Manufacturing a Surplus of Time

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I enjoy the outdoors like a city person, by which I mean: I’m always in a hurry.

Get up early Saturday morning (assuming the week that just ended didn’t kill my will to do it), drive several hours to someplace with something worth doing, hike/climb/whatever, race back home. 

To break this vicious cycle, it’s not enough just to get further away or give myself more time. If I go backpacking, say, I’ll still try to maximize every last second between when I leave the house and when I get back. I’ll try the most ambitious thing I can find and complete it with no time to spare. You know – “seize the weekend” and all.

It takes a special combination of things to give me the luxury of time. Someone has to look after things back home, and I have to be someplace where there is no reason to rush, where the number of options and distractions shrinks to a number that can safely be contained within the waking hours of the day.

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There is only one place that I know of like that. No phones. No internet. A finite number of hiking options. Limited transportation. A river to fish. 

You get up in the morning, and you know that your only responsibility for the day is to eat breakfast, go fishing maybe, eat lunch, go fishing some more. On that second trip, you know that even if you take ten or twenty extra casts, there’s still plenty of time to get back for dinner, after which you can read until you go to sleep. (This is the one place where I read in any focused way – otherwise, I’m too “busy,” when in fact what I am is seduced by the easier appeal of the TV.)

The next morning, you might stop off at the bakery for a cup of coffee and sit in the shade for a little longer than strictly necessary. It’s not like a normal day, where you grab a coffee from the nearest Starbucks and rush away like a chipmunk stealing a crumb from a backpacker’s feet. 

It takes me back to the summertime of childhood, to unhurried days of bicycling to the crick to hunt for crawdads – turning over rocks and trying to catch them before they jetted away surprisingly fast. Not a care in the world. 

Like all such corners of the world, it’s under assault. Its remoteness has postponed its surrender to digital signals and uniform tourist distractions (like the ATV rentals that appeared at some point), but it won’t hold out forever. Where before there was no wi-fi, now my phone picks up three or four networks in multiple spots. It is only a matter of time.

For now, it is still an occasional sanctuary, the spiritual center of my existence in this, my home state. I treasure it.

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Of course, one man’s relaxation is another’s boredom. I was with my nephew, who’s just about to turn fourteen. He’s been raised on apps and games.

He’ll fish, but he’s not a fisherman. A fisherman loves the challenge of getting a bite. A fisherman doesn’t care about a hot sun or a cold river, as long as there’s an interesting pocket to work. My nephew will fish for maybe an hour as long as he’s comfortable. We were wading without waders (me, barefoot; him, in sneakers) in an ice cold current, so once the bite was off, he wanted to be off as well – back to the house and the comfort of his touch screen and dry feet. I was still up to my knees in clear, cold water…and loving it.

He doesn’t hike (we took him for a jaunt that was less than three miles in length, and you’d think it was the Bataan Death March). He doesn’t read. He’ll play cards, as long as the game is just hard enough to be interesting, but not so hard as to require understanding of a complicated set of rules, for which I blame the games. Most of the games I’ve seen him play provide just enough challenge to offer easy gratification.

I don’t say all this to criticize, but to illustrate that time is a matter of calibration and equilibrium. There is just enough to fill a day for me, because all that there is in this one place interests me.

The trick is to identify just the right number of things that agree with me back home and weed out the rest. What’s truly important? Did I miss the Facebook updates while I was locked away from the internet? No, and yet I am checking them again. Did I really need to know who was leading the Tour de France? I forgot to care about Wimbledon until a few days after getting back. Did I need to know the latest in presidential politics? (Actually, yes – it’s trying my patience and I’d rather not have to know, but it’s important. It’s sad that this has been turned from signal into noise.) Did I miss the pressure to post here or on Instagram? Yes, a little, and now you can see I’m already backsliding.

It’s a dilemma and a challenge. There are attachments and pleasures to be had from this connected world. Maybe I’m more like my nephew than I care to admit. I’ve been suckled for too long on devices that beep and deliver easy gratification from social networks. But these things come at a cost, and I worry it’s too high.

Places like this bring that into clear focus.

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