What Really Happens on a Digital Detox

by Grace McCalmon


What Really Happens on a Digital Detox

by Grace McCalmon


For the past two years we at SmartyPants have been fortunate to sponsor Camp Grounded, a weekend retreat for adults that’s one part summer camp (with everything from color wars to talent shows) and one part digital detox.

At Camp Grounded, you leave your modern technology at the door, “disconnecting to reconnect” with yourself and 450 of your closest strangers.

This May, two of our SmartyPants Team got to attend camp and this is what they heard…

The Top 5 1/2 Things Overheard at Camp Grounded

Written by “Da Charm” and “Puma Thurman”


1. “Do you already have a name?”

At Camp Grounded campers are not only stripped of their phone, but also of their names.

Upon arrival, we were greeted with gluten-free, vegan cookies, non-dairy beverages, and an ebullient cherub of a counselor known as “Brickie Saint James”, who was ready to give us our new identities…

DC: I already had nickname in mind but quickly realized it’s much more fun to have one made up for you. After two failed attempts – the first unintentionally alluded to an odorous body part, while the second was vaguely sexual and disturbing (although I could not pinpoint why) – Brickie produced the perfect nickname: “Da Charm”.

PT: Last summer our co-worker was named “Natural Disaster” by one of the other counselors and I wasn’t sure I wanted a name like that. So I decided to call myself “Lemon Tree”. After further consideration, I switched to “Garbo”. Much more elegant. But when the naming fun began, I didn’t want to miss out either. Based on my favorite animal (P-22, the puma who lives in Griffith Park) and, apparently, my movie-star good looks, Brickie deemed me “Puma Thurman”.

Not only do the nicknames help keep camp from turning into a networking event, they’re also great conversation starters and make you wonder a little bit why you can’t go by “Sunshine Swirly Squirrel” in the real world.


2. “Put your cell phone in the paper bag.”

DC: Of course everyone knows what you signed up for: this is a digital detox.

You know you’re not going to have your phone, but you don’t actually think about where it’s going to go. Surely there’s some kind of elaborate locker check-in system where all your digital jewels await safely for your return. But no. You show up and put all your ties to the modern world, including all major credit cards, in a brown paper bag that’s stapled – yes, STAPLED – closed.

PM: Indeed. The bag was slightly terrifying. But it was much more the emotional separation from my smartphone that freaked me out. I would be surrounded by people I didn’t know, many of whom might know each other already – a recipe for awkwardness. In my real life, I could pull out my iPhone, pretend to be doing Very Important Time-Sensitive Work, texting a Very Close Friend, looking up a Very Important Fact. Without my digital pocket crutch, what would keep me from feeling like I was the kid with the bowl cut at the 7th grade dance?

The answer was nothing. But in fact, that felt shockingly natural. On Sunday it hit me: this is how people used to relate, with no way to slip out of the moment and into the safety of a screen. In fact, this is how most people had to relate until about eight years ago, when the iPhone and Android hit the market.

I love my iPhone. I love my apps. I love being able to Facebook-message my friend in Boise about the attractive person who might have made eye contact with me but I can’t really tell and if I look at them again, will they think I’m a psychopath? But being digital-crutchless for just four days reminded me that I also love feeling human the way humans have for thousands of years: awkward, exposed, and vulnerable, sure, but also, in our very best moments, unfettered, open, brave, and (yes) grounded.

DC: Indeed. And while the thought that’d I’d actually recover my phone and my company AmEx at the end of the weekend with no major Shakespearean calamity was pretty much incomprehensible, that worked out too.


3. “Wherever you are is exactly where you’re meant to be.”

PT: The first couple of times I heard this sweeping claim my cynical side had an immediate reaction: No.

DC: It sounds like something you say to make yourself feel better when you miss the bus.

PT: People end up all the time in places where they’re not meant to be – in traffic instead of at the beach, on a bad date instead of a good date.

DC: This motto echoed another of the camp’s favorite adages: “No FOMO” [Fear of Missing Out] – which was emblazoned across the top of the camp Activity Board.

PT: That board invited and loomed. How could I possibly choose between stilt walking, slacklining, raw superfood truffle-making, and the vulnerability workshop? No FOMO meant letting go of the fear that I would make the “wrong” choice and everyone else would clearly have a more meaningful experience.

DC: I have to admit, before coming to camp I never thought I had FOMO. I am not one of those people who worry that my friends are having fun without me. Fun to me is when one can retire to the comfort of their own bed and indulge in endless reruns of The Hills – alone.

But both of these mottos are really about “shoulding” on ourselves – the feeling that we “should” be doing something different, something better. Whether that’s a different job or a different partner or a different pair of shoes, there’s literally ALWAYS something.

PT: At Camp Grounded you can’t text anyone or check their Instagram to find out if what they’re doing is “better”. This means we actually have a fighting chance of being present.

DC: And If we are actually fully present while we are doing the thing we’re doing, we’ll always be missing out on something else. Hence, no FOMO.


4. “Would you like to burn your sh*t?”

