No smartphones, watches or talk of work allowed at Camp Grounded

Campers spend four days in ‘digital detox’ in Marble Falls

Hold it right there, camper.

Drop your cellphone. Hand over your watch. Forget about using your real name, revealing your age or talking about work for the next four days.

You’re in digital detox, Camp Grounded style.

Imagine a life so enmeshed in the digital world that you check email on your smartphone at every traffic light. You snap selfies with the sole purpose of posting them on Instagram to impress your friends. You scroll through your Facebook feed while you’re on the toilet.

You, my friend, may be addicted to technology — and Camp Grounded wants to help.

The adult-only summer camp started in California as a way to help the tech-addicted masses “disconnect to reconnect.” Take away cellphones, laptops and televisions, the thinking goes, and you’ll actually live in the moment.

The first camp took place three years ago in the redwoods north of San Francisco. This year it expanded to North Carolina and Central Texas, where about 130 campers convened at Camp Champions near Marble Falls in mid-October to see if they could survive without social media for a few days.

I’ve slipped in as an embedded journalist (nickname: Scoop) with a career-imposed tech problem that has me posting to Instagram, writing a daily blog and maintaining the Fit City page on Facebook.

My fellow campers range in age from their 20s to their 60s, although most are in their 30s. Some are veteran “Grounders,” with one or more camp sessions under their belt. About half are from Texas, but many are from California. One came all the way from Canada. Each is paying about $600 for the four-day experience, which includes food, programs and lodging.

At check-in, we nibble cookies and sip milk. We’re issued nicknames and stripped of all electronics by crews wearing white hazmat suits. Cellphones and watches are bagged and locked away. Then campers are sorted into villages (Owls, Hawks, etc.), where they sleep in group cabins (separate quarters for men and women), eat in a communal dining hall and clean up in group bathhouses.

It’s freeing and terrifying all rolled into one, because this camp is all about letting go of your inner critic, sharing meaningful conversation with other campers and being true to yourself. The point is to make real-life connections that go beyond “liking” a photo or posting a picture of what you ate for dinner.

“When you take away the social crutches people use their devices as, it’s like walls come down and its a beautiful thing to see,” says camp founder Levi Felix, known here simply as Fidget.

I’m staying in a special media tent alongside a documentary crew; going without a smartphone for four days is so rare it merits investigation! We’ve got access to cellphones and laptops, but I try not to look. It’s not easy.

I decide to infiltrate the Owls village, where I meet Ninja Mouse, the counselor. We play games designed to help us get to know each other better. We come up with our own Owls chant and practice secret handshakes. There’s a lot of hugging and heartfelt enthusiasm, and, without a reporter’s pad and pen to hide behind, I feel like the nerdy outcast at elementary school once again.

At camp, time passes not in minutes or hours but in what counselors call inches. It’s vague, but that doesn’t matter. Campers are told they’re never late or in the wrong place. Wherever you are is where you’re meant to be.

“Use this time to be present,” Ninja Mouse tells us. “Work doesn’t define us. Or age. You’re never too old or too young for anything.”

The vibe is retro and hip. Outside the dining hall, the main gathering point, campers leave typewritten notes in each other’s mail boxes, which are actual cardboard boxes. They draw pictures and pin them on bulletin boards, or fill out handwritten profiles for an IRL — In Real Life — dating site called Embers. There’s no drugs or alcohol.

During the day, campers sign up for “playshops,” where they learn to walk on stilts, make pickles, sail on the lake, play pirate games, mold candles or sing gospel music. Sneaking out of cabins late at night is encouraged. So are pool parties, stargazing, dancing, snuggling and sipping tea in a yurt. Mealtime is rowdy, with goofy games and loud singing.

Princess Snapping Turtle, who heads the Art Barn, gleefully announces she’s not at all artistic but invites you to come play. Campers get their faces painted, perform at a talent show, sing around a campfire, share vows at a camp wedding and struggle not to speak during a silent dinner.

At a spoon-carving class led by Captain Walnut, I use a knife and gouge to transform a piece of a board from an old redwood fence into spoon. It looks strangely like a deflated corn dog when I finish, but while I’m chipping away, I meet Calico, aka Rachel Youens, 32. Youens grew up in Austin but now heads up social media for an e-commerce site in San Francisco called Red Bubble. She’s a social media junkie — she craves it, wears an Apple Watch and finds it nearly impossible to self-impose a break from it. That’s why she’s here.

“I use my digital a lot as a way to escape uncomfortableness,” Youens says. “I’m a very awkward person. I’ll be at an event and feel uncomfortable, but rather than saying hi to someone, I’ll look at my phone. It’s an easy out.”

Camp Grounded takes that easy out away and forces you to say hello to a real person. I look around. People here are talking to each other. They’re not nose-deep in their smartphones. They’re not hiding behind cameras. They’re romping like kids.

“It’s almost like a trick the camp does by stripping off the digital,” Youens says. “It’s the hook that gets you in, but there are so many more meaningful things that happen.”

It’s about being what Grounders call “vulnerageous” — vulnerably courageous. For Youens, that means dressing as a mermaid and letting three guys lift her during a synchronized swimming routine. It also means sharing the truth about a serious situation in her life.

“If you’re willing to just be vulnerable and realize that people want to support you, really fantastic things can happen,” she says.

At first, it’s hard. Some campers are so used to their smartphones going off that they report phantom buzzings in their pockets. Others habitually reach for their camera phones.

But, as hours tick by, it gets easier. They’d rather join the meow singalong, toast marshmallows, meditate in a candle-lit yurt, swim in the lake, dance with a stranger or tap away on an old-fashioned typewriter.

“It’s so fun and silly,” says Flamingo, aka Anna Thompson of Round Rock. “A lot of it is forcing yourself in different ways to be in the now, and doing things out of your comfort zone.”

On Day Two, the campers have no idea that somewhere outside camp boundaries, the Texas Longhorns are beating the Oklahoma Sooners in a football game. They’re too absorbed in their own fun.

“You make the magic at that camp,” Youens says.

The challenge, of course, is holding onto it after camp ends, with an Apple Watch on one wrist, a smartphone in one hand and a Facebook feed beckoning.

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