October 6, 2019

Digital detox weekend

We’re on our way to West Virginia for a low-tech weekend at promisingly-named Lost River State Park – just across the Virginia border in Mathias, West Virginia. Its chosen not only because the park sounds beautiful, with lots of hiking trails, but because the cellphone service is spotty at best there. Plus, we’ve been told that the cabin we’ll be staying in has no WiFi, which will prevent the intrusions of work, school, social obligations, politics.

A husband, wife and two teenage kids agree cellphones stay in airplane mode, only to be used for music listening or photo taking. No grown-ups obsessively checking their work emails, reading headlines or scrolling through Twitter, and no kids texting friends, watching inexplicable YouTube videos or trying to capture Pokémon. If all goes according to plan, this weekend will be about connecting with one another instead. Because sometimes it seems awfully hard to juggle both digital and family interactions – without compromising something meaningful.

“The average American checks their phone 80 times a day while on vacation,” says Tiffany Shlain, author of “24/6: The Power of Unplugging One Day a Week.” “You look at your phone,” she says, “and there’s going to be something that stresses you out, whether it’s an email, a text, a news headline – something that’s going to take you out of being in that moment.”

Right now, Dante B, 14, isn’t very pleased to be in this particular moment. In the back seat I hear him mumbling, “I don’t like this. I just don’t like this whole thing.”

After stopping for burgers at the laid-back Lost River Grill, about 15 minutes outside the park, we head 5 miles down a winding road through the woods to the entrance and administrative building. An envelope with our key and instructions is taped to the front door. We’re in a Legacy cabin, one of 15 in the park that were constructed in the 1930s with a wooden frame and logs by the Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps. It’s perfect: two bedrooms, a little living room and a bathroom. The fully equipped kitchen has a breadbox on the table where we all agree to stash our phones whenever we’re in the cabin. I read through the short welcome note in the envelope indicating “a pay phone on the front porch of the Administration building for your convenience.” And handwritten in pen at the bottom: a WiFi password. (Turns out they’d wired up the place two weeks before our arrival, says Samuel England, chief of the West Virginia State Parks system, when I call him after the trip to ask about the surprising amenity. “People feel like they need to stay connected when they’re on vacation,” he explains.) But I make no mention of it to my family.

That night we play the board games we’ve packed – a few that had been stored, unused, …

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