on. But right now, for me, I felt like a Kindergartener trying to have a conversation with high schoolers. I didn’t understand what the rules were, and nothing I had to say was of any importance.
    Third, I’d had this running conversation in my head in regards to how much time I spend (cough, cough, waste) on Facebook. I wondered what would happen if I took a look at a piece of writing instead, every time I walked over to the computer. So I took Facebook off my phone, printed out what I was currently working on the night before, and have tried to make that a habit. I don’t miss Facebook, although there are some good friends that I’ve reconnected with through it so I don’t think I’ll sign off. I just think I would like to be more intentional in regards to how I use it.
    That was a loooooong reply. Sorry.

    • Hi right back Callie!

      I welcome long comments, hoping to spark an on-the-grid dialogue here about off-the-grid. First off, let me say this comment (and your fine blogging) shows you actually have a lot to say (but maybe not in 140 characters!).πŸ™‚

      Facebook really is amazing at allowing us to keep in touch with people we care about, but I also get removing the temptation of the phone. Maybe it’s just the type of friends I have, but I see a Pareto curve in how my friends use Facebook; a curve with each user along the X axis and frequency of use along the Y axis. About 5-10% post and comment with great frequency (the left side of the curve, very high on the Y axis) and then the next 10-15% post but less so (moving just to the right along the X axis, lower on the Y) and more than half post infrequently or not at all (the “long tail” moving to the right on the X axis). The Pareto curve occurs frequently in the digital world, and tells me that Facebook can be whatever people want it to be, which is a good thing.

    • Oh, and thanks for the heads-up on VOLT! Bacon and donuts, two delightful sins I wouldn’t have thought of combining (but true bacon lovers say there is nothing that can’t be improved with bacon).

  2. I think it’s a great thing to do. It’s definitely consuming. I am inching toward limiting my use and investing that time into what’s really important. I need a Mr. Bacon!

    • Hi Julie, it seems to be all about moderation, right? I love bacon, but I do my best to moderate its intake. Social media can be like that, because there are other things that are, as you put it, “really important.”

      And I think everyone needs a Mr. Bacon! He was a recent birthday gift from my daughter, who knows her father well.

  3. Wonderful post, Patrick. I rarely read blog posts with my morning coffee (one of my attempts at time management) but as soon as I saw the title you had me. I became totally engrossed and forgot my own rule.

    Loved the way you wove narrative about Desert Solitaire into your personal account of being off the social media grid. Good point about how the book is mostly about his human encounters. That, to me, underlines the idea that we don’t need to disengage from society and our fellow humans to benefit from less reliance on technology – it’s all about not letting seductive ‘tools’ water down our ability to enjoy real human relationships.

    Back around 2001 or 2002, Brian and I spent a long weekend at Vallecitos Mountain Refuge, a nonprofit organization in New Mexico that I used to work for that provides retreats for activists. It was off-season and we had the camp all to ourselves, except for one alumnus who used to be the cook (lucky us). No electricity, and miles from civilization. The only machine-type sound was the occasional plane passing overhead. The sounds of nature and animals hogged the entire stage.

    Amazing the difference I felt when we got back to town. It was harsh and jarring on the senses returning to civilization as a whole, not just my computer. This was back before the days of blogs and social media, so I can’t speak to that. But I can say that living in the city (or even a small town such as Taos, NM where we lived at the time) definitely dulls our senses in a way we take for granted. And no doubt an addiction to social media only intensifies that. Sadly, we don’t even realize what we’re missing. You have to unplug completely and go into nature for several days to get the contrast.

    ~ Milli

    P.S. Loved the humor! Mr. Bacon, of course, and this: “I basked in a sense of superiority, dismissive of those poor tool-builders with their electronic tethers. They were oblivious of my condescension as well.” ;~D

  4. Hi Milli! That sounds like a great getaway, being away from “utterly useless crap” for a few days (and blessed with tasty food). It sounds like you have the right approach to balancing your life, and of course I value your Twitter feeds (@fearofwriting and @MillivrsTravels) where you provide real value to your followers.

    And nature can be quite noisy; for us it was when darkness would fall and everything would come alive, from crows to crickets to bullfrogs to owls. Dawn, however, was eerily quiet, those creatures finally getting some rest. And yes, it was jarring driving back on I-66 and seeing people and cars and flashing signs warning of congestion ahead.

    Thanks for the nice words on my weaving in of Abbey and my line about my rather hypocritical condescension!

  5. So far I have gone off the grid every trip to the beach I take … actually, every vacation I have taken so far, save my last long trip, while my father lay dying. I felt the need to touch base with the rest of the world during that one.

