Despite our love for the Rocky Mountains, neither my wife nor I are big fans of winter. We like it up to a point, somewhere around the 5th of January, but after that we start the countdown to the spring thaw and all the good things that arrive with it: gardening, hiking, easy camping and warmth.
Which is fine, or would be, if winter actually ended in January, but the Rockies aren’t known for short and easy winters, and even here in sunny Taos, New Mexico, not far from where the Southern Rockies disappear for good beneath the high desert sagebrush of the Galisteo Basin, the snowy season sticks around in one form or another at least until the official first day of spring, and much longer in the High Country. This means that we are forced, with increasing reluctance as the years go by, to partake in a bit of cross-country skiing or snowshoeing, lest we spend the entire season overindulging in breakfast burritos and books and find ourselves flabby come hiking-boot time.
So, when some friends with a child the same age as ours suggested we spend a long weekend together in a yurt in the South San Juan Mountains, we were game: winter camping without the agonies of winter camping sounded like a blast, and the experience would provide the impetus necessary for us to rise from our asses and engage King Winter on some very agreeable terms. We met up for a potluck dinner, pored over maps and reserved the yurt for two nights. That was around Thanksgiving, and we planned the trip for mid-March, assuming that the odds of sunny weather would be fairly good by then and that the snow pack would be plenty deep and well settled. I also assumed — no, knew deep within my heart — that I would have plenty of time, nearly four months in fact, to spend weekends on skis and snowshoes so that I’d be ready for the big yurt adventure and all that it entailed, namely: dragging a sled laden with gear, supplies and my daughter through the frozen tundra, or at least up a snowbound Forest Service road.
Two weeks later, I dusted off my skinny skis and hit the hills for the first time, hell bent on whipping my rapidly atrophying March-to-November loving body into shape. I stuffed my backpack with 40 pounds of rocks and water jugs designed to mimic the weight of my daughter, strapped it onto my winter-stiff back and powered my way around the outer loop of the local X-country trail, sweating and glad to be alive amongst the Ponderosa pines and fully intending on doing it again in a few days. Christmas came and went, and the New Year, and January, and February, and suddenly the much-anticipated trip was upon us, and while the withering La Niña drought had actually allowed me to ride my mountain bike a few times, I had completely blown off my well-intended winter exercise regimen and was feeling pretty lazy.
Nevertheless, the day arrived, and the deposit was nonrefundable, so we carefully gathered our gear, double, triple, quadruple checked the weather, and caravanned the 90 miles to the trailhead, where we unloaded the car and attempted, for the very first time, to properly secure our child and gear onto the sled. It took nearly an hour to get everything packed and stacked correctly, and when we were finally ready, the wind was blowing kinda chilly and, despite their numerous layers of clothes and snowsuits, the girls — not quite four years old — were already a little cold. I snickered inwardly at my fellow dad’s silly sled, a lame metal saucer that was sure to slide uncontrollably in unexpected directions, then balanced my daughter into my own sleek sled in a cute little chair lashed behind a large backpack full of foodstuffs and camping gear. I hitched a towrope to some mysterious and never-before-utilized nylon loops on the backpack I was wearing and set off up the mountain.
Twenty feet later, the sled tipped over and my daughter tumbled helplessly sideways into the snow. I was proud of this sled — a purple plastic Walmart wonder I had bolted firmly atop my old Simms “Search” snowboard with our best wedding present of all (a industrial-grade cordless drill) — and was slightly dismayed at how quickly it had tipped. I righted my daughter, shifted her position ever so slightly, and blasted ahead, only to immediately feel some resistance from the rope, which turned out to be the sled tipped over and my daughter lying in the snow once more. Three times turned out not to be the charm, so as the rest of the gang watched impatiently, including my buddy with his stable, well balanced and seemingly dependable saucer in tow, I strapped my backpack (lower center of gravity) to the sled, dusted the snow off my daughter and placed her securely in her rickshaw-style carrier on my back, and away we went, across the glimmering white meadow and up the switchbacks of the trail.