DC: This statement is both literal and figurative. Literal in the sense that soon after Puma and I arrived we were approached by a bearded man with a magnifying glass and a piece of wood asking us if we’d like to “burn our sh*t.” He then showed us how to use the light from the sun to burn brown blob marks into a piece of wood. Fire! Poop! Heh Heh. It was a very Beavis & Butthead moment for both of us.

PT: And it was really fun.

DC: But burning your sh*t continued to be a theme of the weekend. Without the comforts of digital technology, alcohol, and friends to distract you, you could really kick back and do some self-reflection. Why am I so uncomfortable with silence? Why do I feel so awkward when I’m alone in a crowd? Why do I care so damn much what perfect strangers think of me?

PT: At the same time, there was so much activity that it was almost possible to ignore those questions. Until Saturday night. We were instructed to dress head to toe in white, and our counselors informed us that “at the sound of the first horn,” every camper would head into the woods for some personal quiet time.

DC: This was a real opportunity to sit in nature, alone, and think about who you are. I realized in 28 years of existence I hadn’t really done anything quite like that.

PT: We were encouraged to write down our reflections. That, to me, was as helpful as the walking and the silence. At the sound of the second horn, we all gathered at the Hollow Grove, a circle of teepees near the center of camp, and burned what we had written in a giant bonfire.

DC: Whether or not you buy into the symbolism, Camp Grounded made me realize you don’t need a horn and a ceremony and a white outfit to do a little self-assessment. You just need to turn off the noise.


4.5 “I wish I’d brought my sequined shorts…”

PT: I had slipped my sequined shorts into the zipper pocket of my huge purple suitcase. Somehow, I just felt I should bring them.

But there was nothing on the checklist that mentioned sequined shorts, or even sequins in general. And, after all, this was an outdoor situation. A place to be hardy and practical. I was already concerned about my lack of flannel shirts. I put the shorts back on their shelf and felt very sensible.

I arrived at camp and felt very silly.

We were greeted by a counselor in Guatemalan pants and a satin cape. I told myself he might be an exception. He certainly was not. There were faux fur onesies, tutus, and wigs. There were rows of multicolored dots on cheekbones and a rainbow painted on a bald guy’s scalp. There were fake metallic tattoos and stick-on gemstones, half-shaved heads and tiaras.

And of course, there were sequined shorts. The first pair I saw were red, topped with a silver sequined jacket – a sequined shorts suit!

I grew up in an era when camping and camp lived in two different worlds.

In the 80s, you were preppy or you were punk. You were straight or you were gay. You were athletic or you were artsy. Sequins did not belong in the woods, sequins belonged on ice dancers and drag queens.

I’m not sure exactly who to thank – the ever-evolving state of LGBT visibility, Burning Man, or Katy Perry – but I’m very happy for the change.

Next time I hit Camp Grounded, I’m bringing my sequined shorts and I plan to wear them every day.


5. “Thank you for being so vulnerageous.”

PT: Our counselor, “Stoked”, introduced us to the term “vulnerageous”. She used it a lot. I assumed it must be a hybrid of “vulnerable” and “outrageous”, since outrageousness is not only allowed at camp, it’s encouraged.

DC: But “vulnerageous” is actually a combination of “vulnerable” and “courageous”. If you’re saying “seriously?” in your head right now, it’s okay. We did too the first time we heard it. But vulnerability and courage are two things you can’t escape at Camp Grounded. After all, you’ve got no iPhone, Android, iPad, iPod, laptop, Kindle, not even a watch to protect you from the fact that you’ve been set out into an open field with hundreds of strangers dancing to music you’ve never heard before. Dead sober.

PT: That was pretty scary. Almost as scary as expressing feelings in a sharing circle, going to a campfire alone, or striking up a conversation with a super-cool stranger.

DC: These things take a hell of a lot of courage. For some it’s immediate, for others it could take the whole weekend, or maybe you’ll have to come back for a second year to fully embrace your vulnerageousness. But it will happen. It can’t not.


5.5 “We’re sorry, Cuddle Therapy is full.”

DC: Are you one of those people who highly values their personal space? Not exactly a “toucher”? Welcome to Cuddle Therapy. Just one of Camp Grounded’s many activities designed to take “breaking out of your comfort zone” to a whole new level. Although I can’t say I participated in the Cuddle Therapy (it was full) I basically got the next best thing. While staring at the Activity Board, debating the merits of hip-hop dance class vs the gospel choir, and trying to keep my FOMO in check, I was embraced from behind by a complete stranger. After a solid two minutes had passed and a crowd was starting to gather, I seriously began to wonder when it would end.

Welcome to the place outside your comfort zone. You’ll be here for the next two days.

Know anyone in need of a digital detox or just some good, old fashioned fun? Share this with them!

Have you ever gone on a digital detox? Been to Camp Grounded? We’d love to hear about your experience!


Posted on July 27, 2015

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Grace McCalmon

Grace is a certified Nutritional Therapy Practitioner (NTP) and a graduate of Duke University. She received her nutrition certification from the Nutritional Therapy Association, and her training is based on the work of Dr. Weston A Price, as well as the latest peer-reviewed, scientific research.