There’s nothing like the smell of a coastal redwood forest. The scent of sun-warmed bark mixed with notes of pine and slightly salted air is unmistakably Northern California.
I’m taking in the aromas at a former shooting range that’s been turned into a haven for old typewriters at Camp Grounded, a digital-detox retreat in Anderson Valley outside of Navarro, Calif. As I do target practice with my fingers on a vintage keyboard, the pinging sound between line breaks reminds me of BBs hitting aluminum cans.
Inspired by the vintage gun-safety signs left over on the cabin walls, I conjure my best Hunter S. Thompson and type out a poem, gonzo-journalist style.
After my hunt-and-peck session, I head up the trail to an archery range where two other campers, nicknamed Love Bug and Fabulous, are testing their bow-and-arrow skills.
Hitting a bull’s-eye on her first shot, Fabulous declares she’ll try out for the Olympic team when she returns to “real” life.
Back on the trail, I bump into another camper on his way to learn the fine art of tie-dyeing. I chart my course to end up at a solar-carving workshop. As I steady my hand and practice making simple lines on driftwood with a magnifying glass and the sun’s fire, I watch in awe as the instructor, Solar B, delicately scorches freehand patterns into his acoustic guitar.
I woke up that first morning at Camp Grounded without any idea what experiences the day would hold. Fun-filled days that unfold without a plan — or clocks, computers, or smartphones — is the whole ethos behind the three-day adult summer camp.
Lodging, meals, and activities are all included in the admission fee, allowing campers to leave wallets behind, forget about device-notification buzzes and beeps, and tune in to the kind of fun that happens in real time.
Camp Grounded is a relaxed and relaxing place. But there are rules. Chief among them is the restriction on any and all electronic devices. The first stop after arrival is “tech check,” where devices are kept safe (and out of reach) until it’s time to depart.
Given my 24/7 social-media job, friends assumed I’d struggle with checking my tech. They needn’t have worried. The idea of going cold turkey from the mobile world for three days actually sounded pretty good to me.
Still, Camp Grounded wouldn’t exist if a lot of people didn’t have trouble giving up their gizmos. Research has shown that every time we get a new message or alert, our brains get a hit of dopamine — the novelty is addictive. So one goal of being here is to reconnect with others (and ourselves) without the help of Twitter or Facebook.
Concerns about not being able to chat, text, or email within camp are allayed with physical inboxes, small old-school communication portals in which fellow campers leave folded notes, origami swans, or pet rocks painted at the arts-and-crafts booth for one another. As for our plugged-in friends and colleagues outside camp, we learn that they can wait for three days.
Everyone is given a pen and pocket-size notebook in which to write “statuses,” draw pictures of meals, and sketch the sun-soaked canopy of trees stretching above.
There’s also a page for tallying the number of times you want to use your phone to take a picture, tweet, or check email. The objective: To give you a sense of just how often — and why — you use technology. This awareness can be almost impossible to develop without taking a step back.
A Name by Any Other
In addition to digital devices, campers are also stripped of their “real” identities: We’re not to share our names, ages, or professions. We adopt nicknames so we can explore the world — and ourselves — with simpler identities. Abdicating our serious, grown-up selves encourages us to try new things, play, and return to being kids again.
Campers may pick their own names, but if nothing comes to mind, they can visit the “nicknaming committee” for help with selecting one. Remembering some less-than-flattering nicknames afforded by fellow grade schoolers back in the day, I opt to choose my own.
When I find out later that the committee members nicknamed my pal Teeter Tot because she has trouble making up her mind (she kept considering changing her nickname), I can’t help but think they might be pretty good at their job.
“W” (work) talk is a no-no here. Camp is about getting back to face-to-face social connections, not rubbing elbows and making sales pitches.
This rule proves challenging for the workaholics among us, but avoiding shop talk and job titles makes it easier to remember all the other things that make you who you are.
It was refreshing to be asked what I was doing rather than what I do, even if what I was doing might be viewed as a whole lot of nothing in the outside world. What I found, in fact, is that doing nothing can actually be substantially more rewarding than many of the “somethings” that make up normal life.
While there are no hard and fast schedules at Camp Grounded, rituals are supported.
For me, mornings at camp mean easing into the day. An early riser, I wake well before either of the bugle reveille calls. I creep out of my sleeping bag so as not to disturb the others in the bunks of my three-sided cabin and wander off into one of the meditation tents.
After some quiet time, I head to the camp cantina, which serves as an all-hours meeting spot. The cantina also serves pour-over coffee in the mornings (and, since Camp Grounded is a drug- and alcohol-free place, kombucha shots and turmeric juices later in the day).
Once I have enough caffeine and coffee talk with fellow early riser Bippety, I join the daily yoga session. My favorite is a kundalini-inspired course. I’m surprised by the tribal nature of the practice, compared with the alone-on-your-mat types of yoga that I’ve done previously.
There are asanas aplenty, but also a group chant in which students repeat “chi chi chich chich chich” and “da deed um da deed dum dum” over and over in rounds.
Maybe it’s the caffeine, or maybe it’s the energy soaked up from my fellow yogis, but I feel a great sense of well-being after this community ritual.
No Time Like the Present
In addition to yoga, Camp Grounded offers a variety of activities: knitting, pickup basketball, trips to a swimming hole. Losing track of time is encouraged. Since there are no clocks, time is told with analogies, such as, “We’ll have dinner in the time it takes to watch six episodes of The Simpsons.”
Overcoming the preoccupation with time is an essential goal of camp. During check-in, campers are given “pause buttons” — a button threaded through hemp twine and tied around the wrist where you’d usually wear a watch, meant to prompt reflection on how often you think about time.
Not worrying about time or “getting things done” allows us to see and feel the wisdom in slowing down. We start to see that our habitual multitasking may be less about seeking productivity than avoiding what’s going on within.
What we learned at Camp Grounded is that detoxing from the digital world involves more than turning off your phone. It involves waking up to the fact that you can enjoy movement more when you’re not tracking every step with a Fitbit. That you can enjoy the tunes in your head as much or more than the ones that blare from your earbuds. That it’s OK to be where you are without having a GPS to tell you precisely where that is.
Ultimately, it’s about realizing you can connect with yourself and others when you stop worrying about building a network or following. And it’s about replacing the fear of missing out with the freedom, ease, and joy available in the present moment.