On the Trail with Mom and Dad

WHEN we woke up in the morning, William found tiny footprints in the margarine.

"Mom! Dad! Something was eating our margarine!" he called to our parents, who had started cooking breakfast over the campfire.

Dad came over to the snowbank where we'd buried our food overnight to keep it cold. He looked at the delicate claw marks. "It must be a raccoon," he said. "They get hungry just like you!"

The night before, the four of us had set up our green tent in a pine-filled gorge in the Rock Creek Canyon. After a bumpy ride up a dirt road, Dad had parked the trusty car at a little turnoff, and we'd hiked along a rushing river to find a campsite. Even in July, there was snow in shady spots under the pines. Sometimes we used the snow as "refrigerators" to pack milk or juice in.

I was only six years old when we first started hiking, but I clearly remember these times with my family: William toting his Winnie the Pooh on overnight treks, the smell of sagebrush and pine, the stops along the trail to soak our feet in mountain streams.

Dad was a teacher, so every other summer we'd pack up the station wagon, tent, and pop-up trailer and head west. After three long days driving (during which William and I'd compose a "vacation song"), we'd reach the Montana Rockies.

We set up a base camp in Red Lodge, at a campground near some old railroad tracks that had been used solely for the pea cannery in town. Dad had done graduate work in the nearby Beartooth Mountain region of the Rockies and knew lots of good places for us to go hiking - lakes, rivers, the outsides of old mines.

Dad would lead the trip with William on his back, in the sunshine-yellow backpack, legs dangling out the sides. I was in the middle, hiking stick in hand, watching William, who was using his heels as spurs to hurry Dad along. Mom brought up the rear, red bandana in her hair, always ready with encouragement: "Ten more steps, and then a break!"

When we were young, Mom and Dad planned short hikes at home: a winter hike in the woods (with a cocoa break) and treks to streams where we'd sail "boats" made from sticks and feathers. We loved the little adventures and the time we spent together.

As our legs grew longer, so did the hikes, and soon we were ready for overnight trips in the mountains. When I was 10, I got my first real backpack: a smaller version of an adult pack - blue, with a frame to strap gear to. William outgrew riding on Dad's back and had his own knapsack to carry, too.

Dad had made hiking sticks for us out of broom handles. Mine had my name carved into the top, in raised letters, with a heart below. William used his for hiking and as a "toll gate." He'd run a little ahead on the trail, sit on a rock at the side of the trail, and charge us a "toll" to get past the hiking stick.

"Five cents," William declared.

"Will, I don't have five cents!" I said, and then had to make a deal to get by.

"Then I get to sleep in the red sleeping bag tonight." He drove a hard bargain - that was the favorite down-filled sleeping bag.

I remember packing for the overnight trips: freeze-dried food, extra socks, insect repellent. Dad's backpack was stacked the highest with the green tent, two sleeping bags, and ground pads strapped on with colorful, stretchy cords, and then stuffed full with food and clothes. Mom's was a smaller version. I was proud to carry my own sleeping bag, clothes, and water bottle. William carried his own clothes and the cooking gear, lightweight pots and pans.

One of our favorite spots was Twin Lakes, in Montana's Beartooth Mountains. We left the station wagon near the mountain highway, parked on a high plateau. From the top, we could see our destination several miles away: two perfect lakes, still a little icy from a long winter. The hike was downhill and seemed very steep. William and I were amazed when we discovered a faint jeep path - we imagined a vehicle would tumble end over end on such a steep hill!

On the way to the lakes, there were so many things to see: alpine flowers, butterflies, and rocks with colorful crystals. The plateau was vast and nearly treeless. We could see the surrounding mountains, rocky and patched with snow. Dad named the peaks for us: "There's Mount Reargard, the wide one. That one is the Bear's Tooth. Do you know why?"

"Because it's pointy, like a tooth!" I guessed.

At the bottom of the long hill, we hiked on a level path with more trees until we came to the shore of the first lake, and we all looked for a campsite. It had to be a level, grassy area without any rocks, so we could sleep comfortably.

Dad directed the production: "William, get out the ground cloth; Leslie, clear away the sticks; Polly, did we remember the bug spray?"

It was fun to watch: Out of a little bundle of cloth and poles, we could make a safe place to sleep at night. Once we even had a hail storm at Twin Lakes, and we stayed warm and dry.

After the tent was set up, we all looked for firewood so Mom could start heating water for our dinner - a delicious and simple recipe called "Chicken Montana" Dad had found in a magazine. (See Page 17.) After a day of hiking, the mixture of rice, soup, and chicken tasted better than any restaurant dinner. While Mom waited for the water to boil, William and I explored nearby.

We found a tree with wide flat branches, almost like arms. "I think we should call this the Dr. Seuss tree," said William, sitting on a branch and swinging his legs.

"Yes," I agreed, "We'll pretend it can tell stories." I climbed into the tree, leaning on a branch opposite William, and we told stories until Mom called us for dinner.

"Once upon a time, by the shore of this lake... ," I'd start.

"Was a lonely tree named Dr. Seuss," continued William.

After dinner, Dad would string up the backpacks in trees away from our campsite, where animals couldn't reach them. We'd learned our lesson from the raccoon at Rock Creek Canyon.

It always felt a little funny to sleep in the tent. There were different sounds and smells - pine trees blowing in the wind, the slightly musty smell of the tent. But the family was tired, and William and I felt safe with Mom and Dad nearby, so we snuggled into our sleeping bags, our ears a little chilly.

I'm all grown up now, but guess what I did with my parents last weekend? We took our tents - two this time: one for Mom, Dad, and William, and one for my husband and me - and went to the mountains, this time in New Hampshire. We had "Chicken Montana" for dinner, hiked around streams and lakes, and made a campfire and told stories about camping in the Beartooth Mountains.

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