Greg Hindy Vow of Silence Tehching Hsieh digital detox
Greg Hindy didn't speak once during his 365-day pilgrimage across the country. (Greg Hindy Facebook Group)

What It Means to Really Unplug

We're all familiar with digital detoxes, but one young man took it a step further. Many steps further in fact.

Greg Hindy Vow of Silence Tehching Hsieh digital detox

Digital burnout has to be one of the most pervasive of our #firstworldproblems. It’s right up there with that enduring ‘90s throwback, the “bad hair day,” and sub-par cappuccinos. An increasing number of folks feel that their well-being is under siege by an overflowing inbox, or the existential pressures of curating an online persona. (If I don’t “share” all my photos from Angkor Wat, did I really go?)

But unplugging can be hard. Without disclosing too much in the way of internal office politics, an Outside editor recently announced that he was “quitting email,” but quickly realized that his vocational responsibilities made it impossible. Even Grist blogger David Roberts, who wrote a stellar essay about his yearlong digital detox, couldn't entirely forgo the Internet during his sabbatical. If you’re of this age, you’re pretty damn plugged in.

But Greg Hindy managed to get away. Big time.

After graduating from Yale last year, Hindy embarked on a yearlong trek around the country. He started walking from his parents’ home in Nashua, New Hampshire, on July 9, 2013 (his 22nd birthday) and finished exactly one year later in Los Angeles. Citing the One Year Performance pieces of Taiwanese artist Tehching Hsieh as his inspiration, Hindy chose to submit himself to a level of ascetisim that sounds like a punishment handed down by the world’s most sadistic parent:

I’m going to take a vow of silence for one year … I will completely abstain from all noisemaking of any kind, including talking, and will abstain from reading, writing, listening to music, watching television, or any other kind of entertainment. The golden rule is that unless it is walking, photographing, or completely necessary to my survival, I am not allowed to do it.

That’s from Hindy’s Kickstarter campaign, through which he raised over $8,000 to fund the undertaking. The only indulgence he allowed himself was taking photos with a cumbersome Chamonix 4×5 field camera, the equipment for which made up a significant portion of the gear that he schlepped across the country in a pushcart. Also central to the project was a video that Hindy made of himself documenting his last and first words, with one year and 9,000 miles in between.  

It’s as easy to be cynical about this video as it is to underestimate what it would actually feel like not to speak for one year and then let ‘er rip in front of a rolling camera. When I first watched it, the combination of Hindy’s straight-faced sincerity when he brings up “durational aesthetics” and subsequent rant (I couldn't suppress thoughts of Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now) had me wondering where young Hindy fell on the dividing line between pretense and honesty. After I contacted him, Hindy told me he’d be glad to answer any questions I had, but would be on the road again soon and probably wouldn’t “have much interest in email.”

Email is just one of the trappings of modern-day life that Greg Hindy chose to forsake. When I asked him—over email—if his extended constitutional was a Thoreau-like rebellion against a society that is increasingly characterized by a relentless hyper-connectivity, he replied:

For my entire life, I have lived the life that was handed to me, which involved more and more virtual connectivity as I grew older. My year on the road was not so much a rebellion but an investigation of this kind of lifestyle, by having new experiences. It was not easy for me to give up a lot of my previous addictions to technology and electronic entertainment [reader, be advised: Mr. Hindy has a Facebook account], but I found that by doing so I was able to better understand what role they ought to play in my life. If I have never experienced more than one way of living, it doesn’t seem to me that I have made any choice at all. For me, just imagining an alternative without living it can be insufficient, an illusion.

I pressed Hindy on what his addictions to technology were. He said that he’d “spent a lot of time watching TV, staring at the Google homepage thinking about what to search, and all the other things we do these days to pass time, like we’re bored with life itself.”

If, like me, you’re the kind of person who revels in this kind of idleness, you might be put off by Hindy’s suggestion that we might be “bored with life.” By what authority does he know that the pleasure derived from watching Jersey Shore reruns is, in some cosmic sense, less legitimate than the highs of a more radical lifestyle?

To think that way is to miss the point, however. Greg Hindy isn’t making high-flying claims about how vacuous modern life has become (the “bored with life” remark notwithstanding). Those of us who can’t afford to “not have much interest in email” might regard someone like Hindy with skeptical defensiveness because we see his exploits as a tacit criticism of our own lives. But Hindy did what he did largely because he just wanted to know what it would feel like. He wasn’t sure what to expect. Indeed, he told me that, “As far as my silence goes, it was a gut feeling that it would be a beautiful action and a beautiful experience, but I went into it very blindly.” Hindy said that he ultimately only had one expectation for his project: to finish. Other than that, he just wanted new experiences.

Greg Hindy Tehching Hsieh digital detox Vow of Silence
Greg Hindy walks across the USA (Greg Hindy Facebook Group)

He got plenty. By his own admission, he rarely asked for shelter and spent 90 percent of his nights in his tent by the roadside. He walked the entire way, up and down the country (see map below), with the exception of one or two bridges where foot traffic was prohibited and a tunnel in Zion National Park. He got food poisoning south of Salt Lake City, fainted and was taken to the hospital, but never broke his vow of silence. On Thanksgiving, he was taken in by a church in Arab, Alabama, and shared a meal with a group of strangers. On a nocturnal traverse of a mountain pass, his thoughts were haunted by a mountain lion rumored to be lurking in the area.

Such ephemeral fears were subsumed, however, by the ever-redemptive experience of covering vast distances on foot, day after day after day. He says that for him “Walking is medicine . . . that the soul moves no faster than 3 mph, and so if you want to be hyper-connected spiritually, go for a long walk.”

A map of Greg Hindy's journey. The location markers are based on his bank account record, where he used a debit or credit card to purchase supplies en route. The yellow pins denote his homeward journey.

These words might hit the mark, or you might dismiss them as pseudo philosophical ramblings of yet another priviledged youth who wanted to light out for the territory. But to be quick to judge Hindy is, I think, to fall into the trap of believing that he needs to be categorized as either sage or fool, that we're supposed to have an opinion about whether what he did was right or wrong.

It may be simpler than that. The most impressive thing here might just be that this young man had an unusual idea of how he wanted to spend a year in his early twenties, an idea that required significant courage and endurance, and followed through with it. That, I would suggest, may be worthy of our respect.

Greg Hindy is now walking home. He’s taking a more direct route and hopes to be back in New Hampshire by Thanksgiving. He’s speaking again. If you see him, say hello.