A few weeks ago, in the lodge at our local ski hill, a family sat down at the table beside me. The parents and two teenage boys were clearly on a weekend getaway. All four sat hunched over their phones. When the waitress arrived with a heaping tray of burgers and fries, they kept right on typing. An hour later, when they stood to leave, hardly a word had been spoken.
I don't mean to pass judgment on the family – who knows what was going on in their world (maybe they were texting each other!) – but they highlight a mushrooming trend in travel: the ability to stay connected, all the time, no matter where you are.
Whether you're in a park in Canada, on the beaches of Thailand, at a wine tasting in France or even at Everest Base Camp, staying in touch is easy. Blogging and updating social media while on the road is the new normal.
Two decades ago, when I began guiding northern river expeditions, getting an emergency message out – sent by HF radio and relayed by Inuvialuit hunters – was difficult. Today, guests routinely show up with pocket-size satellite phones, used for everything from updating friends and checking in with kids to following their favourite sports teams. This constant connectivity is convenient, but it comes at a cost. This year, when travelling for leisure, resolve to disconnect.
I will be the first to admit disconnecting is hard. Very hard. So why make the effort?
The news is full of reports focused on the effects of heavy digital-device usage. Recent research suggests constant stimulation can inhibit everything from learning to memory formation. But forget all that, and let me suggest that it boils down to one thing: the invaluable "middle day" of any trip, when the distractions of work and home, for a brief moment, fade from a traveller's mind.
My first season as a sea kayak guide, in 1993, was spent in British Columbia's southern Gulf Islands, a cluster of 200 pastoral islets tucked in the lee of Victoria. Basking in a dry, Mediterranean-style climate, cacti can be found on the dry headlands, and during the summer the beaches are often too hot for bare feet.
The company I worked for ran a non-stop schedule of two-day weekend and five-day weekday trips, back to back to back. And it was during this endlessly repeated schedule that I first glimpsed the magic, and difficulty, of disconnecting.
It wasn't possible on the weekend trips. Those 48 hours were so full of transportation, logistics, getting comfortable in strange kayaks, and setting up new tents that our guests hardly had time to settle in before they were home again. Rather, it was on the five-day trips where I saw a pattern of personal change manifest itself over and over again.
Inevitably, every trip began with Monday's jumble of new routine and Tuesday's acclimatization to a novel environment. But by Wednesday, something had changed. The sound of lapping waves and the smoky tang of cooking fires had become commonplace. Among the group of now grimy and salty strangers (often from vastly different backgrounds), some swam naked, others painted, a few simply sat and watched seals bob offshore.
After dinner, no one raced off to their tent, but lingered by the fire instead. Divorces were discussed. Successes relived. Youth recalled. Tears flowed, wine appeared from dry bags, and the giant red sun dipped below the horizon. The honesty, optimism, sense of wonder: None had been present just days before. They'd let go of home.
On Thursday, the magic was gone. The next day would mark the end of our journey, and people were already thinking about the tasks awaiting their return.
Today, high-speed data and voice networks cover the entire span of the Gulf Islands. Sitting beside that same campfire, with the click of a button, a traveller can send a picture of his tent to a friend. She can surf Facebook and tweet about dinner. The temptation is surely overwhelming.
But how many, I wonder, still experience the magic of the middle day? How many are able to let go of home and immerse themselves unreservedly in the present? How many are aware of the potential of their journey? And how many are being robbed of that opportunity to escape by the constant connection they carry in the palm of their hand?