For a real adventure, bring the kids

04/18/2014 12:00 AM

04/15/2014 5:53 PM

I should feel a palpable excitement as I sift through the dirt mere yards from the spot where paleontologists unearthed a trove of mastodon and other Ice Age fossils just three years ago. At the least, I should be basking in serenity as I conduct said sifting on a wildflower-laden hillside, in cloudless, 80-degree mid-July sunshine in the mountains above Aspen, Colo.

But I am annoyed, on hands and knees against my will, delaying my chief goal of the outing — reaching the 9,183-foot summit of the Rim Trail — in hopes of finding a piece of Lego, which is, like so much of the detritus running through my fingers, tiny and brown.

My 4-year-old son, Kai, was riding in a backpack playing with Star Wars figurines that my wife, Cathleen, and I had implored him to leave behind, for this precise reason. He dropped two pieces; we’ve found one.

But by now we know. We arrived in the mountains of Colorado — the three of us plus Kai’s 19-month-old sister, Christina, for four days each in Steamboat Springs and Aspen — with a concession and a conviction: With young children in tow, we won’t have the vacation of our (or anyone else’s) dreams.

But neither will we consign ourselves to a typical “family” vacation of pay-to-play attractions, fabricated environs and repulsive “kid-friendly” food. Heck no! We will immerse ourselves in nature, relax on our terms, eat with refinement, and the kids will love it all. Or so we keep telling ourselves.

“OK, everyone, calm down,” says Cathleen, as Kai’s impatience becomes dismay, Christina launches a sympathy tantrum and smoke billows from my ears. “It’s all part of the adventure, right?”

Yes, dear. We move on, Lego unfound, marching through a meadow of yellow alpine sunflowers and zigzagging to the rim of the Rim, where we are rewarded with a panorama of peaks, capped by 14,000-foot pyramids in the Maroon Bells Wilderness to the south. The kids are suddenly delighted (the thin air?) and even pose for a happy sibling snapshot.

A smattering of ascendants share the summit reverie with us, including a trio of mountain bikers led by a steel-cut dude in logo’d cycle gear who, in a husky Euro accent, is comparing today’s heat with what he’d experienced on a recent expedition through Italy’s Dolomites. It’s a very Aspen moment, at least until one of his friends takes a seat in the precise piece of shade where I’d told Kai that it was OK to pee moments before they arrived.

The kids agree to a footrace down the mountain, highlighted by a brief pause at the site of the Lego loss, at which Kai informs me that “it was only a toy,” so “keep running, Dada!”

Social climbing

The town of Aspen sits in a valley about 160 miles west of Denver, in the foothills of the Elk Mountains. Aspen’s ski-and-summer resort areas are spread over four mountains, one rising straight from town and the others — Aspen Highlands, Buttermilk and Snowmass — tucked into successive valleys to the west.

We’re staying in Snowmass, in a slope-side condo at 8,209 feet. Snowmass has its own village, which has just about everything you need but doesn’t begin to compare with Aspen, which also has everything you’d want.

But our place is quiet and on the doorstep of vast wilderness. The 15-minute drive into Aspen descends along a beautifully curvaceous road.

Seeking dinner, we park in the center of Aspen and walk down a tree-lined pedestrian mall chockablock with boutiques, high-end brand stores, outdoor wear retailers and restaurants and bars. Our first glance at a menu reveals entrees starting at $30.

The next two cafes are similarly priced, and we’re ready to seek a grocery store when we stop at the reasonably priced Finbarr’s Irish Pub, which maintains a number of tables beneath the trees, hemmed in by two narrow irrigation streams and one well-stocked bar. The kids play by the streams while Cathleen and I sip adult beverages in a moment of quasi-peace. The food is unremarkable, but the children eat most of what lands in front of them, which alone is worthy of a Michelin star.

Aspen’s mix of glitz and grit befits its history. The first whisper of silver deposits in the 1870s brought prospectors.

From 1880 to 1893, Aspen’s population mushroomed from 300 to around 16,000. In 1891, the town produced one-sixth of the silver in the United States — and one-sixteenth of the world’s supply. And then? In 1893, Congress repealed the Sherman Silver Purchase Act, meaning that silver was no longer legal tender and Aspen no longer relevant.

Aspen slid to near oblivion before skiing arrived in 1936. But the spectacular rise, fall and rebound account for much of the town’s character today, from the Hotel Jerome and Wheeler Opera House, both opened in 1889, to the storybook Victorian homes, dating to the late 1800s, that line Aspen’s leafy streets.

