As technology grows more sophisticated, it gets harder and harder to unplug these days.
Like many of you, I grew up in a household where there was only one telephone, usually in the kitchen. Ours was a big black rotary dial behemoth that, by comparison to today’s tiny pocket computers, might as well have been the size of a boat anchor. As my brother and grew older and wanted privacy to talk to our friends, my father bought a 20 foot cord, long enough to stretch down the hallway and underneath a closed bedroom door.
Of course, “privacy” is a relative thing, especially when you have a younger sibling. I remember my folks getting a second phone for their bedroom, and in one of those moments that makes a kid feel like his life is scored by the theme song to “The Jeffersons,” a third in the spare room downstairs. My brother tried his best to lift the receiver ever-so-gently in order to eavesdrop on my conversations, but when you’re a mouth-breathing 9-year-old, it’s kind of hard to be a telephonic ninja.
In what was perhaps the coup de grace of the technological revolution at House Wildsmith, my dad bought a cordless phone about the same time as he purchased a Commodore 64. It’s funny to think back to that 8-bit computer screen and 64KB of memory. These days, my the smartphone in my pocket starts setting off alarms and warning klaxons if its storage drops down that low, but at the time, sitting down to this marvelous piece of machinery, I felt like an astronaut at the controls of a space shuttle.
Of course, my brother and I mostly played games, which isn’t a whole lot different than what most of us seem to do on our smartphones. If they’re not outright “games,” they might as well be, as frustrating and confounding and stress-inducing as social media seems to be these days. Because of my job, I keep up with email and social media business pages, so I can’t untether myself from technology as much as I would like, but when it happens of its own accord, it’s divine.
Also, a little frightening.
Last month, I drove over to Gatlinburg for the ETAADAC conference at the Park Vista Hotel one Wednesday evening. I left for home at 8, just as the sun was going down, and cutting down Wear’s Valley Road toward Townsend, I saw the sign for the Foothills Parkway. I’d been over it once, in the pouring rain, and while I didn’t expect breathtaking vistas in the pitch black darkness of an East Tennessee night, there was something alluring about it.
I passed a single car at the Wear’s Valley terminus, about the time that my cell phone lost service, but it wasn’t until a couple of miles down the parkway, too committed to turn back, that if something happened, I had no way of calling for help. On top of that, my wife only knew that I was returning from Gatlinburg; I hadn’t informed her of my route, because I hadn’t planned on taking it. Slowing down and coasting to the shoulder, I stared at the bright red triangle on my phone’s screen that seemed to be a portent of impending danger.
And then I stomped on the gas, too committed to turn back.
I’m glad I did. By the time I crossed over two intersecting roads, South Clear Fork and Happy Hollow, I was a part of the Blount County night, a lone rider behind two piercing head beams illuminating the gloom. It almost felt offensive to the wilderness through which I drove to do so with headlights on, as if my truck were somehow committing light pollution along what seems like a sacred thoroughfare.
It’s not, of course; there are pull-offs and overlooks and plenty of man-made places at which one can exit your vehicle and gaze down into the valley below. At night, it’s not nearly as awe-inspiring, but it’s equally breathtaking to see those dozens of pinpoints of light that signal the comings and goings of other people. Above me, planes crisscrossed the sky at various altitudes, silent orbs of blinking lights, and I was struck by how we always seem to be on the move, unable to stand still. Unable to detach from our technology.
Unable to simply be present.
In that moment, I could have hurled by phone into the void and not cared a whit. Around me, the night sounds of the mountains filled the air, and civilization was the merest whisper of some far-off place to which I had to return. Maybe it’s a primal connection that comes from growing up in this place, but a small part of me wondered what it would have been like to walk away from my truck, into the woods, and simply disappear.
Logic tells me that I probably would have been discovered a few weeks later, partially devoured by animals. Romance, however, convinced me that this place and these mountains that I love so much would embrace me and sustain me, far beyond the reach of technology’s arms, in a way that grants me the serenity I far too often trade for convenience.
Instead, I climbed back in my truck and took my time driving back down into Walland, filled with equal parts wistful longing for something that can never be and love for this land that I live in. It didn’t take long, once I was back in cell phone service range, for it to begin beeping its notifications of voicemails and text messages, but somehow, it didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would.
After all, I know exactly where to go when I need to get lost for a little while and leave the rest of the world behind.
Here’s your Friday motivation, friends. Take the time to get lost for a while.