The clerk slid a small, padded sack across the check-in desk. It looked like a fabric sample for a new line of Patagonia puffer jackets. Or maybe a sunglasses case?
“What’s this?” I asked.
“A sleeping bag,” the clerk responded, “for your phone.”
Ahh. Of course.
“We can hold onto it if you like,” he assured me. “Some people find it easier to resist the temptation to peek if their devices aren’t in their rooms.”
I smiled politely and pulled my phone, which was resting on the desk, closer. It was a rainy day in May, and my partner and I had just arrived at Calistoga Ranch, a Napa resort known for its pristine, wooded, 157-acre property (for a little perspective, the average football field is 1.32 acres) and intimate, off-the-grid vibe. We were about to go one step further and take part in the resort’s new Sound Off Quiet Retreat. For the next three days, we’d be off the digital grid, trading technology for yoga, meditative hiking, and general communion with nature and ourselves. While I was OK with turning my phone on airplane mode, I wasn’t quite ready to hand it over altogether. My phone, and its new sleep sack, were coming with me.
Moments later, we were in a golf cart set to tortoise mode (“we also have ‘hare mode’ but that’s too fast for the property,” the driver explained, unintentionally setting the tone for our visit), puttering up a winding road lined with oak trees and yucca plants, to our room.
“Most silent retreats are set in rustic, austere settings, not at four- and five-star resorts and done in a group setting that follow a strict schedule each day for all meals and activities,” said general manager Avi Haksar, who helped shape the program. “Our program is different in that it caters to guests seeking out a quiet, rejuvenating solo trip or an opportunity to fully unplug with a partner in a luxuriously relaxing setting.”
I was there, on the one hand, in search of equanimity after a couple of intense, work-filled months had left me with a cold I couldn’t shake, but on the other to ask: Why do we still need permission to turn off technology? And what’s the value in powering down, anyhow?
Snug in our room, I faced the moment of truth: sleeping bag or no? I slipped my phone into the sack and popped it into the bedside stand. Then I removed it, realizing I needed to turn on my out-of-office notification. Back in the drawer it went. Then I decided it should charge while sleeping. I pulled it out, plugged it in, then put it back in the drawer. The futzing sounds ridiculous, but when you’re about to cut ties with a device you touch nearly 3,000 times a day, the brain goes a little nuts. Finally, I closed the drawer firmly and turned away.
“Let’s go meet the goats,” Jeannie finally said. “Who cares if it’s pouring?” Rain jackets on, we strolled to Calistoga’s on-site farm, pausing occasionally to inhale the air, which tasted clean and almost sweet. The rain fell in pleasing drops on my hood: patta patta patta. My pocket, free of a five-ounce iPhone, felt light.
We walked through the small vineyard, the cabernet vines dripping with rain, to the farm. In a covered coop, chickens rustled and clucked, but I was drawn immediately to the goats. I’d expected mean-looking, ornery creatures—you know, the kind that eat tin cans in children’s books—but Olive and Pepper, who I later learned are pygmy goats, are like animated stuffed animals, all fluffy and miniature.
Longing welled up inside of me: If only I could take a picture! How could a moment this cute exist with no way to document it?! My mind pinged to my sleeping phone. It sounds silly now as I type this, but the struggle at that moment was very real. Mental picture, mental picture, I reminded myself, trying to sear the image of their calico-like coats into my mind. Pepper seemed uncomfortable with me staring, whining and shimmying back into his shed.
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Back in the room. Two hours to go. Bored again. Why was this so hard?
We poured some wine. We read a coffee table book about Calistoga Ranch’s sister resorts around the world. Then I idly picked up one of the books I’d brought: The Salt Path, by Raynor Winn. “How about we read aloud?” I suggested.
Ninety minutes later, we were fully immersed in the tale of two middle-aged British farmers who lose everything and decide to walk Britain’s 630-mile South West Coast Path. We took turns reading, one person taking over when the other’s voice gave out. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d had a bedtime(ish) story. We read until dinner arrived and then again after eating. My phone remained in its bag, undisturbed, for the remainder of the night.
The rain cut out sometime around midnight, and the next morning dawned bright and fresh, the steam lifting off the trees in translucent sheets as the sun rose.
Post-breakfast, the sun still shining, we decided to hit Calistoga’s hiking trails. The resort sits in a wooded canyon, with three trails—named Love, Hope, and Joy—designed to encourage mindful walking, ideally done in silence. Jeannie and I didn’t really heed the silent part of it. We chatted, tackling Joy, then decided we were up for Love. Both hikes led us vertically, passing through twisted oaks and dry grasses to the top of the hill where we looked at farmhouses and vineyards in the distance. At one point, we came upon a deer, sitting on the forest floor maybe 50 feet from us. The deer looked at me. I looked at the deer. In the end, we’re all just animals looking for a place to rest, I thought. The busy mental hum that powers most of my days was subsiding. I was listening to birds and communing with deer, no longer wanting to capture what I was seeing except with my senses. I walked mindfully. I was one with the forest.
