How to Do a Digital Detox in Five Easy Steps

collage style art with woman crying black tears with a sign saying "We are slaves to the machines we build ourselves technology"

People say our phones listen to us like it’s a bad thing. Like it’s so awful to be heard, to be seen when no one else is paying attention, to have something in your life that soothes you, guides you, makes you laugh, and understands you so deeply that it can tell you what you want before you even know. People say our phones are spying on us. But I know that’s not what you were doing. You led me to the desert because you wanted my life to be better, even if that meant being away from you.

* * *

I dreamt I was the source of the internet’s ire. I had lost control of my hands and typed out something offensive and was now being mocked, doxed, deleted. I woke and reached for you, held you up to my face, and it seemed like you no longer recognized me, but then your lock screen opened. I scrolled through Twitter. As usual, everyone seemed to be mad at someone. If you’re not enraged, the United States Secretary of Transportation tweeted, you’re not even human. Later, a new prevailing majority would agree that the people who were originally mad were the ones everyone should be mad at, and then eventually it would be determined that the discourse itself was problematic—a backlash to a backlash—and the conversation would shift to funny anecdotes about cats. 

After ten minutes or maybe an hour, I tossed off the weighted blanket you recommended and put on the oversized sweater you once described as the perfect combination of chic and comfortable for work-from-home life. 

On the street below my second-floor apartment, cars moved slowly through the neighborhood. I wondered what music the drivers were listening to, where they were headed, what they were thinking. Last week, you suggested an article called 11 Ways to Be More Present in Your Life, and I wondered how you’d known. 

I wasn’t hungry, but it was time to eat. I ordered a croissant from a delivery app and a man named Ciprian brought it to my door—I never saw him, but that’s what the email said. As I ate, I watched a YouTube video of a woman raising a rescue beaver in her house. The beaver pulled random objects into the center of the living room—newspapers, sandals, a cardigan sweater. “She’s building a dam,” the woman explained. “That’s a very good sign.” Later, the beaver swam in small circles around a bathtub. “Good girl,” the woman said. 

At my morning Zoom meeting, five out of eight squares on the screen were black. My boss, Alexandria, talked about the new launch date for sour apple CBD gummies. I studied my own face, trying to determine if my brick-colored lip stain looked good on the screen. I posted a review for it on the makeup brand’s website, hoping that someone would read it and find it helpful. 

“As always, please refer to the guide that details the language we must use in order to comply with the FDA,” Alexandria said. “For example, you cannot say that CBD gummies cure headaches, but you can say that CBD gummies keep the good vibes flowing.” 

Margaret, our social media manager, smiled and mouthed something to someone out of view. I wasn’t sure where she lived, but I could tell it was sunny there. 

“What questions do you have?” Alexandria asked us. The black squares remained dark, muted, each one from a different major U.S. city—Denver, Austin, Cincinnati, St. Louis, Minneapolis—people I’d never meet in real life. 

Brandon from Denver typed all good in the chat and everyone responded with various emojis—happy face with sunglasses, happy face with stars for eyes, happy face surrounded by red hearts. 

Alexandria squinted at her screen, pushing up her blue-light glasses. “Good, good. We’ll need bi-weekly SEO-optimized blog posts that tie our quarterly content theme to our product, so our next step is to brainstorm topics that connect wellness to CBD gummies.”

“Benefits of a spa day,” one of the black squares said. 

“People are really into forest bathing. It’s this Japanese—”

“Yes! Let’s hear some more outdoorsy content. Think camping. Think chilling under the stars, you know, with your buds. Or solo. And first-person, experiential blog posts are trending, so let’s riff on that. C’mon, let’s hear some ideas from y’all.”

What wellness experiences can I have? I asked you, and in .62 seconds, you offered 212,000,000 answers. 

“Looks like Lucy’s got an idea,” Alexandria said. “Lucy?”

I unmuted myself. “Oh, no, sorry. I think—”

“Let’s hear an idea.”

