The Mother of All Beginner Trips

Imagine that your well-coiffed, country club mother calls and says, "I want to go backpacking." Would it be your worst nightmare or a family dream come true?

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“There are only three things I’m worried about,” my mom said over the phone. I could picture her standing in front of the kitchen bay window, the phone cradled against her neck as she chopped fresh oregano for dinner. “Getting attacked by bears, going to the bathroom…you know, number two?and looking ugly for the pictures.”

I mustered my most confident, yet gently reassuring voice. “I’ll beat the bears away with a stick if I have to, but we probably won’t see any. Squatting in the woods is no big deal; you’ll have to trust me on that one. And I promise we won’t publish any ugly pictures in the magazine. If we do, we can always put one of those little black bars across your eyes, like they do for fashion don’ts in Vogue.”

It was settled. I would take my 51-year-old mother, Priscilla, and her twin sister, Linda, on a three-day backpacking trip. I was excited but also nervous. Mom and Aunt Linda are not your average hairy-legged hiking gals. To them, spending a day in the Great Outdoors means 18 holes of golf and steaks on the grill. They have a woman named Mary Lou buff and polish their fingernails every week. Combined, they carry about 11 different shades of lipstick in their purses, and the prospect of not showering for three days makes them queasy.

But they each have three outdoor-loving kids, and they were anxious to see what all the fuss was about. And although they didn’t admit it until later, they wanted to prove to themselves that they could do it.

I’d taken beginners on backpacking trips before, and each time I carried with me the usual concerns about their safety, physical strength, and attitude. People who aren’t used to sleeping on the ground and peeing in the dark are often nervous at first. And let’s face it, some people just aren’t cut out for backpacking. But there are many folks who just need some patient guidance, the right gear, and one good experience, and they’re hooked for life. I’ve seen it happen, and although I wasn’t expecting Mom and Aunt Linda to evolve into raving trail hounds obsessed with the wilds, my hope was to show them that roughing it doesn’t need to be too dreadfully rough. If I could get them to be comfortable and enjoy the outdoors, then anyone could do the same for their sister or brother or friend or significant other. Call it the mother of all beginner trips.

“Can I at least bring some lipstick?” Mom pleaded as I checked her pack contents at the trailhead. We were at the doorstep of California’s Desolation Wilderness. The weather was promising, our chosen route was challenging but not difficult, and with my friend Tracey to help ferry the load, Mom and Aunt Linda would have to carry only clothes, sleeping bags, and a few essentials. And herein lay the great debate. I’d already jettisoned mascara, an 8-inch hairbrush, and two Victoria’s Secret silk bras, all of which Mom thought were vital to her safety and well-being. My pack full of food and group gear weighed close to 50 pounds, and I’d sacrificed my fresh undies and spare T-shirt so I could carry a puffy pillow for her. But I allowed the lipstick, rationalizing that it was lip balm with color.

I cinched up her pack, checked the weight (about 15 pounds), and watched Mom wait behind Aunt Linda for a final primp in the car side-view mirror. They were as nervous and giggly as schoolgirls getting ready for the senior prom.

“I feel so official,” said Aunt Linda, smoothing the front of her fleece jacket, then bending to pull up her new hiking socks.

“Good, because we are officially ready,” I said. “Let’s hit the trail.”

The twins took off at a respectable clip, trekking poles shushing, blow-dried hair bobbing. The climb was gradual and the views of Lake Tahoe were inspiring. When we stopped for lunch in a sunny boulder field, Mom dropped her pack and said proudly, “That was nothing compared to the StairMaster.”

Even though we were only a few hours into our trip, I was relieved to see them both smiling. And not just their regular, “Hello, lovely day, isn’t it?” smiles. These were ear to ear, round-eyed, “We are strong and healthy hiking machines and, wow, look at that view!” smiles. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Mom and

Aunt Linda are perpetually enthusiastic. Whether they’re talking about a new outfit from Ann Taylor, the latest Meryl Streep movie, or a vase of hydrangeas, exclamation points are the punctuation marks of choice. Here, at the start of their first-ever camping and hiking experience, they were genuinely thrilled. I felt what every Cub Scout leader must feel: nervous that trouble could happen at any moment, but happy to see “my kids” enjoying themselves.

“It’s about 3 miles to camp,” I told them. “Why don’t you put on your fleece jackets so you don’t get chilled while we break.” It suddenly occurred to me that the parental tables had turned. I sounded like my mother. Mom, sitting on a rock next to her sister, said sweetly, “Okay.” I was never that obedient.

I looked up from the cheese I was slicing. “Have you had any water?” Now I was really getting maternal, but I decided to just go with it. Nobody seemed to mind, and they were eager to do the right thing, to learn the outdoor life. “You should polish off your first water bottle. We’re at about

7,000 feet and your bodies need to stay hydrated.” They reached for their bottles in unison.