On paper — which is to say on a map viewed while drinking beer around a kitchen table in a warm house — the trek to the yurt had looked relatively easy. It was less than five miles in, a distance all of us had snowshoed many times before, occasionally in blizzard or other questionable/psychedelic conditions, and we had chosen the yurt with the least elevation gain, this being a family-style trip and all. Perhaps it was the sedentary winter, or the combination of kid on my back/sled behind me, or just the fact that I’m getting older and slower, but, for whatever reason, the initial climb out of the meadow was grueling beyond all expectation, and by the time I caught up with the rest of the crew, I was huffing and puffing.
Fortunately, that first mile was the hardest part, and the remaining miles appeared to involve minimal contour lines on the map. The “trail” was actually a Forest Service road made even wider than normal by the passage of snowmobiles (some of them effortlessly towing huge U-haul sized sleds probably chock full of steaks and coolers of beer) headed into the hills for some redneck revelry. You would think this might make for easy sailing, this wide and well-packed road, but it didn’t. To be sure, it was easier than breaking trail in fresh powder, especially considering the load I was dragging along, but instead of smoothing the road out, a winter’s worth of snow machines had created endless ripples and icy ruts that kept flipping my pathetic sled on its side.
We trudged ahead, pausing every few minutes for me to flip the sled back to its proper position, and always thinking we were farther along than we were, ready for the next bend to bring us to a landmark or junction that actually turned out to be around another half dozen or so bends. We stopped for a lunch break and to give the kids a chance to pee. Sounds easy, but it wasn’t. They are girls — no easy access — which meant peeling off the snowsuits and layers of long underwear, pushing them as far down their legs as possible, then holding the little ladies upright/leaning them back just enough to avoid tinkling on the important bundle of clothes around their ankles, but not enough to dip their pink behinds in the snow — the whole process made even more challenging and insufferable (for the little girls) by the wind that was blowing off the ridge and whooshing through the woods and between their exposed legs.
We had planned on a leisurely lunch break, but, despite the fact that the adults were hot and sweaty, as soon as we stopped moving, we caught a chill, and this was doubly so for the kids, neither of whom had moved very much at all since we’d started the trek, and both of whom had just been forced to bare their asses to the malicious pinch of Jack Frost. So we aborted the planned luncheon, saddled up and made for the yurt.
The worst of the contour lines were indeed behind us, and the last couple of miles appeared to be mere gentle undulations as we made our way around the side of a hill, but since we were now somewhere north of 10,000 feet above sea level, every step I took required more effort than I had expected, and the slightest of climbs — especially the long and gradual pulls that made up this section of the trail — taxed my body and sapped my energy. Despite the rosy weather forecast, it was now overcast, and the kid on my back began to whine with understandable and righteous indignation about the cold, particularly in the limbs and digits that dangled almost motionless from the backpack in which she sat, making them easy targets for frostbite or at least some serious discomfort.
We paused to assess the situation: kids cold but not quite crying; sky gray and wind blowing but not snowing; closer to the yurt than the vehicles. WHEN IN DOUBT, GO HIGHER. That motto has always made sense to me, and it’s provided me with some of the most memorable experiences of my life, not to mention getting me out of many potential backcountry binds as “higher” usually amounts to a view big enough to figure out exactly where you are and how to get to where you need to be.
But does it apply when there are helpless children involved? On one hand, our concern seemed silly: there’s plenty of daylight left, we’re only a few miles from the cars, it ain’t snowing, and we’re trekking on a ROAD. Indeed, just a few years ago, I would have been embarrassed to be seen wasting my time on this kind of logged-over, snowmobile-laden, civilized sort of trail — a place for tourists from St. Louis rather than Rocky Mountain locals with ample adventures under our belts — and I certainly wouldn’t have questioned my ability to finish the journey. But on the other hand, there was a lot at stake: two little girls with little bodies that could get dangerously cold in short order, and who were still too small and clumsy to navigate the trail on foot and create some body warmth of their own. Of course, barring some complete and unknowable disaster, nobody was going to die, and, in a pinch, there would probably be more snowmobiles passing by before nightfall, but did it make sense to keep going?
We decided that it did, at least this time around, so we mushed along, sure that we were almost there. And we were, more or less. One last punishingly long incline, one final blue diamond nailed to a spruce tree, and we left the road and carefully made our way down a steep stretch of actual narrow snowshoe/ski trail and there it was: The Yurt, sitting stolid and quiet, radiating the promise of shelter and burden-free loafing.
