Give It Up: Life Lessons From Family Camping

Aug 20, 2012
Outside Magazine

Rab_wiThe quiver at Oh Be Joyful Campground. Photo: Katie Arnold

There are few places in the Rockies more beautiful than Crested Butte. The Colorado mining town-turned-mountain-biking-nirvana sits at the dead-end of a wide, lush valley in the exact middle of the state. Ringed by craggy, glacially sculpted peaks that burn with a red glow in the summer haze and high, green meadows carpeted in wildflowers, CB is made only more picturesque by its downtown, a tidy grid of colorful Victorians with gingerbread trim and ramshackle front porches stacked with bikes and skis. But it’s not as precious as Telluride or as pricey as Aspen, and it’s peopled with far more diehard mountain athletes, former pro skiers, and adventure families than ritzy celebs. 

If there’s anywhere that will guarantee you and your clan a state of instant summertime bliss, it’s Crested Butte, right? It’s all about attitude.   

Rab_wiCresting the 401. Photo: Katie Arnold

We’d been plotting a family trip to CB for months, ever since Emily Schoff raved about it as a sweet multisport base camp on Raising Rippers last summer. Fresh off a month in the watery flats of Ontario, I was craving a vertical fix, and I knew Crested Butte would deliver. So we plotted an ambitious—and ever-expanding—multi-family mission with a handful of our friends and their young kids. By the time we left Santa Fe what had started out as a few families had turned into a spontaneous family-camping flash mob, with 13 kids ages three months to seven.

Rab_wiOh, joy: mud biking. Photo: Katie Arnold

We pulled into town last Thursday night shortly before sunset, our truck crammed with the gear we’d need for four days of family camping and riding: mountain bikes, kiddy bikes, bike trailer, helmets, pop-up shade, spare tent, cooler. Attached to that was our 1961 Airstream. Miraculously, nothing had fallen off or broken on the trailer during the seven-hour haul from Santa Fe. Maybe that’s because the truck’s turbo was broken, and we trundled with our behemoth swaying behind us, doing 55mph the whole way, 45 up the passes and into a howling, dust-devilly headwind west of Alamosa. That's one benefit to going slowly.

As we cruised the main drag, CB was showing its usual sporty self. Mountain bikers were barreling down the hill from Gothic after the last ride of the day, tourists pedaled cherry-red cruisers, and two soccer games were in progress, one of which, given the proliferation of dreadlock wigs, guys in dresses, and do-rags, was clearly Rastas vs. Random Costumes. Across the street at the city park, a handwritten banner was tacked to the baseball diamond in honor of 21-year-old local steeplechase runner Emma Coburn who was making her Olympic debut: “All you need is a dream ... to London. Go Emma!” Crested Butte is nothing if not an incubator for outdoor athletes.

Our mob converged at Oh Be Joyful, a semi-developed campground about four miles from town along Slate River Road. With seven families and at least that many tents, we needed a lot of elbow room, so we forded the low-flowing Slate in the Airstream and staked out a huge grassy meadow all to ourselves. We set up a couple of slacklines, unloaded a shop’s worth of bikes, and let the kids run loose, kicking soccer balls and riding through mud puddles, while we made camp.

Rab_wiSlacking at camp. Photo: Katie Arnold

I’d been to Crested Butte a handful of times in the past 17 years, showing up every so often, like a pilgrim prepared to genuflect at the sight of the sweetest singletrack in the country. But the last time I was here was five years ago, when I was still mad for mountain biking and just barely pregnant with our first daughter and had no earthly idea how much my life was about to change. After that trip, without really meaning to, I gradually let my love for the sport go dormant. I’d burned myself out on our local trails and maintaining a bike seemed like one more thing I didn’t have time for. Running the trails was easier, and faster, than riding them.

But when we woke the next morning to sun screaming in through the Airstream windows and cloudless summer-in-the-Rockies sky, I felt the old tug of wanting. I wanted to ride, and I wanted to ride that very minute, like someone without two kids screeching for their breakfast and waking up everyone else in camp, would want to ride. Selfishly, obsessively, absolutely, all day, possibly forever.

But there were complications. Two of them. Or make that 13. So began the delicate process of negotiating childcare, swapping kids for rides, taking turns. But first there were mouths to feed, pieces of gear to organize, kids to placate. The morning became interminable. I was itching to go. Really, I was itching for my old life, the one where I could have just gulped down some oatmeal and coffee and cranked right out of there, without a look back.