“Lunch is served,” I said, plopping a communal bag of gorp at their feet and handing them each a whole wheat bagel bulging with cheddar, salami, and brown mustard. We ate in silence until Aunt Linda blurted out, “This tastes incredible!”

“It’s absolutely gourmet!” gushed Mom, who’s famous for her cooking skills, and for her fancy sandwiches in particular.

“And this gorp,” said Aunt Linda, who’s equally talented in the kitchen. “Did you make it yourself?”

Had it been anyone but these two I’d have assumed sarcasm, but this time I was genuinely touched.

At 8,000 feet, after an afternoon of amicable rambling, Aunt Linda rounded a corner, stopped, and gasped. “Priscilla, look at this!” Sprawling before us was Upper Thelma Lake, shimmering in the afternoon sun like a giant sapphire. And there was not a soul around.

We found an established campsite with perfect views. Mom and Aunt Linda soaked their pedicured feet in the cool lake while Tracey and I pitched camp. When our four-person tent was set up, Mom crawled inside and collapsed. I poked my head in and discovered that she had arranged our beds neatly, with Tracey and me on the outsides-to protect her from the bears, she said. Mom was lying contentedly on her back, smiling up at the screened ceiling.

“How’s your hip?” I asked. I was worried that the rough, uphill terrain and unaccustomed weight might have aggravated her artificial hip.

“Oh, it’s fine,” she said, grinning. “You know, I feel kind of like I did after I had you: happy as can be, but thank God it’s over!”

An hour or so later we were sipping cups of Cabernet around the camp stove. Mom was reclining in her camp chair, watching intently as I chopped garlic and onion to add to the

simmering lentils. I picked up a piece of onion that had fallen on the ground, blew the dirt off, then dropped it in. Her eyes widened. “Don’t worry, Mom, a little dirt won’t kill you,” I said. When the lentil and rice burritos were finally served, they oohed and ahhed, bestowed more exclamation points on my culinary

talents, then gobbled down seconds.

With dusk upon us, conversation revolved around the prospect of getting ambushed by bears. I told them that black bears do live in the area where we were, but that we’d be lucky to see one-a fact that provided little comfort, as the twins held firm to their belief that an attack was inevitable. During dinner, cleanup, and prebed chores, they stayed well within the safe, yellow circle of lantern light, tensing with every rustle in the darkness.

Once inside the tent they felt safe and were soon shuffling cards by candlelight. As the hands were dealt, I reflected on the day. We’d hiked only 5 miles and saw sights that were

beautiful, but no more so than other places I’ve visited in my years of backcountry rambling. Still, as I looked at the contented faces around me, I realized that day of backpacking had been one of my most satisfying ever. My mom, who had slept under a roof every night of her life, was, if only temporarily, a true outdoorswoman.

“I have to say,” Aunt Linda announced the next morning, “that I feel butt ugly.” She was holding up her sunglasses, trying to get a look at herself in the reflection.

“You are,” said Mom, laughing.

It was a glorious day: warm and sunny, with cotton candy clouds drifting through a deep blue sky. Our plan was to take our time hiking without packs to a nearby lake, stop for lunch, then loop back. All in all, maybe 3 miles. The twins were a little sore from the previous day’s climb, so we stretched before heading out.

Not 20 minutes down the trail, my mother and her sister had already ticked off the names of five types of wildflowers. They’d never before set foot in a high mountain meadow, but years of tending lush gardens back home had turned them into amateur botanists. By day’s end they’d taught me to identify 10 new wildflowers, which was 10 more than I’d learned lugging around a 2-pound field guide on countless other trips.

We stopped on a bedrock shelf high above Fontanallis Lake. I produced another round of “gourmet” sandwiches-the same kind as the day before-and we sprawled in the sun like a clan of cats. We watched a Clark’s nutcracker flit about a towering cluster of lodgepole pine and a red-tailed hawk soar circles over the lake. “This is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” said Mom, who has traveled all over the globe. “It’s so quiet and peaceful,” she almost whispered. Aunt Linda nodded in agreement: “It’s like we’re the only people in the world.”

We slowly made our way back to camp, meandering through open meadows and flowers, then along a gurgling creek. Mom lingered, and when I turned around to check on her, she was doubled over, yanking on the tongue of her boot. “I think I might be getting a blister,” she said sheepishly.

I removed her boot, saw that she was blister-free, then changed the lacing to relieve the pressure. Kneeling in the dirt, as I double-knotted her laces, I wondered how many hundreds of bowknots she had tied for me over the years. She stood up and took a few steps. “Much better,” she said. “Thank you, honey.”

“You’re welcome. I figure I probably owe you a few.”

Back at camp, it was time for the twins to face their number two fear. “It’s not a big deal,” I told them. “Trust me, you’ll feel much better.”

