We came to the “cabin” in midwinter, trekking with backpacks all day from Silverton, Colorado. Dave on skis with skins, me on snowshoes. In the late afternoon, with a whiff of snow starting to fly from the leaden clouds, we stood just below timberline, huffing and puffing.
“It’s around here, I think,” I said. “Looks a little different in winter….”
That summer, wildflowers at full bonanza, I’d haunted the elkiest subalpine zones of our local mountains, searching for a territory that two new elk hunters might call their own. Somewhere around here, now buried under the snowpack, were wallow-filled meadows, stinky elk beds galore, trails crisscrossing timberline, and some old log buildings, one of which I’d marked on the topo map I now consulted.
As I tried to reconstruct the summer’s view in my mind, I spied an angle in the deep snow amid the spruce trunks that looked a little unnatural. Moving closer I could see the old saw-cut end of a log. Yeah, that’s more like it.
Shuffling over, we stood above what could easily be described as a fallen-in hovel: a former miner’s structure with the stout ridgepole snapped, the walls buckled and settled into the earth and now buried in snow, a couple shreds of corrugated metal roofing, a slot of dark space snow-drifted and claustrophobic down under some sketchy rotting side beams.
The light was fading from the southwest, snowfall increasing.
“See,” I said enthusiastically, pitching my snowshoes down by the high point of the ridgepole.
I wriggled down under the tin and, with mittens, wiped away some snow gingerly to avoid rusty nails, then dug desperately for the flat earth below. It wasn’t working. Snow was everywhere and I was cramped, starting to feel a little panicked. I squeezed out, shaking off snow from sleeves and pants.
“I’m not sleeping in there,” Dave’s voice rose emphatically, caustically, even a little accusingly. “What the fuck, Dan? That’s not a cabin!”
I had the snowshoes back on so I could walk to the other side of the snowed-over hump of debris to take a leak without sinking to my waist, deciding it didn’t matter to Dave that it once was a cabin, probably really nice. A hundred years ago.
It was getting dark, visibility going fast. Every breath out was a puff of smoky steam, every inhale a bitter cold reminder of what was beginning to look like a survival situation. We had sleeping bags and pads, a little food, maybe a wad of newspaper for fire starter. What was I thinking? It had looked so sweet: a snug little dry shelter was what I remembered from the green warm summer. Dave stared vacantly back down toward the distant snowy access road and the far away town.
I looked up, rolling the aches out of my neck from the long backpack haul and the growing stress. Something else caught my eye a few hundred yards up mountain, tucked among the snowy spruce boughs. Another incongruous shape in the forest, the dark wood of some man-made relic. Yes, the unmistakable triangle of a peaked roof and what looked like a door?
“Hey, look at that,” I pointed.
We had found the Mabell Cabin. Just in the nick of time.
An hour later, Dave leaned back on his chair, feet kicked up on a fold-down table, and passed the pipe. “Yeah, we just happened to find this cabin…” he riffed happily from his spot near the cranking woodstove. Stripped down to our skivvies, giddy with discovery, we sweated as the snowbound little cabin sizzled with heat.
I investigated the small cabinet in the kitchen corner.
“Peppermint schnapps!” I cheered, uncorking a small clear bottle and taking a nip, passing it to Dave.
“Of course,” he shook his head, smiling broadly. “We were going to sleep in a marmot hole, but we ‘just found this cabin’ and now we got peppermint schnapps!”
We had fairly danced around exploring what was billed in the tattered old logbook as ‘The Respectable Cabin,’ privately owned but “Never to be locked,” infrequently visited by a select group of locals in the know. Broken-handled ridiculously dull axe; flimsy rusted bowsaw; a few old pots and pans, tin cans and tarnished utensils. A woodshed out front. A small back room with big gaps in the floor, corners filled with mouse and porcupine droppings: a room best left closed. The now sauna-hot loft could sleep four or five: the two lower bunks even had box springs.
Dave was looking through the logbook with entries starting in the early 1980s and also deciphering much older graffiti on nearly every available wall surface.
“‘Pork Wilson and Don Peterson,’” Dave read, “‘came up again on the Ski-Doos. January 12, 1981.’” Just the names cracked us up, as did anecdotes like the one found scrawled on the wall to the back room: “Saw the ghost of Fred Olsen! Jake Salazer, 3 days sober.”
Noodle soup was bubbling on the stovetop now. Another shot of minty liquor….
“Hey listen to this,” said Dave, bringing our revelries to a sudden somber halt. “Says here, ‘Found a boot under the cabin: with the foot still in it.’”
Talk about ankle stew.
That’s what I was thinking while finishing butchering an elk a few years later. Down to the lower leg of the rear ham, separating the slivers of muscle from the tendon was giving me fits. Then I had the idea, and when no one was watching, just wrapped the whole thing up, labeled it “Mabell Cabin Ankle Stew” and buried it in the freezer.
“I got dinner,” I assured the boys before we left Silverton that March, four years after Dave and I discovered the Mabell. The snowpack was at a historic depth, and a venture to The Respectable Cabin was the wintertime fever-reliever we all agreed upon. Hoisting packs, Dave and Craig started skinning up the long, snowy road, me following with snowshoes again, holding a longbow this time for some winter target practice.
As soon as we’d dug out the door, unpacked, gotten the stove ripping, taken more than a sniff of schnapps, and gotten comfortable, I scooped up a pot of snow outside the door and opened the package that’d been weighing on me all the way up. The bone hit the iron with a clunk as the heat sizzled and lapped at the snow. Still frozen, grizzled with sinew flaps and freezer burn, it was a stretch to imagine its edibility, let alone the nutritional wonder food I’d just unleashed.
“Better get hungry boys,” I smirked, hunting for salt in the pantry, until I realized that the porcupine who’d put the latest gnaw-down on the door frame probably hadn’t decided to share the Morton’s. “You guys go skiing,” I said, “I got this.”
They gave me a look, but were already halfway out the door, anticipating the untracked powder on the peaks above. So while they made turns, I broke and dragged in branches for firewood, stoking the woodstove to a glowing red. Then I snow-shoed around, searched for lynx tracks, and lost a few white maple arrows in the snowdrifts.
When I came back, a pleasing aroma filled the cabin. Four hours later, I announced to the reclining crew that it was almost done. Poking apart the gelatinous connective tissue and rich brown meat, the oily marrow slithered out of the longbones. Indeed, a savory bone-broth ankle stew was at hand.
And all of us hungry enough by then to remember it being “pretty good.”
Postscript: Unfortunately a visit to Mabell in the summer of 2016 revealed a locked door and “No Trespassing” signs. Continued vandalism by disrespectful visitors had taken their toll and the owner is apparently no longer willing to share this gem of the high country. The memories remain.