2018-11-01 / ReBooted

Birds of a Feather

Jill Gleeson

I’ve long considered myself somewhat of a Luddite. I think I was one of Earth’s last inhabitants to get a smartphone, and I know there weren’t many people left who weren’t on Facebook when I finally, after a long period of badgering by pretty much everyone I know, gave in and joined. So I didn’t think it would be a terribly difficult task to renounce technology for a few days, an event precipitated by a stay at the Renaissance Pittsburgh.

My boyfriend, Matt, and I had decided to spend a few nights there while we checked out some of the city’s cooler attractions, like the National Aviary. When we reserved our room at the property, which is housed in historic splendor in the Fulton Building, we discovered it offers something called a “Digital Detox Getaway.” Intrigued by the idea of unplugging, Matt and I signed up.

At check-in, we handed over our phones and my laptop to be locked away. When we went up to our room, which had a stunning view right across the river to PNC Park, we discovered the television and iPod dock station had been removed and board games and a deck of cards had been left in their place.

We played a ferocious game of Scrabble without missing our devices; it wasn’t until I looked for my cell to set my alarm that I remembered it was locked away. I asked Matt to set the alarm clock, but it, too, had been removed. There was still a phone to call down for a wake-up call, but I was beginning to get discombobulated. What calls had I missed? What texts? And then there was Facebook. I wanted to post a picture of our sleek room, with its floor-to-ceiling windows, where we watched the fireworks burst over the ballpark after the Pirates game ended.

By morning, I’d conceded defeat. Matt and I were headed to the National Aviary, where we had an appointment to hang out with penguins and flamingos; there was no way I was going to leave my iPhone, with its handy camera function, behind. Chagrined, I busted it out less than 24 hours after it’d been locked away. And then we were off to the Aviary, home to more than 500 birds and 150 species, the kind of rarely found place that returns most visitors to the excitement level of an 8-year-old with a new bike.

When I’d made the reservation to visit the flamingos I didn’t know we’d be on display with them in their enclosure, but that’s where we sat as four of the flaming pink birds ambled over on their stick-thin legs, quizzical at first and then affectionate. They preened us, rubbing Matt’s ears with their strange yellow beaks, sticking their faces into my hair. We were both given bowls of their food to sit on our laps, but Beaker, the oldest female, seemed far more interested in Matt, peering intently over his shoulder at him.

Before Beaker could fall any further in love, we headed off to feed the aracaris, gorgeous little toucans that flew to us, pecking the food pellets out of our outstretched hands. But it was the comical, loveable African penguins that won my heart. As soon as we were settled in their enclosure they came toddling over, anxious for dinner. We threw fish to them, occasionally dropping them straight down their gullets.

I’d found the flamingos intent — who knew flamingos could seem serious? — but the penguins were goofy and sweet. They gathered around us without pushing each other, patiently waiting for their turn.

I returned from the Aviary with dozens of pictures, happily posting a few on Facebook. But I turned my phone back in at the hotel. Instead of gazing at its screen the next day, we kayaked the Allegheny River, arranged as part of the Digital Detox Getaway. As we paddled I realized I was actually pleased I could focus on the experience without the distraction of my phone. I was clearly no longer a Luddite, but not so much that I couldn’t recognize what bliss it is to disconnect. •SCM

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Jill Gleeson is on the biggest adventure of her life. Follow her journey on her blog at and via her column at

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