"I hate hiking," Melissa whined.
Only 15 minutes earlier we had left our car on a dusty little road, lugged out our gear and embarked on what to me was a leisurely trek through the aspens and pines of the lower reaches of Mount Yale, in the Collegiate Range of the Colorado Rockies.
Still, I remonstrated myself, we were almost 10,000 feet above sea level, the sun was glaring down and Melissa's spindly little 8-year-old body was not accustomed to such high-altitude rigors.
So to alleviate her burden and mitigate her protests, I took her small blue knapsack and added it to my already unwieldly load of pack, pots, pans, four-days worth of food, sleeping bags, tent and extra clothing and supplies.
But to little avail. Less than 10 minutes later, and just as we reached an opening offering a glorious vista of the valley and peaks behind us, another jeremiad issued forth from Melissa's lips: "I hate camping!"
Now I really began to fret. This was not the idyllic experience I had envisioned. And it would not be until much, much later, long after our camping expedition and Melissa's moanings had turned into distant memories, that I would realize how valuable -- and enjoyable -- the expedition had been for her.
For months Melissa had been eagerly anticipating this adventure -- our first, full-fledged father-daughter camping trip. Weeks earlier, she had carefully listed, in her scrawny hand, her version of the essentials for the expedition: tent, "sb" (her abbreviation for sleeping bag), "flash ligt" (Melissa's spelling), rope, hammer, air mattress, matches, oil lamp, "sliver" (her cryptogram for silverware), food, pack, pen and paper (to keep her daily journal).
We were in Colorado to visit Melissa's grandparents. But it was clear from the start that for her the camping expedition was to be the highlight of our trip.
Now, however, her fantasies and daydreams were being obliterated by the reality of a three-mile trek to a small mountain lake that I had designated as our campsite.
What was I to do?
After all, I had been looking forward to this adventure as much as Melissa had. Sleeping under the stars far from any hint of civilization has always been one of the divine pleasures in my life. And when Melissa said she, too, favored camping far from the madding crowd of recreational vehicles, blaring radios, public showers and vending machines, I was elated. My daughter was a chip off the old block -- no customized, homogenized campground for us. We would rough it.
But now Melissa seemed to moan louder with each step. I tried to take her mind off the ordeal by reminding her of the delicious supper we had planned for that night, and the campfire we would have (I had even remembered to bring marshmallows). And I pointed out the impressive view surrounding us: "Look at the snow on the mountain, over there," I said, as we stopped for one of our frequent rests. "How much longer do we have to go?" she groaned in quick response.
It was clear that the only just and equitable thing to do was to modify our plans. Instead of Hartenstein Lake, on the southwest slope of the 14,196-foot Mount Yale, we would aim for a campsite along Denny Creek, a small stream that flows down from the lake and into the valley where we had abandoned our car.
When I told Melissa about the change in plans, she was overjoyed. Her spirits rose as we picked up the pace again. But not for long. We were nearing the timberline and the thin air made the walk difficult, even though we were ascending very gradually. I began to sing and to tell jokes, and wove a make-believe tale of Jehoshaphat, a magical cat who leads a coterie of puppies and kittens up a mountain much like Mount Yale. Melissa was captivated and gamely trudged on.
Meanwhile, the scenery was breathtaking. For most of the ascent we were surrounded by trees -- proud and erect pines and dainty aspens whose small leaves fluttered in the light mountain breeze like thousands of tiny bells. But often we would reach a rocky lookout perch where we could take in the glory of the snow-covered mountains around us. And the blazing sun and deep blue Colorado sky gave the mountains a surreal brilliance that made me want to linger.
The one difficulty about camping in Colorado lies in deciding where to go. The state has such an abundance of pristine mountain chains that selecting the "perfect" one is tantamount to searching for a needle in a haystack. My choice of Mount Yale was based totally on proximity and chance.
We were staying in Colorado Springs, so it seemed to make sense to head directly west into the mountains -- an area I had gotten to know on previous visits. After driving across a stretch of flat plains, we approached the town of Buena Vista, which is lorded over by the majestic summits of the Collegiate Range immediately to the west. The Collegiates, which include such peaks as Mounts Harvard, Princeton, Yale and Columbia, actually constitute the southern part of the Sawatch Range, whose mountains are the highest in the Colorado Rockies.
Buena Vista is a rather nondescript western town at the foot of the mountains that serves as a jumping-off point for excursions into the Collegiates. I asked in town if there were any restrictions on setting up our own camp in the mountains. No, I was told, as long as we didn't settle on private property.
As Melissa and I surveyed our surroundings along the small trail above Denny Creek, we could look across slopes of pines and aspens to Mount Princeton, directly to the south. Surrounding us was an assortment of colorful wildflowers -- gentian, Indian paintbrush, bluebells and columbine -- that are hearty enough to withstand the demands of the altitude.
The area we had chosen for our camping trip is known as Cottonwood, an old mining district formerly called Westphalian. Many years earlier men like George Hartenstein (for whom the lake was named) and John Denny (the eponym of Denny Creek) owned mines here where lead, gold, copper and zinc were excavated. Today the region bordering the slopes of Mount Yale and Mount Princeton has little human activity other than from hikers and campers.
We sat atop a rock and took in the view. Melissa rightfully groused a bit more about having to move on, but it was not long before we finally arrived at our hotel for the night: a congregation of tall pines about 100 feet from the creek, protected from wind by the side of the mountain on one flank and on the other by a jutting and rocky hill. A bed of soft pine needles would do as well as any mattress, and the site boasted enough fallen trees to provide us with several days' kindling and fuel.
