How many people – including backpackers – go out into nature, on the trail, into the woods – and are completely unplugged? Cell phones offer GPS. How many walkers march to the tune of pop music piped into earbuds from an iPod or cell phone?
It may sound scary, the idea of unplugging for a week or so. But it is completely worth it. Let me share how I have spent my summer vacation for several years now.
Each July, we pack as much as we can into our teeny Tardis – actually a Nissan Micra. It’s fuel-efficient, and very cozy, especially when packed for a vacation.
Then we set off for a camp in Ireland where we will join up with 500 other folks, ranging from babies to “aging hippies” who can just about remember the 1960s!
We all have entered into a contract to ‘unplug’. We cook over communal fires in small circles of about twenty people. Our showers are in a specially constructed canvas tent that has a wood stove to make sure our showers are lovely and warm. The toilets are ‘dry’ composting toilets.
Children are separated from their electronic games for a week. The adults switch off their smartphones. The lone exception is that if you really need to check messages, you leave the camping area and do it in the carpark. There are no iPods, iPads or laptops. All the music is acoustic.
For nine days we make our own fun. The little ones have their own activities program with plenty of eco-friendly face paints and finger paints. The teens have their own section where they can be noisier later at night, but there is still a firm request for only whispers after 11 pm.
The adult workshops are held in tee pees, yurts, a Big Top or large old army surplus canvas tents. There are classes in traditional dance, traditional folksongs, drama, writing workshops and so much more. Some
folks put together performances for the camp cabaret, which has nightly shows. The day has a full and varied program from 7 am until the cabaret shuts up shop at around 10 pm.
Irish has a special word for neighbourly volunteerism – meitheal (pronounced meh-hall), which is rooted in the old practice of neighbours taking turns to help each other bring their hay in each August. Ticket costs at the camp are kept down because everyone who is able can sign up to do a volunteer job to keep things running smoothly. This could be overseeing field sports with the kids, replenishing toilet paper, a registered nurse being ‘on call’ to answer any first aid queries, waking at dawn and stoking the shower’s log burner so that early birds will have a nice warm hello to the day. It might be running the ‘lost and found’ or welcoming people at the gate on arrivals day, ferrying luggage in carts for families with lots of small children. Meitheal embodies the spirit of friendly co-operation towards a common goal – in this case, keeping a safe and healthy camp, where children can run free for one week of the year and their parents can relax knowing that this is a safe environment for them.
As you read this, I am ferreting out my cast iron pots and windup flashlights, enamelware camp crockery, reflective guy ropes and spare tent pegs, tarpaulins and Wellington boots. I send Tony hunting in the loft for the reclaimed oven racks that now are used as our cooking range. The first aid kit is checked and refilled. I’m constructing a capsule camping wardrobe that will inevitably need to deal with changeable Irish weather: sunny and warm, rain, chill, wind and damp. I pack the hot water bottles; these were rather scorned by other campers our first year but on a raw day they are cozy comfort as you shelter in your tent reading or playing cards.
I love the logistics of all this, the list making, the dreaming. The anticipation is part of the build-up to the fun and the comradeship. Friends are made and acquaintances are renewed each year. People from far-flung corners of the country who ordinarily wouldn’t have an opportunity for a visit are now the firmest of friends because of this program.
All of this is the result of unplugging, and I don’t mean just the electrical and electronic noise. We’ll set aside anxieties and uncertainties and concentrate on making positive memories and enjoying our time as a family.
Editor’s Note: This post was first published in July 2012. Bee Smith, a native Yankee, writes from Ireland where she has lived for many years.