"I was thinking, over New Year's, we could go on vacation with my family," my husband, Matt, said, and my heart stilled. I love Matt's family. Really love them. But they're a large, strong-minded, active bunch. They all grew up on a farm in North Dakota, where they learned to drive a tractor at 7 years old. They're good, generous, neighborly people down to their core, but let's just say downtime - which is what I use vacations for - isn't their strength.
But we're both big believers that nothing's more important than time with family. Matt's sister, who lives in Wyoming with her husband and three children, picked Steamboat Springs, Colo., as our vacation spot because her in-laws have a condo there. Matt's younger sister and her husband drove from Bozeman, Montana, with their baby and preschooler, while his brother flew in from Fargo, North Dakota, with his girlfriend. We drove 15 hours from Edina, Minnesota, for a weeklong multigenerational ski trip over winter break.
Matt and I had been to Steamboat Springs years before with friends. Tucked along the Yampa River in northwest Colorado, the Western-flavored town twinkled with holiday spirit even in the offseason: The sun reflected off its dry, light snow - trademarked by Steamboat as "Champagne Powder" - while the party lights strung outside its après-ski bars added to the festive mood. This time, to save money on rentals, we bought used ski equipment for our three kids at a hometown tent sale, then tied it to the roof of our van.
We checked into the 328-room Steamboat Grand across the street from the gondola. It had a pair of outdoor saltwater hot tubs and a pool for off-slope entertainment, as well as a spa. Plus, it offered complimentary slope-side storage to make hitting the powder with kids a breeze, as we didn't need to haul skis back and forth. Our three one- and two-bedroom condos overlooked the mountains and gave kids with early bedtimes a separate room to sleep in while adults gathered in front of the fireplace at night. And, booking them separately made money matters easier.
Upon arrival, our kids raced from floor to floor in search of their cousins while I swung by a nearby Safeway to stock up our kitchenette. We planned to take turns hosting dinner, not only to divide the labor and save on food costs but also to ease our stress. Eating in allowed us to accommodate slow, fast and feisty eaters alike.
With nearly 3,000 skiable acres encompassing six peaks, and a gaggle of hyped-up kids ranging in age from 3 to 15, we opted to split up by ability. That put me with those destined for the confidence-building, meandering green runs - namely, my younger son and my daughter.
Caleb, 9, easily coasted down his first hill and gathered speed. Soon, his helmet disappeared down below. "Caleb!" I hollered. A panic set in. Which way would he turn when the run split? Would he try to get on a chairlift? Would frostbite set in before we could find him, dwarfed by this humbling terrain, on one of the resort's 165 trails?
Meanwhile, Anna, 7, had taken a tumble up above. "I'm terrible!" she cried out, and my heart broke.
When my sons first fell, they simply externalized it: "My skis are broken!" I unbuckled my skis. "You are amazing," I said, when her eyes met mine, as I hiked up the hill to reach her. I wanted to instill in her that same determination to conquer the Rockies my sons had, and to become her rock, as my mother was for me. "You just need practice."
Anna and I found Caleb waiting at the base of the slope. The next day, still unnerved, Matt and I splurged on a five-hour family ski lesson through Steamboat's SnowSports School to get us all up and running. This way, we could keep differing abilities together.
We soon settled into a rhythm, thanks to the support and scaffolding a multigenerational family creates: The early risers took the first chairlift up, and those who slept in texted for a meetup place when they woke. It didn't matter whose kid you had, as long as everybody was accounted for.
My husband and his brother dodged Steamboat's signature aspens with Max and Caleb, our daredevil boys, while my daughter, emboldened by her ski lesson, used giant-slalom turns to conquer Heavenly Daze - a spacious, albeit icy, blue run - with her cousin and my sister-in-law.
Over lunch, we warmed up numbing fingers and toes in the crowded Thunderhead Food Court, where the eight-person gondola had let us off. To save money, we old-schooled it with bagged peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches and carrots we had left in backpacks slung from tree limbs. Occasionally, we splurged on a $7.50 basket of fries or a $3.50 chocolate chip cookie.
While we skied, we let easy meals such as tacos, spaghetti and chili simmer aromatically in the slow cookers that we had brought with us.
Upon our return, our kids went to the lobby, where they sipped hot, marshmallow-piled cocoa, nibbled on candy and built gingerbread houses through the Steamboat Grand's family program while they waited for the table to be set. After dinner, we slipped into bathing suits and soaked with many others in one of the hot tubs, a salve for our sore muscles. The steam obscured our views.
Mindful of our different parenting styles, we did our best to ignore kids who bickered; it was their job to work it out, and for the most part they did. There were simply too many relationships for us to try to manage.
We took breaks from the extended family when we needed it, which made our time together more enjoyable. Before bed, we came together to play kid-friendly games such as "Bean Boozled" - you spin a wheel and eat a jelly bean matching the color it lands on, but you don't know whether its flavor will be classic or gross. My son lost when what he thought was caramel corn turned out to be moldy cheese.
On another night, we left the older kids in charge of the younger ones and wandered down to the Cabin Restaurant to dine on New American cuisine. Without the space that children often put between us, and with time to slow down and invest in each other, we got in a few years' worth of spontaneous, authentic conversation. The first bottle of wine peeled away the stresses of daily life.
Our lives were a shared landscape. There was something familiar about the shoes each of us wore, the paths each of us walked. We were willing to expose our vulnerabilities, understanding that there, in that moment, we were getting something right. We could feel it in the connection, the synchronization of thoughts and, at last, the laughter.
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IF YOU GO
2300 Mount Werner Circle, Steamboat Springs
Guestrooms at the newly updated, seven-story hotel at the base of the Steamboat Ski Resort range from studios and parlors to three-bedroom condominiums and luxurious penthouses. There's also a full-service on-site spa and fitness center, along with 20,000 square feet of indoor/outdoor convention space. Rooms start at $199 in the offseason and increase to $699 during the holidays. One-bedroom condos start at $245 in the offseason and increase to $725 during the holidays (Dec. 26-Jan. 2; Feb. 16-19). The hotel's family-friendly Cabin restaurant (open May 25-Sept. 25) features classic American eats, with sandwiches starting at $12, entrees $21. Open 7:30 a.m. to 10 p.m. The bar is open until 11 p.m. Espresso drinks, hot breakfast items and grab-and-go meals are also available at the Grand Café. A seasonal poolside bistro serves drinks and snacks.
2305 Mount Werner Circle, Steamboat Springs
Daily lift tickets cost $90 in early season, $145 high season (Dec. 23-Jan. 15; Feb. 15-25; March 10-25). The resort offers private ski and snowboard lessons for up to five people, with costs ranging from $449 for three hours to $749 for seven hours. Prices increase by $20 during the holidays (Dec. 18-Jan. 7, Feb. 17-25, March 10-April 1). Save up to 15 percent on lift tickets and ski lessons when you purchase at least a week in advance.