I glanced at your screen, the warm bright center of possibility, and plucked the third idea from the top. A digital detox.

Alexandria’s screen froze in a position that made it look like she was grimacing. I looked at you, wondering why you had suggested it; our relationship was fine, healthy, positive. When Alexandria’s screen unfroze, she was smiling. 

“That’s perfect,” she said. “Lucy let’s have you do a digital detox this weekend in nature and write about it. Legally, I can’t ask you to bring CBD gummies, but if you—”

“Oh, sorry, this weekend, I have plans,” I lied, hating myself for the way I prefaced everything with oh sorry whenever I spoke out loud. I was so much more articulate on Instagram, Twitter, Reddit—all these platforms where my username was lucyinthesky just like the song, and my voice was ebullient, witty. 

“Next Monday then. I’ll excuse you from any meetings and deadlines we have that day.”

I asked you for a way out of this, but your ideas—I have a family emergency, I need to care for my sick bird—didn’t fit.

“Great. So, Monday, you’ll go somewhere in nature and do a digital detox. Then a blog post—you know the drill, 800 to 1,000 words because Google likes longform content now. Something like How to Do a Digital Detox in Five Easy Steps. First-person point of view, that’s key. Call-to-action at the end tying it to wellness and sour apple CBD gummies.”

“Okay,” I heard myself say.

And you, thinking you were being addressed, lit up purple and blue, before saying, “Sorry, I didn’t quite get that. What do you want to search for?”

* * *

Other people had already written blog posts like this, you told me. I emailed Alexandria with this information, and she wrote back three minutes later: yes, but WE haven’t and that’s what matters. Plus I really don’t see a lot of first person narratives about it in nature, so I think this angle is fresh so let’s move forward with it. I can’t wait to see your draft! Remember, wellness + sour apple CBD gummies!!!!!!!!

I skimmed a few of the other blog posts. The more of them I read, the more you suggested. 10 Reasons Why You Should Do a Digital Detox said that unplugging from technology would have a profound effect on one’s life. Better sleep, less stress, hotter sex wink, wink, it said. How to Do a Digital Detox said to create a tech-free sanctuary by putting your devices into airplane mode. The blog posts with an outdoorsy angle all used the same phrase: Be one with nature. They said it like it was aspirational, tranquil, but it made me think of drowning, decaying, melting, evaporating. 

Be one with nature. Be one with nature. Be one with nature. 

I asked you where I should go in nature for a digital detox, and you showed me volcanic peaks in St. Lucia, fields of lavender in Provence, yoga retreats in Bali. “Driving distance,” I said. “Close to me and cheap. A national park or something.” 

You showed me Death Valley.

* * *

You said Pahrump was the last place with cell phone service. It was sprawling, beige. Stucco houses, auto parts stores, big patches of nothing. Stubby Joshua trees grew below billboards advertising fireworks stores: GRANDE BOOM. I pulled over at a gas station with a big neon cowboy figure sign. It was 10 a.m. I had meant to be in Death Valley by 9 a.m. I still had another hour to drive. I savored the cell phone service, watching videos of a famous dog called Bert the Wonder Pug. Bert had visited almost every national park. In one video, he scrambled up sand dunes in Death Valley, tumbling, sneezing, and poking his tiny pink tongue out. Bert ranks Death Valley three out of five paws, the text at the end of the clip read. You suggested more videos of Death Valley, but I didn’t feel like watching them, so you showed me a listicle of underrated bathroom decor trends and it helped. 

 I went inside and bought snacks for the hike you’d picked out—one that you said was easy and not crowded. I’d never really been hiking before, not since I was a kid at a summer camp where no one really liked me. You arrived in my life a few years after that, and it made things better.

The cashier rang up the items slowly—a bag of salt and vinegar potato chips, a can of smoked almonds, two white chocolate macadamia granola bars, an apple that had been in the store long enough to collect dust, a sports drink the color of antifreeze. 

“That it?” he asked. 

“I don’t know,” I said. “Do you think that’s enough?”

