by Greg Dickinson, The Telegraph, April 6, 2018
Only boring people get bored. That’s what I was always told. So my brain struggled to compute when I read the instruction manual, enticingly entitled What Now?, in the forest cabin where my girlfriend and I were staying for the next two nights.
“Be bored”, it instructed me, among other do's and don'ts.
We had just arrived at our Getaway cabin, located somewhere in the Catskill Mountains in Upstate New York – a stop-off on our drive from New York City to Kingston, Ontario.
Upstate New York is a part of the world neither of us had visited before, but I felt in familiar territory when I stumbled across Getaway’s finely curated website a few weeks earlier. I’ve stayed in enough yurts, pods and gypsy caravans to know the drill: I’ll pay over the odds to sleep in someone’s garden, chill the wine in the mini-sink because the mini-fridge is too small, crap in a glorified outhouse and then carefully recount the experience to my friends when I return home to avoid using the word “glamping”.
But there’s a catch when it comes to Getaway. You only receive the location one week before arrival. When you book, all you know is that your tiny forest cabin is two hours from New York City (they also have cabins serving Boston and Washington, D.C).
Obviously, I thought. First it was Secret Cinema, then secret holiday companies like Surprise Me, and now secret glamping. I’ve got it. Go on then. Lead me blindfolded to the compost loo.
But as I flicked through What Now? and surveyed the cabin, it was clear something different was going on here.
A lockbox instructed me to abandon my phone for the duration of the stay. There are no mirrors, I discovered. The survival manual encourages you to avoid emails, work, competing, planning. And – interestingly, paradoxically – suggests being bored.
Getaway is a retreat for people who are tired of cities, technology, work – probably all three – and want to escape from it all. The secretive element is to put people off overplanning their stay, and to simply enjoy the peace of the cabin.
When you arrive – after punching in a four-digit code on the door, no check-in formalities here – the space draws you in with its tiered layout. A small kitchen steps up to a living area with a sunken dining table, and then one level up there’s a king-sized mattress framed against the grand attraction – a giant window, looking out on a cityscape of pine trees. On the other side of the kitchen, a bathroom is kitted out with a hot shower and (hallelujah!) a futuristic dry-flush e-loo.
That first evening we worked our way through the What Now? booklet, full of riddles and poems about the woods, and a list of questions to ask each other. We had brought our own fresh ingredients to cook on the hob, but for straight-from-the-office arrivees there is an emergency supply of gluten-free pasta, vegetable and quinoa sauce, organic oatmeal granola (you get the gist) available to buy.
We were being A-star Getawayers – but then we broke a few rules. An aux cable hung temptingly from the radio, prompting me to remove my phone from the ‘lock box’ and plug it in for some music. On flight mode, I promise. A deck of cards also lured us into breaking the cardinal sin of competitiveness.
As day turned to night we sat cross-legged in front of our forest television – the view of tree trunks interwoven by a sleepy stream – until the brightness was turned right down and we were looking at reflections of ourselves in the black mirror. There’s a metaphor in here somewhere, I mused to Vick. You’re overthinking this article, she replied.
The next day we awoke to the siren call of starlings, sitting high in the canopy. Lying in bed, I could see occasional swarms fizz in the space between the trees – white noise in an otherwise silent forest. I wasn’t bored, but I also couldn’t remember the last time I stared out of a window for a sustained period when not moving at high speed on a train or plane. I also couldn’t remember the last time I had 24 hours on a holiday with zero plans in place.
“Boredom used to be a dirty word,” CEO of Getaway Jon Staff told me when I got back. “But in our always-on, always-connected world we’re at risk of losing this very special experience that inspires creativity, reflection and empathy.
“Without the opportunity to be bored, we may never have that important realization about ourselves, our next big idea or be able to fully connect with those most meaningful to us.”
Unsurprisingly for a graduate from Harvard Business School, Jon has scientific data to back up his mantra of switching off in a natural setting. In a research document he sent me, it explained: “Nature restores prefrontal cortex-mediated executive processes such as selective attention, problem-solving, inhibition and multi-tasking.” There is also evidence that a digital overload hurts our memory. He writes: “Distraction makes it difficult to store memories: when we are not paying good attention, we have trouble retrieving it later”.
Much of Jon’s research relates to issues faced by overworked Americans. Just 40 years ago, 80 per cent of workers took an annual week-long holiday, in 2018 just 56 per cent do. According to a recent monster.com poll, one in five Americans say they never fully relax on vacation.
With only two nights at Getaway, I don’t think I achieved true boredom, self-realization or got any closer to knowing the plot for my debut novella. Hands up, we didn’t meditate or try yoga, and we did end up driving off and going on a walk. But in those glimmers of unplanned emptiness in the cabin – reading in the morning, becoming hypnotized by the view, forgetting the time, slowly cooking at the stove – I got a glimpse of the fascinating effects of embracing boredom on holiday.