As humans are migrating to both primary and secondary urban centers in greater numbers than ever before, and contributing to a digital, professional services economy often from behind screens — along with all the problems and complexities that those arrangements have created (housing costs, pollution, congestion, depression, loneliness, insomnia) — it’s become clear to me that escape is essential to our collective sanity.
That is, escape from cities, from noise, from traffic, and from our digital tethers, which have also grown more all-encompassing, constant, and inescapable.
Noise is an especially pervasive stressor. Just try finding a quiet spot for a phone call if you can’t be at home alone, as I did this morning. Most public spaces have soundtrack accompaniments or become painfully loud even when half occupied. Parked cars are susceptible to roaring trucks, and though it’s quiet, you’re not supposed to take calls at the library.
I was born in 1987, which means I grew up with the internet, personal devices, and an increasingly digital lifestyle. I was on Facebook in 2005, the year I went to college. But I had an e-mail address much earlier on, accessible on our sole family computer, and had a cellphone at some point in my teens, back when the Razr was a big deal.
Another thing that was true during my adolescence: I dreaded visiting our family in North Carolina, usually over the holidays, because it meant at least several days of hard disconnection.
My aunt and uncle lived atop a mountain in the thick of the Nantahala National Forest, the last house on a steep gravel road. No mobile service. No high-speed internet. Barely a land line. And at least 25 minutes to the nearest small town, over an hour to Asheville.
So what did we do?
We talked to each other. We devoured books, cooked, hiked, collected rocks and interesting leaves. We napped. We listened to the Cyndi Lauper and “Reggae Christmas” holiday albums.
In the evenings we watched movies on DVD (hey Netflix by mail!), crowded around their single television. Around the holidays, it was often cold, even frigid, so we’d relish the novel possibility of snow. We kept their wood-burning stove going all day and night — we nested.
Once it did snow, a lot, and we were so desperate to leave after five days, so my mom, dad, brother, and I together shoveled their 1/4 mile driveway, just enough to not slide off the mountain on our Volvo’s summer tires.
During these trips, we imbibed, relaxed, and slowed our minds’ pace. Together, we bonded. Apart, we had plenty of quiet moments to be alone and be still.
Maybe I didn’t hate it so much after all.
Then there was the inevitable flood of notifications, missed texts and phone calls, and YouTube uploads to binge on once back to reality.
Years later, there’s still no wifi. Mobile devices are basically useless without a network connection, except maybe for their camera functions. Netflix still delivers by mail, which frankly shocks me. But my aunt and uncle are growing weary of being so far from culture, and, sensibly, acute medical services. So they may move on.
But I realize now looking back, those times were pure.
To a lesser extent, I’ve experienced something similar recently, since moving to the San Francisco area.
A different aunt and uncle (on mom’s side rather than dad’s) live north of the city, in Marin County, in the town of Point Reyes Station. And while the area is well-served by mobile service and they do have in-home wifi (this is America), the experience of disconnection is similar.
To get to Point Reyes from San Francisco, you first have to drive north over the Golden Gate Bridge. On a sunny day, it’s an epic way to start a road trip.
Then you’ll wind through various suburban bedroom communities on the freeway before turning off to head west. On one route, you’ll pass the unbelievably cute towns of San Anselmo and Fairfax. On another, you’ll probably miss the entrance to Skywalker Ranch, the workplace of George Lucas and home of Skywalker Sound, a subsidiary of Lucasfilm.
About 90 minutes later, after miles of scrubby fields, momentary thickets of Redwood trees, and the occasional farmhouse or cow pasture, you reach Point Reyes Station, which is just a few square blocks of activity.
The town sits at the junction of US Route 1, Tomales Bay, a fifteen-mile long wetlands estuary which leads to the Pacific Ocean, and the sole entrance to Point Reyes National Seashore, a 71,000 acre beachfront environmental and wildlife preserve. Only about 900 people live in the town and surrounding countryside.
Despite its remoteness, Point Reyes Station hasn’t completely avoided bougification. There are a couple of nicer restaurants and a healthy retail strip of both practical, everyday shops and tourist-geared boutiques. My favorites: Coyuchi for organic linens and bedding, and Point Reyes Books for all kinds of topical, pertinent titles, periodicals, and gifts.
Whether for the afternoon or a long weekend, being there requires a purposeful slowdown — a realignment to the rhythm of small town life.
Perhaps most of all, I like it because it’s quiet.
The skies are wide open and clear.
I can really focus, be still.
I get more reading done, and am not so concerned with what I’m missing online. I’ve spent a Sunday afternoon settled in my aunt’s garden to actually read the San Francisco Chronicle cover to cover.
At any moment, I can walk the four minutes into town for coffee at one of the three espresso bars, or for an outing, drive the few miles past Inverness to the Point Reyes Lighthouse, or walk along the beach at Drake’s Bay. Or hike within the park, or watch cattle grazing.
Or, do nothing.
The whole area is diverse with natural, undisturbed beauty, all open for conscientious exploration. Point Reyes and its environs are far from the meticulous, elegant lawns and private gardens of Golden Gate Park, which are deceptive in their grace and scale while still within earshot of sirens and horns, exhaust.
After just a few days away, I always feel better. There’s renewed vigor for the difficulties of life. Sometimes a new idea or insight or revelation to chew on. Certainly an appreciation for the complexity, but ultimate simplicity, of life. What matters vs. what is less pressing.
It’s sorta funny to notice the cyclicality and irony in longing for stints away from busy, titillating city life as an adult— the same sort I feared as a kid. I didn’t appreciate it then, but getting away to a slower pace, perhaps to see something natural and visceral, is quiet space for the soul.
It’s restorative. It balances out the cortisol high that we all endure most days. Travel writer Pico Iyer says it well: “we instinctively feel that something inside us is crying out for more spaciousness and stillness to offset the exhilarations of movement and the fun and diversion of the modern world.”
I suppose it’s nothing new for many, but for urbanists and lovers of dense built environments like me, it comes as a surprise to realize that escape is essential.
Wherever and however you do it, I hope you take the time and make the space to escape.