By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman
My oldest daughter went on vacation last week, with friends in California. A tag-along addition to their family, she willingly agreed to their low technology approach to a week at Lake Tahoe and left her laptop computer behind. Cell phones were welcome, she told us, but “I’m actually not using it that much, because it feels so good to be not looking at any kind of screen.”
The notion of leaving electronics behind filled me with nostalgia. Nineteen years ago, when I traveled to Colorado on my honeymoon, cell phones were a luxury enjoyed by others, more a detail of science fiction than a part of real life. It seemed perfectly reasonable that we’d drive my little blue Toyota into the mountains, disconnected from communications technology, unworried about roadside emergencies or air conditioning. A spray bottle filled with rapidly warming water and the rush of air through an open window served to keep me cool.
Once we’d arrived at the rustic cabin where I’d vacationed with my family since 1974, a cell phone would have made no difference anyhow. There wasn’t even reliable radio reception in the tiny valley where the St. Vrain River rushed along beneath the pines. For an entire week, my husband and I relished isolation and silence.
This year, on vacation with a family that included two grandparents, two sets of parents and five cousins, I had a completely different experience. The house where we stayed was within easy driving distance of supermarkets and outlet malls. It boasted two flat-screen televisions, telephone and internet service, and a hot tub. It was drastically beyond any of our financial means, but supporters of the human trafficking recovery home my brother and his wife began and operate in India thought a vacation was in order, and offered the use of their luxurious home.
The teenagers settled right in with their iPods and tablets and cell phones and laptops. They watched DVD movies and features from Netflix. The adults brewed tea, sat on the deck, embarked on long conversations. We cooked a lot. We hiked a little. We rested. As is typical of my family, everyone worked through a pile of books, because what’s the point of going on vacation if you don’t plan to read?
Yet less reading occurred than in the past. And I wasn’t sure I liked that. I missed the quiet afternoons whiled away by the small stream in our low-tech cabin, my husband busy with the fishing pole, me absorbed in a book.
Despite my fondness for the unusual, I am, like most people, a creature of habit. I have a fairly fixed notion of what a vacation ought to include, how celebrations are to occur, what relaxation looks like. I don’t always recognize my biases, until they collide with reality. Someone’s on vacation, and all he wants to do is watch television? We could have stayed in a cheap hotel close to home, and saved gas money. It’s time to celebrate a birthday? Cake. Homemade cake. No cheap substitutes. Don’t even talk to me about fast food. Relaxation with electronics? You’ve got to be kidding. There’s a reason we call it “being wired.”
But as the week with extended family wore on, I realized that there’s not one right way to vacation, just as there is not one right way to build family memories. One daughter spent a giddy, giggly afternoon filming silly videos with her cousins. Each teenager toted a different device, and once they’d created enough footage, they huddled on the posh leather sofa to edit and polish their final film. Maybe it wasn’t the same as making s’mores over a campfire, but the cousins were having fun, together, memorably.
Later that evening, they assembled s’mores with the aid of the microwave oven.
As midnight neared, my daughters and I decided to try the hot tub. We could barely find our way safely into the water in the darkness; I fumbled for the electric buttons, thankful they illuminated at my touch. As we sank into the hot, bubbling water, I stared up at the starry night. The view of the heavens, stars salting the dense dark, dazzled me. I relished the artificially-heated water. A completely natural hot spring would have been sublime, but this man-made hot tub felt pretty good, and the view was just as phenomenal from the stained and sealed deck as it would have been from a rocky slope.
Perhaps that was the key — stopping to sit still, and look up. The young people had done that, in fact, as they peered through the lenses of the cameras and cell phones to capture images of laughter, motion, wry wit. The s’mores they made in haste likely tasted just as sweet as messy firepit concoctions. They’ll remember their week together.
Sometimes, we worry so much about losing hold of what we know, that we miss the point completely. We may do what we please with our gadgets and schedules. The stars are still up there, same as the mountains. As long as we take the time to look, technology doesn’t have the power to rob us of that powerful beauty.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This column first ran in August of 2013. Coleman’s regular column will return next Sunday.