    I don’t own a smart phone. My lap top is enough. If I really want to go virtual on a mobile basis, there are still Internet cafes, or the library, or I can take my laptop and find a Starbucks virtually anywhere in the US. But here is the deal. Why would I do that when I’m on vacation? I’m getting away to do just that … get AWAY. Yes, that means a flood of virtual communication to wade through when I return. It is very much worth it.

    • Thank you for sharing about your approach after your father’s loss, that would be a time most of us would need to be connected.

      I really admire your approach to vacations. I have to say, though, you and I grew up in a time where disconnection was part of vacation; that’s not the case with the younger generation. I wonder if any of them will proactively explore the possibility of disconnecting at times.

      • That is something that concerns me. Not deeply enough to stay on-grid and research during my vacation time, though. πŸ˜‰ But what will happen with the generation who connects much more via a screen than eye contact, right from the word “go”?

        I wish I could remember what program was having families experiment with everyone going cold-turkey off the grid in families for a whole week. I think it was on last year. The show took away all forms of virtual communication, including texting. The results were amazing! The whole family reconnected (after the withdrawal pangs, of course). It was awesome to see.

        Of course, I love my social media. But I don’t want to be a slave to it, nor do I want to see others serving it (rather than being served by it). Stay tuned …

        • I definitely saw the reconnection with my family. Take the rain. During Irene everyone was off doing their own thing. When we were caught in a rainstorm in the Shenandoah we dashed into our tiny cabin and played a board game based on having to guess each other’s wishes. Fantastic moment.

      • By the way, I think I’m in love with Mr. Bacon. Any chance he’s single?

  6. Desert Solitaire is one of my favorite books ever, and perhaps it is time for me to re-read it and imagine a time without Macs or Twitter or blogs or smart phones. There was a time like that, right? Anyway, I’ve taken a couple mini-vacations this summer where I was away from the grid. I find its a gradual withdrawal. At first I fuss and whine about it. And then I start to enjoy it. Finally, like you, I’m loathe to reconnect. But then I get right back into it again….sigh. Would be nice to find a balance and be able to disconnect more regularly but I have a hard time with that.

    • If you re-read it, you’ll recall it’s filled with humor, great insights on the desert (he describes himself as a “desert rat,” which I am too despite now living in the Mid-Atlantic) and a bit of a militia-like insurrectionist (he’s like an uber-liberal Tea Party member!).

      Your mini-vacation experiences resonate perfectly with me. Maybe we’re looking at it the wrong way, thinking there is some kind of “magical balance” we’re always on either side of. Maybe that balance can move with us as per our needs (like Amy’s anecdote about her father above), making achieving balance more accessible.

  7. our lives have changed so quickly with our smartphones giving us the ability to be always on, that we have not had time to adjust our philosophies for our new work ethic.

    thanks to the recent earthquake, I had no cell service for several hours and Irene left me with no power for a day and a half – not so bad for me, still not sure about the ice cream. The forced breaks were in a way nice.

    One thought about the appeal of social media – messages are neatly packaged like popcorn – they may not be the best thing on the table but they are the easiest to pick up.

    you raise too many issue to comment on here – there is certainly a trade-off between real life and virtual. Of course family wins out but how about the choice of talking to someone on a checkout line at the supermarket and talking about the weather or connecting with like minded people on the other side of the globe and having a more enriching exchange? no easy answers!

    • Ah, and David, you raise many issues to answer! I’ll pick up on the popcorn analogy, which I love, although popcorn in moderation is actually not so unhealthy (if you lay off the butter and salt), so I’m thinking Skittles, which I popped like crazy when doing homework in high school. They taste great for awhile, and then all of a sudden you realize you have a stomach-ache. No harm in some popcorn here and there (or Skittles) but you need meals, too. I’d put books in the “meal” category. It’s easy to say “Oh, I don’t have the energy for an actual book, I’ll read a magazine or my tweets” but fortunately my MFA is demanding I read (Desert Solitaire is on my reading list). We could have another whole discussion on the most recent book by my social-media “friend” Nick Carr, The Shallows, on how the Internet may have re-wired our brains to favor popcorn over meals, but that might require us to write books of our own!

  8. Patrick:
    Thanks for this leisurely, thoughtful “essaying” post. Much of what you write about being off-grid and about returning to the grid by your choice resonates with similar experiences I had last month. See: http://trackingwonder.com/jeffreys-blog/2011/08/22/break-from-blogging-wo-breaking-your-biz/

    I’m continuing to explore the nuances of being online with intention and of witnessing any “urgency” to be online.

    Indeed: direct, visceral experience precedes indirect, virtual encounters.

