A frigid night in State Forest State Park leads to a classic dilemma for winter adventurers: Is 3:13 a.m. a good time to visit the latrine? Is there, in fact, a good time?
BY PETER MOORE
WE WERE JUST SETTLING IN FOR FRIED-CHICKEN NIGHT (Wednesdays) at the Regional when my wife suggested that I regale our friends—newly transplanted here from San Francisco—with tales of my weekend at the yurt.
Blank looks from across the table. “What’s a yurt?” the San Franciscans asked.
So let’s start at the very beginning.
Colorado has a world-class collection of back-country lodging, most famously the 10th-Mountain Division Huts, a circle of 36 high-country cabins extending from Vail down to Aspen. I personally have hiked or skied into 26 of them, so yes, I’m a fan of their wood stoves, giant piles of split logs, propane-powered cooking facilities and comfy bunk beds.
I even love the latrines. The window in the loo at Uncle Bud’s hut, high above Leadville, perfectly frames Colorado’s highest peak, Mt. Elbert. And one wall of the potty at Benedict Huts is entirely made of plexiglass. Bad for privacy, good a stunning (seated) view of the Maroon Bells. Believe me: Latrines loom large in the enjoyment factor when you’re living at 10,000 feet — which I told our dinner companions all about during our delicious meal at the Regional.
Although I’m a hut habitué, I’m a yurt youngster, having only stayed in two of them in my life. That is no surprise: I’m from Connecticut, whereas yurts were first built by Mongolian shepherds 3,000 years ago. Typically, yurts are self-supporting circular structures with a conical roof and quick tear-down time, which is helpful if your yak herd suddenly bolts for the Himalayas.
Former Supreme Court Chief Justice William O. Douglas introduced yurts to the West during an explore in Mongolia. Soon, manufacturers in the U.K. and the U.S. were engineering sturdy supports and insulated walls and plopping yurts down in all sorts of mountain paradises.
Never Summer Nordic located theirs in Colorado’s State Forest State Park, which may be the most boring, redundant name ever applied to an astonishingly beautiful parkland. Having now stayed overnight there, in a yurt, I propose renaming it William O. Douglas State Park, for his pioneering contributions to circular overnight habitations.
To reach William O. Douglas State Park — see, you get used to it — you drive northwest of Fort Collins on Colo. 14, surmount 10,249-foot-high Cameron Pass, ogle the dramatic profile of the Nokhu Crags, then drive down to the Moose Visitor Center, where they will smile tolerantly if you complain about the stupidity of the name, State Forest State Park. They will point the way down the road a little further to a park access road between mile markers 53 and 54, in Walden. To reach the Never Summer Yurts, you have to drive another 10 miles on dirt/snow/ice roads, which made me grateful to my neighbor, who was behind the wheel of his 4WD Toyota truck. All the while we were nosing in closer and closer to the looming Medicine Bow Range, extending gorgeously toward Wyoming.
Our destination for the night was the North Fork Canadian Yurt, a mile distant from our parking spot. As we unpacked our gear, we encountered the prior night’s yurt residents, who graciously informed us that they’d left an ample supply of snow-melt water on the wood stove, plus a tea kettle of freshly boiled water on the cook stove. Given the alimentary activities of the moose and elk upstream of the yurt and the threat of poop-borne giardia parasites in the water, we owed them a debt of gratitude.
We traveled a winding path through moose habitat—plenty of clipped willow branches and dish-plate footprints on view. I was on snowshoes, my pal on skis, and we quickly covered the mile from car to yurt. We dumped our packs in the snug space, with beds for five.
It was mid-afternoon when we arrived, given our two-hour drive up from Fort Collins, and the midwinter light was already fading. So we opted for a short schlepp through the surrounding forests and meadows, spotting all sorts of animal tracks: snowshoe hare, bobcat, moose, elk, and even a romantic rodent of some sort, which managed to inscribe a perfect heart in footprints on top of the snow. I immediately tried to text it to my wife, but no luck. The online Never Summer Yurts guidebook gleefully ticks off all the things their lodgings don’t offer, including electricity, running water and indoor toilets. Plus “the best part: your cellphones will most likely not work.”
Now, back to William O. Douglas, who turned out to have good advice for late afternoon in the shadow of the Medicine Bows. “As nightfall does not come all at once,” he wrote, “neither does oppression. In both instances, there is a twilight when everything remains seemingly unchanged. And it is in such twilight that we all must be most aware of a change in the air — however slight — lest we become unwitting victims of the darkness.”
That was certainly true (minus the oppression part) while we sat on the front porch of the North Fork Canadian yurt, sharing a beer and watching for huge quadrupeds in the gloaming. None showed their long faces, but the beer was just right. Until the sunset, that is, when the temperature began plunging. We retreated indoors, my neighbor fired up the wood stove, and I whipped up a hearty soup on the propane burner. Before retreating into our sleeping bags—rated for below-freezing temperatures (see box for gear recommendations; hey, you could die out there)—we pledged to each other that we’d stoke the fire throughout the night.
Not all promises are kept, however.
I myself opened an eye, and saw an orange glow, around 1 a.m., and resisted the urge to leave my warm sleeping bag. By 3:13 a.m., another urge was upon me, and this one could not be resisted: Either visit the latrine, 100 chilly feet distant from the yurt, or remain awake until even chillier dawn. So I leapt from the bed and hastily pulled on my warmest clothes. The fire was now cold. Deadly cold.
- When I stepped out of the door of the yurt it was breathtaking in two ways: 1. The moon had set, and in the utter absence of city lights, the star show was spectacular. 2. It was now -12 degrees. I raced to the outhouse, took care of business, and raced back to the safety of my sleeping bag. I stopped shivering a half-hour later.
In the morning, my friend did the honors of lighting the stove again, for which I declare him my brother for life. To partially repay him, I whipped up whole-grain blueberry pancakes, with turkey sausages. I even brought condensed milk for our coffees. We enjoyed a morning ski/snowshoe before departing and found deeply hollowed out depressions in the snow, where the local moose had spent the night. I was so glad we’d spent our night indoors.
Which yet again made me grateful to the yurt pioneer William O. Douglas, who once wrote: “The way to combat noxious ideas is with other ideas. The way to combat falsehoods is with truth.”
Somebody oughta name a state park after that guy.