How a Camp-Shy Family Came to Love the Great Outdoors
Getting to the backcountry of California’s Sierra Nevada is easier than you think. Getting three generations of the family to follow your lead is the hard part.
A family operation since 1947, the Rock Creek Pack Station is part of an Old West tradition in which professional horse-and-mule packers ferry big loads and even people to the most remote of mountain sanctuaries. The girls' eyes turned big as dinner plates when Mom showed them the pack station's cowboys loading our duffel bags and groceries into leather saddlebags on the big mules. Soon enough, three blonde, teenage girls—high school equestrians from San Diego, as it turned out, working a healthy summer job—saddled up and led the mules out of the corral. It felt like we had stepped into a John Wayne movie.
I've heard it said that our national parks can be a great equalizer: As long as you're willing to camp out, you've got a beautiful vacation home just waiting for you. I've never felt this more deeply than I did on that trip to Chickenfoot Lake. The five-mile trail starts at almost 10,000 feet, but from the moment we got going, we were already passing trickling brooks, green meadows, and glittering ponds. We didn't see the mules en route—they'd gone ahead—so we felt no pressure to keep up. Even better, the flat trail made the walk so easy it might've been a stroll in a park, except with knotty whitebark pines growing among white granite boulders.
I was surprised by how much I liked seeing my mother and my daughters together in the environment I'd always sought for adventure. We stopped once to let them try climbing, and my father loved showing them how to get started. In a way, they got him started again, too. Dad discovered that he could walk just fine, and because his two little granddaughters puttered along at precisely his pace, he wasn't bothered by the fact that he no longer hiked with the speed and strength of a freight train.
The mules and the teenagers were there two hours later when we arrived, and they waited patiently while we all rooted around for the perfect camping spot. After we dropped our gear, we could see that the lake doesn't really look like a chicken's foot at all. The multiple inlets and peninsulas make it feel more like a Japanese rock garden writ large. Giant granite mountains rise all around, so you have the feeling of camping almost next to the sky.
I'm a novice fisherman, but I'd brought a fly rod to amuse myself, and I spent my days at the edge of the lake, casting for the little brook trout I could spot easily in the clear water. Back in San Francisco, the girls always need some kind of entertainment to keep from going crazy—or from torturing each other. But the wilderness had a curious effect. They calmed down and brightened up at the same time. Their movements became slower and their smiles wider and easier. While I cast flies for hours, Audrey and Hannah sat nearby, dangling their toes in the lake and hardly even talking, much less fighting. Isn't that the whole point of any second home: a place to get away with the family and let the days pass in peaceful relaxation?
Even the accommodations felt homey—certainly better than I remembered as a child. Mom and I set up our camp kitchen among some rocks that made for decent seats, and then we cooked up dinner on a little gas stove and everybody ate under the stars. Mom and Dad had their own tent, and Dad later claimed he was getting the best sleep since his accident. Inside the big tent I'd brought for us and the girls, Liz found enough room to create a clean, comfortable nest. She so liked how the tent kept out the bugs while letting in the breeze that she asked that greatest of questions: "Honey," she said, as we drifted off to sleep on our last night out, "I'm wondering. Don't you think the girls might like camping out for even more nights next year?"
The next day, during the hike out, I let Mom ask the girls themselves. The answer: Yes! Of course! But Hannah had a follow-up question of her own. If she started riding horses and taking lessons at home, was there any chance she could one day become a horse packer herself and spend all summer in the saddle? That's just about the last thing I ever expected my city girl to ask, but it was music to my Western mom's ears.
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