An Interview with Jon Staff and Pete Davis

[Cabin Builders / Escape Artists]

“The stars are massive. The air is clean. I do feel a change that I’ve not felt even in a Wikipedia hole.”

Things that Inspire Reverie:
Wi-fi-free cabins in the woods
Early Internet websites about frogs
Lake Superior
Great albums, played in their entirety

What else is there to say about our reliance on Google Maps, our incessant group texts, our inability, increasingly, to sit down and read at length, our tendency to answer that work email at 9 pm? Some of us dream, I think, in tabs. That screentime looms bluish, tempting, breaking up our thoughts and our days is no new realization—there’s “text neck” to prove it—and solutions, often app-based, abound. Jon Staff and Pete Davis, authors of the book How to Get Away: Finding Balance in our Overworked, Overcrowded, Always-On World, spent years in conversation with each other about the problem of technological overload, and how and if a remedy was possible.

Staff and Davis work in the tradition of many, many others who have turned from industrial society to nature for relief and perspective. William Hazlitt wrote winningly, acerbically, of taking long solo walks; Thoreau, of course, practiced some version of what we now tag on Instagram as “forest bathing;” John Muir climbed a Douglas Spruce to better watch and feel the “music” of the wind blowing through the Sierra Nevada mountains. Interested in complicated and deepening this lineage, and in bringing in contemporary voices, too, Staff and Davis’s book is an argument that getting away is a basic, universal need, and always has been. As such, under the name Getaway, they’ve started to build cabins free of wi-fi within reach of major urban centers—New York, L.A., Boston, D.C., Atlanta. The goal is to “just be” again, to replace, temporarily, that glowing blue screen and its chatter of emails and texts with a huge, luminous window through which you can watch the trees, hear only the tweeting, finally, of birds.

We met, of course, on a video call, Davis calling in from Falls Church, Virginia, Staff from New York, me from Iowa City. There would be irony here, except that the Getaway duo don’t argue for the total excision of tech from our daily lives—just balance, a fine and thoughtful one.

—Lucy Schiller

THE BELIEVER: Can you talk a little about how you would define your idea of “getting away” and how it connects to the lineage you explore in your book?

JON STAFF: We’re always careful to say we’re not disrupting everything. Every generation has had [the idea of the “get away”], from counterculture to [contemporary] Norway. That’s one of the things we love about doing this: we don’t have to do computer vision, AI. There’s this wonderful thing called “going to nature,” which we wish everybody could do, and hopefully we’re contributing in our small way to making that happen. You don’t have to learn anything about it, which is what I love. Pete, you’re the historian of the duo.

PETE DAVIS: I felt like the Sabbath chapter was the chapter I put my most heart into. We were really into [the idea of] the Sabbath because it’s one of the first mentions of “you don’t exist for work.” The things in the Ten Commandments are so grand. They’re like “don’t kill anyone, don’t steal anything,” but then there’s this kind of bizarre one, which is kind of like a hot tip: you should probably take one day a week to not do work. And so that’s saying something, that this thing that seems like a lifehack is actually like a deep part of our existence. And so Jon and I put at the start of that chapter this Oliver Sacks thing… this really thoughtful writer deciding for his last essay to share with the world before he dies, is take a Sabbath, it’s very important.

The other part is the American history of getting away. One of the things that is very specifically American is this bounty of nature that is all around us. There is a lot of writing about that throughout the history of the country, and we kind of did a tour through some of the writing on that. We did Thoreau, we did John Muir, and we did the modern John Muir, Chris McCandless, and then we were kind of happy to be like, “Isn’t this kind of annoying?” We were happy to share some modern people doing it, and expand the idea of the [get away] beyond, you know, white guys trying to find themselves in the woods. This is something for everybody, and the tradition lives on in the modern way.

BLVR: I really appreciated that, I have to say, that you give us the basics of this type of thinking throughout American history, but then you also layout alongside that a kind of critique. Something else I found interesting was your presentation of the idea of the individual going out and enjoying nature but also that there needs to be larger structural change, larger structural support. Could you talk about how you see or balance the role of the individual in terms of getting relief, getting necessary mental, spiritual, emotional health, and then the role of larger structures like companies, governments, cities?

