What It Was Like To Hike 500 Miles Without A Smartphone In Hand
On an extraordinary Tuesday morning, during the fifth week of hiking the Camino de Santiago in Spain, my fellow pilgrims and I stood in silence as we reached the crest of a mountain we spent the morning climbing.
It was the first time we could see far enough into the distance to pinpoint the valley of our destination. It was still very far off, don't get me wrong, but there it was: The End.
I was in the final city that represented my return to to Facebook, texts, desks, copy machines, subways, traffic jams and to the responsibility beyond putting one foot in front of another.
On the other hand, it was also my family, my friends, my boyfriend, a theatre job in Florida, a warm bath, a pair of flip-flops and a day without an 18-mile trek on the agenda.
I whipped out my camera and tried unsuccessfully to piece together the panoramic view that surrounded me. I couldn't do it, so I put the camera down. It looked like a group of mountains, that's it.
It was then I decided photographs were not going to tell the story I needed to tell. I was taking these photos to remember the details, the people, the sorry state of my feet. It was proof it all really happened.
But, for this moment, a few shots of endless mountains only cheapened the irreplaceable emotion of accomplishment and serenity.
The timing of the trip greatly affected the technological capabilities of my journey.
Our trip was documented by hand in a journal, since wasting the weight in your pack for a laptop would have been laughable. We did have access to computers at Internet cafés and some hostels, usually costing about a euro for 15 minutes.
My phone was this comically bulky "international phone" that looked like something out of a 90's Wall Street film. It was to be used for emergencies only and held a charge for about 45 minutes before pooping out on me.
Other than that, I communicated with a few people via email and Facebook messages when we came across a computer. And, this was, perhaps, every three to four days.
As for maps? The Camino is marked with white and yellow arrows, painted by the county itself. If someone messed with them, you didn't go the right way -- that was that.
So, how would my trip have been different if smartphones were as common as they are today? I started to wonder that the moment I got home.
Only three months later, I received a Droid for Christmas, with a fancy camera, email, maps and Facebook, all at my fingertips. Here were the questions that swirled in my head the morning I turned on that first smartphone:
1. If I had had access to Facebook on my trip and had been able to share photos as I walked, would those in my life feel more connected to my hiking stories?
2. Could I have stayed in touch with my future job without the hours of frustration, trying to find a way to email them back the information they needed?
3. Could I have eased my parents' worries, tracking my progress more than once or twice a week?
4. Could we have answered those constantly-nagging questions in the back of our heads: "How much longer are we walking today?" and the oh-so-popular, "Are we sure we're going the right way?"
5. Lastly, would my relationship not have failed if we had been able to stay in touch?
Thanks to over six years of retrospect and many hours of tossing the ups and downs of this life-changing trip in my head, I came to these conclusions:
1. Not really...
The reason I have stories to share at all is because they happened to me. I let them happen fully, and without the pressure to try to properly convey my unique and emotionally poignant moments through a few sentences and some hashtags.
I do have photos I occasionally pull up on Shutterfly when I have someone nearby, but otherwise, I only have my words to paint the picture, a much more dynamic way to include someone, instead of him or her saying, "Yes, I 'liked' that photo online."
It took a few more days to get my paperwork to my job, and it was not an ideal way to maintain my preferred level of professionalism. But these are the moments that remind us the world will not end if emails are not answered in a few minutes.
There is a balance between responsibility and respect for someone's time versus an obsession to stay on top of every detail without considering your personal needs.
In the end, my parents trusted I was in a safe place. My worry was probably greater than theirs, and not having the option to call one another reminded us both we could go days without speaking if there were no emergencies.
It was an excellent post-college lesson.
4. Thank goodness I didn't!
Counting down the kilometers bit by bit would have been torture, the way you stare at Google Maps in a traffic jam.
My moments were spent speaking endlessly to hikers about every topic imaginable, until we ran out of things to talk about for the day, then we either thought about our feet or sang that song by The Proclaimers.
I didn't need anything else to look at, and I didn't want to know how much road was ahead.
5. Above all, NO.
No, no, nooooo!
It is so easy to look for a tangible reason for the end of a relationship. I once stood in a courtyard waiting for our one scheduled phone call of the entire trip, and because of what turned out to be a country code issue with my phone, the call never came through.
I sat sobbing next to some 11th century fountain because I thought I had been blown off. The truth? Our relationship was doomed, cell phones or not, way before I left.
The most high-tech cell phone or an army of carrier pigeons could not have salvaged our post-college disaster of a romance.
Nowadays, I am not perfect. I often feel more connected to my experience when someone is able to comment on a photo I've posted from moments before.
I blog about my travels, my wedding and my recipes, and it makes my life more vibrant. But, when I was away in Spain and I needed to grow, social media and technology only would have been a crutch, a way to feel like people knew where I was if I needed them.
It would not have been a celebration of my independence and my discoveries, which my stories now allow me to do.
So, overall, I honestly believe it comes back to knowing yourself. If you are sharing your travel online to help tell your story and celebrate the world with those around you, then keep on Instagramming.
Otherwise, perhaps it's time to put the camera and phone down, and trust your words will do it justice.
Most importantly, trust that the real world will still be there when you get back.