By Michael Lanza
We pause at the top of a steep hill on the Elkhorn Loop Trail in Idaho’s Boise National Forest and contemplate where to go from here. My 17-year-old niece, Anna Garofalo, and I have cross-country skied for two hours to reach this quiet spot in the ponderosa pine forest, miles from the nearest road—and more than 2,000 miles and an experiential chasm from the only place she has ever known as home.
I lay out the choices to Anna: turn around and ski two more hours back to the Skyline yurt, where we’re spending three nights with my wife and kids and another family; or explore a trail I’ve never actually skied in the many trips I’ve made to this system of ski trails and yurts north of Idaho City. I’ve never skied it because, unlike most of the trails out here, it’s not groomed, and it lies out on the farthest perimeter of the trail system. Going that way would take us at least three more hours to reach the yurt. But I’ve long wanted to ski it, if for no other reason than its name: the Wayout Trail.
“Let’s do it,” Anna tells me. “After all, when am I going to be back here again?” God, I love that attitude. But I suppose that’s how you would look at something you’ve been literally waiting almost your entire life to do.
My niece has flown across the country from her home in Massachusetts, for her first ski trip to a backcountry yurt—fulfilling a dream she first had 10 years ago, after hearing stories about our yurt trips here in Idaho. As a seven-year-old, she even created a PowerPoint presentation for her parents, laying out her case in several incontrovertible bullet points for their family traveling west to take a yurt trip.
Alas, her parents, loving and caring people though they are, never quite embraced their little girl’s vision of snowy, woodland nirvana. And the years slipped past, as they do, until Anna—now on the cusp of graduating high school and heading off to college—issued the closest thing to an ultimatum in the rhetorical toolbox of a teenager: This winter may mark her final opportunity to experience a yurt trip in her impressionable youth. They consented, and Anna came to Idaho to cross-country ski to a yurt deep in the mountains.
Picture this: five kids, age 10 to 17, agreeing to go—nay, excited about going—someplace where they will not have wifi, cell coverage, or screen time for the better part of four entire days. Not only that, but they eagerly spend most of the daylight hours outside, in snow and freezing temperatures. And when they are indoors, they will mostly interact socially with each other and their parents.
This is the stuff revolutions are born of.
Tale from a long-ago era in America? Utopian fantasy? Actually, neither. We do this every winter with our kids and another family, and have successfully pulled off this adventure for seven straight years, dating back to when our kids ranged in age from four to seven.
How do you get kids to give up their screens and go outdoors? That’s a question an increasing number of parents and experts ponder often today, like the author Richard Louv, who has written, “The more high-tech we become, the more nature we need.” But today’s children just don’t play outside nearly as much as their parents and previous generations did. Their lives are more scheduled and they don’t get out into nature. A lot of kids prefer playing indoors on screens.
We try to get our own two kids out on hiking, backpacking, skiing, and climbing trips often; but most of our lives, of course, are spent at home, where I lament that my kids want to spend as much time as we’ll allow them on computers. To some extent, they are just modeling their parents’ behavior: My wife and I do our work, get our news, shop for products, get recipes, and otherwise spend hours a day on a computer at home.
That’s one reason I like our annual, four-day escape to a backcountry yurt: There’s no cell service or wifi. We can’t get sucked back to our screens. But even in our little disconnected paradise, iPads have made incursions. This year, our two regular families on this trip had a lively discussion about what really constitutes “screen time” and why we should prohibit devices from the yurt. If an e-reader or iPad comes to the yurt in place of books (which are heavier, and we’re carrying everything we bring in backpacks and a sled), what’s wrong with that? And if someone plays Candy Crush on the iPad, what’s the difference between that and finding some solitary, escapist pleasure in a puzzle book at the yurt?
I was alone in my opposition to any screens. I don’t see kids or adults getting hooked on novels or puzzle books the way we do on iPhones and electronic games. I like that we have few choices for entertainment at the yurt besides each other.
Note: For more photos and tips on planning a trip to these Idaho yurts, see my full stories about our annual family yurt trips, “Snowstorms, Skinny Skis, Yurts, and a Family Tradition,” and “Key Ingredient to Family Yurt Trip: What’s Missing.”