‘How do we even know we’re alive?” my 7-year-old son Kai asks. He is unleashing a torrent of existential questions, and before I can make up some bogus dad answer he’s on to the next one: “Right now, all over the world, people are dying. Aren’t they?”
Yes, but not right here, right now. We are in a rental Toyota Sequoia lurching along a 4WD road two miles above sea level in Colorado, somewhere near the Continental Divide. To our left, rugged slopes and thinning patches of conifers rise to treeless, wind-scoured peaks . To our right, a meadow pixilated with wildflowers descends to a lily pad-dotted lake.
With us are my 4-year-old daughter Christina, my wife Cathleen, her septuagenarian parents, Jack and Maureen, and our guide Derek Seurynck, 29. We are returning from a hike to our temporary home, an off-the-grid backcountry hut.
We are seeking a multigenerational adventure, something between comfort zones and disaster — an elusive space when 74 years separate the youngest and oldest group members.
I had considered marching the family on a 12-mile hike through the Maroon Bells, from Aspen to Crested Butte, a walk I had done in 1997, but quickly concluded that the authorities might never find my body after the resulting mutiny. Even a simple camping trip might have been a logistical fiasco for an urban-dwelling gang flying into Colorado from the East and Midwest.
A few phone calls led me to Aspen Alpine Guides, where an expert suggested a hut trip. Mountainous regions in the United States and many other countries harbor hundreds of huts for public use, ranging from bare-bones shelters where users must supply their firewood to, in the European Alps for example, catered affairs with cooks on site.
Because we were starting our summer 2016 vacation in Aspen, we zeroed in on the 10th Mountain Division Hut Association, named for the light-infantry unit of World War II mountaineering soldiers who trained in hostile weather and terrain around Camp Hale, near Vail. The division deployed to Europe in late 1944, serving in the war for only four months but showing the value of their extreme training: On a freezing night in February 1945, 10th Mountain Division soldiers scaled an icy rock wall in the northern Apennine Mountains of Italy to take Riva Ridge from a startled battalion of Germans that had occupied the strategic vantage point for six months.
The drive in took us up a two-laner through the Fryingpan River Valley, past reddened sandstone buttes and anglers arcing flies into eddies, then onto the dirt-rock road and into the rugged heart of the White River National Forest.
My enjoyment was tempered by a loop playing in my head: Will my in-laws enjoy this? Will we find enough to do to keep the children engaged? If the answers to those are “no,” did I bring enough beer? Neither the kids nor their grandparents had ever spent a night above 8,200 feet, and we were headed to 11,100 feet, an elevation at which altitude sickness is common.
The disquiet evaporates in the thin mountain air as soon as I see Betty Bear, a chalet of burly, polished pine nestled in a grove of Douglas firs and blue spruces. Spacious, clean and bright, the upstairs features a bank of windows and narrow deck facing south to the gun-sight notch of 13,845-foot Mount Oklahoma along with two wood-fired stoves for heating and cooking) and a full supply of kitchenware. Three picnic tables with benches provide space for eating and a horseshoe of wide-cushioned benches lines the walls around the heating stove. A set of shelves is stacked with board games, playing cards and books on wilderness survival, animal tracking, the history of soldiers on skis and more.
Downstairs, a main room holds its own heating stove, along with eight single beds, one bunk and three private rooms, each with two or three beds.
Pull-string lightbulbs hang throughout the house, juiced by small solar panels above the deck. A two-burner propane stove augments the wood-fired one. Dishwashing water comes from a cistern via a spigot to the sink.
Outside: a fire ring, benches and, on the opposite side of the hut, an outhouse. Beyond: millions of acres of public land and not another building within miles.
“Bring a rain jacket,” Derek says as we step from the Betty Bear into 70-degree cloudless sunshine for the five-mile drive to the Lyle Lake trailhead. (There are short paths, but no substantial hiking trails immediately around the hut).
We achieve target heart rates immediately, chasing the kids down to apply sunscreen, but soon we are all peaceably following the burbling Lyle Creek uphill through sunny fields of wildflowers.
Lest we mistake this for a backcountry epic, Derek is dressed in jeans and a flannel shirt, a stark contrast to our sweat-wicking, sun-repelling, ultralight layers .
After ambling a mile and a half, we crest a rise to find a gem of an alpine scene: The lake, shimmering in the sunshine — wait, sorry: The lake, struggling to shimmer in fleeting breaks among thickening clouds.
Back in the marshy mud of the lakeshore, we come across mule deer prints, and one that looks a lot like a bare human footprint. I think back to a poster on the wall of the Betty Bear — “Animal Tracks of the Rocky Mountains” — and realize this one was left by a black bear.
The sun returns, vaulting us back into summer. We are pushing the limits of the kids and their grandparents, but Cathleen and I feel spry so we send the others down, drop our packs and jog off for that enticing trail on the other side of the lake.
Good vacations often lack critical story elements and (sorry to disappoint) our trip passes without major conflict. I do overhear Maureen telling Jack: “We’ll leave every light in this place on overnight,” presumably to illuminate a path toward the outhouse, and by the final morning he is pining for a shower.
But overall, our hang time around the hut invokes leisure time of the 1970s, or maybe the 1870s: unhurried meals and conversation — via larynxes and jaw movements, not thumbs and screens — while the kids invent games from a mash-up of playing cards, dice and random figurines.
In fact, Cathleen theorizes that the absence of the familiar routine — play dates, sports practices and electronic tonic — opened the gates to Kai’s psyche and the Big Life Questions, which he said he had been wanting to ask “for thousands of years.”