Raising Rippers

It's worth walking barefoot through snow from the bathhouse. Trust us.     Photo: Katie Arnold

The Camping Cure, Part II: Winter Glamping

Or, why you just need to disconnect every once in a while

When you go camping at a luxury wilderness retreat in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains, the list of what you don’t need to bring is longer than what you do: No tent, no food, no sleeping bags, no pads, no box wine, no camp chairs, no stove, no fire ring, no kitchen gear.

And no computer.

It had only just dawned on me that morning, as I scrambled to finish my deadlines, that I could leave my laptop at home. Actually part ways with it for two whole days. At first the idea was shocking, then unfathmomable—what would I do with my time?—and then totally intoxicating. Just a few days earlier, camping in January with my family had seemed superfluous, even contrived. Now it was essential. I wanted nothing more in life than to be estranged from my computer—and all portable electronic devices—for as long as possible, possibly forever, or at least the weekend.

Life has gotten loud in our house since the start of the year: missed deadlines, 40th birthdays, the incessant ping of incoming emails (99 percent of which seem to promise new credit and miracle face lifts), four-and-a-half-year-old temper tantrums, the toddler’s endless, plaintive begging to watch Little Einsteins on the iPad. Even my ear is ringing. The constant thrum of activity and noise was making me crazy, but I wasn’t the only one: All four of us needed to slow down and quiet down.

The trip would be the first installment in our year-long experiment to sleep out at least once every month. January is the deepest, darkest winter in New Mexico, so tent camping with young daughters would be a trial. Instead, we were going to sleep in a canvas-walled cabin at Dunton Hot Springs. A historic-ghost-town-turned-five-star-backcountry-resort between Dolores and Telluride, Dunton is pretty much the farthest you can get from roughing it in the wild, ever. But, I reasoned, the spirit of these trips matters as much as the technicalities, so I would do my best to approximate camping, minus the tent. And that meant unplugging—for real.

It was surprisingly easy to do. I emailed my mother, told her we’d be off the grid for 48 hours, and gave her the Dunton’s phone number in case of an emergency. It was so retro—just like the time I went to Australia for a semester in college and wrote airmail letters and called home once a month. Then I left my laptop on my desk, switched my phone to airplane mode, and Steve drove us out of town.

It felt weird to sit idle in a car for five hours. I kept thinking I should be doing something: checking email, updating Facebook, sending texts, Googling coffee shops in Durango. Was someone trying to reach me? Was something important happening that I was missing? To distract myself, I looked out the window. It was a grey day, and storm clouds were massing over the Sangre de Christos—we needed snow. We dropped into the valley, crossed the Rio Grande, drove north through the red cliffs of Abiquiu, and climbed the Tusas Plateau to the soundtrack of Little Einsteins and “I’m hungry” in the backseat. I doled out string cheese and dried bananas. Steve and I had an actual conversation. As the miles sped by, I could feel myself settling, the stress peeling off me like old dead skin. This was the important thing that was happening. Going on a road trip with my family.

Dunton Hot Springs is 22 miles off the main highway, in a narrow valley along the West Fork of the Dolores River. The first nine of these miles are paved, and then the road turns to dirt. It was almost dark when we turned on to Forest Road 535, and the road was wide and nearly snow-free; here and there through the ponderosa forest, cabin windows glowed cozily in the night. Then the asphalt ended and we were sliding through a thin layer of soft, sloppy snow as the road climbed higher. There were hardly any lights, only the huge white face of the full moon peeking through the clouds. Just as I was wondering if we’d missed a turn and picturing the road coming to an abrupt, screeching end—Chevy Chase’s Vacation-style—we rounded a bend and saw the orange glow of a small town spread out in the valley below.

