Playing the Field: Be On the Lookout
Sparks fly in the strangest places
Whenever I tell the story of how Sara and I fell for each other, it sounds like a lie. Sometimes I rein in the details—not because they’re false, but -because I know they appear to be. Like the part with the volcano. The part with the volcano always tips it from crazy to unbelievable.
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We’d been in the Amazon for a week, in northern Ecuador, dodging bullet ants, swimming with pink dolphins, fishing for piranhas. Friends, platonic, since childhood. On what was supposed to be the final day of our trip, we emerged from the jungle on the outskirts of Lago Agrio, a little oil town just south of the Colombian border, where we planned to drag our grimy backpacks onto a turboprop and fly to Quito. We already had two seats booked on a flight.
Walking the road toward town, we smel-led the burning tires before we saw them. There were several smoking piles and hundreds of protestors. As we got closer, a few of them started chanting that they should throw the gringos into the fire. Sara’s Spanish was rusty, and she asked me what they were saying. I told her I’d tell her later.
The airport was shut down, as were all major roads. Foreign oil companies had bled the area for decades, giving little in return, and the locals were fed up. Most of the nearby wells and pipelines had just been sabotaged, cutting into Ecuador’s oil output. We found a cheap hotel with a nervous desk clerk and an empty room and waited for the inevitable crackdown.
The military arrived. We watched the clashes from our window, saw Molotoved banks burn, inhaled lungfuls of tear gas. At some point we discovered what I imagine has always been true: when things fall apart, people fall together.
As chaos subsided, we tried to get out of town. We hitched a ride with a cop, then thought better of it when we saw a police car in flames. We called our embassies—she has Canadian citizenship—but they couldn’t do anything. Eventually we found a television news crew that was determined to get its footage back to Quito, and we asked if we could tag along. They said we could. The protestors let them through. They wanted their message out.
The last hurdle was a partially dismantled bridge. We stopped and hauled just enough of its scattered pieces of steel back into place. As our vehicle inched across, I looked up the riverbed and saw that we were on the flanks of a volcano—El Reventador—and that it was in the process of reven-tando, belching smoke and ash.
That was 11 years ago. The short-lived Lago Agrio uprising had only a modest effect on world oil prices, but it changed our worlds completely.
Our daughter just turned ten.
Luke Dittrich is the author of Patient H.M.: a Story of Memory, Madness, and Family Secrets.
Getting Serious: Stay the Course
Relationships demand compromise. But always hold on to your dangerous habits.
When I started dating my wife, Katie, I ached for her from my knees to my throat. My desire to keep her close tempted me to cancel trips, tell my buddies to buzz off, and turn down jobs that I’d normally be thrilled to get.
A specific recollection has me climbing into the nosebleed section of a giant Sitka spruce that was leaning over my friend’s home in order to knock out the top with a chainsaw. I’d done this a bunch of times while working as an arborist during graduate school. I always loved the thrill of riding that bucking tree amid the rush of air created by the severed trunk racing toward a collision with the earth. But this time, as I inched my way up, I suffered a collection of worries about a climbing rope that suddenly seemed vulnerable and insufficient. One wrong move with my chainsaw or an errant placement of my climbing spurs and I might not live to touch Katie’s thigh again. The only sensible thing to do was rappel down and leave the tree to some sucker who was less in love.
But I kept climbing. I was driven by thoughts of many friends who had given up some vital part of themselves in the early stages of a relationship—solo climbs, annual fishing trips, plans to cross the continent on a bike—and their girlfriends grew to love them in the absence of such things. Later, when my friends tried to resume their old behaviors, they realized that they had inadvertently placed them out of reach. A buddy of mine describes this phenomenon as “the screwing you get for the screwing you got.”
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That’s not good for anyone—not for you, your girlfriend, or your relationship. When Katie and I were going through that love-drunk phase, I kept right on doing extended hunts in the mountains of Alaska and traveling to some of the remotest corners of the world for work. Instead of feeling threatened by these activities, she learned to take pride in my ability to navigate danger. “I want my guy to be capable,” she’d say, “and to remain dedicated to what he’s doing even in the face of big risks.”
Just don’t push it to the point of selfishness. Katie knows that I’m not carousing in bars at night. She knows that she can count on me in tough times. She knows that our family is my top priority. Because of all that, she’s OK with me turning up in the top of a big tree, attached to life only by a thin rope. When I come down, it’s like our first date all over again.
Contributing editor Steven Rinella is the author of The Complete Guide to Hunting, Butchering, and Cooking Wild Game.