    Cheers, my fellow wonder-tracker,
    Jeffrey

    • Hi Jeffrey! It would seem my study of the essay form in this semester’s MFA may have been influencing my blog writing, although when I read Phillip Lopate’s description of the personal essay, it struck me that some of my favorite bloggers are essentially digital essayists.

      Thank you for sharing the link to your blog, which you posted when I was getting ready to go off-grid. You make some excellent points about giving yourself permission to disengage at times from social media (in the case of your post, blogging), which can serve both you and your readers well (by keeping you fresh among other things).

      Glad you stopped by!

  9. Ok, I know I should be responding to your question, but first I have to say that I LOVED Mr. Bacon and his travels, even though I am a vegetarian! Simply Brilliant, Patrick.

    As for going off the grid, I usually try for a weekend every couple of months just to refresh my creativity. In fact, I just did it last weekend and feel better already.

    • Hello Melanie, my fellow creativity maven. No doubt there’s a lot to be said for a little getaway reboot for the muses, no doubt.

      I’m so glad you liked the Adventures of Mr. Bacon! I’ll pass on your enthusiasm. He’ll act like he doesn’t care, but I think he will.

      On my drive across the country I was accompanied on my dashboard by a chameleon made of straw. I picked him up shortly before the trip from an artist selling such creations from a table near Rockefeller Center. He’s curved, and I named him Comma, both for his shape and because Comma the Chameleon comes and goes (across the US, as it turned out).

  10. I LOVE this post, Patrick (and was highly amused by the Mr. Bacon photos; I’m pretty sure you had a grand ol’ time posing him for the ‘perfect’ shots).

    All kidding aside, I find it interesting that your post deals with this topic of social media, the way we communicate, and knowing how to juggle it, when enough is enough, when we need to reconnect with our roots and pay attention to our spouses/family. In the past few weeks, five other writers have written similar blog posts about the conundrum, and one of my blogging buds (Amanda Hoving) actually wrote a post about taking a blogging break – something I may consider myself, so that I can appropriately prioritize my fiction writing goals.

    So – yes – I have been struggling with this social media conundrum, too, which is why I was drawn like a fly to each of these posts (yours included). I’ve actually been forced to slow down with social media because of an avalanche of freelance projects. And the realization I’ve come to is that life goes on if I’m not “there,” swimming in the social media stream. And that, yes, I miss it and wonder if I’m missing out. But, I also realize that yes, I can limit it and still jump back in… AND that I CAN prioritize my fiction, even in the middle of big deadlines … as long as I cut back on social media. (I’ve worked on WIP every morning first thing, this week!)

    I love that you found that connection with nature so refreshing and that you feel you have the control, too, to turn social media on/off when you need to. Well done!

    • Hi Melissa! First, kudos on doing WIP every morning, I aim for that and fall short sometimes. Also, having a freelance avalanche is a nice problem!

      I believe you read awhile back where I wrote about possibly shutting this down because of the time pressure of my MFA; I decided instead to drop to 2 posts per week. And my online friend @katearmsroberts just came back to her blog after a summer hiatus, and I love what she’s posted so far. And of course Jeffrey in the comments above talks about giving yourself permission to step away from your blog sometimes.

      I have one request; if you do scale back on your blogging, at least take a minute once in a while to tweet or email me some of your desert photos!

  11. Lovely post, Patrick. Perhaps the answer is to have some of both everyday. Spend some time walking and enjoying the sunrise (or sunset), or sitting outside sipping coffee, before jumping into the maelstrom of our electronic lives.
    I do love the great open communication ‘the grid’ offers us, though. In what other era could we share instant ideas with all the diverse folks we do every now?
    Still, I know how restful it can be, to get up and not think about anything except the moment. I envy you your wonderful Virginia vacation. Thank you for sharing. Very nice writing, too.

    • Hi Cynthia! I just experienced an invigorating ride thanks to Melissa, reading your recent post as well as that of several others on this topic. That is a great example of what social media can give us, as well as this conversation we’re having now. Wouldn’t give that up for the world.

      Thank you so much for the kind words on my writing.

  12. I’m pretty envious; sounds like a really wonderful trip and experience. I love the fact that you experienced this with your teens — you can probably appreciate that the only time I feel perfectly comfortable *completely* off the grid is when I’m with the nearest and dearest in my life — my husband and our two kids. Now that our kids are in college, it’s almost impossible for me to imagine not one of us having at least a phone with us all the time. That said, I am struggling to balance my virtual life with my real life with my writing life. NOT EASY.