As I began to unburden myself of my load, I realized the view was not all that had been breathtaking. I was exhausted. Melissa may have been the one to verbalize her weariness, but carrying four days' worth of supplies up the mountain, under the constant blaze of the sun, had done me in as well.
Melissa, however, had a sudden burst of energy and rushed off to look for wood and kindling.
I pulled myself together as best I could. The early evening sky was filling rapidly with clouds, and it seemed prudent, especially with an 8-year-old in tow, to get the tent up as quickly as possible.
By the time we had the tent up and enough wood collected to last several hours, the overcast gloom was deepening. Despite Melissa's list of essentials, we had decided to forgo the oil lamp. Flashlights and the campfire were our only sources of light, other than occasional momentary moonbeams.
Our first night's dinner centered on one of Melissa's favorite gourmet dishes -- baked beans -- adorned with canned corn and baked potatoes. And, of course, marshmallows for dessert.
As darkness overtook us, the fantasies of Melissa's imagination began to overtake her -- mostly in the form of unnamed monsters of the night. Although she was reading a book by the fire as I was doing all the KP work, she insisted on accompanying me down to the stream when I cleaned the dishes. She even cajoled me into abandoning the campfire early -- too many mountain apparitions were fluttering about to permit her to sleep alone while I was sitting 10 feet away by the fire.
In the cramped little tent, Melissa quickly fell asleep. And then the apparitions began visiting my imagination, as the noises outside made me recall thepictures of fuzzy brown bears I had seen on a map of the Cottonwood district.
But soon I was saved from my premonitions by the sound of rain, first soft and then driving, on the roof of the tent, followed by lightning and crackling thunder. After a long, long time, and several restless nudges from my slumbering daughter, I dozed off.
Melissa had no idea, the following morning, that she had slept through a fierce storm, one that had threatened to blow down our tent. She was oblivious to it all, and was eager to begin the day's adventures. Her first chore was writing in her journal, while I, of course, prepared a breakfast of scrambled eggs and toast.
The plan for the day was to journey to Hartenstein Lake, our original destination of the day before. We would make it a day's outing and return to our campsite in the late afternoon. Again, the sun was beating down. But we had little to carry this time, and knowing the trek would be much shorter than the previous day's hike, Melissa was without complaint. She even took it upon herself to lead me up the trail.
After an hour's hike, we approached the lake and encountered -- for the first time since we had left the car -- other human beings. Two couples were fishing on this perfectly placid body of water, which was fed by sheets of melting snow encircling it on three sides.
The timberline of Mount Yale cut just above the lake, but the shoreline was rimmed by marsh grass. We headed for the lakeshore across from the anglers and found a little spot that was dry enough to accommodate us for the afternoon.
The water was too icy for swimming, but it was looking-glass clear, and we found enough smooth-edged stones to skip them across the placid surface. Melissa counted with glee as the stones skimmed like motorless gliders across the lake. The sun was brilliant, reflecting off the lake and the snow. And even though the heat of the day made it seem somewhat ludicrous, we built a small fire to cook lunch. Melissa tried in vain to use the rays of the sun to ignite a flame. We dined on green vegetables and more beans, with canned fruit cocktail for the climactic pie ce de re'sistance.
After searching for fish and other fauna with little success, we took a leisurely hike around the lake and headed back to the campsite.
Melissa turned once again to her journal while I fetched wood and prepared dinner. Just before sunset we climbed a rocky precipice overlooking our campsite and looked down into a long valley and across to Mount Princeton. I savored the view, only to be interrupted by Melissa's pleadings that we begin a game of hide-and-seek. Tomorrow, I told her. The evening setting high in the mountains was too ethereal to allow for such games.
Because Melissa had chosen on her own, a year earlier, to become a vegetarian, we again supped on canned goods for dinner. And as with the previous evening, Melissa asked me to forgo my nighttime reading by the fire so I could keep her company in the tent.
We tried to tell each other ghost stories -- Melissa likes being scared, as long as one knows her limits -- until the evocation of assorted poltergeists and goblins sent her into a sound sleep. And once again, she missed a tumultuous mountain storm that seemed to shake the foundations of the pine trees that stood over us.
In the morning we explored Denny Creek and played the mandatory rounds of hide-and-seek in the surrounding woods. Melissa always wandered off farther than I would have liked, but never beyond the sound of my screams.
Another beautiful day lay ahead of us. But two days on Mount Yale seemed to have quenched Melissa's thirst for adventure. The distant lure of her grandparents' swimming pool and the relative comfort of a bed without lumps pulled stronger than another day's excursion up the mountain. Although I was somewhat disappointed that her enthusiasm for the great outdoors had so easily been sated, I too was eager to laze about the pool again.
The walk down was much easier than our ascent had been. We ran into a group of high school students who had spent several weeks in the mountains. Melissa delighted in amusing them as we scampered down toward our car like a herd of horses headed for the home corral after a long journey.
I wondered, as we drove back across the plains, whether Melissa had enjoyed the trip, or whether it had been something of a letdown after all the months of eager anticipation. My answer came about three weeks later, when we joined a large contingent of relatives for a weekend at a well-equipped private campground -- with toilets and showers, Ping-Pong and shuffle board, a canteen and movies -- near Harpers Ferry.
As Melissa and I walked up to a pavilion filled with kids and games and electricity, she turned to me and said, "This isn't really camping. I liked it better in Colorado when no one else was around."
Louis Berney is a free-lance writer.