Trekking Makes Me a Modern Girl

“We’re going unplugged,” I told my mother. Going unplugged was the whole point. The Appalachian Trail was a place to get back to nature, to make space for our own thoughts, to make friends and sit around fire pits, to do pretty much anything other than obsessively snap selfies and drown out the world with earbuds. Over the course of the years that I’d fantasized about doing the AT, I had imagined nights under the stars and jumping into pristine lakes. I’d never envisioned myself wearing headphones. My boyfriend, Tahoe, agreed. Having our phones would taint the entire experience.

“What do you mean?” My mom frowned.

“I mean we’re not bringing our phones or anything.”

She stared at me. “You have to bring your phone! How will you know where you are? How will we know where you are? Anything could happen to you.” This, from a woman born before the moon landings, who grew up calling friends on landlines and waiting at restaurants with no comfort from read receipts. I smiled.

“We’ll figure it out.”

White blaze: the most reliable GPS (the raw results of a disposable camera).

We stuck to our guns until a month or two before leaving. We all hike the trail for our own reasons, and most people have an unrealistic fantasy or two about the experience. But my mother’s words lingered in my head. After thinking about and consulting former thru-hikers, we decided it couldn’t hurt to bring the phones along, as long as we didn’t use them much. It would make it easier to coordinate mail drops and comfort our friends and families. We reasoned that we could occasionally alert people that we were still alive, and use the GPS if we had to. Had technology made us soft? Were we reacting from a place of fear?

We weren’t totally sure. But we set off, and for the first 900 miles or so, we didn’t use the phones much. They were turned off, at the bottom of our packs, emerging occasionally in town to send out mass emails informing everyone of our progress. Then we stuffed them away again. We took pictures on our disposable cameras. We consulted AWOL. And even without our phones, we did figure it out. We were constantly aware of which direction was north (ish). We hitchhiked into towns and made our way from one white blaze to the next without getting lost (except once, in Grayson Highlands, after getting distracted by a herd of ponies). All the best things about the trail worked for us: fleeting, yet meaningful bonds with hikers and trail angels and random passersby served as our compass and provided inner sustenance. We talked for hours, or settled into comfortable silences.

Yet as we progressed, we both found ourselves pulling out the phones more and more. I had imagined having intense, sudden insights after hours of Zen-like introspection, as many thru-hikers do. I had imagined a whole philosophy of life would present itself in those silent hours. But a lot of what the trail taught me came from the outside—the people around me, the environment, my body. During the hours alone with my thoughts—well, I mainly thought about food. Fresh fruits and warm bread and non-instant coffee. Sometimes I thought about gear. Often, I thought about my feet, or whatever else happened to be hurting at that moment. I fantasized about Katahdin.

Also courtesy of a disposable camera (Smoky Mountains).

At the halfway point, my parents met us at Harpers Ferry for the Fourth of July and took us home to Pittsburgh for a few days. While there, we picked up our Anker external battery chargers. We’d been using the phones more and more as we neared Harpers Ferry, for reasons we couldn’t quite pin down. We justified it to ourselves: Weren’t our stoves technology? Weren’t we in town, in air-conditioned grocery stores and gas stations, every few days? These things didn’t negate the fact that we slept on the ground each night, scratching mosquito bites, listening to the sounds of the wind through the trees, the low murmurs of other hikers.

“We might as well,” Tahoe said.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “Otherwise we’ll just run them down completely between towns.”

Over the next few weeks, the trail experience changed. In many ways, the phone was a burden. It died at annoying points and leeched battery and made my thumbs hurt, unused to typing after two months’ break. (Even now, the tendons in my thumbs ache in rebellion some days.) In certain ways it had felt better to cut off contact completely: to stop thinking of every view in terms of how it could be cropped; to preclude feelings of superiority or jealousy attached to social media; to unburden ourselves of the responsibility of keeping in contact.

But now I could—and did—take pictures whenever I felt like it, rather than conserving film or battery. I could text my mom. I could rediscover old music and obsess over new albums and audiobooks. I was introduced to S-Town and Pod Save America and Up and Vanished. (Podcast conversations I had with other hikers were always A+.) I gave deep thought to ideas that came from far outside myself, rather than rehashing my own thoughts over and over. Conversations took on new life, with new material to discuss. The balance so difficult to achieve in daily life came naturally on trail – when you have to conserve your battery, you choose your experience more wisely, with more restraint. I learned to recognize when it was all just too much and I needed to take the headphones out. I had become comfortable with silence.

Selfie with headphones: A modern self-portrait.

We finished the trail as planned, and stayed plugged in for the duration of the second half. Ultimately, it turned out that unplugged or not didn’t matter so much. The digital world is much of our world now, and where it begins and ends becomes less clear with each passing day. The fact that I didn’t experience the trail in an idealized time warp in which I became Laura Ingalls Wilder didn’t invalidate the experience. The phone didn’t make rainy days any easier; it also didn’t distract or detract from the raw joy of the best moments. I have faith that while human circumstances, technologies, and ideations of “nature” will change, the allure of the natural world, extending across human history, will always remain. And so will our capacity to appreciate its silence, if only we have the will to unplug and listen.

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Comments 2

  • Denise Thomas : May 8th

    I can relate. Don’t think I will be able to check apalachen trail off my bucket list.

  • Judy : May 10th

    My partner and I hiked the southern part of the trail in 1988 and brought a Walkman and external speaker. We didn’t get good reception so never used it until one night we got a talk show (Sally Jesse Raphael). We loved hearing it but it also felt like civilization creeping into our hike. I would definitely appreciate taking photos with a smart phone now, though.


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