At least once a year, and sometimes more often, I go off the grid for a week or two. No mobile phone, no iPad or laptop, no internet, no radio, TV or newspapers. Literally no contact with the outside world. If you want to get hold of me, pigeon post or smoke signals are the only means. And given my lack of eyesight, the latter is unlikely to work. I’ve posted before about work-life balance and the importance of taking time out, but this is more than just not working. I don’t sit at home twiddling my thumbs or tidying my sock drawer. I’m not a hermit. And there are too many interesting places to explore and exciting things to do. I go off the grid while travelling, usually but not exclusively up a remote mountain or three in a foreign land. I don’t wear makeup or even moisturiser, I don’t look in a mirror for days on end. I shower if I get the chance, but I can happily go for a couple of weeks washing in cold water from a river or with a handful of wet wipes if necessary.
We live in a non-stop whirl of information and stimulation, of bright lights and culinary delights, of soft chairs and electric stairs. Our brains are overloaded with work stress, and we try to switch off via mindless television, alcohol or pounding the treadmill or the concrete pavement. It’s very easy to get used to never getting enough sleep, to the daily grind and the endless demands on our time and energy. We can’t turn off our phones in case we miss an important email or invitation, we constantly need to know what our friends are up to and if they’re having more fun than we are or if we’re working harder than them. I’m as guilty as anyone – every time a random thought pops into my head, my first response is to google it.
It’s very easy to get used to our home comforts too. I savour my first cup of coffee in the morning and that glass of red wine in the evening. I can afford to go out for dinner every so often, and stay in a nice hotel if I go away. I’m far from being on the breadline, though I’ve lived off the smell of an oil rag when I was a student and could do it again if I had to. So why do I consciously deny myself these luxuries and go camping for days on end or stay in simple mountain refuges where I have to share a room with 19 smelly snoring strangers, where I can’t have a bath for days on end?
I borrow the term shamelessly from Richard Parks, who talks a lot about “primal experiences”. I’ve mentioned this recently in another blog post about Nepal, but it’s worth repeating. It’s partly about appreciating what you have all the more when you have to do without it for a bit. I must admit, during my recent holiday trekking the GR221 in Mallorca, I was looking forward to a hot bath and a proper cup of Yorkshire Tea for much of the week. But it’s about more than that. The switching off from communication is even more crucial to me, in order to give my brain a rest.
I’ve no idea how true it is, but I recently read an article claiming that if you lie on your side when you sleep, it allows your brain to declutter itself. Going off the grid has the same effect, enabling it to empty of all its usual thoughts and worries, and focus on something else. I switched off my mobile phone on the plane from Manchester, and as I was reading my book, I came across a poem by Shelley I’d never heard before. It’s been more than 30 years since I last deliberately learnt a poem, so I wrote the poem down in my notebook and proceeded to spend the rest of the flight learning it, as a challenge. At school I was blessed with an almost photographic memory – I could look at a poem like that and learn it perfectly within a few minutes. This time it took a lot longer, but despite my initial frustrations, I finally got it, and found myself reciting it to myself for the next few days. I probably recited it in my sleep too. The satisfaction I got from this was incredible, and I started trying to remember other poems while I was on the hills. I think I might make it a challenge to learn a new poem every time I go on holiday. I was unbelievably proud of myself for achieving such a simple thing that once I’d have done without even batting an eyelid, but had somehow lost the art over the years. Who needs to learn a poem when you can find it on the internet within seconds?
I never really miss much of my daily life when I’m out in the wilderness. I don’t even realise I haven’t looked in a mirror for days, or wonder what my friends are posting on social media, think about what TV programmes I’ve missed or what earth shattering news might have hit the world while I’m gone. Don’t get me wrong, I’m terrible at doing nothing. I have no idea how anyone can sit still for 10 minutes without a book to read or something to occupy them. I couldn’t go away without reading material – even the thought of it gives me the shakes. The thought of being in prison without reading material scares me more than the thought of being tortured while in prison.
Anyway, back to the point. Simple pleasures. Primal experiences. My brain feels like it’s had a spring clean. I’ve had a thousand interesting and unusual thoughts in the last week while I wasn’t worrying about work or anything else in the real world. I left a week ago with a brain like a wet sponge, and I’ve come back with ideas streaming out of my pores, as witnessed by the proliferation of blog posts today. I can’t wait to get back to work tomorrow and finish writing that book I started months ago. But I did miss being able to Google things.