We unpacked and settled in, then completed the handful of chores necessary for our comfort: fetch the (already-split) firewood and chop a bit of kindling; start a fire in the stove and haul in some buckets of snow to melt for drinking water; hang up the clothes to dry; uncork a bottle of wine. Meanwhile, the girls, suddenly freed from the clutches of their rickshaws, forgot all about their cold toes and began bouncing around like rubber balls and exploring every conceivable nook and cranny in the surprisingly small but sufficiently comfortable yurt. Especially exciting were the bunk beds, something neither girl had seen before, which meant that each wooden ladder had to be climbed over and over again, and each bed carefully jumped upon, all to the tune of creaking cast iron stove doors, a crackling fire and the joyous sound of non-stop giggles.
If the jaunt to the yurt had been a woeful tale of physical exertion and the perils of prolonged (almost) middle-aged inactivity followed by a sudden burst of athleticism, then the next 40 or so hours were pleasantly relaxing, or at least decidedly lacking in effort beyond trips to the outhouse or the woodpile. The dads did manage a mellow snowshoe down the hill to check out the creek and some remnant groves of old-growth spruce, and the moms each went on a short solo ski and did some yoga, but for the most part, we all just sat on the porch in the mountain sunshine and swapped stories, or lounged around the yurt and played cards, sifted through the newspaper stack in the wood box for an unsolved crossword puzzle, or made up silly songs to sing to our girls.
As with the tame trail that had brought us here — a trail I would have avoided at all costs at one point in my life — a day-and-a-half of sitting around doing nothing would have seemed horrible to me just a few years ago. In 2006, I’d have been chomping at the bit to get out and explore the area, and would have probably spent an entire day making my way up to the ridgeline for some hard-earned views of the San Juan Mountains, or, had I been forced to stay in the yurt, would have brooded grumpily over the fact that I was cooped up rather than churning out endorphins as I trekked through the woods and figured out the lay of the land.
But this wasn’t 2006, it was 2011, and that five-year span had brought massive transformation to nearly every aspect of my life. Part-time work and plenty of highway and trail mileage, for both my wife and myself, had been utterly derailed by the trinity of marriage, an unexpected honeymoon-prompted pregnancy and a bouncing baby girl, plus the sudden need to work full time, while simultaneously jumping through the hoops necessary to earn a teaching license and the real-world job that such professional licensure implies. Without warning, and long before I could wrap my head around the implications of it all, a life of abundant spare time and completely acceptable procrastination gave way to full-time employment and a busy routine that demand I pencil in rest and recreation, and even plain old exercise, in small, precious doses whenever I could.
It’s a life I’ve always dreaded — a life I didn’t think I wanted and feared I wouldn’t be good at, but, surprise surprise, now that I’m completely mired in the responsibilities and limitations of fatherhood, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. Perhaps if I was a younger parent, I might feel resentment over the lost youth and lack of partying and adventure, or, like the twenty-something-year-old parents of so many of my students, would simply put my kid on the back burner while I continued to do what I wanted. Fortunately, I was fated to live out some serious slacker years before I was thrust into the dual role of provider and dad, which means that I was able to work out a few of my issues and visit some interesting places along the way, and now, most of the time anyway, I’m old enough to be aware of what really matters — my family — but still young enough, for a little while longer, to be able to strap a 40-pound child to my back and drag a sled laden with princess underwear, coloring books and other vital supplies over the river and through the woods for a little family adventure.
Looking back on that second day, our only full day at the yurt, I guess it wasn’t all just lounging around. We did manage to do a little sledding, the one thing my Rube Goldberg snowboard contraption excelled at, and we followed a few game trails through the woods, had some snowball fights and made a family of snowpeople: snowman, snowmom and a snowy little girl — the whole lot of them peering longingly at the mountains but plenty happy with the sunny glade that they would call home for the rest of their short lives.
That night, as we hunkered down in the yurt and feasted on s’mores by the light of the Coleman lanterns, the moon rose full and bright as can be from behind the crest of the Brazos Mountains. Our girls, wired on chocolate and marshmallows, ran to the window in the door and began to howl like the wild little wolves that they are. A few minutes later, a fox trotted across the moonlit meadow just outside the yurt, pausing long enough for the girls to step quietly out onto the porch in their pajamas to say hello.