Take a dozen men, drop them in the woods for seven days without television and reliable cellphone and Internet service, then see what happens.
That premise might sound like a college psychology experiment, but it’s a fair description of a week I spent with 11 other fathers when we chaperoned a Boy Scout camp in rural Oklahoma.
We’d all been told before our arrival that cellphone service could be sketchy or nonexistent, though a land line was available for emergencies. Even so, there was a period of denial for a few days as numerous campers continued to point their consoles heavenward in a fruitless search for a signal. Finally realizing that the phone clipped to my waist was as useless as a hood ornament, I stowed it in my tent for the duration of our stay.
Blessed — or cursed — by more efficient service providers, some dads retained clear phone signals, but in the spirit of outdoor retreat, they consulted their handheld devices very little.
What does one do in the absence of Twitter or email, phone calls or CNN, ABC, ESPN or Fox News?
One dad, gifted with a length of willow scavenged from the forest by some enterprising Scouts, began to whittle, casually shaving curls of wood as if paring an apple. Asked about his ultimate design, he simply shrugged and kept carving. Like a castaway marking his days with notches on a tree, our resident wood carver was simply applying knife to willow to track the time.
A more precise record of the passing hours seemed beside the point, since the days unfolded in slow motion.
We read a lot. Each morning, a fellow camper brought Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” to our circle of folding chairs, and the movement of his bookmark through the thick text became for me another way of telling time. At 1,200 pages, Rand’s novel is one of those volumes that a lot of people talk about, but few actually read. With the windfall of time suddenly dropped at our feet, scaling Rand’s Everest of a book suddenly seemed possible.
Another camper dipped into “Crusader Gold,” a thriller by David Gibbins that didn’t prove stimulating enough to prevent a few catnaps in the afternoon. Someone else tackled Jack London’s “The Road” and H.G. Wells’ “The Time Machine.” I spent my time catching up on magazine and newspaper reading, including a column by naturalist Diane Ackerman in which she wonders if we’re too plugged into technology to savor the outside world. “We’re losing track of our senses, and spending less and less time experiencing the world firsthand,” Ackerman laments.
I thought about Ackerman at camp as a full moon rose after a night rain, its brilliance shining through clouds like a lamp brightening a fogged window. It was the kind of spectacle I probably would have missed back at home, too preoccupied by the latest episode of “Mad Men.”
At midweek, the camp director apologized for the spotty cellphone service, promising to do his best to make the camp more accessible to outside callers.
If future campers are lucky, he won’t succeed.