When I told my mother I was going on a long horseback ride and I was nervous, not having ridden since horses were a substitute for boys in my affections, she said, “Well, you need to look each hoss in the face and ask, ‘Do you want to carry me?’”
At the time, that seemed like good advice. A communion of some sort would definitely be to my advantage. But instead, the cowboys at Edwards, Colorado’s Bearcat Stables picked out my horse for the four-day, 55-mile trek from Vail to Aspen, through the magnificent White River National Forest and Holy Cross Wilderness Area. I was assigned a gentle gelding named Socks. Nonetheless, I pocketed an apple at breakfast, figuring that what I couldn’t achieve by horse-whispering, I could achieve with food.
Food was definitely going to be a part of this riding experience, and not just for the horses. Bearcat partner Leeds Butcher, a sommelier, collaborated with his friend Kelly Liken, of Restaurant Kelly Liken in Vail, to prepare wonderful, rustic dinners for us on the trail. Liken—one of the best chefs in the Southwest, a Top Chef finalist and a contestant on Iron Chef America—seemed in her element, happily cooking at fire pits in the waning light.
Gavin Selway, a weathered fellow in aging chaps and the other half of Bearcat, led our ride; a hired hand, Todd Brown, followed with a packhorse laden with cowboy necessities (saws, first-aid supplies, bug spray). There were 12 of us, including the cowboys, plus the packhorse: “Twenty-five heartbeats on the trail,” said Todd. When I first saw my fellow riders, young men and women attired in gorgeous western gear, I figured they were real cowboys and cowgirls... until I heard their English accents and found out they were swigging amaretto from their flasks. (They were, it turns out, freshly minted British MDs.)
We traveled in a line, changing places periodically to separate quarreling horses. “It’s like managing a bunch of third-graders,” sighed Selway. We rode through grass pastures knee-high with purple columbines, pink primroses and bluebells; we scared up deer that bounded away on legs like springs. Selway pointed out medicinal plants cowboys use to treat sore muscles and scrapes, and if you were in the back of the line, you heard Brown’s litany of naughty cowboyisms (apparently a “cowboy hand warmer” is a horse turd).
The first day was an eight-hour ride, and by the end I felt sore and tired, but also exhilarated to have accomplished the journey. (Subsequent days were less arduous.) When we entered the Peter Estin Hut, named for a famous skier, and pulled off our boots, I couldn’t get enough of the simple pleasure of wiggling my toes.
The huts—we stayed at two—lay between 9,700 and 11,700 feet above sea level and are part of a series of beautifully maintained backcountry log cabins in the Colorado Rockies known as the 10th Mountain Division Huts (the 10th Mountain Division of the US Army trained in the Rockies during World War II). Our huts had comfortable beds, pegs on the wall for our hats, open kitchens with wood-burning stoves and views of the endless craggy peaks of the Williams Range, the Maroon Bells and the Elks.
On our first night, we were greeted with the profoundly satisfying scent of warm bread. Liken, a brown-eyed 35-year-old with quick, confident hands, was cooking flatbread over a campfire’s embers until the crust was as spotted as a leopard; she then spread it with ricotta and sautéed wild mushrooms. “Pizza,” she told us, smiling, “is inherently shareable food.” Her friend Kevin Furtado, the winemaker at California’s now-shuttered K. Furtado Wines, was there to pour his 2009 rosé of Syrah, as dainty and floral as the jars of wildflowers on the porch tables.
Liken is one of a dozen or so chefs defining Colorado cuisine today. I’ve been to her elegant Vail restaurant, where she prepares unfussy, scrupulously sourced New American dishes, like potato-crusted trout fillets with haricots verts. She cooks outdoors in the same spirit. Indeed, the essential Kelly Liken seems most evident under the big Colorado sky.
She served our dinners at a long picnic table, the mood wholesome and raucous. On our first night, we grabbed Frenched lamb chops from a huge black skillet and dipped them in a powerfully herby gremolata; there was also a platter of baby summer squash sautéed with scallions and a deep bowl of peppery high-altitude arugula tossed with paper-thin radishes and fennel. Then, while billions of stars brightened overhead, the cowboys prepared a proper campfire. At first, I thought the idea was cliché. “But we do campfires all the time!” protested Liken. She brought out slices of plum crostata; the crust hinting of salt, the filling a purple bruise of tart fruit. As we sat around the fire, the cowboys told stories of hauntings they had experienced, and with the dark woods behind my back, I believed.
Bearcat’s cook, Danielle Carrillo, prepared breakfast: eggs, pan-fried potatoes, thick-cut bacon and strong coffee. Lunches were on the trail: sandwiches, pickles and cold beer. By day two, incredibly, I was feeling almost tough. We rode through spruce forests, mushrooms erupting from the pine needles; through aspen groves bathed in pale green light; beside clear, frantic streams. The second night took us to the Diamond J Ranch, a dude ranch on the Frying Pan River—kind of a vacation within a vacation, with hot tubs, Internet access and ice cubes—where Liken served a red-pepper bisque and halibut with parsley salsa, ending the meal with wild-strawberry shortcake.
Everyone, happily, bathed.
And then we were back on the trail, heading up, up, up through the Hunter-Frying Pan Wilderness Area, past alpine meadows punctuated with giant boulders and braided with tiny creeks, to our last and highest destination: Mount Yeckel, where we had a 360-degree view of America.
Liken was waiting at the hut, busy turning elk tenderloin over an open fire. “My favorite place to cook is outside,” she said. “In fact, my husband [Rick Colomitz, general manager of the restaurant] built me an outdoor oven at home... and a kegerator for himself.” We watched our big-bellied ponies roll in their dusty, high-mountain corral; wineglasses in hand, we were a bit light-headed from exertion and altitude. With the elk, Liken served us a mix of wild mushrooms, which we ate with Furtado’s refined, manly Syrah. Then the Brits, having changed into flannel pajamas printed with bucking broncos, got a wood-chopping lesson from the cowboys. “This is the Colorado I love,” said Liken, sipping wine as she looked out over the mountains. Indeed, her cooking style reflects the grand yet simple pleasures of this Colorado: the free range, the forests, the red earth.
It was a full day of riding before we finally emerged from the woods and saw Aspen. Our horses snorted in recognition. Maybe it had to do with the rigor of the trail, the hugeness of the scenery or the sense that for generations, this was the way frontiersmen used to experience the land, but from this vantage point, Aspen simply looked like a pretty town snuggled in the mountains, where we’d find oats and a warm bed.
Eugenia Bone is the author, most recently, of Mycophilia: Revelations From the Weird World of Mushrooms.