Off the Grid: A Weekend in Big Sur

How I plugged in by unplugging

Photo: Jill Giordano

On my commute to work, I may pass several self-driving cars and nearly get into a collision with a guy on a hoverboard. If there’s an accident ahead, Google maps will re-route me to avoid it. While at a stop sign, I can chose a different playlist to stream on Spotify and may leave my car in a parking lot with a robot inching closer to me. Remember when we didn’t have GPS and cell phones in the car? Remember when we used paper maps, stopped to ask for directions and listened to FM stations and cassettes? Remember when we paid attention to the surroundings and got lost? Life was simpler.

Today, it seems as if I barely remember anything, but then again, I don’t need to. My cell phone and computer remind me when my dentist appointment is and how long it will take to drive there from my current location, when my utility bills have been automatically paid and when it is time to pick up my kids from soccer practice. When I run out of deodorant, I immediately put in an order on my phone for next day delivery to my front door. In fact, I can get anything delivered to my door and hire out any service. I get clothes delivered to my house weekly that I wear and ship back without doing any laundry or shopping at the mall..

This is just the way of life in Silicon Valley. We are in a test kitchen for tech start-ups and I love being in the forefront of technological advancements, specifically those that make my life easier. Technology allows me to do more, remember nothing and prepare less and I have adapted well to this way of life. However, there are the drawbacks. I can’t go anywhere without my phone and a backup charge for it. I only know two phone numbers by memory and checking in with my social universe is the first thing I do when I wake up and last thing I do before I go to sleep. I’m hooked.

Earlier this year, I decided to do something about it. I knew that disconnecting from our tech bubble would be a great chance to reconnect and planned a decidedly low-tech weekend for my husband and two kids aged 6 and 3. The four of us needed some solid bonding and I knew that going into nature would provide the perfect setting for it. Inspired by rugged coastline photos and curvy picturesque roads on the Pacific Coast Highway (PCH), we reserved a Big Sur campsite on the California coast. Big Sur is about as off-the-grid as you can get, with absolutely no cell phone service and the trip shed light on just how dependent on technology I had become. It wasn’t until we were forced to go completely offline that I was pleasantly knocked out of cruise control and into manual mode.

Photo: Jill Giordano

Big Sur is not a city. It’s about 90 miles of coastline along the Pacific Ocean nestled between Los Angeles and San Francisco. There are many campsites to choose from and we settled on Limekiln State Park Campground. I prepared everything for our 3 night stay at the campground for a family of four plus one dog. With the car loaded up, videos playing for the children, music streaming from my husband’s phone and the GPS lady chirping directions, we headed out of Silicon Valley. Our phone and ipad chargers were in tow, along with 4 days of clothes, beach toys, food, water and all of the other camping gear one needs to successfully car camp.

The PCH is just stunning and the road is literally on the edge of a cliff at some parts. Shortly after entering Big Sur, the music and the GPS stopped as the cell service seized. Gulp. We had just entered the dead zone. I asked my co-pilot husband if he had any music saved to his phone and he replied, “I have about 30 songs.” He set-up his playlist and the music went on. We would be alright without the GPS because the campground was off the highway, but music I couldn’t live without. I led a silent prayer that he had something other than Justin Timberlake.

Photo: Jill Giordano

We stopped for lunch at Nepenthe, which is a restaurant built on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. It had a great atmosphere, representing the Big Sur vibe once made mainstream by the hippy generation. The menu boasts great American fare like their famous Ambrosia burger and fresh salads paired with local wine. The gift shop on the property is a great place to pick up some gifts with lots of artisan jewelry, books, toys, housewares and delightful hand-maderies. We walked out of there with some shiny spiritual crystals.

After lunch, we drove on without GPS but since we were in no hurry, we took our time enjoying the views and looking at every sign in anticipation of our turn-off. I noticed immediately that I was taking in each business sign and local landmark on the main road. Typically, using my GPS, I would constantly be looking at the screen for tickers on what the next turn was, how far I was from the next turn and my estimated arrival time. I enjoyed not having the digital tour guide with us and moreover, I had been paying attention to the details.

We finally pulled into camp and checked in with the park ranger, dressed in a brown park ranger outfit and hair pulled back in a long braid. She informed us that dogs are not allowed on the trails but then assured me they don’t enforce that rule as she peeked into our vehicle spotting our black lab, Milo, in the back seat. She mentioned that there was a dead seal on the beach and wasn’t sure when it would be removed but wanted to let us know since it might be something of interest to our dog and our young children! I asked her if we could buy firewood from her, where the nearest gas station was for ice and a map of where our campsite was. As I drove past her in the ranger station, I wondered if her job was amazing because she got to spend it at a national park in Big Sur, California, or completely boring since she had no form of entertainment. I suspected the former and was slightly jealous of her seemingly simple life.

