Ski touring the Elkhorn Loop, Boise National Forest, Idaho.

New Year Resolution: Getting Unplugged

In Family Adventures, Skiing   |   Tagged , , , , , , , , , ,   |   6 Comments

[Note: This story was first posted Dec. 28, 2015.]

By Michael Lanza

This winter, for the ninth year in a row, my family will do something we have eagerly anticipated annually for almost as long as my children’s memory reaches backward. It will involve skis, backpacks, and spending four days at a yurt tucked away in snow-covered mountains a few miles from the nearest, very lonely, winding, two-lane road. But the details matter only inasmuch as they steer us toward our ultimate goal: We really go there to get completely unplugged.

We do that mostly for ourselves, of course. But I think we need this notion of disconnecting to catch on more widely, to save us all from ourselves.

There’s really not much to do at the yurt where we’ll stay in Idaho’s Boise Mountains, about a 90-minute drive from our homes, and that’s exactly why we go. There’s only plenty of snow for skiing and sledding, and there’s a warm, if primitive shelter furnished with all we really need: bunks, solar and propane lights, a wood-burning stove for heat, a two-burner stove for cooking, and an outhouse.

Well, there’s also one more, very important quality to this escape: the incredibly therapeutic effects of secluding ourselves from civilization in a vast forest stilled by winter.

 

My daughter, Alex, skiing on one of our earlier yurt trips.

My daughter, Alex, skiing on one of our earlier yurt trips.

Adults today can remember a time, not long ago, when we didn’t live almost constantly connected to the world. Most kids today can’t. Most children don’t know boredom—and boredom can actually be good. It forces a child to create his own entertainment, or just be alone with her own thoughts. I wonder how young people can become more caring and empathetic adults without the benefit of introspection.

The near absence of boredom is almost unknown in human history, and certainly unknown to people born even as recently as the late 20th century. No previous generation has grown up having all of their friends perpetually at their fingertips, or a parent ever just a tap away to fulfill every request and resolve every conflict. No previous generation has been constantly immersed in a river of entertainment always flowing over them.

We might wonder what kind of adults emerge from a childhood like that, because they will soon be in charge.

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And even though most adults can remember not being constantly connected, many of us rarely experience complete and sustained disconnection these days. How many of us check work email at home or on our phones on weekends and weeknights? We simultaneously bemoan this form of dependency and are loathe to go cold turkey and pull the plug.

Disconnecting can require going to a place where you cannot connect.

 

My son, Nate, daughter, Alex, and family friend Lili Serio, skiing to Banner Ridge yurt, Boise Mountains, Idaho.

My son, Nate, daughter, Alex, and family friend Lili Serio, skiing to Banner Ridge yurt.

Four Days Without Wifi

Although we’re unplugged, boredom is not a problem on our yurt trips. Picture four adolescents 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 come inside the yurt, our kids mostly just talk and play with each other and their parents. That’s something most of us don’t do nearly enough in civilization. Technology and social media have created a tragically ironic new reality: making social animals like humans more antisocial. But that’s what the constant availability of screens has done to us. That has become the norm.

It’s a beautiful place to disconnect, to be sure. We ski groomed trails through ponderosa pine forest with occasional views of snowy mountains rolling away for miles. We regularly see the tracks of small animals like snowshoe hares, and I once saw wolf tracks in the snow while ski touring by myself on one yurt trip; I wondered how fresh the tracks were, and whether the wolf was nearby, watching me. But we rarely see other people because few day trippers visit these trails, and the handful of yurts are spread out.

We scheduled our annual yurt trip for mid-winter this year, instead of over a long New Year’s weekend as we have several times, because snow has been a disappointingly scarce natural resource around here in early winter in recent years (although this winter has launched with the most snowfall in several years). I’ve witnessed how climate change is affecting nature everywhere, and I fear that it will significantly alter our annual tradition by the time my children are adults, and not for the better.

 

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Vince Serio cross-country skiing in Idaho's Boise Mountains.

Vince Serio cross-country skiing in Idaho’s Boise Mountains.

Learning to Get Unplugged

Our kids are becoming adults shaped in part by regularly getting unplugged: people for whom carrying a backpack into mountains or canyons for several days is normal activity.

While they are rooted deeply and firmly in a generation—and now, to our greater misfortune, an entire culture—more intricately and constantly connected to one another than even Orwell imagined, they also understand the far more subtle but deeper pleasures of getting unplugged.

I’m happy for that fact not only for personal reasons, but because I know it will make them happier and more capable of managing the inevitable troubles and stresses of everyday life. A growing mountain of data affirms what I believe intuitively. Apparently, climbing on trees and building snow shelters out in nature improves their creativity, social skills, and resilience; and disconnecting from electronic screens for days actually makes them more empathetic. For children and adults, getting out in nature is good for the brain.

Those sound like good things to me. I think we need to start a movement of getting unplugged, because our culture and our world just may depend a little bit on our continued ability to do that.

I believe that because it has long worked for me.

So this year, I’ll make the same resolution I’ve made for many years: to get completely unplugged as often as possible, for an hour, or several hours, or days at a time. I’ll be gleefully out of contact with most of the world, while in deeper and more meaningful contact with whomever my companions are.

So just leave me a message. I’ll get back to you later—maybe much later.

See all of my stories about our annual family ski trips to a backcountry yurt and all of my stories about family adventures at The Big Outside.

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6 Responses to New Year Resolution: Getting Unplugged

  1. Thomas Olson   |  January 3, 2017 at 9:58 am

    Michael,

    Thank you for addressing this evident issue. As a student who recently transitioned from high school to college, I have experienced the frustration of communicating with peers while they are constantly attached to their devices. Not only is the over-attached lifestyle deleterious for proper communication and development, but many of those who are attached to their devices are missing out on wonderful experiences such as those you shared with your children.
    I could not agree more with your article and the benefits getting unplugged, and I hope that others find the same meaning and inspiration from this article that I have.

    • Michael Lanza   |  January 3, 2017 at 12:13 pm

      Thanks for sharing those thoughts and observations, Thomas. I hope you have a positive influence on many of your peers. Good luck with your studies.

  2. MichaelALanza   |  December 30, 2015 at 6:05 am

    Thanks Philip

  3. Philip Kollas   |  December 30, 2015 at 1:34 am

    Excellent and thoughtful, Michael. Oh, how I agree!

  4. MichaelALanza   |  December 29, 2015 at 7:02 am

    Hi Ellie, Thanks for such a thoughtful comment. I agree with you. We could obviously start a long conversation about this subject, but I like your advice to parents to get their kids off screens and engage with them. I believe that kids spend a lot of time on screens in part because they’re mimicking the behavior of their parents.

  5. Ellie   |  December 28, 2015 at 10:45 pm

    Mike,
    As a mother of two (6 & 9) and a high-school teacher, I can’t agree more with both your concerns and your proposed solution. In fact, I have even more extreme views on the subject, as I think children, preteens, and adolescents should be unplugged *most* of the time, not some of the time. Being unplugged should be the default mode, not the exception. I especially agree with your fear that young people, who are growing up without boredom, are losing the capacity for introspection. I see it all around me, particularly in the English classroom, where kids are becoming increasingly deaf to the emotional overtones of both others’ and their own experiences. I’m ranting. To all parents out there: get your kids off screens and start taking them outside; give them a book; talk to them.

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