And then we very mindlessly got into a fight.
It was one of those dumb couple fights, where one person teases the other, the other person doesn’t see the humor in it, and the whole thing spirals from there. We walked the last half mile of the Love trail in silence. Well, at least we were finally doing the hike as intended.
It was time for our wine-and-yoga class.
Yogini Ulrika Engman unrolled her mats on the wood patio outside our room, while Deanna Heon opened bottles and set out glasses. Then, smiling earnestly at us, they explained what we’d do. We’d smell the wine, then do a few poses, then taste the wine, the prolonged gratification meant to help us connect more deeply with the wine.
I wanted to take it seriously, I did. But it was hard to keep a straight face at first, while in a warrior pose being encouraged to feel “where the wine is warming your body” and to send gratitude toward the people who made the wine. In between stretches and swirls, Ulrika explained how she arrived at this peculiar mix of wine and wellness.
Like so many of us, I’m frequently only half-present in life. I’m standing in line for the train, scrolling through Instagram. I’m watching TV and working on my laptop. I’m drinking wine and texting.
Ulrika said that she once viewed her body as a temple—no alcohol allowed. But then she moved to wine country and couldn’t quite figure out how to reconcile her booze-free temple with the wine-loving community around her. Eventually she “realized that [experiencing wine] is yoga too.” Halfway through the class, I started to get it. It is a very different experience to take a single sip of wine and spend five minutes exploring the smell, taste, and effect.
Like so many of us, I’m frequently only half-present in life. I’m standing in line for the train, scrolling through Instagram. I’m watching TV and working on my laptop. I’m drinking wine and texting. By the end of the session, I’d only had a half-glass, but I had truly savored it. I had sniffed out the floral notes and actually considered the human labor and agriculture that made the wine possible. A vision of an alternate future, one in which I sip and stretch after work instead of listening to a podcast, danced in my head.
Part of the point of experiences like this, I think, is to hit reset, in hopes of knocking us out of our old habits and launching a few new ones. A month later, I would interview happiness expert Dr. Laurie Santos, who would explain that humans really thrive in these natural breaks—that the way travel disrupts our routines makes it easier to change our lives when we’re back home.
Zinging with energy, I headed up to the spa, ready for the final element of the Sound-Off retreat: A 108-minute massage, designed to balance the “108-energetic nerve meeting points in the body through which energy flows.” I’d be guided into meditation, stretched and massaged, and finally treated to a shirodhara treatment, in which warm oil is slowly streamed onto the third eye and then massaged into the scalp. I was mostly gobsmacked by the fact I’d be getting the longest massage of my life.
One hundred and eight minutes later, I’d crossed over into what’s surely the first stage of Nirvana. But I’ll tell you something: I now believe that the most critical moment for silence is after they release you from that massage. The poor woman at the front desk was trying to chat with me and I was incapable of stringing verbs and nouns together. I would happily give up technology for the rest of my life if I could have even one more 108 Reasons to Meditate treatment.
Could that zen had been accomplished if I’d engaged with my phone on days prior? Possibly. But I think the steady mellowing of the previous few days had made a genuine impact. I was already chill when I arrived at the massage table, not my usual bundle of anxieties and nerves.
It’s a privileged thing to be able to shut out the world for a couple of days. But the benefits of doing so are real, whether you camp off the grid, do a Vipassana retreat, or go for something more structured like the program at Calistoga. To remember how to fill your free time, to let yourself be a little bored, to change a habit, to take a moment to care for your body—that’s the real gift of a tech-free sojourn.
Well, almost tech-free. As we drove the winding road that leads out of the resort, I asked Jeannie to stop the car. I walked through the vines, back toward the clucking chickens—and Olive and Pepper, who were frolicking in their pen. I slipped my phone out of its sleeping bag for the first time in three days, swiped to my camera, and pointed it at Pepper. I swear this time he smiled.
Three Ways to Get off the Grid This Summer
The Sound Off Quiet Retreat at Calistoga Ranch is customizable: Guests can be tech-free but connected to the staff or forgo most human contact—they can preorder all meals and have them delivered at preset times. Highlights include yoga classes, a massage designed to energize the body and mind, and a one-month subscription to the meditation app Headspace. From $1,929/night, three-night minimum.
Getaway Cabins offers its unique take on a digital detox in seven locations around the United States. Book one of the tiny cabins, located in forest land outside of major cities such as D.C., Boston, or L.A., place your phone in the provided lockbox, and voila: You’re off the grid. From $119/night.
Nayara Springs in Costa Rica offers a three-night digital detox package. It “confiscates” your phone and laptop, replacing technology with daily bird-watching, yoga, hiking, and spa treatments. Three-night stay from $2,089.