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December 28, 2016

How Unplugging & Opting Out for the Holidays was a Healthy Choice.

When I was growing up, we were big hotel people.

We were definitely more hotels with tennis courts and lodges with ski runs as opposed to camping people. We still counted this as “outdoors” and “active,” since it involved…well, activities outdoors, but we weren’t “outdoorsy.”

In fact, I’m pretty sure I didn’t camp until I had friends in high school who wanted to and then we did what others later in my life referred to as “car camping.” We pulled into a campground and camped so close to our cars we didn’t have to actually unpack everything from them.

So it came as big of a surprise to myself as it did to everyone else when Thanksgiving approached this year and I decided that I would take the idea to #OptOut (started by REI to encourage people to get outdoors instead of shop on Black Friday) one step further and actually spend the holiday itself in the woods.

And so that’s what I did. I got on Airbnb and found a vintage trailer in the middle of a national forest in Oregon that had no running water, no electricity, no cell service, but as much nature as I could handle. It had a nice little cooking fire pit outside, a mini-stove inside (for warmth and heating small bowls of things like water for coffee or reheating premade foods in small helpings), and a composting toilet on the other side of the fire pit.

My family was shocked and none too pleased with my plan. One friend, when I described the trailer, said, “Oh my God. Why?!” The significant other said, “That’s amazing. Can I come?” (My significant other’s family is outdoorsy. They hail from the mountains of Colorado, so I wasn’t terribly surprised that the idea sounded good to him.)

As the holiday drew closer, I got more and more worried, though. I am athletic and healthy. I live in the Pacific Northwest, so I go on plenty of hikes (I’m sure they throw you out if you don’t), and I’ve been non-car-camping a number of times since moving here. But this seemed like perhaps a bit much for me to tackle. Thanksgiving cooked over a fire in 20 mph winds and snow on the ground? The only heat source a fire (one of which I had never successfully started on my own before). Dumping a jug of urine when the stay was over…again, in high winds? Maybe I’d bitten off more than I could chew.

But Thanksgiving morning arrived and I realized that I’d fully prepared and was ready (and I did have a handy significant other in tow), and we packed up the rented Subaru with our gear, water, and food, and drove confidently into the national forest.

And for the next 48 hours, I realized just how little things can go according to plan and how amazing that can be. I may have navigated us onto the wrong fork in the road and caused the Subaru’s fancy system to register low tire pressure (but on which tire?). I may have forgotten the really nice gloves I thought I’d packed, so all I had was a fingerless pair or really big ski gloves. I may have decided one night that it was way too windy and cold for me to go to the composting toilet, so distracted myself with Monument Valley on my phone (okay, almost completely unplugged).

But I may have also realized that I can start and keep a fire going in a mini-stove; that I can cook a Thanksgiving dinner consisting of turkey breast, gravy, (instant) stuffing, and green bean casserole (that was premade, but I reheated it so damn well!) over a fire. I may have realized I had the strength and determination to dismantle the trunk of a 60-foot tree that was felled by the wind, blocking the road on our way out, until we could finally roll the trunk out of the way (it took us over two hours). I may have realized I’d been doing nothing but reading for hours one morning, sitting in the cold, feeling the wind tighten the skin on my cheeks as it whistled by; that on a really clear night, I could actually see the soft clouds of the Milky Way above me.

I may have realized that opting out felt a whole lot like opting back in. Between all the pop culture deaths this year, the shocking political revelations everywhere, and the chaos in the U.S. and elsewhere, it was a revelation to be somewhere…silent.

There was wind and animals and only my own thoughts to listen to. The only thing I could see was nature to the horizon in all directions. In spite of my worry that I wasn’t up to the task, that it would be too complicated, it was the simplest thing I could have done. Opting out made me realize how much I’d been missing out on by constantly feeling pressure to opt in.

Our society, our culture, makes certain things feel mandatory: owning a smartphone, engaging online, sitting at the family table at the holidays. And that’s okay. It’s perfectly fine to do those things. But it’s also okay to do something that doesn’t sound like you, to unplug from it all, to finally see that amazing corner of nature you’ve always wanted to (mine was Crater Lake), which was two hours from our trailer), and to opt out. For me, opting out on a regular basis may be how I continue to healthily opt back in.

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Author: Gretchen Stelter

Image: Flickr/Joanna Penn

Editor: Travis May

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