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Calls from the wild

The nature of your vacation may depend on whether or not you bring your smartphone

Author Maureen Ellen O’Leary Illustration Miguel Montaner


My husband and I took a road trip earlier this summer. We headed north from our home in Oakland, California, looking forward to losing ourselves in the beauty of Oregon’s pristine lakes, energetic rivers and tumbling waterfalls. We reveled in the solitude of our early-morning kayaking trips and the serenity of our early-evening conversations, sipping wine and watching the sun slip with a deep blush below the horizon.

But we were not entirely “away from it all.” Indeed, a lot of “it all” accompanied us even into the wildest corners of the state. Throughout the day, our cell phones brought the voices of home to our ears and before our eyes in texts. We learned how friends and family members had spent their day, and we were able to fill our loved ones in on our activities even as we engaged in them. Here’s your mom at the top of the falls! And Mark, reading as usual, on the front porch of this fabulous old inn! Through words and instant photos, they traveled with us, enjoying what we enjoyed.

This uninterrupted contact was practical as well as pleasurable. Using my cell phone, I was able to arrange a post-vacation visit to my sister’s house and sort out a work-related matter. It was reassuring to hear that the cat had been fed, the garden watered. Home was never more than a few buttons away.

But there was a downside to this. Too often, the thoughts that kept me awake at home drifted into my nights and days. Is that medical crisis over? How’s the relationship going? Is the cat still peeing on the curtains? The frequent exchanges with friends, kids and colleagues prevented me from floating free of the everyday world. The voices in my ear kept me tethered to the life and the self of my home. And sometimes we need to have a complete—if temporary—break from all that.

This thought reminded me of a trip I took to the British Isles many years ago, before my cell phone became an appendage. The carefully planned four-week trip was the longest I had ever spent away from my two daughters. Halfway through the journey, I found myself in a remote corner of Scotland. After driving through a gorgeously wild landscape—moors, lochs, sheep-dotted hills—we arrived at our B&B, a rustic farmhouse shrouded in evening mist. It was my older daughter’s 20th birthday—the first we would not celebrate together—and I looked forward to a nice chat with her.

The farmhouse was, it turns out, really rustic. The nearest phone was a few harrowing, twisty miles down the narrowest of roads. In order to speak to Heather (named after my favorite Scottish plant), I had to drive through the fog—on the wrong side of the road—dodging oncoming cars and wayward sheep and avoiding forbiddingly solid stone walls rising on either side. Eventually, the road yielded to a narrow stretch of shore alongside a lovely loch, and there, standing in lonely elegance, was the red call box.

I fiddled with coins, dialed and heard my daughter’s cheerful “Hello.” It was thrilling, heart-stopping. Most of what we actually said to each other has been lost in the wash of years, but the intensity of the feelings remains. I was shaken by the strength and depth of my love for her. She was present in a way she couldn’t be when we were together. Back in California, she was a part of the landscape. But with 5,000-plus miles and weeks of no contact between us, I had the rare opportunity of seeing her as a separate entity, as a young woman engaged fully in her own life. (I wouldn’t appreciate how fully until, months later, I learned of the house party she and my younger daughter had thrown that evening.)

As I spoke to the girls, their lovely faces inserted themselves into the exotic environment around me. It was disorienting and exciting to be plucked from my gray-green world and plunged into their sunlit one. We struggled through broken phrases and stops and starts, some due to the mechanics of the phone. But it didn’t matter what was said: I imagined the windows and doors wide open, the sun shining, the garden bright with bougainvillea and oleander. I saw it all, almost as a stranger might. And could they imagine me in my out-of-the-movies prop of a British phone booth? Maybe, maybe not. Not having on either side a picture-perfect image of what the other was up to was part of the magic of our call.

It would not have been so had I been able in the previous weeks to pull out my cell phone and check in regularly, keeping them posted on my every move and remaining posted on theirs. Instead, we had sent each other off into new adventures, theirs the newness of living without my hovering presence and mine that of unexplored regions.
When we all met again at home, a delicious shyness threaded through our reunion. We looked and listened as if we were somehow new to each other. Not all of our stories were told then. Some of our adventures remained tucked inside, only to emerge at unexpected moments. Something—a strain of music, the velvety feel of the air on a summer night—triggers a memory, launching one of us into a tale never before shared.

Although I was the last kid on the block to get one, I do use a cell phone. But my memories of that summer explain why I often (more often than friends and family like) choose to turn it off. How can we grow if we infuse every environment we inhabit with the same voices, the same issues we confront in our everyday lives? Why shrink the world to the size of a mobile phone?

Like most things in life, it all comes down to finding the right balance. In Oregon, my phone allowed me to be away from home but also somehow there. It was comforting to share a laugh with my daughter over our cat’s antics and to describe to her the lively street festival we’d suddenly happened across after turning a corner. But comfort is not always what one wants from a vacation. The disorientation that results from leaping feet-first into a strange new world can be what John Keats called “soul-making,” and will last long after you’ve returned home.

Keats wrote that phrase, by the way, in a letter to his brother George. In the letter, he reveals that he received a black eye the previous day, having been struck in the face with a cricket ball. Nowadays, of course, that news would have come a few seconds after the fact, with a photograph attached.

MAUREEN ELLEN O’LEARY, an English professor at Diablo Valley College, can best be reached on her landline.

2 Responses to “Calls from the wild”

  1. Toni Fannin Says:
    November 1st, 2013 at 9:59 pm

    Maureen’s delightful essay reminded me of my junior year in Italy when my fellow Californians and I had to walk miles to the SIP office where we could make long-distance calls using the Italian “gettoni,” coin shaped tokens with deep grooves to fit in the phone boxes. Once a month, we would make the trek, and the conversation consisted primarily of joy in my parents’s voices, saying to one and repeating to the other that I was “fine, just fine” and then spending an inordinate amount of time planning for the next call, guaranteed to be as meaningful and as trivial as the one before. Thanks,

  2. Todd Lawson Says:
    January 26th, 2014 at 1:20 pm

    Many thanks for this rich, rare, pleasurable reading experience. I am spreading the word. What else have you published? I would love to read more.

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