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IT STARTED as travel. Then it became sport. Now it's possible to experience skiing as pure travel again -- gliding over a white landscape from here to there.

We know about the early days from cave paintings of Norwegian skiing hunters and from an actual 4,000-year-old ski dug out of a peat bog near Hoting, Sweden. Skis made it possible for ancient, snowbound northerners to gather food and firewood, to trade from village to village and simply to visit from house to house.

In the mid-1800s, emigrating Scandinavians brought their long wooden "snowshoes" and their elegant telemark turn with them to the New World, to the wintry climes of the Upper Midwest and to the gold camps in the mountains of the Rockies and California.

In some communities doctors made house calls on skis. Children used them to slide to school. In Colorado, Father John Dyer skied through storm and sun to bring the word of God to isolated mining camps.

In California, a Norwegian by thename of John A. "Snowshoe" Thompson carried the mail over the Sierras on skis. For a decade in the 1850s and '60s (until the railroad finally crossed the mountains), Thompson was the sole winter land link between northern California and the rest of the nation.

The evolution of uphill transportation -- ski trains, rope tows, T-bars and finally the chair lift -- as well as the revolution in leisure time, and the linking by road of virtually every rural community, changed skiing from a necessity into elegant play.

Alpine skiing is married to fashion and high technology. Skiers in the latest colors swish down machine-groomed snow carpets and ride back up in high-speed, detachable quad chairs. Since the middle of this century, alpine, or downhill, skiing has almost eclipsed the original notion of skiing as a way to cross country.

But cross-country skiing didn't die altogether, of course, and is now enjoying a renaissance, so much so that winter trail systems are popping up everywhere there is reliable snow. You can ski inn to inn in Vermont and New Hampshire, town to town in Washington's Methow Valley, and hut to hut along the Appalachian Trail.

One of the best of the new trails is the 10th Mountain Hut and Trail System in the heart of Colorado. Aspen architect Fritz Benedict conceived the idea of a wilderness route connecting Aspen with Vail, 40 miles to the north.

Now, a decade after organizing the non-profit 10th Mountain Trail Association, Benedict can count more than 250 miles of trail in a rough circle around the Holy Cross Wilderness and at least 14 back-country huts and inns where ski travelers may spend the night on soft bunks in wood-stove-heated comfort.

The project is a memorial to the men of the 10th Mountain Division, much-decorated World War II alpine troops who trained at Camp Hale northeast of Aspen from 1942 to 1944.

A number of the soldiers fell in love with the mountains and returned after the war to form the nucleus of Colorado's fledgling ski industry. Benedict was among them, as was Vail founder Pete Siebert and Aspen Ski Co. pioneer Friedl Pfeifer.

But beyond honoring the veterans, Benedict had in mind the re-creation of a timeless, classless ski experience. The huts, he says, "are helping to preserve the kind of simple enjoyment of the mountains that prevailed before our super resorts became so fashionable."

The system is set up so that each hut is a day's ski from the next. In addition, every hut is accessible in one day from a plowed trail head. So trips into the loop can be of any length -- from a single overnight, in and out to any one of the huts, to a marathon linking of all the huts, a mini-expedition that could take up to two weeks.

I joined a group last spring for a four-day sortie onto the trail. We left Aspen under overcast skies and started climbing up the U-shaped valley of Hunter Creek. We quickly fell in line and rhythm behind guide Buck Elliot.

You can ski the trail alone if you are practiced in the back-country arts of map and compass reading, or you can hire a guide from Aspen or Vail. Stong intermediate cross country skiers can handle the terrain, but the TMTA screens all applicants and suggests bringing along at least one experienced back-country skier.

Buck set what seemed like an easy pace, slow but dogged in light of the 2,000 vertical feet we would gain to the first hut.

We were eight. Franny and Jean, friends from back East, both in their 60s with grown children, set themselves stoically to the task. Franny once taught ballroom dancing at Arthur Murray's in New York; Jean is a curator at a Boston-area museum. Both were veterans of groomed track skiing in New England, but neither had ventured onto mountains this big.

Then there was Jamie, 62, a retired New Hampshire electrical engineer and science teacher, who moved with a proud, stiff grace befitting his athleticism and his age.

There also was Jamie's daughter, Deb, 22, with her friend Mark, both confirmed alpine skiers out to see about this cross-country business and to explore their new friendship. There were Buck and Rick, the trail guides, at home, doing what they love most.

I settled into the rhythm: slide foot forward, hear the click of my boot in the free-heel binding as I step; feel the sure grip of the nylon climbing skins on the bottom of my skis; slide the other foot forward; poke blue holes in the deep snow beside the track with my poles; listen to the quiet without and the hum of my breathing and heartbeat within, working hard and well at 8,500 feet.

We stopped for lunch at a place called Van Horn Park, a rounded, pure white ridge, like a piece of polished marble surrounded by bare-branched aspens. A light snow fell straight down through the windless air.

We sat in a circle on our packs, the snow plinking on our nylon shoulders and wool hats. Buck and Rick spread lunch out on a tarp: hard salami, cheese, bagels, butter and peanut butter, carrots and celery, apples and oranges, chocolate bars.

