Back From the Wild

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I just spent a week about as off the grid as you can get. No internet, no cell phone coverage, no electricity, no running water, no walls, no roofs. I was in a wilderness area in Ontario, on a canoe trip with a few friends.

I'd like to report that the experience left me refreshed and replenished, but at the moment the adjectives that come to mind are tired and sore. It turns out that "canoe trip" is an ambiguous phrase. Does it mean you'll spend lots of time traveling in a canoe, something that's exhausting only when the wind is against you? Or does it mean you'll spend lots of time traveling with a canoe balanced upside down on your shoulders, walking along uneven, even treacherous, terrain for stretches that sometimes go on for more than half a mile?

I forgot to ask these questions, and it turned out that this particular canoe trip involved a lot of the latter. "Portage" is the term for these parts of the trip when the normal canoe-human division of labor is reversed. During a portage each of us carried either a huge backpack of around 40-45 pounds or a canoe weighing 50 pounds. On our memorable six-portage day, portaging consumed close to half our travel time, if you count unpacking and packing the canoe.

I'm not complaining. It was a great experience. One point of going off the grid is to be transported to another world, and one version of "another world" is the arduous-quest-with-a-few-other-people version. It's so immediately absorbing that your workaday concerns vanish almost immediately. This stands in contrast to the other approach I've taken to off-the-gridness--a one-week silent meditation retreat, which features less inherent distraction and thus liberates your mind from ordinary concerns more gradually. (If readers have views on the best, or for that matter worst, way to go off the grid, feel free to share in the comments section below.)

Another virtue of this into-the-wild off-the-gridness is the starkness of the contrast with the world you're escaping. Granted, this wasn't a pure state of nature. One night, a couple of hours after watching a snake eat a live frog (which stubbornly resisted ingestion even after its head had descended well beyond the snake's jaws), I bedded down about 30 feet from the scene of the crime--and if I hadn't had a tent with a zipper that rendered it snakeproof, I would have had a harder time falling asleep.

Still, notwithstanding such modern contraptions, and notwithstanding food packets that came in especially handy on days when we didn't catch fish, this was as close to the life of a hunter-gatherer as I'll ever get. And that's close enough to appreciate viscerally that modern life, for all its virtues, isn't natural.

I assume that, as digital technology makes us more and more inescapably plugged in, totally unplugging for a week or two will become a more common aspiration. Maybe a whole industry that provides off the grid experiences will arise. Is offthegrid.com taken? If not, somebody should get busy!

[Photo: Our final campsite of the trip..]

[Correction: The "wilderness area in Ontario" was originally identified as a "wilderness area in Ottawa"--which would have made it a pretty small wilderness area, and certainly smaller than it in fact is.]

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Robert Wright is the author of, most recently, the New York Times bestseller The Evolution of God and a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. He is a former writer and editor at The Atlantic. More

Wright is also a fellow at the New America Foundation and editor in chief of Bloggingheads.tv. His other books include Nonzero, which was named a New York Times Book Review Notable Book in 2000 and included on Fortune magazine's list of the top 75 business books of all-time. Wright's best-selling book The Moral Animal was selected as one of the ten best books of 1994 by The New York Times Book Review.Wright has contributed to The Atlantic for more than 20 years. He has also contributed to a number of the country's other leading magazines and newspapers, including: The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Foreign Policy, The New Republic, Time, and Slate, and the op-ed pages of The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Financial Times. He is the recipient of a National Magazine Award for Essay and Criticism and his books have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

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