On our own

On Day 3 in Snowmass, weary after six days of balancing full family fun with fleeting, one-at-a-time mental health breaks, Cathleen and I hit the selfish button and drop both kids off at the on-site day camp. Liberated, we drive down a dirt road, descend into enveloping forest and set out on foot along the East Snowmass Creek trail. The narrow path rises through Aspen groves and mature pines, eventually affording overlooks of the creek as it trundles out of the high peaks.

We exchange long sentences without interruption, clock brisk miles of trail and worry not one bit about whose nose needs wiping or who might tumble off a cliff. In three hours, we see three other hikers. As the trail breaks into alpine meadows, two cowboys on horseback barrel past, each also leading a mule laden with supplies for a backcountry trip.

River wild-ish

We have friends who say that it isn’t worth the hassle and expense to haul little kids on these types of vacations, that we should shelve our own vacationing needs until the kids are older.

And then we have friends like Kurt.

“We took our kids through some pretty stout whitewater when they were that age,” he says, nodding at Christina as we tighten her life jacket on the banks of the Colorado River, 90 minutes outside Steamboat. “In retrospect, it’s a little scary.”

I strongly recommend acquiring a friend like Kurt. His house sits on a few acres outside Steamboat. He has good taste in music, coffee and beer. And his garage contains all manner of kid and adult toys, including rafts and kayaks. Today, we’re running a section of river that will, thanks to a feeble snow year, feature only playful rapids. And we’re doing this under the very nonchalant guidance of Kurt’s buddy Mike, who has decades of experience guiding river trips around the world.

Cathleen, the kids and I are by ourselves in an inflatable pontoon craft called a Shredder. Kurt and his 12-year-old son Pablo are paddling kayaks. Mike is piloting a raft with his girlfriend, Kurt’s daughter and his college-age niece and her friend.

As the put-in recedes behind us, it hits me that we are committed to three-plus hours on a river and that if the kids hate it, we’re stuck. But they love it, and our highest drama comes when the Shredder hits a rock (who is steering this thing?) and threatens, briefly, to flip over before it spins back into the current and harmlessly downstream.

The river winds through an arid landscape of sandstone outcroppings and hills dotted with pines and prickly brush, as in old cowboy movies. It’s peaceful, even with the parade of other people — although Cathleen notes that “there don’t seem to be any other babies” running the river.

We had paid an outfitter $30 to shuttle our car from put-in to take-out, so it’s waiting as promised. The drive back takes us through hauntingly empty landscapes, one gas-station-and-general-store town and two others not much bigger. Just outside Steamboat, with the wind billowing through a field of tall grass, we pull over to watch a thunderstorm light up the sky over the ski mountain.

On the trail

Steamboat is mellower than Aspen — smaller town, rolling mountains versus arresting peaks, more beater cars and scruffy residents. But by and large, tourists and locals seem drawn to both towns for the same reason: to get outdoors.

One morning, we decide on a family hike up the Spring Creek trail, which starts a few blocks from downtown Steamboat. The steady stream of people, apart from being all white, represents an impressive demographic range: men, women, boys, girls, walkers in flip-flops, runners in minimalist gear, mountain bikers. As we start up, we make way for a group of girls ages 7 to 10 finishing a mountain bike class under the tutelage of two buff women instructors.

There’s still parenting, of course. Christina trips, falls, cries, recovers. Kai demands to keep an elk skull and spine that he pulled from the creek, then sheds all clothing and tromps along the muddy shore of a pond. We wait out a shower under a picnic shelter. But we’re outdoors, awash in stunning scenery, not hemorrhaging money or missing our kids.

On our last day in the mountains, we ride Aspen’s Silver Queen gondola, which rises from 7,945 feet to 11,212 feet in 14 minutes. We lunch outdoors at the Sundeck restaurant, mere specks in a vista commanded by muscular red-rock peaks still holding pockets of snow.

The area around the lodge has a loose summer-camp feel, with a smattering of people enjoying a bungee-assisted trampoline, a disc golf course, a climbing wall and a sand pit from which the wee kids can mine “gold” nuggets. We indulge our little ones with 15 minutes of that and then march them out onto a trail, up and away from the infrastructure, toward the wilderness. Kai bounds ahead, stopping at the top of a rise to repeat something he’s heard a lot this week: “Guys, check out this view! Incredible.”

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