JS: Of course it would be wrong to say it doesn’t start with the individual. That we all, I think, say “what kind of life do I want to live,” and put boundaries around our own activities and how we spend our time. A couple of years ago we wrote something called “Screen Time Is the New Smoking.” It is an addiction. Like other addictions, part of falling into it and part of getting out of it starts with yourself. And also, that’s not the entirety of it, you need help and support. And so it would be wrong to say it doesn’t start with the individual, but that’s not enough. And it’s too much pressure to say “you need to take time off work and not work so hard!” But we all live in this world where we get ten urgent emails, my phone’s ringing, and it’s not just work. Many of us like to do stuff outside of work that matters. My boyfriend volunteers for this nonprofit and it was supposed to be an hour a week and it’s now like twenty-five hours a week. But it’s a cause that he cares about. So yes, on a tactical, corporatist, self-interested level, companies are going to do something to provide people with a moat between their work and their off-time. We’ve long caught on to the fact that Google’s giving me dinner and dry-cleaning to tie me to my desk. And I think people are getting smarter about asking questions: how do I know if I can work for you? My end of the bargain is to pour my intellectual energy into this job and work hard during work hours, but how do I know that that doesn’t take over? Companies are going to and already are releasing perks and guidelines and so forth, but then you go to the next level, which is like the Right to Disconnect bills which we’ve seen passed in France, and introduced in New York. I don’t have a lot of hope that it’s going to get passed.

My mother works in a factory. If her boss sent her home—she makes lumber—with a truckload of logs and said “why don’t you make some extra two-by-fours at night,” that would honestly be crazy. But that’s what so many companies are expecting of people now. And we’re in the middle of it. I’m fully ranting now. It’s easy to say that’s just the way it is, people want to get ahead, but we’re only ten-fifteen years into this reality. We are the frog in boiling water, where in some ways it’s passé and cliché to say “technology overload” or whatever, but we’re talking about it because the world changed in ways we have not yet figured out how to deal with.

The last part is holidays. The difference between holidays and “you have time off, we hope you take it,” I see in my work, still, you try to be really good about this. People say “I’m going on vacation, but I’ll be available.” It’s like, “please don’t be available.” I appreciate the human gesture of being ready in case of emergency, but my responsibility [as an employer] is that unless it’s an emergency, I’m not going to call you. But the difference between vacation—when everybody’s off on their own time—and a holiday is the idea of collective rest. When nobody’s doing anything, that’s a really special time for society and arguably maybe if we had more holidays as a nation we would self-reflect on this pothole we’ve driven ourselves into. Please save me from going full-on nutcase here.

BLVR: I have like three questions simultaneously come up. The anecdote about your mother bringing home lumber after hours is fascinating – of course we wouldn’t expect her to do that. And yet it is very much “work” when we expect people to respond to emails, or do this kind of digital, for whatever reason, invisible, less manual work. About that divide: why is digital work viewed as less actual work, softer work, than manual, industrial labor?

JS: The convenience factor of “Oh, it’s easy.” My colleague calls me and then I’m back in it.

PD: You can see two of the internet-created economic trends. You can see it on two sides. So the internet has created pixel work, where you can send an email back, oh it’s easy, and that has broken the kind of 9-5 white collar walls, and spread it out over everything all the time, from the moment you wake up and send an email to the moment you send an email and fall asleep on your phone. The other side of internet work is the precarious economy. You know, Uber drivers, fast food deliverers, who also have another part of this: in another time, they would have gone to a factory from 9-5. Your shifts are now all over the place. And they’re also being hurt by this stuff, even more hurt by this stuff, and we need to make sure that everyone in this country has the ability to get away, to get rest, to have consistent time off, to have sabbath, to get out into nature. So at all parts of the economy since the internet revolution, it’s gotten out of whack.

BLVR: You talk a little about reverie. I’m a big fan of reverie.

JS: We are too.