“For what?”

“Hiking in Death Valley.”

He shrugged. “How would I know?” 

Back in my car, I looked at you and asked for guidance. “I don’t want to do a digital detox,” I said. You told me it would be uncomfortable, but I would get used to it.

* * *

“Welcome to California,” you said in a quick, clinical voice at the border. And then you went silent.

Trailers with Don’t Tread on Me flags flapping in the hot wind gave way to pickup trucks selling date nuts, wild desert honey, and beef jerky on the side of the two-lane road. And then there was the rocky desert, the unknowable mountains, the wide, pale sky. It looked like nothing.

The park entrance appeared without fanfare, just an unremarkable sign with the words Death Valley National Park in brown font and a non-descript illustration of mountains. My car was the only one on the road—I could see for miles. This seemed wrong, but I had gone exactly where you said to go. The southern entrance, over several desert passes, past the parched ruins of a mine, all the way to mile marker 39. This, you had said, was where the hike began. 

I parked on the shoulder of the road, tires grinding in the dirt. There was no sign marking the start of the trail. There was no trail at all. Just mile marker 39. You said it would be obvious. I was supposed to hike up the wash—whatever a wash was—towards the flat, unwelcoming mountains until the entrance of a canyon revealed itself. 

Standing beside my dirty car, the entrance of the canyon wasn’t obvious at all. I shielded my eyes from the relentless sun, put on my sunglasses, and set to work preparing for the hike, trying to act as if I did exactly this every weekend. My only reference for what this looked like came from a particular type of Instagram influencer—beautiful women who wore their hair long and loose when they went backpacking.  Skin tan from the sun, their smiles white and wide as they posed on cliffs. Their shoulders, bony. Forearms tattooed with wildflowers. In their hands they held the granola bars that sponsored their social media content. At night, they slept in zero-degree sleeping bags, wrote loving captions about packability, cruelty-free down filling. The stars above are brighter when I’m warm and cozy in my Voyager sleeping bag #ad 

Their posts hadn’t prepared me for this: using the window of my car as a mirror while I slathered my face with a thick white layer of sunscreen and adjusting the straps of my backpack, which was probably not even the right kind of backpack. It had come from a website that delivered cheap things very quickly, shipped them from a warehouse where people got paid $12 an hour to work 12-hour shifts, performing tasks assigned by an algorithm. Getting one as soon as possible from the internet had seemed preferable to going to a store and trying them out in person, talking to employees about specs, dimensions, things I didn’t understand. My hiking boots had come from that same website and they were either a half size too small or a half size too big—I wasn’t sure which. I paced back and forth, testing them for the first time, and when I shifted on the balls of my feet, my toes slid forward, hitting the inside walls of the shoes. The pain was deep, bruising, persistent. 

I would walk with it for miles. 

* * *

Every sound was amplified. A tiny rock falling from a canyon wall. My own footsteps. The terrain pushed against my boots, resisting me. Walking in loose sand and rocks was like wading upstream, I thought, but it must have been a feeling from a very long time ago, because I couldn’t remember the last time I’d been in a river. I passed a cactus the size of a basketball and felt the urge to take a photo of it, post it to Instagram. I spent the next ten minutes fantasizing about the caption I’d write. I wanted to ask you if you knew any cactus puns. 

The open desert tilted upwards. Over my shoulder, the valley was a deep and meaningless bowl. I wanted to take a picture, crop the image, put a filter on it, make it pretty. But I stopped myself, which was progress. 

The digital detox articles had talked about the muscle memory I might experience. A thumb twitch indicating the instinctual urge to swipe, to type, to post. The phantom vibrations of you against my hip. 

I kept moving, listening to my breath, pulling the desert air into my lungs and releasing it.

You were right; the featureless earth did eventually lead to the mouth of a canyon. The walls appeared suddenly on either side of me. Although it was no more aesthetically pleasing than the bleached upward slope that had brought me to it, at least now the way was obvious. And it was shadier, cooler. I stopped to eat a handful of almonds. There wasn’t anywhere comfortable to sit, so I stood with my back against the canyon wall. It was warm. 