Making the Commitment: No Risk, No Reward
The best way to show your willingness to go the distance? Follow them anywhere.
It’s only three miles, I told him. You can swim three miles. I’ve got some fins in your size, and the group stops every 500 yards. The water’s warm! Usually there isn’t much current. Right now the Southern Hemisphere is quiet, and the Northern Hemisphere hasn’t kicked in yet, so there won’t be any swell. We’ll see turtles! Fish. Manta rays. Across the coral reefs it’s a kaleidoscopic trip, and in the deep water… well, you can still see the bottom. You’ll love it! You’ll be fine.
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He was game. He was from Manhattan by way of northern Italy, in Hawaii for the first time, and he had flown to the middle of the Pacific Ocean to visit me. We were a new couple, feeling our way through early turbulence and geographic complications, and more than anything, I wanted him to stay for a while. In matters of the heart, I’ve learned that it pays to address the heart directly, so I set out to share what I love most: Maui’s offshore waters.
Here’s what I didn’t share: that a thriving population of tiger and oceanic whitetip sharks love these waters as much as I do.
Two years earlier, in fact, while swimming the same course, three friends and I ran into a feeding 13-foot tiger. I’ve seen my share of large marine life, and this was for sure the crankiest. A tattered sea turtle with a chunk out of its shell lay below us as we treaded helplessly, watching the shark roll its eyes back, tuck in its pectoral fins, and prepare to attack. But something gave the animal pause, and after a few long, menacing minutes, it snatched up the sea turtle, gave the carcass a warning shake, and swam slowly away.
Since then there have been other shark encounters around here, several bites and two fatalities. I didn’t see the upside in mentioning this. We waded out from the beach, adjusted our goggles. I was nervous. This was a moment of reckoning.
Until now we’d gotten along easily in our fledgling relationship, but reality would eventually descend—and here was a dose of it. Could I love someone who didn’t handle himself well in the ocean? The short answer was no. But I also realized that it’s a pretty tall order to ask someone from New York City to plunge into 70-foot-deep salt water and stay there for two hours comfortably.
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My worries were wasted. He swam well; if anything, he’d understated his skill. The ocean was crystalline that day, everything glowing and luminous. But when we arrived at the turnaround point, a rocky cliff studded with sea caves, the water abruptly turned oily and murky. Looking down, I saw a severed ahi head lying on the seafloor and realized, with a jolt, that the fishermen on the rocks above had been chumming. A lot.
Before I could suggest that we get out of there, another swimmer yelled: “Shark!” We ducked our heads in time to see a ten-foot oceanic whitetip, sleek as a fighter jet, swim past us right below the surface. The shark’s mouth was open, teeth clearly visible, and it was heading out to sea as if spooked. “I think we’d better go,” I said. He agreed, and in that moment I saw that he hadn’t panicked, hadn’t freaked out, and that, if anything, he was awed by the whitetip—which, by the way, is one of the more aggressive models. We got engaged six months later. Now when he tells the story of his first open-water swim in Hawaii, there’s pride in his voice, and happiness. A man who loves the wildest fish in the sea? That’s what I call a keeper.
Going Long: Lean On Me
Whatever the trail throws at you, you can handle it step by step
The first date that my wife, Lisa, and I went on was a bug safari in Central Park in the summer of 1992. Dressed in khakis and penny loafers, we wandered the woods and hillsides with magnifying glasses and entomology books in hand. Two weeks later, we pitched a tent for three nights in Adirondack Park. Soon afterward, we camped in New York’s High Peaks Wilderness Area and hiked 5,344-foot Mount Marcy.
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As our relationship grew, our outings got more ambitious. Later that year, we strapped a canoe on top of Lisa’s Saturn and drove from Boston to Everglades National Park to paddle the 99-mile Wilderness Waterway. We conceived our first children—twin girls—while backpacking in Great Smoky Mountains National Park and eloped in the summer of ’95, with Lisa gathering a bouquet of wildflowers and vegetables on the way to the courthouse in Lewisburg, West Virginia.
Some couples hike hand in hand. Not us. Lisa kicked my ass. She walked faster. She was never out of breath. And she always—and I mean always—prepared and packed better than I did. She was the quintessential adventure partner.
And then her body started falling apart. First to go was her shoulder. So we stopped doing triathlons together. A few years later, around 1998, she broke her right big toe. For some reason it never healed, and so while she could still hike glaciers in Greenland faster than me, each of us carrying a twin on our back, she was hurting every other step. Yet she soldiered on because it was our thing. We were the outdoors couple.
