Unplugged Vacations

By Ann E. Michael
A Web Exclusive

teens“You’re a better woman than I am,” sighed my friend, “And out of your mind.” I had just told her of our summer vacation plans: my husband and I were traveling to an island off of Nova Scotia, a place without electricity, plumbing, gas, phone lines, roads or satellite reception. And we were taking our teenagers along.

I know there are families out there who rough it on a regular basis, who’ve been backpacking with their kids from infancy and for whom a flush toilet constitutes a modern amenity. But let’s face it. With the miniaturizing of electronics and the crunching of schedules, few families these days opt to spend a summer—or even a week—unplugged and disconnected. Especially families with teen video-hounds or kids whose entire social network is bound up with a cell phone or computer. It’s not just the teenagers who object to being out of the loop, either. For many of my peers, a week at a beach house is merely a change of venue. Mom and Dad are still on the phone every day, checking up on the office; family outings are often just shopping sprees at a different set of outlets, and everyone’s upset if the VCR breaks. Even the perennial family road trip is interspersed with amenity-packed hotels or campgrounds that feature cable hookups. Fellow parents of teens warned us to expect rebellion and sullen withdrawal on this trip, even though our children seemed excited about the vacation.

I booked ferry passage, and my husband and I downplayed the no-frills aspect of the visit. It helped that our host, Simon, is well-loved by our two kids, who were eager to see his boathouse (he builds wooden boats, by hand) and get some sailing lessons. We stressed all the things they could do on the island—sail, swim, explore on their own—and didn’t say much about what wouldn’t be available. The little issue about electronics came up as we were packing, however, when my son reminded us to get batteries for the GameBoy™. After a bit of negotiation, we agreed that the toy could accompany us if it stayed in the car. I don’t think we mentioned that we’d be parking the car for the week on a different island from the one where we were to stay.

Simon’s house was built in the mid-1800s and expanded just once, to add a summer kitchen, sometime before 1910. Simon bought it 30 or 40 years ago, attracted by its excellent situation on the little cove. Sited where a slope blocks much of the prevailing wind, facing southwest for light and warmth and overlooking the inlet, the roof pitch steep, the windows well-considered, and up a gentle incline from the dock, the house settled harmoniously with its surroundings over a hundred years ago and seems as much a part of the island as the rocky beaches. We parked on neighboring Bell’s Island, which has a bridge to the mainland, and traveled by motorboat to our destination. Thus the first day at the island was exciting enough, salt spray in our faces and the awareness of our adventure dawning on us once we recognized our cell phone was out of range. And the house is quite welcoming and snug. I don’t think we realized how primitive the place was until we needed water, and there wasn’t even a pump. Simon showed us the path to the well and the trail to the outhouse. Then, it got dark. Really dark.

Rebellious Murmurings
Of the four of us, it was my then-13-year-old son who suffered the most during this withdrawal from the 21st century. He felt restless at first with neither computer nor phone, no peers but his sister, no water tap and no fridge to raid. He loves to read, but reading by kerosene lamp tired his eyes, so he went early to bed. He also found himself wide awake at sunrise—unheard-of summertime behavior for a boy his age. On the second day, he was clearly bored. The wind was too strong for a sailing lesson, so after breakfast Simon headed to the boathouse workshop with my husband and 12-year-old Alice. I was occupied with the garden and the wood-burning cookstove, but I could sense an oncoming battle if my son kept moping.

“Mom,” he said at last, “It’s so boring here.”

“Walk to the well and fill up these buckets,” I said by way of an answer, to which he responded: “Who am I? Gunga Din?”

I was impressed he knew who Gunga Din was, but I waved him toward the woods. It took him forever to return, and by then his mood had lightened. He told me about things he’d thought about along the path, weird toadstools he’d noticed, how loudly the Canadian squirrels scolded. Then he split some firewood, and when the novelty wore off he wandered up and down the shore and waded in the sea. Eventually he ended up with the rest of us at the boathouse, where we learned how a lapstrake boat is put together. Just before dusk, he discovered half a dozen Agatha Christie novels and managed to read them all before we bid Simon goodbye a few days later.

My daughter adapted more quickly, but she was (at the time) less computer-savvy and took to sailing more confidently than her brother has. At twelve, she was also less dependent upon a peer group; I wondered how she’d have adapted had she been a little older. Two years later, I had the chance to find out. Simon needed a hand with the boat he was building. Would we consider another visit?

Second time a charm?
We stayed a bit longer on our second visit. This time, we had work to do: Simon appreciated extra hands to plane the lapstrakes, apply Dolphinite™, and tap in the rivets on his latest boat, among other things. We were better prepared as far as supplies. We knew to pack along lots of snacks and canned drinks for teenagers, tea and coffee, and perishables. My kids packed paperbacks, pocketknives, and sketchpads; Alice brought along some knitting.

But they also brought along their teenage moods and stubbornness. There was a backseat fight of which pre-schoolers would have been proud en route to the ferry. My daughter had a food snit on board the ship. My son sulked that the floating casino had removed its video arcade, and then no one could agree on which berths to sleep in. Things did not bode well for the vacation when Alice complained about dirty bathrooms. There was no bathroom on Middle Island, after all.

We were able to put aside our fears once we got to the island, however. My son wasn’t the world’s most willing helper when it came to woodworking; but he was more than happy to haul water, split wood, stoke the woodstove, and help around the dock. He also skipped stones until he became expert at it, continually besting his own record.

His sister, very handy with tools and crafts, spent hours in the boathouse. This gave the siblings some much-needed personal space away from one another. They had packed flashlights and brought batteries so that it was easier to read after dark, snug in their bedrooms as the sea winds buffeted the cabin walls. They sailed together, and Alice sailed by herself in the little pram (her brother had grown too large for the tiny sailboat and wasn’t comfortable with the 14-footer on his own). The slow pace of life on the island eased so many tensions that even technologically-savvy, hormone-driven teens eventually settled down.

Am I a madwoman to disconnect my family—my teens—from modern life for a week or so? I don’t think so. Would I try this for a month? Sure, although I doubt my husband could disengage his e-mail monkey for that long. Until about 30 years ago, after all, it was not uncommon for American families to depart for unimproved summer places and primitive campgrounds devoid of phones and televisions. My parents ventured into state parks and tented for days with two teenagers and our “kid brother” in tow, for example. And we got bored, which turned out to be a good thing. One result of today’s overscheduling and electronic connectedness is that children never get the opportunity to become therapeutically bored, at which point they have to learn to explore, to invent, to amuse themselves with independent thinking.

So picture this: a breeze freshens into a wind along the rocky cove where a 15-year-old boy stands skipping stones across the inlet. He’s already split a couple armloads of firewood and has decided to skive for awhile. His sister climbs down the bank. She smells of woodsmoke and onions; she combs the beach for sand dollars. With nothing better to do, they manage to occupy themselves—without a computer, television, or phone. And they have the time of their lives.

Ann Michael lives in Northeastern Pennsylvania with her husband, two teenaged children, and too many pets. She teaches English at DeSales University and is a published poet and columnist. Her website is www.annemichael.com