Like everything at Dunton, arrival is an understated affair. You ring a buzzer at the metal gate and a man name Eric instructs you to pull in and watch for a sign to park on the left. The sign is wood, with an arrow painted in loopy hand. Soon Eric appears in a golf cart with snow tires to ferry your gear. Together you walk along a snowy path to the saloon, where you shed boots and hats and jackets at a long bench in the entryway, and he offers you a drink at the bar where Butch Cassidy carved his name. The beer taps are silver, embossed with a simple D, and the wine is Dunton’s own, made from grapes harvested and pressed at Sutcliffe Winery's Down Valley. A couple of other guests are playing Bananagrams at a low zinc coffee table. The ceiling is shiny pressed tin, and a fire throws off heat from an enormous enclosed fireplace in the center of the room. You feel like you might be home—if your home is an impeccably restored 19th-century ghost town deep in the Colorado backcountry.

Guests at Dunton stay in historic mining cabins that range from homey one-room nooks to three-bedroom, two-story houses. They all have names, some in honor of the miners who built them (Bjoerkman’s), others (Dunton Store) for the purpose they once served. From the outside, the cabins at Dunton look just as they did 120 years ago: weathered planks, paned windows, and steep roofs to shed the snow. Inside, they’re pure Americana—Pendleton blankets, Navajo rugs—done up in the kind of thoughtful rusticity that manages to be both simple and super luxe at the same time. Because ostensibly we were here to camp, we’d reserved Christy’s Tent, a canvas-walled cabin that was put up last fall as a prototype of Dunton’s newest project: a luxury fishing camp that’s slated to open a few miles downstream in June.

I knew it'd be a stretch to call what we were about to do "camping," and sure enough, when Eric asked, "Shall I show you to your tent?” as I sipped my wine and nibbled wasabi almonds, his words hung in the air like a trick question. Behind us, a long farm table was set for a proper three-course dinner—pheasant, we were told. Eric led us outside, looping us through the old town, past log buildings set back from the path. Ahead, I could see the white walls of Christy’s glowing yellow lantern. Through the canvas, silhouettes were visible—the tall outline of a bed, a chair. Tent-like! Only lavishly furnished. The beamed roof was covered in six inches of snow. In the black night, the tent was about the most welcoming sight I’d ever seen.

Inside, an enormous wrought-iron bed seemed to float in the middle of the room, a kilim rug lay across the wood planks, and a gas stove flickered in the corner. Most tents do not have a full attached bath with slate shower, double old-fashioned vanity, and designer bath products from London. Christy's did. Two huge stuffed ponies sat propped on a dresser at the foot of the bed. "Take me home with you!" a note implored. Pippa took one look around and cried, "This isn’t a tent! It's a cabin!"

Semantics. What it was was perfect. We unpacked, then headed back to the saloon for dinner. There's one seating a night at the fashionably late hour of 7:30, and guests eat together at the table, including the kids, who were served miniature versions of our meals: tomato basil soup and grilled pheasant over wild rice. Dunton's owners raised their two teenage boys here during summers and extended family vacations, so the place is attuned to children without condescending to them, fancy without being fussy. There are no menus, no checks, no waiters or kids meals or plastic plates, no concierge, bellmen, room service. Nothing to come between you and why you came: to play outside, eat organic made-from-scratch meals, soak in the mineral springs, and be part of something wild, at least for a little while.

The kids barely made it through dinner, but our four fellow guests, two couples from Vail, couldn't have been nicer about their fatigue-induced antics. Afterwards, we put them to bed in the tent—Pippa on a roll-away bed, Maisy in a portable crib in the cavernous bathroom—then sat outside on the front porch ‘til we were sure they'd fallen asleep. It wasn't all that different from car camping, when we'd sit by the fire reading and talking by headlamp under the stars. Only this time, after a few minutes, we snuck off to the bathhouse, a hundred yards across the snowy field, for a quick soak before bed.

You might come to Dunton with grand ambitions to cross-country ski, snowshoe, or climb a 14er, but the hot springs will suck you in. Other, more strenuous adventures suddenly become things you have to squeeze in between soakings. There are two communal pools at Dunton—one inside the rough-hewn bathhouse, a steamy rectangle that borders on scorching at 105 degrees, next to which is a deep Japanese-style cold plunge. The second is a misshapen oval, three feet deep and just outside, that usually hovers around 102. The water in both is odorless and dark brown, the color of a desert flash flood; so thick with magnesium and iron you can't see your feet. Steve and I and the girls spent all weekend dashing between the two. The outdoor pool was natural and sublime, under the stars and snow-clumped fir trees. The girls did laps on a makeshift slide made out of shiny plastic foil spread on the ground beside the pool, climbing up the rocky side, belly flopping onto the snow, hoisting their wet-weasel bodies onto the slide, and slipping their feet into the water.