And then it got worse. By 2007, she started to experience excruciating pain in her hips on simple walks on our neighborhood nature trail. We didn’t know it, but she had a hereditary condition, shared with her brother and two sisters, in which the tissues that held her joints together were simply no longer strong enough for the job. Between the four siblings, they’ve now had four hips, five shoulders, and three knees replaced.
Watching Lisa hobble around our house, first on a cane and then on a walker, I assumed our outdoor life together was over. But about two years back—and I remember the exact look, words, and location—she turned to me and said, “I miss being in the outdoors with you and the kids too much. I want to go on hikes with you until the day we die.”
We learned that her “good” hip had end-stage osteoarthritis, and her bad hip was far worse. Her doctor couldn’t believe the destruction—bone had been grinding on bone for quite a while. Last winter she got dual hip-replacement surgery. Then, in the spring, a reconstructed big toe. Her right second toe was so disfigured by arthritis that she chose to have it amputated.
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A few months into her recovery, it’s a relief just to be able to walk with her to the end of the driveway to get the paper. Or to arrive hand in hand, out of breath, at an outdoor wedding. We have a tough climb ahead, but as long as there’s a trail before us, we’re going to follow it, together.
Little yurt in big woods photo: Katie Arnold
My husband, Steve, and I have been living and skiing in northern New Mexico for 16 years. We’ve had epic powder season, when we skied Taos nearly every weekend and drought seasons when we had to settle for skinning up our local ski area and carving wide wale. Steve scored some great backcountry seasons, with hut trips to British Columbia. Then I had pregnant seasons (hiking Kachina Peak at 5 months along—maybe not the wisest idea?) and newborn seasons, when my ski days were curtailed by ravenous infants and, when I did venture farther afield, my pump was part of the package. I’ve expressed milk in ski area parking lots, cafeteria bathrooms, and SnoCats, but never—thank God—on a chairlift.
Now that our two daughters are emerging from babyhood and are learning to ski, we’re having kid seasons. We’re enormously lucky to have a decent resort just 25 minutes up the road, but it’s still a schlep to get girls and gear to the lifts, and on the best days, we only manage to sneak in few runs ourselves. So all winter we’ve been fantasizing about getting out of the area and into the backcountry, where—away from the vacationing crowds, the lure of hot chocolate in the lodge, the occasional parking lot tantrum—skiing as a family would be simpler, more relaxing. Or so we thought.
Choosing the right spot was key. There are plenty of backcountry huts and yurts throughout the Rockies, but with a one-year-old and three-year-old, we had very specific criteria: We needed something within a few miles of a road, as our range would be limited by how far we could carry them and all our gear. The terrain had to be low-angle, with low or no risk of avalanche. Ideally, the hut would be big enough to accommodate another family. And we didn’t want to have to spend a ridiculous amount of time driving to get there. All told, our requirements were a little daunting, and I was starting to think we’d be better off waiting until the kids were older.
EFXC HQ photo: Katie Arnold
Then by chance I found it: a lone yurt at Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area, deep in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, about an hour northeast of Taos. The yurt—a circular, wood-and-canvas shelter, in only its second season—is only a mile from the base area, accessible by groomed and rolling cross-country ski trails. EFXC’s website describes it as having woodstove for heat, a propane stove for cooking, all the necessary cooking gear, an outhouse, and bunks for six (BYO sleeping bags). It sounded ideal for us and another family, who also have two girls under four. I figured we’d put the babies in portable, backcountry cribs, and the rest of us would crash on the bunks. Best of all, EFXC rents ski pulks specifically designed for carrying kids, and we could pay an extra $25 to have our gear transported via snowmobile to the yurt and back. I checked the calendar: Not surprisingly, only a couple weekend nights were still available, so I booked one on the spot.
It had all the makings of a perfect starter yurt trip.
Last Saturday morning, we left Santa Fe at the tail end of a storm, with fog obscuring the mountains and three inches of wet snow on the ground, but by the time we reached the Rio Grande Gorge, the roads were dry and the skies were clearing. It was turning out to be a classic March day in New Mexico: snow one moment, sun the next, all the more beautiful for how moody and unpredictable it was. After a two-and-a-half hour drive, we arrived at Enchanted Forest around lunchtime and spent the better part of an hour unloading and repacking our sizeable pile of gear and food. As we’ve learned from summer river trips, it’s almost impossible to travel light in the backcountry with toddlers and babies—even more so in the winter, when they need lots of warm layers, bulky boots, and for our three year old Pippa, a last-minute pair of borrowed XC skis.
