I like to consider myself a person who can handle life without my cell phone and all the glorious technology it offers better than the average human.
I can leave it in a different room for a good chunk of the day. If I forget it at home when I go to work or run errands I only have a split-second panic attack. I can easily go without it when camping or spending time with friends.
I have the ability to sit in nothingness and just think or observe without reaching for a device to scroll. Growing up with a tendency to get lost in my own thoughts helped me master that dying art.
This is why I was surprised at how often I reached for my phone or glanced at my GPS watch while backpacking the John Muir Trail.
I had made a conscious effort to limit the amount of technology I brought with me on the trail, wanting to experience nature without distraction. I had a GPS watch with a downloaded map. I also had my cell phone, which I only used to take pictures and consult a JMT map app. I didn’t download podcasts or music or movies. I had a watch, a map and a camera.
And that was enough to have me checking a device every 20 minutes.
It was the map on my phone that really did me in. I could see exactly where I was on the trail compared with known camping spots, water sources, summits and other trail markers. It told me how much farther I had to hike to reach those points and how far behind me they were once I’d passed. It even had an elevation map that showed me where I was on the constant rise and fall of the trail.
I most often checked this map on uphill sections to see how much suffering I had left. Once I knew the peak elevation for the day I could convince myself to stop checking my phone as long as I could look at my watch to see what my current elevation was in comparison to how high I had to climb.
This seemed normal. I always do this when running or doing any sort of timed exercise. Once I start feeling really winded I check to see how much time has gone by, only to be disappointed to see it’s been five minutes. Sometimes less. It usually makes the situation worse, and I start playing a mental game of how long I can go without looking at my watch.
But when I started checking my phone on easy parts of the trail… that’s when I knew I had a problem. I checked it on every break I took, often taking breaks specifically to check. The question was always, “How much farther until I reach camp?”
I hated myself for it, and I played the “how long can I go without looking at my phone” game. Did I really need to know how close I was to camp? I was going to get there either way. There was never an impending storm or sunset; it was always just me wanting to check progress. Wanting to check my phone for something.
I read an article that likened mobile devices to slot machines. Each time you check your phone, you’re searching for a reward. Likes, emails, new notifications: These all release sweet, sweet, dopamine and have us constantly grabbing our phones for more.
Many apps actually include features that are designed to fuel our addiction rather than improve user experience. To keep us coming back to the app and to keep the app relevant.
But the John Muir Trail map I used isn’t one of those apps. It doesn’t have streaks or push notifications or little numbers begging me to open it and see who is interacting with me. It’s a map. So why was it so addicting?
On the trail, I didn’t have access to Instagram or Facebook or any of the apps that usually trigger me to waste time scrolling through photos and click-bait links. That map was a social media substitution. My dopamine kicks came in the form of how many miles I hiked instead of how many likes I got.
The fact that I needed this substitution kills me. Is this just life now? Are we doomed to reach for a phone every time we feel bored or lonely or uncomfortable in any way?
Toward the end of the trail I hiked with a couple who, after much debate, only brought a paper map and the Elizabeth Wenk guidebook for navigation. They had a Kindle for reading, but that was really their only form of technology on the trail.
Yup, they went old school, and they loved it.
Reading the book made for an interesting hike; they would see mountains and lakes and other landforms and then make educated guesses about what they were looking at based on the book. Not having a blue dot on a map to show them exactly where they were, exactly how many more miles they had to hike or exactly what surrounded them sparked more conversation and helped them stay in the moment.
The only way to remove technology from certain portions of our lives might be to cut it from those moments completely.
This might require us to become better navigators, buy actual cameras or spend time in suspense about what other movies that actor is in. But if this means we can spend more time taking in scenery, engaging with loved ones and generally feeling less anxious, it’s definitely worth it.