Eight first-year students, one professor, and I huddle together in a West Virginia pine grove as we wait out an impressive thunderstorm. It sounds like a cross between a Jack London short story and a bad joke, but we are in fact on the Denison Outdoor Orientation backpacking trip in Monongahela National Forest.
“Who’s got a story?” asks Associate Professor of Geosciences David Goodwin, looking around at the drenched and shivering crew. The question has been echoed often throughout the course of the trip, and although most of us were initially hesitant to offer up fragments of ourselves to the group, it’s incredible to see the difference made by one day on the trail. We listened to tales of a bike trip across America, fishing for piranha in the Amazon, and one student’s tours in Iraq and Afghanistan as an infantryman in the United States Marine Corps.
As centuries of philosophers and laymen alike have noted, taking to the woods grants the gifts of perspective and radical simplicity. When we discard the trappings of modernity and put our lives in backpacks, we learn more from what we leave behind than what we bring. Smart phones and iPads gather dust on our desks and our Facebook pages sink into “like”-less, “tag”-less dormancy.
It is a cruel irony that a growing societal obsession with digital interconnectedness is turning many people into such scattered social multi-taskers that uninterrupted face-to-face interactions are rare indeed. We seem to be ever on the lookout for the latest email, text or mobile update; the more attention we invest in the virtual ether, the less we have to spare for good old conversation.
To me, the most valuable element of DOO is the respite it offers from the ever-accelerating cultural locomotive of remote interconnectedness. This brief backpacking trip allows students to divest themselves of electronic devices for a few days before plunging into an exciting four years during which those devices, for better or worse, will be daily necessities. DOO is a chance for first-years, upperclassmen, and faculty alike to let themselves live in an undistracted present and forge meaningful relationships that will likely last much longer than the few days spent together on the trail.
I’m sure this sounds like the impassioned rant of a stubborn Luddite, but I really don’t advocate a full-blown rejection of the newfangled devices of the information age. Like most people, I value modern technology and the connectedness it provides in a world that seems to spin faster every day. In fact, the recent DOO excursion emphasized the importance of maintaining the lines of communication. There was an incident on the last day that required Base Camp to phone for assistance. Whether or not there would have been an actual emergency, this served as a sobering reminder of the value of cell phones.
As I walk away from DOO 2011, I’m left to consider that any tool or technology has both important and trivial applications, and it is important to recognize the difference between the two. I’m incredibly grateful that we take the safety precaution of bringing a cell phone on the trip. That said, I savored the opportunity to let my digital life melt away for a long weekend. It’s safe to say that after four technology-free days, I now know the folks from my DOO group better than several people who lived in my dorm all of my first year.
It is with a heavy, wistful sigh that I begin to sort through the mountain of email that has swamped my inbox during the past week. It won’t be the last time this semester that I wish myself back to a roaring campfire and the easy camaraderie of fellow hikers who agreed to leave a world of distractions behind.