I don’t want to be called a Luddite, but I will say that my life was far, far better this summer in the almost-complete absence of technology. At this point in time, it’s hard to imagine where you could be tech-free for more than a day or so, but I found the one place where this is not only possible but pretty much mandatory. From May to September of 2019, I lived in a tent three miles from the nearest road in New Hampshire’s White Mountains National Forest. My job was to take care of a campsite managed by my employer, the Appalachian Mountain Club. My tasks were varied and could consist of anything from stirring shit in the privy to make it compost faster (not as gross as you would expect) to chopping through and removing a tree blown down across the trail. It was a glorious existence; I was paid to hike to the tops of mountains and through magnificent valleys, swim in waterfalls and meet hikers at different stages of their 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail thru-hikes.
My radios, the only bits of technology I carried with me, were the two constants in my every day. One radio transmitted my voice, allowing me to talk with my co-workers and bosses who were flung across the White and Mahoosuc mountains. The other was a standard FM/AM radio that I bought at Wal-Mart for seventeen dollars, and it was my lifeline for the summer. I received, in surprisingly clear quality, three states worth of NPR, a variety of rock and pop stations, and, if my boredom at the end of my twelve-day stint got especially severe, three country stations.
Even though the valley where my campsite was had no cell service at all (much to the dismay of my parents), I was far more informed about domestic and international news this summer with only my radio than I am at Princeton, and that’s entirely my fault. Without the constant presence of a cellphone in my hand, I played my radio, usually some kind of NPR programming, nearly constantly. I’d boil water for coffee while Morning Edition quietly broadcast into the fog that gathered across my pond, and I’d laugh along to “Wait, Wait… Don’t Tell Me!” as I swept out the privy. Because of this, I knew details about Brexit, Washington shenanigans, and the Jeffrey Epstein death that I wouldn’t have ever picked up on at Princeton, not because I lack the time, but because I get so caught up in my own problems that I forget a world outside the Orange Bubble exists.
Detoxing from my phone and computer didn’t take as long as I expected. Within three days in the woods, I was already able to read (and comprehend, and remember) more than I ever could while at Princeton with ready access to my devices. I regularly devoured entire books in single, hours-long sessions that often lasted well into the dark, still nights of northern New Hampshire. I would sit down and open a book before sunset, pausing only to light a candle or flick on my headlamp. There was an incredibly comfortable, hand-crafted Adirondack chair that I dragged in front of my tent; it soon became my favorite spot to read because I could both easily greet campers as they arrived and watch the sun setting behind the thin trees that characterize much of the White Mountains. The same was true for my writing, which was truer and more uninhibited than it has been during any other period of my life.
This increased attention span permeated through all aspects of my life, from reading to writing to the extended day hikes that I regularly took without any sort of technological distractions like music or podcasts. I noticed the tiny details of the world around me, like pieces of microtrash along the trail that I would pick up and pack out. I began to distinguish between the calls of different birds. Animal tracks on the ground jumped out at me and I often saw the slightly crushed brush, subtle trails, and stone fire rings that are telltale signs of illegal campsites.
My mind also quieted dramatically when it was freed of the constant anxiety about missing a text or call or other notification. My close friends and family knew that I wouldn’t be able to answer them for weeks at a time, and anyone who didn’t know that probably didn’t have anything too important to tell me anyway. My bosses and co-workers could communicate crucial information to me during their radio check-ins every morning, and that’s about everyone who could possibly want to reach me over the course of a summer. Knowing these facts and having my phone stashed away inside a dry bag in my tent were liberating. I didn’t even think about my phone at all, didn’t start at a phantom buzz in my pocket or stop what I was doing to look over at the device when I thought I saw its screen light up.
It was a positive feedback cycle; the less I looked at my phone, the longer my attention span got, and the longer my attention span got, the better I felt about myself. To fully lose yourself in a book is an incredible feeling, one that I’ve loved since I first started reading, and I was doing this almost every day. It was fantastic. Throughout the summer, I read thirty-one books and logged them, and my favorite quotes from them, in the back of my journal. Their names filled an entire page, their quotes many more. My record was four whole books in the span of two days. I would often run out of books before my stint was over and have to resort to begging old copies of The New Yorker and The Atlantic off of passing hikers. By the end of the summer, I had a big stack of ratty magazines inside of my tent that I’d picked up all around the woods. I would read the magazines cover to cover without pause, something I was never able to do while out of the woods.
And then I got back to Princeton. At least in my life, a smartphone is fairly necessary to navigate my social and academic lives here: being able to make plans with friends or answer emails from my thesis advisors on the fly are vital to my happiness and (relative) academic success. But within a few days, I was back to my old habits, mindlessly scrolling through social media and old texts, wasting time on meme pages and clickbait stories. I could feel my attention span shrink as hours in the presence of technology went by, and it was scary. By this point in the year, though, I’ve remembered just how quickly I was able to unlearn these bad habits and instituted some reforms in my life to return my attention span to the efficient, machine-like state it was this summer. I’ve started completely turning my phone off during thesis-writing sessions, have blocked all sorts of social media websites, and disconnected iMessage from my laptop. My productivity has gone up, and I find myself actually enjoying the processes of research and writing. Bringing a little bit of the woods back to Princeton isn’t a bad thing at all.