    My writing is suffering (I blogged about it twice this week). But I gain tremendously from my online writer community — Melissa Crytzer Fry told me about your post, for example. It is indeed a conundrum, and I’m still figuring it out. My guess is that I need to have a bit of a retreat from all of it as you did and figure out a plan or at least come to a better pathway. (Unfortunately, I think my use borders on addiction (and I can’t even believe I’m admitting these things, but…) since I thought about how to tweet information about a tree falling on a neighbor’s house during Irene — no one was inside — and I also have found myself checking my iphone in the middle of the night a couple of times….).

    Thank you for continuing this conversation; I need all the insight I can get!

    • Ah that Melissa, connecting us, and all the other bloggers you mentioned in your own post!

      NOT EASY is right, and not just for us, obviously. As for your thoughts on a possible addiction, I think of that as a pretty strong word (as in alcohol or drug addiction as opposed to the tossed-around “chocolate addiction,” for example) and the reflection you demonstrated in your own post suggests to me that you can exert the control you need to and extract the good (like this chat). I wish you luck!

  13. This has been something I struggle with constantly. I remember even four years ago, it was so much easier to step away from the computer; now I find that even when I’m not on it, I still have my emails and Twitter alerts coming in through my cell phone.

    Whenever I go on vacation, I make it a point to unplug as much as possible, but your post got me thinking that I should put that much emphasis on unplugging daily, too. Like you said, face-to-face time with loved ones is most precious. I love our online community, but a Twitter conversation should not be a replacement for a great conversation with friends. And since our time is limited, sometimes it does end up replacing more valuable moments.

    Twitter especially is so fast-paced, and people can get sucked into its instant gratification so easily, that I definitely think it can become an addiction. Looks like we’re all in a similar boat here (in the acceptance phase, realizing that we have a problem!).

    Thanks for a great post!

    • Hi Natalia. I think if we’re struggling with it, that’s probably a good thing. It shows we’re focused on making sure we are true to all of our priorities, right? And as to your Twitter comment, that is the worst temptation, because each bite is so quick, but it’s also hard to stop eating. Up above David used the analogy of popcorn, which I like.

  14. Well Patrick, ironically we’re “meeting” because we’re both talking about the intoxicating pull of social media and trying to pull back. Yet here we are.πŸ˜‰ I only blog once a week and visit blogs in moderation throughout the week. I seem to have that piece of it all in check. For me the main issue is Twitter. I’m always flipping through it on my phone when I’m line, etc, and it’s like I literally can’t just BE. Worse is when I only have two hours of non-kid time to write and before I know it I’ve used up an hour on Twitter. I love Twitter, but it’s a waste to be there instead of writing. I’m trying to figure out a schedule (a little hard with baby #4 coming soon.)

    I’m going to reflect on some different ideas in next week’s post.

    • It’s a paradox!

      Kudos on your once-a-week approach. As for visiting blogs, I feel guilty when I don’t make it to blogs I like in a timely way, but I also feel guilty if I spend hours reading blogs. No win, right? And like Natalia, you feel that Twitter pull, which I totally get. Facebook doesn’t suck me in quite the same way, but my teenage daughter clearly has an addiction to that.

      Baby #4! Oh my. I found when #2 came along it seemed more than double the work, I can’t imagine two more. I will say that when it comes to making time for the kids, it’s different now with teenagers because I have to be proactive in making sure I fit into their schedule!

  15. For three weeks this summer, my kids and I have been in a limited on-line access environment and a TV-free zone. It has been refreshing. the thing I really noticed this year is that it took more than two weeks for my eldest child to relax into the less electronically stimulated life.

    We do it every year and it always makes me want to reduce the time I spend online when I get home – which lasts about 3 days since most of the people that understand me deeply live hundreds or thousands of miles away and I use the Internet to connect with them. This year, though, I am more thoroughly committed to reduced tv time for the kids.

    • Thanks for sharing that, Kate. I wonder if it’s harder for kids today to go back and forth from their interconnectedness because they’ve known far more interconnectedness than we did.

      We only own one TV, it’s in the family room and you can’t watch it yourself usually, the rule is we all watch something together as a family. That has worked great, except that now my teens can simply whip up YouTube videos or Hulu on their phones or a laptop. You cap the end of the toothpaste tube, the stuff will find its way out through other means, it seems.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. When I Unplugged from the Grid | The 21st Century | Scoop.it - August 30, 2011

    […] When I Unplugged from the Grid I just spent a week "off the grid," disconnected from anyone not in my direct line of sight. I wasn't living alone in Arches National Park, the way Desert Solitaire author Edward Abbey did for a lo… Source: artistsroad.wordpress.com […]

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