Mush! photo: Blair Beakley
We debated using the snowmobile—the purists (e.g., fathers) among us argued it would be just as easy to haul the kids and then come back for the gear—but eventually, practical minds prevailed, and Mike, the head ski patroller, backed the sled behind our car and we started piling it full of stuff. Good thing, because putting four wiggly toddlers into two small ski pulks—picture a bike trailer, only smaller and with two plastic grooves instead of wheels—turned out to be trickier than we thought. One-year-old Maisy was delighted to play in the pulk, but when we stuck her sister in beside her and zipped up the clear plastic cover, it turned into an instant mosh pit. Ditto for our friends Stewart and Blair, whose 11-month-old baby Grace began wailing loudly beside three-year-old Franny. Time for Plan B: our Deuter KangaKid backpacks.
We’d strapped the little girls on our backs and the bigger girls in the pulks and were finally ready to shove off, when Geoff, EFXC’s owner, ambled out of the homey base lodge to assess our rigs. “Oh we don’t usually allow people to ski with kids on their backs,” he told us. The casual way he said this belied the bomb he dropped next. “It’s too dangerous. There have been eight fatalities in the last decade.” He paused meaningfully to let the horror set in. “I was a first responder on one of them.” I looked at Blair, who has been my partner on numerous ski outings with babies in tow, and I could tell she was thinking what I was thinking: All those times I’ve skied pregnant or with a baby strapped to my back—how could I be such terrible, careless mother?!
But Geoff wasn’t done yet. “Think about it: a baby’s head is like a watermelon,” he went on, “and if your skis slide out from under you, bam.” He made a slapping motion with one hand, and in one frenzied contortion, Blair shrugged the baby pack off her pack and put Grace into the safety of the pulk. Maisy was still protesting, so I decided to keep her on my back, at least for the long gradual climb to the yurt. After all, Mike had just told me my backcountry skis—wider than typical XC skis, with metal edges—were “a little overkill” for the groomed trails. “If you get nervous,” Steve said pragmatically, “you can put her in the sled.”
Setting off, Powderpuff Trail climbs gently from the lodge, and pretty soon Geoff’s message of doom was drowned out by Gracie’s desperate screeching. Behind me, I could feel Maisy’s head slump on my shoulder and all 23 pounds of her turn to dead weight. She was asleep. I could just make out Pippa’s bright eyes and huge grin through the fogged-up plastic cover of her pulk. With the help of the trail map, we navigated half a dozen junctions along EFXC’s more than 30k of trails. The website was reporting a 30-inch base, but in some sunny places, it skied more like five, with rocks and patches of grass peeking through along the edges. Still, it was undeniably gorgeous, and liberating, to be out there in the fresh air and stillness of the afternoon, pulling the girls under our own power, free from our mountain of stuff and life’s constant yammering distractions, at least for a little while.
The yurt, when we arrived after half an hour, sat in a picturesque clearing beside the trail; to the south, you could make out the high snowy ridge of Wheeler Peak, the highest in New Mexico. Even from some distance, I could tell it was going to be the smallest yurt I’d ever seen (never mind that it was the only yurt I’d ever seen, up close). Inside, our neatly stacked gear took up half the place; the rest consisted of two bunk beds, a tiny folding table, four chairs piled in the corner, a small wooden counter with a two-burner camping stove, a lantern dangling from the ceiling, a miniature wood stove, and a narrow shelf stacked with Sorry! and Yahtzee. It wasn’t immediately clear to me how we’d all fit inside, or where we would sleep, but we crammed in anyway, nervously admiring the view through the skylight and trying not to step on each other, especially baby Grace, who would more or less live on the floor all weekend.
Yurt livin': the view from below photo: Katie Arnold
We laid out lunch of hummus and wraps on the table and shooed the girls outside to take advantage of the daylight hours and build a snow cave. Then Blair and I ducked out to ski a lap around the south end of the trail system to an overlook called Piece de Resistance, with views south towards Wheeler Peak and Gold Hill, above Taos Ski Valley. Afterwards, we all went out for a walk, strapping Pippa into a pair of kiddy XC skis for the first time. I was expecting a spastic, wobbly-ankle debacle, but Pippa was surprisingly surefooted, herringboning up the steeper slopes and evening getting some glide.
