My Wild Tech-Free American Summer

Camp director Levi Felix goes by Fidget Wigglesworth and encourages campers to shake free of the city.  (Photo: Daniel N. Johnson.)

I’m 50 feet from the entrance to an adult summer camp in Northern California and “Honey Bear,” a short, bearded man with a long blond wig, is giving me a hug.

“Let’s stop and take a moment to appreciate where we are,” he says.

Light flickers through the redwoods, blue Steller’s jays squawk and everyone smells like a sweet chemical mixture of sunscreen and bug spray.

Campers arrive on a big yellow school bus. Photo: Daniel N. Johnson. Campers arrive on a big yellow school bus. Photo: Daniel N. Johnson.
Campers arrive on a big yellow school bus. Photo: Daniel N. Johnson.

Four other campers have just arrived and I start clicking photos with my iPhone. As a tech junkie, I’ve come to rely on my phone to feel connected.

I’m online from the moment I wake up until the moment I go to sleep -- sending emails, writing blog posts, crafting tweets, texting, making phone calls, and posting to Instagram. Being a multimedia producer means constant multitasking.


The last time I picked up a real book I couldn’t concentrate. I kept wondering if there were new comments on my Facebook page or likes on my latest Instagram post.

And Nature Deficit Disorder, a term journalist Richard Louv coined in 2006 to describe children who have a lack of exposure to the outdoors, should be listed in my medical chart. As I sit in a fluorescent-lit, windowless office I lose all touch with the outside world. At the end of the day, I stumble out of the building like a Vegas gambler, not knowing what time it is or where the past 13 hours went.

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One counselor sports a watch reminding him to live in the moment.

As I snap more photos, Honey Bear ties a “pause button” -- a plastic button with twine -- around my wrist as a reminder to slow down. His watch is covered with two strips of masking tape and the words “right meow” scrawled on top. I snap a photo and then -- my phone dies. I freak out and realize this is exactly why I’m here.

Camp Grounded is a four-day adult summer camp in Navarro, California, where tech-addicted urbanites go to unplug. Founder Levi Felix started the camp last summer to help people “shake free of the city.”

“The average American spends half of their waking life on a screen and we need to give ourselves permission to unplug,” Felix said. “Being in nature and dancing and making art and sharing hugs can’t be replaced by a screen.”

Campers imitate zombies as they walk toward the dining hall. Photo: Daniel N. Johnson.

As one of many events put on by Digital Detox, an Oakland-based company, it has attracted more than 200 campers per session for three consecutive weekends in June. For $340 to $570, depending on the availability of scholarships and the time of registration, campers get meals, lodging, and unlimited access to daily activities.

The slogan “Disconnect to reconnect” is uttered everywhere at camp and is even printed on a wooden signpost near the dining hall. And the camp rules were simple: no talking about work, your age, your real name, and absolutely no digital devices.

It was during the mandatory digital inspection that I became increasingly uncomfortable with this idea. On the concrete porch of the dining hall, I stepped into the middle of a hula hoop and two counselors, “Condor” and “Golden Bird” lifted it to my waist.

A counselor in a hazmat suit ready to search campers for digital devices. Photo: Daniel N. Johnson.
A counselor in a hazmat suit ready to search campers for digital devices. Photo: Daniel N. Johnson.

“Contaminated, contaminated,” they said in robotic voices. Both were wearing white plastic hazmat suits and goggles. I clutched my phone.

They set down the hula hoop and opened two double doors that led down a long hallway filled with fog machine “smoke.” Someone at the end of the hallway was playing a ukulele.

Along the walls were stats about Americans’ addiction to their digital devices. “One-third of people would rather clean toilets than their inbox,” and, “25% of people have taken a phone call during sex.”

“Your devices?” asked a woman behind a counter halfway down the hallway. She held out a large brown paper bag. I inspected my phone the way a mother would inspect her child and then I dropped it in the bag.

