What Happens When You Leave Cell Service Behind

Here’s a thing you may have experienced: You’re about to head out on a trip in the outdoors, for three days or longer. You’re driving out of town to the trailhead or wherever your trip actually begins, where boots hit dirt, or bike tires hit dirt, or a raft hits flowing water. You’ve packed all your stuff, and you’re pretty sure you have everything you need—if not, you’ll have to live without it at this point. You turned on your out-of-office email autoresponder, locked the door at your house, and made one last stop to buy a little extra food for the trip. You’re all set.

But you check your phone one last time before you lose cell service. Just to see if anything has popped up in your email that you need to address. Just in case it can’t wait 72 hours. And then you check a few social media apps just to see what’s going on before you go into data darkness for a few days. I mean, it’ll be nice to get away from your phone, email, text messages, the news that the world is becoming a terrible place, people’s opinions about the world becoming a terrible place, notifications that your friends or family are texting you about something that could be very important but probably isn’t, you know, all that stuff that is now basically your life. It’ll be nice to get back to nature and get away from all that for a couple of days. But maybe you should check everything one more time, just to be neurotic. I mean, just to be safe.

I don’t know why you’re doing that, checking your phone in a mild panic about losing access to data that is probably 1 percent important (what if your mom falls and breaks her hip) and 99 percent bullshit you can live without (photos of Instagram golden retrievers you’ve never met, photos of Instagram people you’ve never met, 140-character hot takes on incremental news that you don’t really care about but it’s more fun than doing work). I don’t know why I do it either.

But at some point, you lose cell service, and you put your phone on airplane mode, and it becomes nothing but a camera. (Or a camera, music player, Kindle, and GPS navigator, depending on which apps you have installed.) You feel a little weird for a few hours, feeling that tic you have to check your phone every few minutes, but remembering that it won’t be able to access new data for three days.

And then, a few hours or a day into your trip, hiking or biking or floating down a river, you stop thinking about your phone. You could give a shit about all the stuff it gives you access to on a daily basis, because what’s in front of you is way better. You don’t care about the dozens of photos and hundreds of words you usually process every hour because you’re actually being present, which is hard to do nowadays without trying. Maybe you’re still worried about your mom falling and breaking her hip, but everyone else? They can figure it out on their own because you’re not available. Including your boss. Maybe especially your boss.

On Day 3, you might get used to it. You might wonder if you really need all those social media apps. Or wonder if you even need a phone. Or a job. Fuck it, maybe you can just live here, in the wilderness! You’ll become a swamper for a raft company and then a guide, or you’ll thru-hike a 2,000-mile trail, escape the whole rat race for a while. You will change your life. Maybe you’ll write a book about your experience, or become a wildlife photographer who spends weeks in the wilderness just to get a handful of shots.

Or you won’t do any of that stuff, and you’ll just look up at the mountains, or down the river, and reflect on the fact that this data is way better than anything that comes in on a glowing screen. And maybe you should get away from your screen more often.