As a travel writer, I live outside the U.S. for three to six months per year. This year, I was gone a full six months: from January to June 2017. When I returned, things that once seemed “normal” felt entirely foreign - one of the most striking examples being our near-addiction to cell phones.
When I walk down the streets of Portland, Oregon, my part-time home, it’s not an exaggeration to say that every other person I pass has a phone in hand. And half of those people are looking down at their phone while walking. Yesterday, a gentleman in the crosswalk tripped right over my rather large dog; he was on his phone and didn’t see us. Apparently, I should have warned him that we were, in fact, right in front of him.
If you haven’t traveled outside the States recently, the sight of people constantly on their phones may seem normal to you. As a an “outsider” returning to my own country, I can tell you: this lack of presence, this lack of real-time awareness of one’s surroundings - it feels disheartening, somehow. Disconnected.
And it made me wonder: When are we fully present anymore, in America?
When are we “all there,” so to speak, and not compulsively checking our phones? And what is this addiction to technology really costing us? What are we missing?
We’re missing the moment. We’re missing connecting with one another. We’re missing face-to-face conversations - without distractions. How many times have you walked by a restaurant lately and seen a couple sitting together at a table, both on their phones? When given the opportunity to connect, we often turn to our phones instead, thinking that is where “connection” lies.
It’s the lack of truly interested, deeply engaged human connection that I sense almost immediately when I return to the States. There’s a feeling of sterility to it. People are more comfortable with their phones than they are with the people in their lives. Even when I’m in a foreign country and I don’t know the language very well - I still often feel more connected to the people around me. Why? Because it feels like people are actually looking at me; they’re really trying to understand me, versus saying “Uh-huh” while secretly side-eyeing their phone.
The subconscious message being sent, whenever someone checks their phone instead of engaging with the person in front of them, is: “Whatever is on my phone is more important than you are.”
A few years from now, I predict there will be a rather seismic backlash to our current obsession with technology. And our choice in vacations will reflect that. One of the things we’ll need a vacation from, in fact, is technology. We’ll begin to recognize our need for three very specific things:
1) Human & Animal Connection, 2) Open Space, and 3) Freedom from Screens & Technology.
We won’t just want these things. We will NEED them. To make us feel human again.
We’ll need these things in our everyday lives, but we’ll most especially be craving them when we travel.
Enter: A Conser-Vacation. A “Conservation Vacation.” This currently isn’t a word ~ but I believe it soon will be. It has never been more true that our wildlife and lands need protection, but the fact is: our own inner wildness needs protection too. Protection from the tyranny of technology. The two are inextricably combined: as we lose our wild lands, so too do we begin to lose our own freedom, sense of place, and peace.
Conservation Definition = Preservation, protection, or restoration of the natural environment, ecosystems, vegetation, and wildlife.
I recently visited Zapata Ranch in Colorado, which eloquently demonstrates this idea of a “Conser-Vacation.” Zapata is a working cattle & bison ranch owned by the Nature Conservancy, and managed by Ranchlands, a progressive, conservation-minded ranch management company. Perched on the edge of Great Sand Dunes National Park, the Ranch also host guests looking for an immersive ranch experience, beyond “glamping,” and more into full-on cowboy territory, with an emphasis on education of local ecology and ranching skills. Clients typically stay about a week, and are given the opportunity learn roping, branding, horsemanship skills, all while learning important land conservation management practices. They offer horseback rides through the picturesque Great Sand Dunes, where you might spot the Nature Conservancy’s elusive 2,000-strong bison herd ~ one of the largest in the country. And throughout the year, they offer special workshop weeks, with the opportunity to deepen a craft: such as painting & photography, horsemanship, leather-making, or overall ranching skills.
You’ll notice: other than photography, none of the above activities includes even a whiff of technology. Try wrangling a horse while texting - you just might get kicked in the face. Or how about branding cattle while documenting it on Instagram? Good luck with that.
A doctor we met at Zapata said he “wished he could take all his doctors out here for a week,” to be away from their ever-present phones and pagers, which, especially among his younger colleagues, he says, are a constant presence.
Along with our increase in screen time has come a decrease in movement. The average American sits thirteen hours per day. Children spend, on average, seven minutes per day outside playing, away from screens. Seven. Minutes. What kind of legacy is this creating for our children? How will they become the next stewards of our national parks and wild places when they’ve only seen and experienced them on screens, instead of in real life?
Original Definition of Vacation = An extended period of recreation, typically spent away from or traveling.
New Definition of Vacation = An extended period of recreation, spent away from home and technological devices.
Technological devices have become our homes. That is what I see every time I return to the States.
But the problem is: screens aren’t good for our souls. What’s good for the soul is the same as it has been for a very long time: Movement. Hard work. Helping others. Nature. Good friends. Conversation. Laughter. Animals. Sunshine. Space. Freedom. All things that the American West once stood for, and that our American ranching legacy today still stands for, as at Zapata Ranch.
Defintion of ConserVacation = An extended period of recreation, especially spent away from home and technological devices, with the intent to preserve, protect, and restore both our inner (personal) and outer (collective) natural, wild environments.
The vacations of the future will be vacations from technology. Our children will need it. We will need it.
The American West and what it stands for: limitless possibilities, cooperation with the land, a pioneering spirit, and above all, freedom from tyrannies of all kinds - is an idea deeply etched in our collective unconscious. Within the greater context of the world, America stands for one thing, more than any other place in the world: freedom.
It’s the thing I love the absolute most about America: our ability to choose. Our ability to be free.
But as we remain bound to technology, bound to our devices: I wonder how free we really are.