Clearly I had the wrong attitude. I should have been excited, grateful. Here we were in a beautiful valley surrounded by high peaks and twisty singletrack. Of course, that was the problem. I had kids now, two of them. I couldn’t ride all day; I’d be lucky just to ride all morning. Most days I didn’t resist this. I’d already passed through the shock of having babies, when your freedom is so curtailed and your resistance is so fresh you can almost taste it on your tongue, metallic, hard-edged, unexpected. But being in CB made me realize that resistance isn’t something you conquer once and then are done with. It keeps coming back in different forms. Learning to let it go and move through to the other side is simply the practice of being a parent.

But now my resistance came slamming back, wrapped in the lure of the 401 Trail, Crested Butte’s marquis ride. Everyone wanted to go—of course they did—but everyone was being polite. You go. No, you go. Well, everyone but me. I was going to go, no matter what. I was going to pretend, if only for a little while, that I was free. I was in the thick of denial, and I was making myself miserable.

Eventually, we came up with a plan. Five of us would ride, and the rest would stay at camp and watch the kids. When we got back, it’d be their turn. Steve and I were lucky to get to ride together, but now I felt guilty leaving our kids with friends who’d just driven 19 hours from St. Paul with their four boys and probably didn’t want to be shackled to camp. Oh well. Part of being a parent is letting go of guilt too.

So we rode, starting with a warm-up spin up the Gothic forest road to Schofield Pass at 10,700 feet. I felt like it had been years since I’d last been on my bike, but something about it was also deeply familiar, like I was meeting an old friend I hadn’t seen in a long time and there were no awkward silences. I settled into the climb, feeling surprisingly strong. The trail opened up before me, smoother than anything I’d ever ridden on or remembered. It was as though it had been groomed, planed of all its bumps and ruts, jarring roots and jumbled rocks. Gradually, I was leaving the resistance and the guilt and even some of the responsibility behind. We’d gotten to the top, and my only job now was to let off the brakes and go, whooping all the way.

Rab_wiWhat goes up must come down, CB's famous 401. Photo: Katie Arnold

All too soon, we came to the turn-off to where we’d left the car. Our friend Andy sweetly offered to let us keep riding—he’d get the truck and pick us up farther down the trail. My friend Kate and I almost took him up on it. It would have only meant another half an hour, 45 minutes max. But something held us back—parental guilt, entirely self-imposed, and consideration for our friends. We’d had a brilliant, perfect morning on our bikes, riding fast and free. There were no complaints. It was time to go back to the kids so the other half could ride.

Rab_wiHave tent, will nap. Photo: Katie Arnold

This was how it went for the rest of the weekend. Everyone swapped kids. Another posse went out on the 401, Steve and Kate among them. People rode the Lower Loop and the new Lupine Trail and the cross-country trails at the ski area. A couple friends and I ran up Oh Be Joyful creek below the most stunning alpine basin I’ve ever seen. All I wanted to do was keep running, up to the pass, so I could stand on top and take it all in. But we only had an hour, so we flipped it and raced back. There’s always next time.

The kids, meanwhile, had taken over camp. It was the ultimate backcountry day care, complete with mud puddles to bike through, slacklines to wobble along, a cobbly beach on the Slate River for skipping rocks and wading, balls to kick, and trails to explore. Someone had laid out a giant tarp piled with books and toys and art supplies, and set up a couple of small napping tents. Babies slept, and the bigger kids hiked to a swimming hole. Peanut butter sandwiches and watermelon were served en masse. At any given moment, there was always someone sleeping, eating, playing, or melting down. We had all the bases covered, family lines had blurred, and everyone was looking out for everyone else.

Rab_wiAt the "beach," Slate River. Photo: Katie Arnold

It was an easy tradeoff: mayhem at camp for freedom on the trails. We joked about making a mountain biking spreadsheet for next year, just to keep the childcare organized, but the truth is, I never would have gotten in three rides and a run in four days had it just been Steve and me and the girls. Camping en masse can be chaotic, but it's a blast—and it just might be the closest thing to getting your old life back, if only for a little while. These are the realities of being a parent, especially an outdoor parent: You juggle and swap and learn to share. You take what you can get, when you can get it, and the rest of the time you hang out with the kids, walk the slackline, let go of ego and expectations, and just have fun. It’s pretty simple. It doesn’t have to be any more complicated than that.

Rab_wiSee you next year, CB. Photo: Katie Arnold

Crested Butte, Crested Butte Mountain Bike Association,

—Katie Arnold 

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