Take the Holidays Outside

My best holiday ever was one during which I didn’t cook a turkey, watch football or celebrate with a single relative. It happened in the early 1990s, when I was a student at St. John’s College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Though a lover of great books, I didn’t enter its Great Books program solely for the reading. I went in large part because St. John’s had a renowned search-and-rescue team and because the school sits in the center of rugged, remote mountains. Through research, I’d learned that I could not only study Ptolemy, Copernicus and Shakespeare “straight from the source,” but could also spend hours each week learning to raft, backcountry ski and rock climb.

Come Thanksgiving break of my first year, I also discovered that I could spend the week in my dorm instead of going to my parents’ home in Las Vegas. For the entire week, I ate takeout food, read my copy of Mountaineering: Freedom of the Hills, and headed out every morning up the road to the nearby Santa Fe Ski Basin, where I’d don my Madshus cross-country skis, and hike and herringbone a winding trail to the 12,000-foot summit. Then I’d schuss back down, high on my dual accomplishments of climbing without skins and seeing close to no one. I performed this ritual every day of Thanksgiving break, feeling infinitely better than if I’d gone home, partied each night, and slept half of every day only to greet the holiday in a hungover stupor because there was no snow in Las Vegas and therefore I couldn’t go skiing.

So I stayed in Santa Fe, skied every day, and planned on avoiding any opportunity that might have come up to start watching football at noon, drinking at 2 and stuffing myself by 4. On the big day, I cracked open a care package my mom had sent, ate a stale scone and did ski my way to a bliss no amount of tryptophan could have induced. My day started at 8 and ended at 4, and when I returned to my dorm, I found a note from a friend who was hosting Thanksgiving dinner. I think she invited me because she felt sad that I’d had to stay in Santa Fe instead of going home to family. I obliged, but only because I’d spent so much time nursing a deep well of gratitude for skiing and the outdoors and freedom. Because of this, I could sit down, be present, and truly thank the world for what I’d been given.

Since then, I try to plan something non-traditional and outdoorsy for every winter holiday. If you want to try, here are a few ideas to get started.

On Thanksgiving, Christmas or New Year’s Day, when the crowds tend to stay home nursing indigestion, opening gifts or sleeping off hangovers, hit a ski resort. Check out these five great family resorts (gauged on access to slopes, ski schools and layout of mountain):  Winter Park, Colorado; Heavenly, California; Park City, Utah; Smuggler’s Notch, Vermont; Taos, New Mexico.

Or, on those same days, eschew the resort for cross-country skiing. Benefits: even less crowded, exercise high, burning pumpkin pie or Christmas cookie calories.

Plan either a Thanksgiving break or New Year’s Eve hut trip. Yes, it might be hard to haul a turkey or booze into a remote ski-in-only chalet but it’s possible (via sled)—or, interesting in an ascetic monk kind of way, to try celebrating without. Try one of these five great family trips: Point Breeze Hut, 10th Mountain Division, Colorado; Janet’s Cabin, 10th Mountain Division, Colorado; John Muir Wilderness Hut Trip (guided, through Sierra Mountain Center); Lonesome Lake Hut (at Cannon Mountain), New Hampshire; Williams Peak Hut (guided, through Sawtooth Mountain Guides), Sun Valley, Idaho.

During Christmas break, ski or snowshoe the kids into a state park or national forest. Pre-make “edible” ornaments for birds, deer and other wildlife (e.g., pinecones dipped in peanut butter and bird seed, popcorn garlands made with edible string) and decorate a wilderness Christmas tree (or cactus).

Take the kids (or a sweetheart) on a full moon ski or snowshoe, and look for winter constellations (like Orion, Draco, and Ursa Minor), or, if you’re really lucky and live in a place like Montana, Minnesota or Alaska, the Northern Lights.

Splurge on a Nordic skiing vacation (try Sun Mountain Lodge and Resort in eastern Washington’s Methow Valley; Latigo Ranch between Winter Park and Steamboat Springs, Colorado; and Bohart Ranch near Bozeman, Montana).