Yepton Beach in Antigua. (Image courtesy of Flickr user Ron Kroetz )
Eve Fairbanks, a writer who lives in Johannesburg, is at work on a book about South Africa.

For as long as I can remember, I meticulously planned vacation time to maximize its bliss-out power. That didn’t mean pricey holidays, although my family did occasionally go to places like Santa Fe. But even if we stayed at home the hours were packed with fun: biking along the canal! Going to a museum! Playing a 40-hour historical board game! Baking complicated pies! Anything to scour the tired, musty smell of work from our spirits and wash them clean.

Then, a few years back, I started dating a non-American. His family did the opposite on vacation: nothing. They arrived at their destination — an un-decorated beach shack in the family for generations — and just cut the mental ignition.

There was a lot of sitting with coffee around the backyard table, sometimes speaking about nothing much, sometimes not even speaking. Food was acquired, but sort of as a last-minute afterthought, a dash out to the nearby fish-and-chips shop or a scrounge in the fridge.

My efforts to plan elaborate meals for us to cook — pies! — were met with stony faces and inscrutably narrowed eyes. People took a lot of naps. I could smell the salt air and hear the waves from the stoop, but on many days nobody bothered to go to the beach at all.

I couldn’t understand it. Copious potential joyous beach activities lay 20 yards from the house! The house was set into hills great for biking. Nearby were some glorious national parks. The nothingness of these vacations made me profoundly uncomfortable. I couldn’t relax — because I didn’t know how to relax.

The truth is most of us don’t know how to stop moving, and when we have free time we simply replace the effort of work with the effort of relaxing. In its “Dream Vacation” spread last year, Elle proposed this litany of activities for the truly serious dream vacationer determined to “transform” herself during her holiday:

“Do yoga while overlooking rice paddies, visit an eighth-century monastery clinging to a 9,678-foot cliff, shop in rambling ancient markets, hike past yak herders and Buddhist monks through dramatic mountain passes and lush valleys … ride elephants … go to scuba diving among giant manta rays … kayak past icebergs .. explore the sweeping ruddy rockscape of Wadi Rum via camel … tak[e] seaside cooking classes … hike, boulder, and abseil across [a] table-top mountain.”

Just reading it makes me exhausted, but frankly, I’ve also planned vacations essentially like this for myself.

We imagine life is like the tape strung between two spools of an old cassette. One spool is labeled “work” and the other is labeled “play.” To unwind from work means to wind ourselves furiously back up along the “play” spool. The thought of just unwinding into a mess, the jumble of a tape unspooled, is frightening.

But I wonder if we know what we’re losing when we hyper-plan our vacations. Heading into this holiday season, I read the environmental writer George Monbiot’s stunning new book “Feral,” a call to “re-wild” our over-curated, over-controlled natural landscapes. In attacking conservation groups’ frenetic efforts to hyper-control the vegetation and animal life even in so-called “wilderness” areas (not to mention monoculture farms and areas purged of natural predators), he suggests we’re possessed by an intellectual abhorrence of natural disorder stemming from Biblical times, when God tasked us with clipping wild Earth into a neat domestic garden. The conservationists operating near his home in Wales abide by rules that call for constant tree-pruning and forbid “land abandonment,” suggesting nature is a child we either actively nurture or criminally neglect.

And yet, Monbiot argues, letting nature alone actually feeds unexpected life. In a passage of great literary beauty, he describes walking through a blasted, treeless moor overgrazed by sheep and then stumbling into a lost gorge some farmer forgot. It was a mess, damp, full of rotting organic matter. It also contained far more birdsong and insects than the cultivated land. “The boulders beneath the trees were carpeted in moss and lichen, through which cowberry and bilberry grew. … The hazels and rowans scarcely emerged from their shawls of moss.” Monbiot calls such land self-willed: unconstrained by human ordering, it teems with richer, more diverse, and interdependent forms of life.

As I read, I wondered whether space was the only dimension we need to re-wild. I think we also need to re-wild our time. Though consciously I strained against my boyfriend’s family’s vacation rhythm, by the end of the two weeks trapped in that eventless shack by the sea, I noticed something strange started happening to my mind. Against the apparent emptiness of the hours, my brain began to teem with new life. Like dormant seeds, old abandoned ideas for work sprouted up again, fresh and green. New dreams, ones I’d never before imagined for myself, began to appear. The energy to repair neglected relationships returned. After that vacation I wrote more than I had in years. When I read Monbiot’s description of the extraordinary organic growth that emerges in the lost gorge unmanaged by man, I was reminded immediately of this vacation: the mental sensation of it exactly matched the his description of the wonderful natural riot permitted in spaces where we’ve ceded control.  

Recently, I asked a dozen friends what kinds of vacations they found most restorative. Nobody answered “doing yoga in rice paddies” or “taking seaside cooking classes.” Instead, what the myriad responses shared was an element of letting go, of allowing the unexpected to take hold. Wandering a city with utterly no plan. Bushwhacking in a forest, destination unknown. Sitting and staring at the sea, wave after wave individual and unpredictable.

I’ve always noticed, when we recount stories from our vacations, we claim to have enjoyed most of all the periods we didn’t — couldn’t — plan: the hidden karaoke bar we stumbled upon looking for an ATM; the time the long-haul bus broke down and we had to overnight in some random guy’s house and milked his cow in the morning and listened to his beautiful daughter sing while she played the piano. This is wild time, and it does something incredibly powerful to us.

And yet we don’t like to take these cues and let our whole vacations go unplanned. The habit of planning is so ingrained. We’re constantly told that planning is the key to a successful life, what separates the winners from the losers, and this attitude comes to infect our vacation time, too.

This Christmas holiday, I’d originally planned a five-day mountain backpacking trip, with all its attendant organization — low-weight food, water-purification tablets, camping gear. But a week or two ago I decided to scrap the scheme. Instead, I’ll be going to that beach with the family that does nothing. I confess I’m constantly tempted to plan out the range of cookie recipes I’ll bake when I’m there. But when I find myself making a plan, I stop. I plan enough all year long. Vacations are like Monbiot’s lost gorges, the slivers that break up the monotonous cultivation of working life. We need them to be wild.