By late afternoon, our camp was all set up. We grabbed some blankets and a some water and walked the short three minute stroll to the beach. To our right was family of five sitting on some rocks. The little ones were running in the sand the parents were snuggled up looking out onto the ocean. Besides them were two teens, one boy and one girl. The boy, dressed in a mexican baha hoodie, was playing his guitar and singing some sad indie ballad.

Photo: Jill Giordano

We looked up on the horizon and it was beautiful. With nothing but ocean and sky, it was as if we had reached the end of the world. There were no boats, planes, roads, or hot dog vendors. We took photos of the kids, who were no longer thinking about the videos on their ipads, playing in the creek and in the ocean. They picked up rocks, got their feet all wet and sandy and jumped in the stream with pure joy. The ocean air suited them extremely well. After taking some panoramas of the ocean horizon we went to check out the dead seal. My husband ran ahead of us to investigate first. I wanted him to see if it had been killed by a shark because stumbling upon a bloody dead seal would yield a slightly different explanation to my children than a seal that died of natural causes. He turned back to us with a relieved expression; this one appeared to have died of natural causes. We were a little grossed out by the dead wildlife but tried not to make a big deal of it and hoped that the authorities would come retrieve it soon.

We watched the sunset on the beach, cooked dinner back at camp, hung out by the fire and drifted off to the sound of a babbling creek. It felt good not to check email and take a break for a bit from my online social universe. This long-term memory worthy family moment was just for me.

When we woke up the next morning, my husband and I decided to take the boys and Milo on a hike from the trail off of our campsite. Milo bolted ahead off leash and the boys ran just as fast behind him. They jumped over rocks, crawled under branches and zigzagged across the creek on top of tree trunk bridges. The vibrant nature was spectacular: green moss covering all of the trees, birds chirping in the air and sunlight beaming down from the sky through the trees. We finally made it to the waterfall and spent a good half hour letting the boys try to climb to the top. I couldn’t help thinking how amazing our luck was to experience this in person.

Photo: Jill Giordano

Back at the beach in the afternoon, we played frisbee, looked for sand dollars and enjoyed the laid back agenda, absent of calendar reminder chimes. The only drama occurred when I accidentally overthrew a frisbee and it landed right on the retreating wave and was swiftly carried out to sea. I tried to run and search for it but it was nowhere in sight. The frisbee-my husband’s favorite-was gone. I was hopeful that some day it would wash ashore and another family would get to enjoy it as much as we had. As if the ocean read my mind, twenty minutes later, the family down the beach was enjoying a frisbee just like ours. My husband ran to them and asked if they found their frisbee. Sure enough, it had just washed ashore! They were nice to give it back to us and I smiled as the dramatic, epic reunion unfolded. I gave a mental fist bump to the Pacific Ocean.

Photo: Jill Giordano

Later in the day, we saw some more dead seagulls and another dead seal. It made my husband uncomfortable and I have to admit, I was a little uncomfortable as well until it dawned on me that the dead wildlife was a symbol of something special. We were in a place so natural and untouched by commercialization, dead animals were not scooped up by the cleaning crew before the tourists woke up. In fact, they could lie there dead for days reminding everyone that death is natural and in nature, it occurs as commonly as the tide rises and falls. I forget, we all forget, what it’s like to not be in the center of the urban universe. We need opportunities like this to remember that we share this earth with all of the other animals and plants and that life can be simple if we let it. Humans, with all their advanced technology, have complicated the hell out of life.

The evening of our final campfire, we enjoyed wine with some of our camping neighbors while listening to the same thirty songs we had listed to in the car. We crawled into our tent late and when we woke up, it was pouring. As I peeked out of our tent, I saw that everything was soaked since nothing was put away the night before. It occurred to me that I probably should have checked the 5 day forecast before we left since the rain alert on my phone wasn’t working. We were heading out south to the Central California coast that morning and would have to pack up and tear down camp in the pouring rain.

Typically this activity would make us grumpy and my husband and I would complain and bemoan the fact that we hadn’t packed as much as we could in the car the night before. But we didn’t. We put the kids into the dry car and let them sit there while we did everything else. Dirt and bark covered everything and the car became more and more filthy as we packed. The tent was soaking wet and our last pair of clean clothes were ragged. Still, we didn’t complain. We just kept packing up in the rain until the very last thing was layered in the trunk. With the heat blasting and our windshield wipers flapping back and forth, we drove away with smiles on our faces.

Photo: Jill Giordano
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