BLVR: Everyone should be! Is reverie possible on a computer, on a phone? There’s this sense of finally seeing, out in nature, the size of yourself versus the size of the universe, your place in the universe. Our digital worlds are so large, so vast, is there the potential for reverie on these networks, or is it something that can only really happen in nature?

PD: I’m a child of the early internet. I was born in 1989. Anyone who is of our rough age, who got to experience the early internet, was always in reverie. It was amazing. When you actually surfed the web, that old phrase, the WEB. When you were going through some guy’s elaborate website about frogs, and then you click, and he has a rival website with this other guy writing about frogs, well, that was a wonderful part of the internet. A lot of the parts of the internet that are poisoning our brain are like post-Zuckerberg internet, post-feed internet. I think it’s not the connectivity of the internet, it’s not the screens, I think it’s the chopped-up pieces. Distracted is being pulled into a thousand pieces. Dispersed and distracted are from the same “dis” root—like “disintegrate.” It’s the disintegrated, distracted part of the internet that ruins the joy. And I think there are parts of the internet, like reading a long thing, or getting into a Wikipedia hole, where reverie can still be there. I don’t think it’s just nature. And we need to get back to an internet that’s not having you pop to a million things in a minute, and instead get back to kind of longer version. Something that happens with reverie is it’s always a longer time frame. It’s always over, like, I sat for at least five minutes and let one single river, thread, of thought wash over me, not a million.

JS: I was gonna vote no, it’s not possible, but appreciated that soliloquy. I don’t want to vote no, because I don’t want to be a Luddite. I try to be careful not to be. But I went last summer on a boat trip with my parents and my boyfriend, which I was anxious about. I was anxious about it because I had thought I had become too stuck on the internet, and in the New York life, and needed to do something every ten minutes, that I thought I couldn’t enjoy being in the middle of nowhere doing nothing. And almost immediately in the middle of Lake Superior, I felt so much more relaxed, which is obviously a little different than reverie. But the feeling does wash over you. I was in Atlanta last week with Getaway, where we just opened a property, and same thing: my brain’s doing a million things, and then we get there and the stars are massive. The air is clean. I do feel a change that I’ve not felt even in a Wikipedia hole. But the one thing I compare it to that’s not nature is like listening to a great album. Or maybe going to the theater. Both of those happen over long arcs.

PD: Look at albums, you used to be like “Hey, wanna come over and listen to the entire record?”

BLVR: You mentioned the word Luddite a little in our conversation, and I want to ask you a little about the resistance to your ideas. Why “Luddite” is a word that gets thrown around a lot and why it’s so charged, but why it’s also maybe not entirely applicable to how you see Getaway and yourselves.

JS: You’re witnessing internal tensions. As a pragmatist, I think balance is important. Taken out of technology, the city is incredible. I never thought I’d love living in New York, but I love restaurants, and friends, and the theater, and bars, and culture, and parks, and also I think it’s crazy some people live in new York and have never left. It stems from that: a proactive defense mechanism against being seen as saying “you need to throw away your Macbook.” You can write your novel on your Macbook, or less romantically, if you’re really into building financial models, you should do it on your Macbook, don’t do it longhand. So I guess it’s that as opposite to being an absolutist. We are maybe more Thoreau than we are Muir or McCandless. It’s about how do we not turn back the clock on the way the world has changed, but come up with new structures in reaction to the way the world has changed, that make us truly, I think, hold on to a little bit of our humanity. It seems like it’s slipping away, sometimes.

BLVR: What was the process like, of writing this book? There were some moments of real humor and levity. What was important to you, writing this book, and why be funny?