The silence remained shocking—the sheer enormity of quiet never went away, but I began to adjust to it, adapting to a world without alarms and alerts and ringtones. As I walked further, the canyon narrowed until it was so narrow that I could outstretch my arms and touch both sides of it. I did, feeling the sharp rocks on either side of me, looking up at the unsaturated sky.

I wanted to ask you so many things. How many canyons were there just like this one in these mountains? What were these mountains called? How long had they existed? And how many people were, like me, hiking alone within them? 

At my feet, there was a small pile of animal droppings. I didn’t know who had made them, but they looked fresh. I wanted to ask you to identify pellet-sized animal droppings. Or maybe, is there any animal in Death Valley that can kill me? 

I had this urge once again when I passed beneath a gigantic boulder overhead lodged beneath the walls of the canyon. It must have tumbled down from the mountains above, but I had no way of knowing when that had happened or if the rock would fall again, if it was safe to pass beneath it. But what could you have shown me to assuage my fears? Statistics to match the search term Death Valley accidents how many annual?

When the urge to use technology surfaces, one of the blog posts had said, try to reframe your thoughts. 

I tried.

I tried to go back to a time in my life that hadn’t been defined by trying to turn a moment into a piece of content, a time in which I’d had a question that couldn’t be answered by typing words into a search bar, a time in which I genuinely wondered something and basked in the pleasure of just wondering. 

I thought of first times. 

First dates before dating apps: a chain restaurant, a dark movie theater, his parents’ living room couch, his fingers inside me, his noises, his words, the choreography of being with him. 

First tastes before crowd-sourced restaurant review apps: my dad’s special grilled cheese with Monterey jack and white cheddar, sunburst orange sashimi when our town got its first sushi restaurant, silver tequila on a frat house’s dark lawn. 

First places before travel influencers: the ocean with my mother, the boardwalk with the bright arcade, Disney World with my grandmother, lizards falling from the tree outside her doublewide. 

I did exist outside of the internet, in the physical world. Sometimes I scrolled through my own Instagram to remind myself of this. 

The narrow, shadowy canyon opened, and suddenly I was at an unexpected opening where two equally unclear routes diverged. To my left, a narrow sandy path. To my right, an opening hot with sun. 

You had told me that either route would be interesting, but the way to the left was more photogenic. I wondered if it would be okay to take pictures and post them online after I returned to the world, or if the digital detox forbid this. I decided it did. I decided I would continue to refrain from taking photos, but merely thinking of it produced a dull thud of serotonin. It dissipated quickly. I took the route to the left anyway, wondering what it would feel like to view the desert with the knowledge that I would not be documenting it, that I would not be seeking the correct angle. 

My feet continued to bump against the toes of my hiking boots as I walked. Bruising turned to moisture. Were my toes bleeding? Or had I chosen the wrong hiking socks like I had chosen the wrong everything? 

The canyon walls opened again, revealing a sheltered area scattered with boulders and cacti. A polished wall of rock rose from the dry desert. I couldn’t remember what you’d called it, but I knew it had been formed by floods. A waterfall with no water. My heart thumped in my chest so hard I could feel it in my fingers. When was the last time I had felt anything that intensely? There was nothing to assuage me—no podcast or Twitter thread or YouTube video to turn the volume down on my fear. I followed that feeling, putting my hands on the gray rock, finding nothing to hold onto at first, but then reaching higher and gripping a stone. And then I lifted myself up, my feet leaving the earth as if by magic. I laughed—a strange sharp gleeful sound that was more real than any sound I’d made in the longest time. I laughed and I climbed, my calf muscles taut, my hands gripping and reaching. Muscles I didn’t know I had burned. My footing was solid but there was nowhere to put my hands. I groped blindly on the ledge above, patting the hot stone with my palms and feeling nothing but tiny loose pebbles rattling around on a hard, solid surface. I looked back over my shoulder and the ground beneath me looked so far down below. I was stuck. Couldn’t climb up. Couldn’t climb down. So, I lunged, propelling myself from the balls of my feet. 