Mom grudgingly agreed and potty training commenced. With trowel and TP in hand, I led her to a secluded spot, dug a cathole, and told her what to do. She listened intently and I tried to keep a straight face. “You can do it, Mom!” I said, mustering my best exclamation point.

A few minutes later she returned triumphant and said to her sister, “It’s not that bad, Linda, really.” I led my apprehensive aunt into the trees.

One of my earliest memories is of my mom taking care of me when I was sick. I must have been four or five, and I woke up in the middle of the night wheezing and gasping and hacking like my lungs were filled with sawdust. Mom turned on the shower as hot as it would go, sat me next to the bathtub, and rubbed my back and talked gently until my lungs cleared.

On our final night in the mountains it was my turn to take care of Mom. She has a chronic ear problem that can feel “like someone’s shoving a skewer into the side of my head,” as she once described it. It had started bothering her that afternoon, and as we ate dinner I could see it was getting worse. Every few minutes, she’d wince and tilt her head to the side. As soon as dinner was over, she took four pain relievers and went into the tent to lie down.

I tried to stay calm. She wasn’t in danger, but to see her in agony made me feel ill. Then Aunt Linda remembered their mother’s home remedy, which I improvised by soaking some tampon cotton with olive oil. I gently packed her ear with the cotton from a tampon, then placed a hot-water bottle next to her head. She was asleep within minutes.

I stayed awake most of the night, listening to the wind howl and the snow crystals bounce off the tent. At 3 a.m. I found Mom wide-eyed with pain. I felt the bottle next to her head: lukewarm. “I’ll get up and heat some more water,” I whispered.

“No, don’t be silly,” she murmured back to me. “There’s a storm out there. You stay right in your sleeping bag. I’m fine.”

Fifteen minutes later, with a fresh hot-water bottle against her ear, she was sleeping peacefully. Lying there next to my mother, listening to her breathe I thought, “This must be what it’s like when your child gets sick or hurt. I’ll be a basket case.”

We rose the next morning to dark gray clouds, strong wind, and an inch of fresh snow. The weather may have been dismal, but mom’s ear was better, and we had hot showers, real toilets, and a celebratory feast with the rest of the family waiting at home.

On the hike down the mountain, snow pelted us from all directions, wind tore at our faces, and the trail became more slippery by the minute. We were bundled head to toe in good, weather-fighting clothes, which-combined with the exercise-kept us warm and dry. The twins couldn’t get over it. Mom poked her nose out from her hood and watched a pine tree sway like a blade of grass. “It seems like we should be miserable out here in this storm” she said, and Aunt Linda finished her thought: “but we’re completely comfortable!”

By now, Mom and Aunt Linda were pros with their trekking poles. With great satisfaction, I watched them maneuver down the slick mountainside with the grace of veteran Nordic skiers. But what amazed me most was that they seemed in no great hurry to get back to civilization. Such rough

weather would have prevented them from walking to the end of the driveway a week before, but now they were happily strolling along in it, even stopping from time to time to gape at the wind-lashed lodgepoles.

I caught myself swelling with pride at their enthusiasm, their willingness to put themselves so totally in my care. Despite all the other beginner trips I’d organized and led, I’d never fully appreciated how much of a gift that kind of trust could be.

That night we met my father, uncle, brother, and cousin at a fancy restaurant. Mom and Aunt Linda-freshly showered, blown-dry, and rouged-looked tan, healthy, and younger than ever. They babbled excitedly, rehashing trip details for the eager audience. As the coffee was served, Mom turned to my dad and said, “Danny, you should have seen Kristin. She took such good care of us. I was so proud of her.”

“Funny you should say that, Mom,” I said. “I was just thinking the same thing about you.”

Desolation Wilderness Area, California

With its stunning alpine lakes, high peaks, open meadows, and California sunshine, Desolation Wilderness was the perfect destination for my mom’s first hiking adventure-or any backpacking trip, for that matter. The trails are in good shape, and the elevation gains aren’t brutal.

Location: To get to the Eagle Falls trailhead from Tahoe City, head south on CA 89 for about 20 miles. Parking is on the right.

Season: Mid-June to mid-October. We went midweek in June and didn’t see anyone. Mosquitoes can be a nuisance through mid-July, although they steered clear of us. August is the prime visitor month because the days are warm and the lakes are swimable; weekends are downright crowded. The bulk of the wilderness area is at about 8,000 feet, so be prepared for cool nights and unpredictable mountain weather, regardless of the month.

Permits: Backcountry permits are required, and quotas are in effect from June to August. You can make an advance reservation by phone (530-644-6048) for a $5 reservation fee, or you can show up at a ranger station and try to score one the day you start your trip. Either way, it will cost $5 per person for the first night and $10 per person for two or more nights. For more information, call Desolation Wilderness Area Information Center, (530) 644-6048.

Map: Desolation Wilderness, Tom Harrison Cartography, 2 Falmouth Cove, San Raphael, CA 94901; (415) 456-7940. $7.95.

From 2023