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Leave texts, emails behind and enjoy each other again

| Saturday, Oct. 6, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

Earlier this month I went off the grid and — to my surprise — loved it.

My family and I went camping in a remote corner of Lassen Volcanic National Park, which is some 50 miles east of Redding in Northern California. For most of the six days we were there, we had no wireless service. We couldn't check email, couldn't send texts and couldn't surf the Web. We couldn't even make calls.

And I haven't felt as relaxed in a long, long time.

Because I couldn't do anything about it, I didn't worry about trying to keep up with my inbox. I didn't stress about the latest missives from my managers or how to fit another meeting in my already over-scheduled weeks. And I didn't fret about trying to keep up with the latest tidbit of news posted on Twitter.

It was only when we stopped in Chico, Calif., on our drive home and I was finally able to download and check my email that my blood pressure started to rise again.

Being disconnected allowed my wife and me to focus on each other, on our kids and the world around us. It's not unusual at our house for one or the other of us to be focused on some sort of screen, whether it's a tablet, a smartphone, a computer or a television.

We have good reasons for this, of course. My wife frequently works from home, and I sometimes do, too. Our jobs often require us to jump onto a computer to write a story or check email. We use our gadgets to keep up with the news or to just relax at night.

But staring at a screen comes at the expense of face-to-face interaction. I often worry that my wife and I aren't giving our kids or each other our full attention because our minds are so immersed in the screens of our devices.

And those gadgets are highly addictive. When the answer to even the most arcane question from our kids is just a Google search or smartphone app away, reaching for a smartphone or tablet becomes almost a reflex.

At Lassen, those gadgets weren't as much a temptation. With no signal and thus no way to check email or access IMDb, we spent more time conversing, enjoying the scenery, watching the stars at night and grappling with the tasks of camping, such as starting the campfire and getting dinner going.

Mind you, I didn't intend to unplug. We chose to visit Lassen not because it was remote but because we'd never been there, and the descriptions of its volcanic and hydrothermal features sounded unusual and intriguing. We'd never climbed volcanoes before or even seen one up close; we figured here was our chance.

Alongside our tent, sleeping bags and fishing poles, we made sure to make room for a collection of gadgets, cords and chargers.

We brought along two digital cameras to document our trip. I took an e-reader pre-loaded with books, figuring it was lighter than a clutch of paperbacks. And I dug up an old iPod to play music on our drive.

We took along four smartphones, assuming we would have a wireless connection. My wife and I each took our iPhones and I took along two Samsung smartphones that I was testing out.

Our car doesn't have a built-in navigation system, so I planned to use one in one of the Samsung phones. I wanted to be able to supplement the music on our iPod with music streamed from the Internet. And we wanted to be able to call our parents to let them know we were OK and to receive messages from our pet sitters in case they had trouble.

I took the two loaner phones because I assumed they were most likely to get signals in the remote area of Lassen in which we planned to camp. Coverage maps suggested we would be able to get service from AT&T but not from Verizon. Since I had phones that connected to both networks, I took one for each, figuring I would hedge my bets.

Things were fine until we got close to the eastern entrance to the park. From then on, we were basically out of cellphone range. Except for the two days that we ventured back to the more visited areas of the park, where service was available in some spots, we didn't have wireless access.

There were some downsides to being off the grid. Google Maps will work without cellphone service - as long as the app already has downloaded the maps you want - but it's not as accurate. Whether that was the problem or just plain bad data, as we approached the entrance to our campground, it misdirected us down a dirt forest road that grew less navigable with every yard we traveled. Our family sedan, weighed down with all our stuff, almost certainly would have gotten stuck if my wife hadn't wisely prompted us to turn around.

Thanks to being disconnected, I missed some text message updates on our cat, didn't see an email from a source, and caused my parents to worry because I couldn't check in to let them know we were safe.

All in all, though, I enjoyed being off the grid. I was more relaxed and spent more quality time with my wife and kids. Heck, I was even able to smell the flowers, in this case a wonderfully fragrant field of lupine. I can't wait to do it again.

Troy Wolverton is a technology columnist for the San Jose Mercury News. Reach him at or follow him on Twitter @troywolv.

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