The Hike to Aspen was one of those trips I had heard about a long time ago and never really understood how to make it happen, so it fell into the “bucket list“ category. I knew the trip would be amazing, but I also knew I didn’t have time in our busy family schedule to make the planning and logistics a priority. Having done plenty of long hikes, backpack trips, and even a few half-marathons, I understood that epic hikes half-planned usually turned into epic disasters.
My wife, Michelle, is the hiker in the family. There is nothing she loves more than to strap on a daypack filled with snacks, water and rain jacket and hit the trail for a few hours. Throw in a few wildflowers, songbirds, mountain views and release time from the responsibility of our young children and her hikes become a sort of Nirvana. Each summer we planned a weeklong family vacation to Colorado and tried to spend the majority of our time in and around the town of Crested Butte, our favorite place in the world. Despite our best efforts to plan a balanced family vacation, however, each year we always drove home with Michelle feeling disappointed that she never experienced enough hiking.
I resolved to rectify this situation in the spring of 2011 while planning another family vacation to Crested Butte. I wanted to surprise Michelle with an epic hike; I wanted to make up for all the disappointments of the past. I knew I needed professional help. I did a few Google searches and found an outfit named Colorado Backcountry in Crested Butte. I called Ben Pritchett, the owner and lead guide, and asked about hiking to Aspen. How long was the trip? How fit did we need to be? And what would it cost? I was nervous, afraid of discovering a dozen reasons why we couldn’t do this trip. Ben was helpful, addressed my questions and together we made a plan to give Michelle the best hiking experience we could dream up.
We would leave Crested Butte on a Saturday morning in mid-August, about a month after the Crested Butte Wildflower Festival when the flowers at the higher altitudes would be in peak bloom. Michelle and I would stay the night in Aspen and hike back to Crested Butte the next day, guided by Ben the entire way. In a twist of serendipity Ben also got to spend the layover with his wife who was competing in a mountain bike race in Aspen that weekend. We were fortunate to have Michelle’s parents join us on vacation in Crested Butte so they cared for the kids and the dog while we were away.
The hiking trip itself was awesome, more breathtaking than we had even dreamed of. The weather was fantastic, the fields of flowers were thick and colorful and the wildlife was surprisingly plentiful. With Ben’s help we spotted a herd of elk, mountain goats and two black bears. At one point we heard what sounded like an elk, running away from us though the trees, disturbed by my chatty voice.
Being guided by Ben made the best parts of the trip possible. Not once did Michelle or I ever look at a topographical map, a bus schedule or a watch. We didn’t need to. We were always where we needed to be when we needed to be there through Ben's logistical precision, honed over the 75+ trips to Aspen in the last ten years guiding folks just like us. Being released from the navigational responsibilities of the journey allowed my thoughts to wander as freely as my feet and enabled me to be fully present with my companions. I experienced the mountains in a way I never had before. Best of all, I observed Michelle having the time of her life. Her inner light shone bright and reminded me of years ago when we had been dating and hiking together in the Colorado wilderness. I took relief, gratitude and a bit of pride knowing that finally, on this vacation, Michelle would have no reason to be disappointed.