Evening ski photo: Katie Arnold
Back at the yurt, Steve lit a fire, gave me explicit instructions to not let it go out, and skied off with Stewart into the late afternoon. Soon it would be dark, and suddenly the yurt felt very cold. It was hard to decide which was more urgent: get the kids into warm clothes or put dinner—vegetarian chili Blair made ahead—on the stove. We scrambled to do both at once, layering the girls up in wool leggings and fleece while trying to light the burners, cajoling them to eat chili and cornbread cross-legged on the floor, jamming too-long logs into the woodstove, and taming the crazy mess of gear spilling onto every inch of yurt. Yeah, we were backcountry nesting. By the time the guys came back, the yurt had a vague air of order about it, the kids were fed, and hot chili for the rest of us was simmering on the stove—a fleeting moment of calm before the storm. Literally.
Trying to put four kids to bed in a space roughly the size of a bathroom isn’t something I’d wish upon my worst enemy, and even though the adults among us were far too preoccupied trying to settle squalling girls to say anything aloud, I know we were all thinking the same thing, and not for the first time that day: How could this possibly be worth it? Nearly two hours of musical kids and bunks and countless false alarm trips to the malodorous outhouse later, the kids were more or less asleep. And since there was nothing much for us to do but sit and whisper in the dark—I was most certainly not going to catch up on my New Yorker reading as I’d imagined—we all retreated to our bunks in various stages of emotional and physical disrepair.
Trust me when I say that the most essential piece of gear on a family yurt trip is a pair of earplugs. They’ll take the edge off when your husband gets up repeatedly to shove wood in the stove and when the kid (yours) in the top bunk wails with a night terror (thankfully, Franny and Grace, model yurt citizens, slept through the hysteria). The only thing stranger than my inconsolable, half-asleep daughter thrashing on the top bunk was the flash of snow lightning that lit up the skylight and the clap of thunder that followed. Oh great, I thought, imagining our tiny canvas shelter being vaporized by the next strike, this is just what we need.
Next thing I knew, though, the faint light of dawn was streaking through the plastic windows and the children were beginning to chirp softly, like tree frogs in a Costa Rican dawn. All I could think was, thank God, we’d survived. Outside, the rogue midnight storm had dropped at half a foot of fresh snow, and the ponderosas glittered in white. There was the answer to our question: Yes, in the blinding light of a backcountry powder day, this was most certainly all worth it.
Babes in the woods photo: Katie Arnold
After breakfast, we went out for a family ski and got first tracks on fluffy, just-groomed trails. The older girls stood in the back of the pulks, musher-style, and Pippa broke out the XC skis for a bit, their peals of laughter breaking the powdery quiet. No one was out yet, and as we glided along through the silent, shining forest, I was struck by how, despite the obvious hassles, sleeping out in the backcountry is the only true way I know to slow time. Away from the over-stimulation of everyday routines, life really is so much simpler. In a 16-foot yurt, your only job of consequence is to keep the kids from killing each other or freezing to death. That, and fly through the trees on fast skis with fresh air in your lungs and sun on your face and people you love all around. Really, is there anything more important?
Top Ten Tips for Surviving Your First Yurt Trip with Kids
1. If you can, stay at least two nights, preferably three. It takes the same amount of prep as one, and the first night you’ll be too busy working out the kinks to really relax. By the second, you’ll have your system down and can focus on checking out.
2. Don’t forget earplugs.
3. Suck up your pride and take snow mobile assist if there is one. Definitely.
4. Bring more warm layers than you think you need, especially socks. Even with woodstoves, yurts can be chilly.
5. Pack slippers for all.
6. Borrow, rent, or BYO ski pulk. Chariot makes ski kits that will turn your bike trailer into a kiddy pulk. Otherwise, check out Wilderness Engineering's Kindershuttle Ski Pulk ($475), the classic, made-in-Utah sled that we used at EFXC.
7. Snowshoes are a great alternative to XC skiing if you’re worried about carrying kids on your back.
8. Bring or rent equipment for the kids, even if they’ve never tried Nordic skiing. A backcountry base camp is the perfect low-pressure place to explore the feeling of gliding on edgeless skis. If they’re not into it, they can always play musher in the pulk or build snow caves.
9. Double check the size of the shelter before you book. Your gear will take up more floor space than you think, and a 16-foot diameter hut isn’t big enough for eight. A hut with a separate sleeping space will make for a more restful night for all.
10. Homemade banana bread from Alice Water’s Art of Simple Food is an instant tantrum tamer and easy no-cook breakfast when you want to feed the kids fast and get out for a ski.
Enchanted Forest Cross Country Ski Area, www.enchantedforestxc.com; yurt rental, from $75 per night.