My Family’s Expedition into Disconnection - and a river runs through it.

Do you ever feel like an endless stream of 10-second bits of information has overtaken your life? Does this sound familiar: email from your boss, Facebook like, Twitter post, international news flash, weather alert, Amazon sale flash, work on your research project, respond to a text about a lunch date, and back to answering your boss? This year our family vacation was a wilderness trip, and the accompanying forced disconnection from our electronic devices allowed us to download nature and each other instead of the usual parade of outside snippets.

We began in a small plane bouncing mightily over a craggy Utah mountain range, and I was struck with the thought of “what in the world am I doing?” At my request, as a celebration of my 65th birthday, my family of eight (my wife, our daughter, our son-in-law, our son, our two grandsons (ages 15 and 13) and our granddaughter (age 11) ) were all on board this plane, on our way to the launch point of a five day river trip through Desolation Canyon on Utah’s Green River. At this moment, the faces of my family showed a wide range of emotions – from mild concern to silent prayer to sheer terror to uncontrollable sobbing. When, after a 45-minute flight, we landed on a grassy plateau (with no obvious landing strip), we all clambered out of the plane and breathed huge sighs of relief.

We gathered in a group, met our river guides and the 15 other guests (who had just endured their own harrowing plane rides), and proceeded to hike down a steep trail to where our rafts and gear (tents, food, packs, etc.) were waiting for us. As we hiked, one of our guides experienced an attack of kidney stones and had to leave to seek medical help. This resulted in an extra three-hour wait at the river (where a fresh hatch of mosquitos attacked us) while a substitute guide could be called in. As we waited the winds continued to pick up, and by the time we boarded our oar powered six person rafts, the wind was blowing upriver with a force of at least 30 mph. As the day proceeded, the winds only grew more intense. By the time we stopped for the night, we were in awe of the power of our mostly female guides, who rowed us through steady winds of 60 mph, with estimated gusts of 75 mph. At times the winds were so fierce we were rowing over big white cap waves on a stretch of river that was usually totally flat water. By the time we reached camp, we were wet and freezing.

As we unloaded our gear and found places to pitch our tents for the night, I was again struck with the thought “what in the world am I doing?” My family had grown accustomed to summer vacations that including touring a city’s landmarks and trendy restaurants, or lounging around a pool in a warm location. Yet last year’s vacation was somewhat clouded by being too close to the bombing of the Istanbul airport (we had been planning to visit Turkey a few days later) and then going to France instead and being too close to the truck massacre in Nice. I thought it was time to show my family the magic of a river trip and the experience of spending time together while being disconnected from cell and internet service.

Mind you, no one else in my family thought it was a good idea to be disconnected from cell service. One grandson asked us, as we hiked down the trail to the river, how the wi fi worked on the rafts. After reminding him there would be no wi fi, I laughed to myself as I thought that this was the one of the best parts of this adventure. I have been on 15 to 20 river trips with a group of friends I met in law school 40 years ago, and I know the magic that settles over a group as you get farther and farther away from the details of daily life and into the world of the river.

As the information overload of daily life increases, the need for the experience of periodic disconnection becomes even stronger. In order to maintain our creativity and deeper connections with one another, we need to take a break from the addictive (yet shallow) world of constantly processing small bits of information. (Perhaps it is this habit that helped our country elect a President who brags about the fact that he never reads a book. Do we really want to be a nation of people who believe that all thoughts can be expressed inside a 140-character Twitter message?)

A river trip offers a forced break from that type of chaotic thinking. I will be the first to admit that there are many parts of wilderness camping that do not suit me. I hate being dirty. I get cold extremely easily. I am not fond of snakes and spiders. I have sleep apnea and sleep very poorly without a power source for my CPAP. And yet – I have run enough rivers to know that the moments of magic far outweigh those inconveniences.

On this trip, my moments of magic included:

  • Sitting on a rock in the dark with my wife and my stepson and having him thank us for creating this space for him to think deep thoughts and enjoy time with his family
  • Seeing my 11 year old granddaughter step into her power as she easily made friends with the other guests and the river guides and learned to row a boat through white water
  • Watching my stepdaughter, who was probably the most reluctant of all to go on a river trip, discover both the joy of being with her children sans their electronic devices and that she does in fact have the ability to be a wilderness camper
  • Listening to my 13 year old grandson talk about learning that even if he doesn’t like something at the start he can keep paying attention and may discover that he is really good at it
  • Hearing my 15 year old grandson talk about the power of being calm in all situations, going with the flow, and recognizing that he can find his way through any obstacle
  • Walking (scrambling) alone with my son-in-law along a side canyon stream trail and getting to have a long and uninterrupted conversation about the nature of my business
  • Laughing hysterically in the middle of the night with my wife as we realize it is almost impossible to expect women over 65 (us) to be able to navigate peeing in a tiny quart size bucket in the middle of the night, in the dark, on uneven ground with cactus looming nearby (the next day we exercised our senior status and demanded the guides give us a full size bucket for our night time needs)
  • Seeing the brilliant night stars and planets in a way that you can never see them if you are near any kind of city lights.

Would any of us want to stay disconnected from our electronic devices? Not on your life. They have become critical to how we learn, how we relate, how we shop, how we keep abreast of the events of the world. On most days, not only are they critical to our education or our work, they are just plain fantastic ways to keep in touch with our worlds.

But – for five days in June – our family reclaimed our independence. The experience of being outside, in the presence of a wild river and a whole lot of surprises from Mother Nature, reminded us that even though we don’t control external events, we do have the power to control our attitudes toward them. In being fully present with the river, we experienced the meaning of being fully present with each other.

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