PD: As we’ve been building these houses in the woods, which we rent out by the night, Jon and I have been having these conversations about what we were doing. We also truly as we were building this had all these feelings about why this was important. And we had this three-year conversation as this was happening and we said this three-year conversation shouldn’t just be between Jon and me, we should get it out on paper, especially now that we had some practical knowledge about how it played out in practice, because we were building. A lot of it was spotlighting people who were rebalancing, building alternatives, and we were now these people. So it started with Jon and I thinking “what are the big themes of what we’re talking about?” We had like fifteen at once, like Quiet and Loud, Soft and Hard, Introspective and Outrospective [laughter], but then we were like ok, what’s it really about? Let’s get simple here. It’s really about work and leisure, technology and disconnection, and city and nature, all of those we tried to do at Getaway—Getaway is in nature, it’s a place you’re not supposed to work. We had investors ask us “Why don’t you put wi-fi in there so people can get work projects done?” and we said no. And then we started like wildly gathering. The book is a little bit of a scrapbook, as you can see from reading it. It was like “let’s scavenge books, religion, history, culture, modern trends and think pieces and try to suck it all in and see how they all fit together.” That was a lot of fun. We made the scrapbook first, and then we put ourselves into it, and then we wrote it out in prose.

JS: One click more revealing is as we thought about writing it, and we hadn’t really done a project like this before, and we took advice from friends who are authors and agents and publishers. You know, we would sit down and write out a proposal, and all of this stuff about reverie would be in there, the prefrontal cortex, and people would go “Oh this is amazing, [but] how about, like, 100 Ways to Disconnect and it’s illustrated?” That’s probably a good book, but we said we would rather, for this one, write a book that fewer people will read that puts all the stuff in there that we want.

BLVR: What I’ve noticed recently is very much these kinds of fragmented, easy-to-absorb pieces of writing that feel very internet-inflected, and so that idea feels a little bit like that. What you’re espousing feels far more philosophical and structural and large as an idea. And so the book in its form reflects your idea.

JS: It would be ironic if we had a book that was meant to be read in thirty second chunks. Someone had an article yesterday that was like “the new trend in books is micro-books!”

PD: That’s not a book!

BLVR: It’s a tweet! How have responses been to the cabins?

JS: It’s truly motivating. I’m a Silicon Valley skeptic, which is probably obvious by now, but one of the lessons I’ve adopted from Silicon Valley is to get as much feedback as you can. So since day one (and today is Getaway’s fourth anniversary) every guest has gotten an email from me that’s just text and says “tell me everything, so we can improve,” and about 65% of people reply to those. I get all their replies, I reply to them, but I share every email with everyone in the company so I don’t cherry pick and selectively praise the good. It’s all there. And then we tally up everything we hear. We get a lot of good practical advice—in the early days, you know, “the cabin’s great, but the pipes are frozen!” So we heard about them right away and fixed them. But the other thing that comes now are these stories from people. It’s incredible that people sit down and take the time to write to us—and the bulk of them are about the core thing that we’re talking about, which I don’t think should be dismissed: “I was stressed out, I was bored, my apartment was a mess. Thank you for giving me a few nights away from that.” A lot of them go much deeper: “I got to teach my four year old how to play the card games I loved as a kid. The ocean welled up inside me. I didn’t know I needed to talk to my husband, wife, boyfriend, girlfriend, but we sat down next to the campfire and let me tell ya. Like, we needed to talk.” We’ve had multiple notes where people say “I booked this cabin so I’d have somewhere to go after my first chemotherapy appointment.” So stuff like that—we get it, we’re not curing cancer, but that seems important. It comes back to the book in a way, when you asked about why we wrote the book. It’s because this is happening in the cabins, and we’re building more cabins, and there’s all these various pressures, like the wi-fi thing, or why don’t you do group bookings—we get these emails from like business school dudes that want to do keg parties in the woods, and it’s like no. Go somewhere else, because people are like repairing their marriages here. Or getting engaged! We had 53 engagements last year. Everything’s about experiences now, like “Come to our selfie playground,” etc. Companies that are doing experiences well recognize that it’s about you. It’s about you and your loved ones you’re traveling with. The best thing we can do is set you up for that. To the extent that there’s magic in the Getaway cabins, it’s that we try to make it super easy and give you everything you need and nothing more so that when you get there you don’t have to think about anything. Or even before you get there, you don’t have to think about anything. Architecturally, we obsess over silly stuff like, if you spend five minutes looking for the light switch, that’s a not insignificant percentage of time that you’re spending that we’d rather have you spending making a s’more. But we want to be careful not to say the experience is Getaway: the experience is you. And hopefully we’re facilitating that in some way.

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