It is good but also somewhat tough to be back online after a full week offline in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. If we hadn’t returned home so late last night, driving through and between thunderstorms across the Texas panhandle and Oklahoma, I would have recorded a short video podcast to reflect on the trip as well as show (for fun) my markedly changed facial profile after forgoing my shaving razor for seven days. My family hardly recognized me! A face of long whiskers was certainly a tangible sign I had been unplugged from my normal routines for an extended period of time!

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There is GREAT value in unplugging from technology and digital information streams for multiple days. This family vacation was the first opportunity I’ve had in over two years to “unplug” completely from technology for several days in a row. We camped near Jemez Springs, New Mexico, which is a fantastic destination for multiple reasons, but one of the best is that it currently has zero cell phone coverage! We were unplugged and offline by choice AND by function of our selected geography. The result was a superb break from the to-do lists and constant information streams which normally characterize our busy lives.

The only interruption in this succession of “unplugged” days took place last Thursday, when we woke to cold, blustery clouds and light snow falling on our campground. After breakfast, we headed out to visit nearby Los Alamos, where we caught a movie and visited the Bradbury Science Museum. Los Alamos National Laboratory continues to operate and is most famous for the role it played in the Manhattan Project. (I’ll post an audio reflection I made at the museum as a podcast later this week.) While in Los Alamos, my wife and I used my iPhone to check email messages and voicemails. That was a MISTAKE. After returning back to our campground, that evening going to sleep we both found our heads filled with issues and concerns which had been brought to our attention by our brief interactions with our “regular lives” via email and phone messages.

It takes awhile to mentally “unplug” from the business of life. My wife taught for the DOD in Germany in the early 1990s, and was impressed by the attitude many Germans and German employers have regarding vacations. Many Germans take a MONTH of vacation at a time, and believe it is necessary to take multiple weeks off in order to decompress and begin to really relax away from work and its related stresses. A multi-week vacation is a luxury many people today outside of education might never be able to consider from a financial perspective. Even for people who HAVE long amounts of accumulated vacation, however, the prospect of being gone from work for more than a week can seem impossible. I know university support staff members who were being forced to take vacation days in a “use it or lose it” situation, and were reluctant even to take those days off. It seems many in our society have forgotten or never learned how to relax, and it can be a real challenge to make the time in our schedules for relaxation. Our lives are so filled with activities and commitments. Even when we go on a vacation, often a “schedule” is maintained which can be exhausting in itself. Extended periods of time to relax and decompress can be elusive.

On our trip across I-40 to New Mexico, we encountered multiple road signs. I snapped this image last night just outside Alanreed, Texas, one of the many small towns which grew up along Route 66. The mammatus clouds were a clear sign of the turbulent atmosphere and storms we’d face on our trek back east to our home:

Interstate signs along I-40

As I face the predictable mountain of email messages, voicemails, and to-dos after a week’s vacation, I’m struck by how important it is that we find regular times during the week to intentionally unplug and disconnect from our screens. On the drive out to New Mexico, I listened to a speech Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. shared at the National Cathedral in Washington D.C. in 1968. I purchased a series of his speeches from iTunes a few years ago. In the speech, Dr. King encouraged listeners to spend time quietly with their own thoughts, instead of constantly “plugging in” to televisions, radios, and other media sources. I was struck by how much “worse,” comparatively, our situation is today in 2008 compared to 1968 when it comes to unplugging from media. I do love my iPod and iPhone, and the opportunities they provide me to learn and be influenced by the ideas of others. (One of the highlights of our return journey yesterday was listening to the latest Seedlings podcast from June 1st, for example.) “Digital discipline” is extremely important in our modern era, however, and although he did not use those words that was my paraphrase of Dr. King’s message from his speech in 1968.

I named our family learning blog “Learning Signs” because I like the metaphor of looking for tangible “signs” of change. What are the signs in your own life, during vacation times, that you have truly unplugged from media and technology? Disconnection from most technologies (not my propane stove and heater, however, and not our cameras we use to document our vacation!) increasingly define “vacation” for me. Here are a few of my favorite public images (which I have not made “private” on Flickr because they contain images of our kids) which seem to suggest signs of “disconnection” and a less technological daily focus.

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Jemez Springs Bath House

A family hike in the woods in Bandelier National Monument

By the campfire

I miss the mountains of New Mexico already!

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On this day..

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  • http://johnpeters1959.blogspot.com/ John Peters

    Wes:

    I went Backpacking in the Pecos Wildernes in New Mexico (just north of Santa Fe) over Memorial Day. Here is a YouTube Video that I created of the snow we encountered: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cR4mpNWqqf4

    I know what you mean about the storms in the Texas Panhandle last night. I live in Amarillo and in some places we received record amounts of rain. I have spent most of the day picking up tree branches and other debris left from the storms!

    Thank goodness for summer vacation!

  • http://scottsfloyd.edublogs.org Scott S. Floyd

    I look forward to getting away myself in the next week or so camping with my son. Figure we need some male bonding time. We are planning a trip to Broken Bow at the end of summer to do some science podcasts along the river. Interested in tagging along? It will be me, my chief of technology, a science teacher, and possibly the superintendent (he loves to fish). I wanted to swing by Howe while in that area to check out what they are doing. Looks like fun. Shoot me an email if you’re interested.

  • Teresa – Kid Friendly Camping Ideas

    What a wonderful time of refreshment!!! We love to camp as a family, and spend time together.

    We recently had time to unplug also – albeit, on a cruise this year, but the time away from technology was WONDERFUL!!!

  • Courtney

    I whole heartedly agree with the sentiment that we need time away to refresh, rejuvenate and recharge. I only wish this idea was more pervasive in our totally plugged in, go go go work and home life culture. It’s important to write about and encourage others to feel that it is “ok” to let it all go for a week or more (ideally). Thanks for the refreshing post!

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    John: Thanks for sharing that video link, you never know what weather you’re going to get in New Mexico mountains, esp in May or June! Your video certainly demonstrates that!

    Scott– I’m sending you an email for more info on the trip– we’re hoping to do some more camping and maybe even backpacking later in the summer!

  • http://www.wesfryer.com Wesley Fryer

    Courtney: Thanks for edifying me on this post topic… I think about these issues quite frequently. My post from February 2005 “Snow Days are the Best Days” is an early articulation of my thoughts along these lines… I have not read it yet, but my wife has and based on her summary as well as recommendation I think Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder” is a worthwhile text on these subjects as well. Watching my 10 year old son this first “real” week of summer– with the access he has to his own laptop (alebeit a 6 year old Powerbook) and a Wii, not to mention our television, DVD player, and DVR… it is DEFINITELY important to emphasize unplugging from screens, playing outside, reading books for fun, etc. I think this may have always been an important issue for parents to remember and emphasize with their kids, but the proliferation of media devices and media content all around us now makes this even more important I think.

    Although Gary Stager has corrected me that I may be misusing this term as a category, I have posted ideas along these lines in a “luddite” blog category. I do realize the Luddites were more pro-employment and pro-labor than they were anti-technology, but the term “neo-luddite” as I understand it has become synonymous with folks who question technology’s accepted and pervasive roles in our lives. Neil Postman’s book “Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology” is another of my favorites which has colored my thinking along these lines, as well as his book “Amusing Ourselves to Death: Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business.” Both are good reads and very thought provoking.

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