We had the chance to sit down and talk to Mendel Kurland who started Geek Adventures – a community that creates outdoor experiences for people who sit behind a computer screen all day and are in need of a “digital detox”.
In this interview, we talk about what led Mendel to create Geek Adventures, how important it is to detox from technology, and how to be a part of these adventures.
We’re talking with Mendel, who is a passionate traveler from Geek Adventures. Could you tell us a little bit more about yourself?
I live in sunny Austin, Texas. So it’s pretty beautiful over here. I’m a transplant from Iowa, though. I don’t know how many people are from the US and how many people are from other countries. But I was what you think of when you think of the Midwest. Nothing else there, it’s corn and beautiful serene houses and landscapes and some tech too now, by the way. But, yeah, I’m here in Austin and just having fun, hanging out with tents all day.
So Geek Adventures. Can you tell us what is it, how did it all start?
The reason I brought up Iowa is that about 13 years ago I was working as the director of web development at a music company. It was a lot of fun. It’s a lot of fun to build products. I don’t know about other people watching, but sometimes when you build a product, it’s fun to build it, but it’s not fun to maintain it. So if you like building things, it’s really fun. If you like maintaining things, it’s really fun. But if you don’t like maintaining things, then it’s not so fun anymore.
So I kind of hit that spot with developing things at this music company. And then I started working at GoDaddy and doing a bunch of different things as well. And kind of building programs and things like that.
When I started in Iowa I had a bit of a problem. I was eating poorly and kind of just living day to day with Red Bulls and breakfast sandwiches and stuff like that. And it’s cold in Iowa. So as I was thinking about my life I thought I really want to get out of here and get to Austin, Texas.
The reason I wanted to get to Austin was that the trails here are awesome. You can be outside year round. So when I joined up with Go Daddy a couple of years later I ended up moving to Austin.
While I was here on my journeys with Go Daddy I started talking to more and more technology professionals that said this is all really fun but I really like doing adventure things or I really like getting outside and sometimes I don’t get the opportunity.
So I thought, why not give people the opportunity. I like that and other people seem to like it. So why not try and create an organization dedicated to giving people an excuse to get outside and hang out with people that are like minded in technology or in math or engineering. Some of those spaces where people spend a lot of time in labs or behind the computer.
So Geek Adventures was kind of born out of both wanting to create something and wanting to get out of the cold of Iowa and onto the trail, and also just hearing from technology professionals that they wanted something like that too in their life.
As far as I understand a big part of it is digital detox. So why is that necessary and what is the outcome if we don’t detox ourselves from technology?
It’s a good question. I don’t know if you’ve seen this on Facebook but a lot of people will say: “Oh, I’m taking a break from Facebook.” And then you’re like: “Why are you taking a break?” And they’re like: “I don’t know. I’m just wasting so much time. But I like Facebook because I can get in touch with people that I used to be friends with or people that I’ve lost touch with.” So it’s important. It’s an important way to keep in touch with people. It’s an important way to message people and communicate.
But these types of social networks make it very distracting from the things that we truly love in life. Like spending time having a cup of coffee or tea with a friend. Or getting outside and throwing a frisbee around or a baseball or beach ball or something like that. And really truly enjoying what’s around us.
A digital detox isn’t a complete departure from technology. Of course, we use GPS sometimes on the trips that people take with Geek Adventures. They also bring their cell phones. Occasionally they call their significant others to see how the family is doing. And once in a while they probably even sneak a Snapchat or Instagram or Facebook or something like that. But the whole idea is to stop making that the center of your focus and make the real world the center of your focus. So that’s truly what a digital detox is.
How would an adventure usually happen? What would you do?
We have a few different adventures. It’s funny, I was racing up to talk to you today because we do camping rentals. This thing called “camp out in a box” here in Austin, Texas. So people reserve their “camp out in a box”.
It’s kind of like a DIY adventure and it comes with everything that you need to go on an adventure – sleeping bag, sleeping pads, cooking stuff, fire starters, marshmallows, which I found out is a US thing, a not a thing anywhere else in the world. But of course, Americans would come up with the idea to take a ball of sugar and light it on fire and then stick them in their mouth.
So we do this kind of DIY adventure. Then also people find themselves on crazier adventures with Geek Adventures. Last year we went to Iceland. This year we’ve headed there again in a month. We’ll be staying at the volcano huts and we’ll be hiking and we’ll be taking all-terrain vehicles through rivers. It’ll be really wild.
