On the very cusp of autumn -- with the Autumnal Equinox arriving the following day -- my wife, children, sister-in-law and I walked through meadows and along tree lines for a little more than a mile. We strolled into the forest in search of our overnight accommodations: a 20-foot-diameter yurt.
For the uninitiated, a yurt -- sometimes called a "ger" -- is a semi-permanent, circular dwelling that is something between a cabin and a tent. A heavy, waterproof canvas is stretched over a wooden framework to create the space. In the last few months, the staff at Flagstaff Nordic Center has started renting yurts -- two large, 20-foot yurts and four small 12-footers -- as part of its Off-Grid Getaways.
"There are people out there who are just yurt fanatics -- they're like yurt-oholics," said Wendell Johnson, owner-manager of the Nordic Center.
He noted that the center has had yurts, but it had mostly reserved their use for events such as weddings. This summer, he and his staff started renting them to individuals and instantly saw bookings.
"For some, it's the romanticism of the yurt, which has its lineage in Mongolian and Asian culture," Johnson said. "For others, it's the practical standpoint. Yurts are much sturdier than tents and are less affected by the wind ... and other elements."
Yurts are well-known as being used even to this day among the nomadic people of Mongolia, who create the wooden structure and then pull a heavy felt covering over it. Because of the circular design, the yurts are seldom affected by the wind and have a superstructure that can withstand heavy snow.
"Two years ago, when we had that big snow in town, we had between six and seven feet of snow out at the Nordic Center," Johnson noted. "We had the yurts out there but we didn't have to mess with them. And we didn't have any damage."
After walking the Abineau Trail of the Nordic Center, I arrived with the family at what is known as the Aspen Yurt. The yurt sits on the edge of a wide-open meadow that includes among its regular residents a red-tailed hawk. The yurt is around a hundred yards from a second dwelling known as the Coyote Yurt. Between the two of them is the portable restroom that is shared.
We unlocked the door to the yurt and walked into the circle. At the back of the yurt stood a woodstove. To the left was a bunk bed and to the right was a futon sofa that folded out into a double bed. The yurt included a couple of chairs, a table and five-gallon water cooler filled with water.
Outside was a propane grill along with cut and stacked firewood, two picnic tables, two benches and a metal fire pit. We went to work unpacking our gear, which mostly included sleeping bags, food and supplies for the children.
For my wife and me, the yurt adventure proved a great alternative. We have spent major portions of our adult lives camping and backpacking. I proposed to her at Havasu Falls, on a backpacking trip. Many of our favorite travels involved sleeping in a tent or under the stars.
After the birth of our daughter Grace and then son Ezra, we found ourselves backpacking and camping less. The yurt gave us a chance to try our hand at quasi-camping, where we hauled gear in backpacks (and children in a trail-appropriate bicycle trailer) but did not have to worry about a tent or water. And, we were not alone in this notion: the guests of the other yurt were a young Phoenix couple and their 16-month-old daughter, Sophie.
We also enjoyed the distinct advantage of a woodstove-heated space -- a bonus to the yurt that also helps extend the camping season well into the fall. In fact, the yurts are a year-round offering and a popular overnight retreat for cross-country skiers and snowshoeing enthusiasts.
Like our nights of tent camping, the yurt served primarily as our base of operations to explore. The Nordic Center yurt experience is enhanced by the more than 30 miles of trails. While the trails are there primarily for the cross-country ski season, they also offer hiking opportunities. At around 8,200-feet in elevation, the area is a cool mix of aspen and pine.
Following a dinner that included veggie burgers and roasted corn, my sister-in-law showed off her fire-starting skills by getting a nice blaze going in the fire pit. We basked in the campfire as the dusk went blue and the stars began to show. The woodsmoke, emerging night and mountain air helped us reconnect with all the things we loved about camping.
UNDER THE DOME
As we prepared for bed, I found myself fixated on one interesting feature of the yurt: A perfect circle of a skylight about two feet in diameter at the top of the ceiling. During the day, this brings light into the room, along with two windows that can be unclipped and rolled up.
At night, the dome creates a small window into the cosmos.
For the time of our visit, I could see Orion's Belt in the circle. Johnson notes that, during the winter, the Big Dipper is visible in circle, and people who stay overnight can watch it rotate through the night.
In many ways, it reminded me of a crude version of a James Turrell Skyspace, where the minimalist conceptual artist reveals a circle of sky in the center of a room so people can watch and interpret the sky's color and form. To this effect, I watched how dawn faded out the stars and brought different shades of blue in the circle.
The morning brought a robust hike up the Abineau Trail and across a trail known as the Snowslide. While most of the forest remained in shadow, Kendrick Peak to the west was bathed in morning light.
As I pulled the crisp air into my lungs and studied the cool and warm tones of morning and the emerging light, I realized that we needed to refill our summer season with family camping and look to the yurts to help extend the season into the fall and beyond.