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, in a living room cabinet for years. The next morning we explore Lost River State Park, a gloriously quiet spread of about 3,900 acres. Its most beautiful hike may be the 3.5-mile Millers Rock Trail, which leads to an overlook with an expansive view of tiny towns, fields and mountains. Nobody stops to check their phones for new texts or emails along the way – because we can’t. Instead, we chat about the possibility of a bear sighting (highly unlikely) or enjoy the silence.
In the afternoon we drive south to Seneca Rocks, the magnificent rocky tower of white-gray Tuscarora quartzite rising 900 feet above the North Fork River in Monongahela National Forest. We climb the 1.3-mile trail, up steps and switchbacks for 700 feet to the top, impressed by the handful of rock climbers we can see scaling the peak the hard way. While we walk, I chat with my 16-year-old daughter, Mia, who says she thinks “society” has a problem with cellphone addiction. “I try to talk to my friends at lunch, and a lot of times they’re just looking at their phones,” she notes, adding that she sometimes wishes she didn’t have a phone – or, much better, that no one had one.
After lunch at the nearby Front Porch Restaurant, we head off to the Green Bank Observatory, home to the Green Bank Telescope, used to gather radio data from space. It’s the reason the surrounding 13,000-square-mile area (most of it state and national forest) is labeled the National Radio Quiet Zone, where radio transmissions are limited to prevent disruptions to the telescope’s reception – though only the approximately 150 people closest to the observatory aren’t allowed WiFi, or in some cases even microwaves. We’re given a bus tour of the grounds and background on the massive, 17-million-pound telescope and how scientists there work, in part, on finding signs of life beyond Earth.
We’re all too tired for games when we finally get back to the cabin. Mia points out that we were so busy, it wasn’t such a challenge to ignore her phone. My husband says he’s been surprised by how many times he’s reached for his pocket to check his email throughout the day and stopped himself – “several times an hour,” he notes. “It makes me realize how it’s basically become a robotic habit.” I’ve been the same way: It’s an almost unconscious impulse whenever there’s a moment of downtime. It makes me want to retrain myself to be comfortable with a little boredom, if that’s what a lack of digital stimuli is these days.
On Sunday, as we head home, we do a postmortem. We didn’t check our emails, or post photos on or scroll through social media all weekend. Countless Pokémon went uncaught, friends and family went untexted, and all the maps we consulted were paper.
“I think we should do a trip like this every year,” Dante B says, putting in his ear buds as we near home. “But I’m going to listen to a podcast now.”
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