Even with its thin canvas walls, our tent stayed a toasty 70 degrees all night, and when we woke in the morning, it was snowing lightly. A storm had moved in that would stay the weekend, dropping nearly a foot of heavy, wet snow before it was done. We wandered over for breakfast—homemade granola, eggs to order, 24/7 lattes from the espresso machine—then geared up for a morning ski with the girls. Pippa and I had brought out own gear, but Steve borrowed a Nordic setup from Dunton’s stash of loaners, and we set out to ski north up the forest road. It was only Pippa’s second time out on skinny skis, and she kicked and shuffled along behind us while Maisy rode in the pack on Steve’s back.

Within minutes, they were already raiding my pockets for snacks. It was snowing heavily now, and below us the cabins at Dunton fanned out across the valley, smoke wafting from chimneys, roofs gathering snow. It was too charming a scene for Pippa to resist; we had barely gone 200 yards, but Steve selflessly volunteered to take them back for a soak while I skied on into the storm. A half a mile away, the road split, and I took the unplowed right fork, startling an eagle atop a fir. It was silent and lovely and as happy as I was to have an hour’s ski to myself, I was also antsy to get back and join my family for a swim. Motherhood in a nutshell. By the time I found them in the bathhouse, steamy and all smiles, I was nearly as soaked as they, so I changed into my suit and slid in beside them, and we pool-hopped until Eric rang the bell for lunch: carrot ginger soup, stir-fry with prawns, and apple brown betty for desert.

I’d made it to the 24-hour mark without checking email, Facebook, or Twitter. I wasn’t even sure where my phone was—somewhere in the tent, probably, turned off. Whatever withdrawal symptoms I was going to have, I figured I’d already had them, and the idea of logging on now was officially repulsive. Even Pippa was so enthralled with Dunton that she forgot to beg for a movie at rest time. While Maisy napped in our tent and Steve skied, she and I took our book and notebooks to the library, a cozy cabin next door to our tent that the owner had built as a wedding present for his wife. I lit a fire in the fireplace and we snugged up together on the small couch, reading and drawing while the snow kept piling up.

This was our program for the rest of the weekend at Dunton: play in the snow, soak, eat 'til we were stuffed, soak again. After dinner, Eric lit a bonfire out front and we all stood around in the driving snow, pelting each other with snowballs as the fire crackled and threw off sparks. The girls stayed up too late again, and crashed hard—just like they always do when we camp. In the morning, Pip and I crept out while Steve and Maisy slept to do yoga next door in the spa. After breakfast, we borrowed sleds and laid a steep, fast track on the hill beside the owner’s house. The sun came out and the trees shrugged the snow off their branches while we did did laps on our sleds, careening downhill, flipping, flailing off track, until we had to tear the girls away. There was just enough time for one last soak.

That afternoon, after we’d said our reluctant goodbyes, vowed to return, and headed south for the long drive down valley, I took stock of the trip. We’d slept in a tent and had a bonfire. We swam outside day and night. We sledded and skied and went to bed windburned and exhausted. We didn’t check email or surf the Web, send bills or update Twitter. Sure, we were served grilled pheasant on fine Austrian tableware, enjoyed hot showers in our own bathroom, and drank lattes for breakfast. But we’d been together, outside, in nature. Dunton might have been fancy, but you could still call it camping. Or at least I could.

During the drive home and all that evening back in Santa Fe, I kept my phone switched off. My ear was still ringing, but I was so relaxed I no longer really cared. Once again, camping was the cure. And now I understood something else: We don’t always have to leave town to disconnect and unwind. Whenever we feel like it, we can unplug our cell phones, hide the computer, and “camp” right here at home. Maybe we’ll try that one of these weekends. After our Feburary hut trip, of course.

It wasn’t until Monday morning that I finally turned on my phone. I hadn’t missed a thing.

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