Me and my 12-year-old niece Eva Mae at Lee’s Ferry on the Colorado River in Arizona, July 2017.

Less Is More: On the Road With Eva Mae

This is not a technophobe’s lament.

This is not an anti-smartphone screed.

This is an ode to the untethered glories of my July road trip without a screen, a signal or a network. The passenger manifest: me, my 12-year-old niece Eva, my beastly driving machine Thor, and all the gear and brio needed for six nights of camping in southern Utah.

Her parents — my brother and sister-in-law — suggested the visit, and I proposed her first trip to the North Rim, Zion and Bryce. I had only a vague idea of who my niece might be as a young woman on her own, and I wanted to be outside in the raw wonder of that landscape fending for ourselves. I hoped the magic emollient of the natural world might wow us, sedate us and possibly connect us.

Eva’s from the East Coast and before she visited this summer, I had not seen her in a few years. She had been to Flagstaff once before when she and her parents visited for the Christmas holidays. Eva was seven then and spent most of her time on a sled face down, eating snow and squealing. She was a kid, and now she’s not. Now she has theories and points of view. Now she has a quicksilver intelligence. Now she has dreams of becoming an architect. What she doesn’t have is a smartphone.

When my brother called a few days before Eva flew into Phoenix and told me that she didn’t have a phone, I couldn’t absorb the depth of what that meant. Okay, no phone. It was a stray fact. It wasn’t until after our trip when I told stories to friends who had travelled with nieces and nephews and their own children that I came to appreciate what a rare gift I had been in the presence of — my niece, unplugged.

The challenge of modern relationships, says contemporary philosopher Alain de Botton: how to prove more interesting than the other’s smartphone. One of the latest in the bad news marching parade of studies about adolescents and smartphones says that about three-fourths of U.S. teens have daily access to smartphones. Screen addiction, isolation, a life lived wired — the radioactive fallout of all that connectivity is vexing.

On my trip with Eva, there were only two of us in the car. We were disconnected from the thousands that screens attach to our lives. There were no cat videos, snarky memes, geotagged photos or Yelp reviews. No beeps or tings or Bruno Mars ringtones. There were no negotiations for phone-free meals or regulations about screen time. Our status updates had three flavors: I need a pee break. Can we pull over and look at that? Let’s find a cool spot to eat lunch.

Eva and I were alone together, staring out the windows, scrambling on trails, finding our way to the next place, moving through the sunlight and the boredom and the solitude. We daydreamed.

On the first night of our trip we navigated to our campsite on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon from directions scrawled onto a scrap of paper. We drove on unfamiliar Forest Service roads wondering aloud if we had missed our turn. We monitored the cloud patterns and sniffed the air to wager if rain was likely to fall in the night. Eva wrote daily expeditionary highlights into a notebook we tucked into a car door pocket behind the road atlas.

We sang in unison to Beatles tunes, watched the fantastical red hoodoos of Bryce Canyon stream by. We shared silence in the midst of all the vastness, jostling along the two-lane highway with faraway eyes. I told her stories of her dad as a young boy. She told me about her friends at school. We drove into towns unfamiliar to us both, asked strangers for directions to a swimming hole or a nearby hiking trail.

It was the final day of the road trip. We had a long drive ahead to return us to Flagstaff from Boulder, Utah. Grey skies dropped a light rain. The roads were traffic free as we snaked eastward on Route 12. Eva was immersed in a book she had bought a few days earlier. I asked her about the plot and the characters. “Would you read the first few pages to me so that I can get a sense of the writing?” I asked.

Her eyes lit up. A few pages turned into the first chapter. And then the second and the third. The world continued to enfold us, and I felt it shimmer. The cocoon of the car, the sedative of rain, the rhythm of the windshield wipers and Eva’s voice rising and falling. We were alone together, and I felt my life expanding to hold it all.

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This story first appeared in FlagLive. It can also be found at flagstaffletterfromhome.com.