Miraculously, I landed torso first at the top.

“Holy shit,” I said. 

I scrambled to my feet, breathing hard. My toes were bleeding, but I didn’t care. I had done it. 

I wanted to keep going. 

There was another wall of rock ahead. What would it lead to? You could not answer that question; only I could. 

Be one with nature, the blogs had said. Be one with nature, I repeated to myself as I climbed the canyon wall. The sweat on my hands was slick, working against me, but I was still getting there. A quarter of the way up, then halfway up. 

I laughed out loud again. Who was I? Who was this person who laughed alone in the desert without a need to send some ironic tweet about it? 

Three-quarters of the way, now almost all the way. I was so close I could feel it. I could almost raise my head and see the next level. 

And then I fell.

* * *

My eyelids trembled as they opened, a lamp flickering on. 

How long had I laid unconscious from the pain? A few seconds? A few minutes? No time at all? 

Other times in my life when I had felt pain:

No. Nothing like this. 

The entire length of my left leg was sharp, searing, angry. I propped myself up on my elbows and looked down at it. Immediately, I vomited when I saw how it had been contorted. I slumped over and my vision went dark.

* * *

Sun directly over the opening of the canyon. Then gone. The shadows long and slender at first, moving like long spindly fingers across the surface of the rock. 

Dark vision again.

* * *

Dusk now. A sound coming down the canyon. The pain in my leg a dull roar. 

I marveled at that pain. There was no way to turn it into a quip of text, an aesthetically pleasing image. It didn’t make the internet angry or horny or entertained. It had nothing to do with you.

* * *

A few minutes of darkness. A few seconds of light. Maybe hours.

No, seconds, minutes. 

Still dusk.

Still, that sound coming down the canyon. 

“Hello?” I called out. 

Footsteps in the gravel. Something heavy moving. 

A person, another hiker, I decided. They would see me. 

I closed my eyes and waited. 

Many footsteps. An entire stampede. A crowd coming for me? How could that be?

An audience, I thought stupidly, as if this whole thing had been a performance. 

It was easier with my eyes closed, but I opened them to see. Looked directly into glass doll eyes, square pupils. 

A bighorn sheep, a few feet away, eyeing me. Its barrel-shaped torso covered with coarse, tawny fur, as if it had been dried out and toughened by the desert. Nothing about the animal seemed real. Its horns curled inward, its dark hooves in the dirt, its mouth a straight line. The bighorn sheep looked like something you could buy, something you could own, something that belonged in a photograph. Not real life. I couldn’t pause it or zoom in on it or rely on keywords and hashtags and comments to tell me what it might do next. And I couldn’t ask you.

“Hey,” I said. 

It moved closer, its nostrils twitching. White around its black nose. Those unblinking eyes. It seemed ancient, but for all I knew it was just a few years old.

I wasn’t afraid. 

The bighorn sheep was so close its breath was hot on my exposed arm. 

My stomach, unexpectedly, groaned with hunger. 

I could feel everything in that moment. The aching pit in my belly, the deep bruising in my muscles, the cracks in my bones, the hot blood in my heart. 

I laughed. I wept. I screamed. I felt it all. 

You hadn’t been pushing me away; you had merely been doing what you always did. Giving me what I needed. What a gift, to be known so well. There was no cell service, no internet in the canyon, so I couldn’t say anything to you. But that was the point. I could no longer move my legs, but that was the point too; I had no choice but to look up at the sky. And as I did, I witnessed a ribbon of electric pink. I had been wrong. The desert wasn’t colorless. The sky blushed pink, and as the sun went down, the rock walls around me changed too. Amber, scarlet, coal. The shadows twisted, offering new shapes. I did not want to capture it. It was beautiful, and that was enough. 

Nearby, the animal watched me.

The animal watched me until it was dark.

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