Large chunks of time went by without anyone speaking. Behind us in the distance, the manicured trails of the ski slopes at Aspen, blended with other peaks, looked like just one more whitecap in a stormy Japanese wood block print. Finally, Franny said, "The pristineness kinda gets to ya."

Four hours later we were at the McNamara Hut, lighting stoves and melting snow in big pots for drinking and cooking. The guides are masters of the one-pan meal, simple, hearty fare -- cooked in big iron skillets on wood stoves.

Buck brought out the wine, another benefit of going with the guides. Buck's Paragon Guides stock the cabins with provisions, wine and sleeping bags in the fall, so clients need carry only extra clothing and personal gear.

The lighter the pack, the freer you are to revel in the skiing, in gliding lightly on long fiberglass feet, and paying attention to the land.

Robert McNamara, secretary of defense under Presidents Kennedy and Johnson and past head of the World Bank, donated the money for the first two huts in the system. A part-time Aspenite and avid back-country skier, he dedicated the McNamara and the Margy's huts to his late wife, Margaret, "one of God's loveliest creatures." So say the handsome plaques affixed to golden, rough-cut spruce walls.

Most of the huts are built of spruce logs (one is made of stone picked up on the site), and all are designed to be a functional blend of Colorado mine cabin architecture and the multistory efficiency of Alpine huts along the Chamonix-to-Zermatt Haute Route in Switzerland.

Day 1 had carried us six miles over the snow. Day 2 would cover more than eight miles through a foot of new snow, with a descent into the big old-growth trees of the Woody Creek drainage and then a long pull up another 2,000 vertical feet to the Margy's Hut at 11,300 feet. The trail, as it wove the shadows between shafts of brilliant light, seemed to dissolve our shyness.

The hut came into view, half-buried by a snowdrift. We were greeted by a hut mate, shirtless, feet up, sipping a whiskey and reading a paperback on the deck. Otherwise, we had the 16-bed, two-story cabin to ourselves.

After dinner, while the fire ebbed in the stove and gaiters and mittens dried on wall pegs, Deb and Mark did the dishes, Jamie split kindling for the next group, and candlelight flickered over the wooden tables in the living room.

We were family now. Secrets were revealed. Jamie recounted an unsuccessful attempt, 40 years before, on Maine's highest peak, 5,268-foot Mount Katahdin, in which he and his friends had attacked the wilderness on a motorized, Rube Goldbergian "snow sled." Franny admitted and then demonstrated that she could indeed tie other people's shoelaces with her bare toes.

The next day was a rest day/play day. We didn't have to go anywhere, but after a breakfast of Rick's buckwheat-and-nut pancakes, we took off for the summit of Mount Yeckel, a mile and a half away. A blazing sun worked on the new snow, shrinking it, compacting it, allowing us to walk on top, "like flies on a wall," Franny said.

Mark and Deb found a cornice where prevailing winds had piled the snow into a six-foot wave with a curling lip across the top. Again and again they soared off that lip, briefly in flight, only to splat down in the soft snow at its base. We had to drag them away.

Nearing Yeckel's gentle 11,765-foot summit, Franny slowed down and took her air in big gulps. Then we were there; everywhere else was down, and she said through a huge smile: "This was a little like having a baby: You do all that work and then, all of a sudden, almost without knowing it, there it is!" A 360-degree baby.

We could see most of the country the trail encircles. Back south, 16 miles distant, was the valley of the Roaring Fork and Aspen. Out east was the monumental vastness of the Holy Cross Wilderness and behind it the seven huts on the eastern branch of the system.

To the north lay the Harry Gates and Peter Estin huts, the former named in memory of a 10th Mountain Division soldier killed overseas, and the latter a family tribute to a top American ski racer in the 1940s and '50s.

Through binoculars we could just pick out the Estin Hut, perched right at tree line on the prow of steep and rocky New York Mountain. Closer in, we looked down 10 miles into the valley of the Frying Pan River on the Diamond J Guest Ranch, a private stop on the route where we would find roof and a sauna for the next night.

With nowhere to go but down, Buck gave a telemark lesson. He showed how, in this revival of a 150-year-old turn, the front foot strides ahead and initiates the direction change. And the back foot, bearing as much weight as possible, is the keel, the soul of the arcing balance. A telemarker resembles nothing so much as a knight in mid-genuflection before his queen.

Everyone got it in his own fashion. Franny pointed her toes and drew slow-curving gouges like a sculptor working in clay. Jamie swished around his right corners with a remarkable elan, but usually managed to lean too far in on his left turns.

Mark applied the leverage of speed to his turns with enthusiastically mixed results. Deb caught her father's eye with a set of snaky linked turns near the bottom.

Buck watched for the thousandth time and said: "That's it. That's the thing I like most about taking people out here -- the letting go."

Whereupon he dove his skis into the pitch, fast and swooping, and let forth a piercing "Ya hoo hoo hoo!" like a delirious owl. It was the perfect blending of travel and sport, an uncompromised synthesis in the thin, crystalline air.

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