“OK, you’re all set,” she said after taking down my name. I walked toward the end of the hall, through open doors, and into the sunlight. On a grassy field surrounded by redwood trees, campers were throwing Frisbees, playing guitars, sporting face paint, consuming free milk and cookies from the welcome table, and embracing each other. That’s the thing about this camp -- everyone wants to give you a hug. And they really mean it.

At the archery range, Camp Grounded taps into the nostalgia of summer sleep-away camps. Photo: Daniel N. Johnson.

Over the next three days I went rock climbing, forded a river, shot a bow and arrow, sang camp songs and learned to build a fire. I drank five-dollar kombucha on tap from the canteen, scrawled my fears on a sheet of paper and burned them in the camp fire, and completely stopped “shexting” -- texting while…using the restroom.

And on an afternoon walk back from archery I struck up a conversation with a stranger, something I’m too harried to do back home.

“How did you come up with the name ‘Whisker’?” I asked.

“I’m sort of a personal chef,” he said. “I kill it in the omelet department.”

“Ah, so ‘whisker’ like a cooking utensil, not like a cat?” He put one finger on his nose and pointed at me.

“How did you get the name ‘Tickle’?”

“I thought it would make people laugh,” I said. “And come on, who doesn’t like a tickle?” He smiled.

We walked in silence for a moment. You could hear the wind in the trees and the sound of a bird’s wings flapping. Somewhere back on main campus a piano was playing.

“Can I hold your hand?” he asked.

Campers spit colors during the much-anticipated all-camp color war competition. Photo: Daniel N. Johnson.
Campers spit colors during the much-anticipated all-camp color war competition. Photo: Daniel N. Johnson.

“What? Why?” I said.

“It’s on the list of things to do in the field guide.” We’d all been issued pocket-size books with suggested activities. Not wanting to ruin the spirit of camp I relented.

“OK,” I said. And he reached over and took my hand. For five minutes we walked without speaking across a dirt path back onto the main field, losing track of time.

And I realized Camp Grounded is either the apotheosis of summer camp or the complete upending of it. With no schedules or clocks and absolutely no agenda, campers are encouraged to do “what feels right.”

More than once I heard the adage, “Wherever you go is where you’re supposed to be.”

Naturally, such a willy-nilly approach to structure made many campers manic.

“I have serious ADHD,” a woman named “Conversational Vocabulary” told our cabin group on the first day. “I need to know what is going on!”

My bunk mate, a sarcastic New Yorker named “Goldie,” saw the rules as malleable.

Reminders to slow down dot the redwoods. Photo: Daniel N. Johnson.

“What could they say if I just asked for my phone back?” Goldie asked. “I mean, they can’t deny me my own phone.”

Later that afternoon, “Coyote,” a moccasin-clad camper from San Francisco had a minor freak out when she realized she’d missed the morning polar bear dip in the creek.

“What? I didn’t even know that was happening! I’m having major F.O.M.O. right now,” she said.

F.O.M.O. was the language we’d learned in our former lives -- Fear of Missing Out. Fear of missing something bigger, better, more interesting. The realization that when your options are limitless, your choice may be the wrong one. But at camp, there were no wrong choices.

“You can sign up for an activity and attend a different one instead,” “Dilly,” our counselor, told us. “Or not go at all. Whatever you choose is the right decision.”

I took this as a sign to sleep in, flit from one activity to the next and not freak out when the survival class I’d signed up for turned into a semi-nude afternoon in a sweat lodge.

And do we need such a radical shift to shed our former selves? New names and the virtual erasure of our ages and jobs to simply engage with others? What does it mean that Nature Deficit Disorder is a recognized condition? Do we need four-day immersions to teach us how to play again? Would life be better everywhere if the motto was simply, “Welcome -- free hugs and take a cookie”?


I don’t know. But for the five minutes that I was holding hands with someone I’d just met, I didn’t need a machine to feel connected.