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First Person

Geeks gone wild

The day my tech-obsessed family went off the grid

By Alexandra Samuel­

A ranch hand in a Western shirt and cowboy hat kept a wary eye on us as she showed us to our cabin. 

“What’s your wifi password?” my 11-year-old wanted to know.

“We don’t have wifi,” she told him.

“No wifi?” he replied in horror. “That’s it. I am not staying here.”

“Sorry, pal, but you don’t have a choice,” I said. “Next boat back isn’t until tomorrow.”

I could not begin to remember why I’d thought a day off the grid, deep in the Cascade Mountains, would be good for him. But I put on a brave face.

“Oh, you’ll do great,” I reassured him. “We don’t need the Internet to have fun.”

The ranch hand looked at me skeptically. Clearly she didn’t think I could survive the next 24 hours, either. I was briefly indignant … until the cabin door swung open and I caught a glimpse of our family, framed in the bathroom mirror: two adults and two kids, all clad in uniforms you might recognize from Star Trek: The Next Generation.

That one glance reminded me why our family long resisted the social pressure to unplug on vacation. As a tech researcher and writer, I’ve spent years railing against the notion of “digital fasts,” which I consider a simplistic and counterproductive response to tech overload. Far better to use technology to enhance your holiday (by discovering great restaurants, for example), and use your holiday to remember what you loved about that mobile phone in the first place. My husband is a fellow techie, no more likely than I am to see an offline vacation as any kind of fun. We had voyaged into the wilderness despite its lack of Internet access, not because of it.

My first instinct was to tweet ‘OMG offline for 24 entire hours!! #NatureSucks.’

But that’s the kind of compromise you make when you plan a family vacation at the last minute. The highlight of our road trip through Washington State’s Cascade mountain range would be a town called Stehekin, which we would reach via a boat that travels the 50-mile length of Lake Chelan. I booked a cabin at the Stehekin Valley Ranch, which looked remote and rustic enough to feel genuinely outdoorsy, but not too outdoorsy — by which I mean our cabin had a private shower and flush toilet.

There was only one truly radical element in this game plan: the ranch, like the rest of Stehekin, prided itself on being TV-free, wifi-free, and “off the grid.” After years of evangelizing a more-is-more approach to technology, I was curious to see how our kids would cope with the widely exalted experience known as unplugging.

And I’ll admit I wondered how my husband and I would cope without wifi, too. My palms get sweaty if I have to go more than three hours without looking at Facebook, and my husband is literally incapable of letting a ringing phone go unanswered. We’ve intertwined our love for tech with our family life, collaborating on a family Minecraft server and talking our son into taking a bath by creating a Twitter account for the invented “National Bath Society.”

Tech is also fundamental to how I archive our family memories. I’m terrible about making photo albums and scrapbooks, but diligent about logging our holidays on Facebook and Yelp. This time, I thought it would be fun to have some kind of narrative for our vacation posts — which is how we’d landed on the idea of logging our trip as if we were a Starfleet crew, assigned to decide whether Earth was ready for admission to Star Trek’s United Federation of Planets.

 “We were moderately interested in seeing the region’s many waterfalls,” I wrote on Yelp at one point. “But we were extremely interested in observing the human reaction to this rather repetitive (not to say urine-inducing) spectacle.”

As an inside joke, our Star Trek travelogue kept us all amused. And I had one more surprise in store: The night before we were scheduled to board our boat to Stehekin, an Amazon package arrived at our hotel. I handed the box to the kids, who tore it open.

“Starfleet uniforms!” my son exclaimed with delight. OK, they were just T-shirts, printed to look like uniforms. But they’d do the job. Plus, I’d ordered novelty sunglasses that transformed our eldest into a Klingon and our youngest into a Vulcan.

 The four-hour boat journey to Stehekin gave us plenty of time to take photos of our family in our new regalia, framed by the spectacular scenery of the Cascades. Finally, we disembarked, boarded a bus, and arrived at our destination. As we looked into hiking options, our son tried to find a phone signal.

“We’re off the grid,” the ranch hand informed him. 

 “But isn’t there 3G?” I asked.

The expression I got from the ranch hand did not reflect the level of respect due a Starfleet officer. Apparently “off the grid” not only meant off the power grid and wifi-free: the whole park was beyond the reach of cell phone towers.

It was such an astonishing realization that my first instinct was to tweet OMG offline for 24 entire hours!! #NatureSucks. The rest of the family wasn’t faring much better. My husband tried to take our eldest for a nature hike, but it turned out that there were actual bees on the hiking trail. My son decided it was too hot to be outside, and opted to lie down in the cabin with an audiobook we’d downloaded before leaving the modern world. Normally I’d catch up on the news online while keeping him company, but that wasn’t an option either. I had to fall back on playing solitaire, like some kind of animal.

Finally the Internet came to our rescue, through a bit of advanced planning and the wonders of Amazon. While shopping for our Starfleet uniforms, I’d purchased a set of well-reviewed boomerangs, a bug magnifier, and a couple of multi-function compasses. This afforded us a couple of hours of Genuine Outdoor Fun, tracking down lost boomerangs via compass (don’t ask) and discovering a fetal squirrel that we examined with the magnifier.

That got us through to dinner, when we gratefully made our way to a dining room full of outdoorsy-looking white people. Was it my imagination, or did the room let out a collective gasp at the sight of our Starfleet uniforms? Perhaps it was directed at our kids, who clutched their iPhones — loaded with ebooks — like tiny, comforting teddy bears.

By the time we finished dinner, darkness was descending. Our youngest fell asleep, but our 14-year-old insisted on heading out into the pitch black to look up at the stars. We lay side-by-side on a blanket, my kid and my husband taking turns to point out different constellations.

“What’s that one?” our kid asked, pointing up at one cluster.

 “I downloaded a constellation app,” I crowed: another victory for my advance planning. “Let me look it up!”

“No!” they both replied.

      “The light will interfere with our vision,” my husband explained gently. “Let’s just enjoy the stars.”

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Alexandra Samuel is a writer and technology consultant based in Vancouver.

Illustration by Doug Chayka

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