Then we have things like the Grand Canyon in the United States where it’s just an incredibly beautiful place to hang out and spend time with other geeks.
We try and create these all-inclusive experiences for people to get together and enjoy each other’s company and really not have to excuse or explain what they do and maybe even collaborate a little or make a new friend along the way.
And how do you choose where to go?
Choosing a place is usually pretty easy. It’s just a place that I’ve always wanted to go or I’ve heard that a lot of other people have always wanted to go. We occasionally do surveys and those surveys tell us the top places. On that list are places like New Zealand and Australia. A lot of people want to go to Oceana. Lots of places in Asia. the Philippines and Kenya, Thailand.
People are really interested in venturing to some of the places around the world as well as places in Europe as well. So Iceland is not the only place in Europe. Scotland is very popular for the scotch drinkers in the crowd. We have a trip going to Ireland as well.
So we kind of look at all of the popular places and we just pick one. Then we start working with local experts on the ground to help create a program that’s really enjoyable and gives people an opportunity to explore, but also an opportunity to relax.
I know that a lot of people are scared of hikes. Do you need to be well-prepared physically to be able to go through with the adventure?
This is one of my favorite ones. When I say all abilities, it’s really all abilities. With the exception of one event where you have to be able to carry a canoe on your shoulders which sounds a lot harder than it actually is. All of the events are designed for anybody of any activity level.
So when people get intimidated about going on a hike I always think it’s really interesting because the word hike seems scary, seems loaded. You have to get hiking boots and you have to get the right hiking clothes and hiking pants and maybe you even have to get a special headlight for your hat or something like that. And the truth is, hiking is walking and it’s just walking not on a road. And in some cases, hiking is even on concrete, on cement. There are different types of hikes. some are more difficult than others.
So I would say to people that are worried about hiking, if you’ve walked a long way from one building to another, during university or something like that. You’ve probably already been on something that you could consider a hike. Or a long walk from the pub back to your house. That could be considered an urban hike. So hiking just has a little more nature in it, but it’s just a walk.
So when you’re doing a digital detox, a big part would probably be communication between the people who are going on the hike. Do the talks at the fireplace differ from the office talks? For tech people, it tends to be difficult to go fully “offline”.
I think for the first day or two it’s a little difficult. People might think: “Oh, I need to check in or I want to have a conversation with clients”, or something like that. A couple of people have actually canceled their trips because it was too overwhelming for them to get away.
But the vast majority of people that come on these trips have made a commitment and that commitment is to just leave the business alone, leave technology alone. If they have a family, they’ve told their family: “Listen, I’m not going to communicate that much with you. I might be able to check in for five minutes. But this is my time.”
The overwhelming response is almost excitement for the ability to pick up a physical book and read it, or play a game with other people around or just have a conversation. By the end of the time, especially in places like Iceland that are very remote, people really enjoy the experience and want to come back, because it’s kind of freeing. I think it also gives people some new perspective on their business or on their job or whatever.
There are people from all over the world and all different types of companies that attend. So there’s really a breath of experience that you get when you’re there.
Could you share the craziest story? Maybe something has happened not as planned?
Actually, there were two. There were two people that went on a walk through the forest on a smaller sized property in the middle of Oklahoma. If anybody knows Aaron Campbell who’s in the WordPress world. He spent a bunch of time exploring and stuff like that. So we had an event there and there were a couple of people that got lost. And they got lost all day.
But there was no real danger because the property isn’t that large. So you know it was only a couple miles in any direction and it was kind of fenced off. There was no way to really truly go too far. But that was a pretty exciting moment.
We have a kind of a recovery procedure. We went and we were able to eventually find them and everybody was OK, and we kind of laughed about it afterward. So that was a wild experience.
The other one was in Iceland last year. And I won’t name any names but somebody was hiking and was trying to get across a small stream in Iceland and fell into ice cold water. So that was somebody who was kind of choosing their own adventure. It wasn’t a part of the organized tour. They got back to the volcano huts and they were a little cold but with a huge smile on their face. So I suppose that’s what happens when there’s a little bit of adventure involved.
It seems like everyone’s having fun either way. If anyone watching this interview wants to join one of these adventures, where do they go?
To check out the adventures, also if you’re in Austin and you want to rent camping gear, or if you just want to join the online community of geeks, you can go to geekadventures.org/join and you can get all of the details, get signed up on the newsletter. You can also check out the trips online on that website as well. Everything is designed the way a geek would enjoy it – all available online and ready to go.