Taking The Plug Out Of “Unplugged”

Over the years, my wife Pam and I have developed a great system together: I plan our vacations, and she plans everything else. There’s no ambiguity. When we’re at home, I do what I’m told, go where she tells me and try my best to keep up with her. I love planning our vacations though, and the more “off the beaten path” the better. I spent the first 30 years of my life living in and around big cities. When I met Pam and started spending time in Idaho with her, it sparked the embers of a love affair with the outdoors that’s continued to burn brighter for over 20 years now. In large part, Outside magazine became fodder for my wanderlust. I’ve torn and stored pages, bookmarked links and spent a good deal of time daydreaming about remote places that I want to experience with my family. Lucky for me, Pam’s been up for it from day one.


The highlight for us (so far) is when I took a three month sabbatical five years ago and we spent three memorable summer months traveling by backpack throughout Southeast Asia and Africa. For a long time now high on my list has been trekking in Patagonia. We waited until the kids were old enough (15 & 17) to handle the long and arduous days with heavy packs, and last year I began planning our adventure in Chile & Argentina for Christmas 2015. We talked about it all year and the anticipation grew. Alas, two weeks before we were set to depart, our daughter Sophie threw out her back riding and was clearly in no shape for a trip like this. After some hard family discussions about canceling, we decided that our son Cameron and I would go and that Pam would stay home to care for Sophie (Happy to report that she’s on the mend and riding her horse again). The trip was so spectacular that we’re planning on doing it again as a family.

One of the things I cherished most about our time in Patagonia was that for almost the entire duration of the trip, we couldn’t be plugged in, even if we wanted. No Wi-Fi. No Internet. No digital connection to the outside world at all. Occasionally we would pass through a small town like El Calafte or El Chaten where we could find a signal strong enough to drop Pam and Sophie a voice text to share a tidbit about our latest adventures and let them know we were ok. We weren’t “off the grid” figuratively, it was literal.

We all talk about taking breaks and “unplugging.” Unfortunately, it’s becoming almost impossible these days for people to truly unplug. We take our phones on our unplugged vacations, sneaking and checking Instagram, Facebook, the news, or whatever our favorite flavor of digital distraction might be whenever we need a fix. As someone who does a fairly good job disconnecting on a regular basis, it was still a jolt to spend almost 3 weeks completely unaware of anything happening in the world that I couldn’t see with my own eyes.

What was that like? Pure bliss. Cam and I had long meandering conversations while we hiked, which twisted and turned like the rivers we were following. We talked about everything under the sun. Before the trip we each picked a book (Cam chose Fearless and me, Zen And The Art Of Motorcycle Maintenance) and brought two copies of each and talked about those as we read them together. Obviously, we hiked and we hiked and we hiked. We averaged between 12 and 18 miles a day and 3000 to 5000 feet of climbing. Sometimes we’d talk. Sometimes we’d have long stretches of silence, hearing nothing but the wind and lost in our own thoughts. And sometimes we’d sing. Actually, we sang a lot. In fact, we spent an entire morning hiking to Mount Fitzroy singing and trying to remember all of the lyrics to the Beatles When I’m 64. “When I get older, losing my hair, many years from now…”

In Torres Del Paine, we enjoyed a new friendship with Omar, our guide. Born and raised in Porto Natales, Chile – his father was an accomplished mountain climber and instilled a love of the mountains in his son. Omar went to university, but after a few years of a 9 to 5 job, he quit to become a guide so he could spend all his time in the mountains. He’s climbed many of the most challenging peaks in the region and regaled us with tales of those exploits, some of them quite harrowing. Despite guiding in the area for 15 years, Omar made us feel like every step was special. He took great pride in explaining all of the geological history of the region, had a vast understanding of the fauna and wildlife and loved pointing out all of the birds by their individual songs. Most of all, Omar kept us on pace. We’d start hiking between eight and nine in the morning, and if we didn’t make camp by nine, there was no dinner. We’d snack along the way and savor every calorie in our bagged lunches. Nothing went to waste.

The scenery was simply breathtaking. I hope you watch all or some of the video because there’s no way to really describe how truly beautiful and inspiring the region is and do it any justice. In fact, the hardest part of describing Patagonia is simply conveying the scale. We live in the mountains of Idaho and have visited so many vast places. I’ve never visited the Himalayas (for now) but I’ve never felt as small as I did there. Patagonia is also home to some of the most accessible glaciers in the world and it seemed like we saw a new one every time we made it around another mountain. Trekking across the Perito Moreno Glacier in Santa Cruz, Argentina was an experience I’ll always remember. We crossed the bluest rivers and streams I’ve ever seen and saw glacial lakes as turquoise as the Caribbean. I’ve never seen a full-blown avalanche in person, but when we were in the French Valley, we saw saw five in one day, and we even captured one on film (you’ll have to watch the video). We saw condors with 12 foot wingspans and we ate the most mouth watering lamb I’ve ever tasted.

In Torres Del Paine, we slept in refugios (wooden huts with three or four small bunk beds in a room) with different people from all over the world. It was fun to see a few familiar faces on the trails and also to share meals with new people at the wooden picnic tables each morning and evening. We also stayed at a few “estancias” (sheep and cattle ranches) that had been handed down from generation to generation for over 100 years. The family’s hospitality was always special and the food spectacular.

Of course, Patagonia is a photographer’s dream and I hope the pictures in this video inspire you to go visit. A big thanks to our friends Peter and Pam Horan for giving us such great advice in planning our trip and the biggest thanks in the world to my assistant Denise for helping us put it altogether. Now go watch the video (in full screen mode!), turn up the volume and get lost in Patagonia with us.

Oh, and get comfortable, it’s long 🙂



Showing 5 comments
  • meredithcollinz

    Your story and pix provide one of the rare opportunities to use the word AMAZING to it’s fullest extent! Beyond beautiful in every sense. And what an incredible experience to share with your son. LOVE that 1st photo of him setting out on the trail. Looks so innocent and wide-eyed. But the “long stretches of silence” probably most poignant for me. Can only imagine it opened both his world and his imagination — and yours! Thanks for sharing. Hope you get to do something equally amazing with the whole family. In life, people say to keep your eye on the prize, but many times, taking your eye way off the prize and letting it discover the magic of the world gives you what you need to finally take the prize. Hell, maybe that is the prize…

    • Mark Solon

      Wow, thanks for that fantastic feedback Meredith. Loved the way you framed “taking your eye way off the prize.” Great fodder for thought…

  • Russ Dollinger

    Gorgeous. Awe inspiring.

  • Marilyn Locander

    Mark, I so enjoyed reading this. I never thought I would be living vicariously through my children, but here I am and loving the experience. Upon contemplating all that you are and all that you bring to this family I have decided that the single most important thing I can do for you is to stay the hell out of your way! Keep on keeping on, I love what you bring to the table!! Mom

  • phil reed

    Another very special life event that you and Cam will share forever. Thanks for sharing!

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