A big piece of my heart is nestled in a cabin up in the Sierra Nevada Mountains just over a mile past the main strip that makes up the town of June Lake. I’ve been going there for twenty years, but it has been in the family for nearly sixty: the family that I didn’t even know that I had.
When I first moved out to California, I knew only one person who turned out not to be my friend. I had only $200 and my mother, unsupportive of my move, did not offer me any additional funds. But what she DID give me was a phone number. “If you need anything, call my cousin Gloria.”
Now this was odd to me. I’d never heard of mom’s cousin Gloria. Both sides of my family were filled with estrangements; the result of deaths and adoptions, arguments and distance, so I grew up without an extended family woven into my holiday celebrations and summer vacations. Our nuclear family was its own little island.
When I left that island for Los Angeles with photos of my siblings, a little cash and this phone number in my wallet, I couldn’t imagine why I, a twenty-two year-old effervescent adventurer would want to make a connection with a woman in her 60s whom I’d never met and knew nothing about. That is until the loneliness of the urban jungle took over.
I made the call. Gloria’s husband Bill picked me up from my nanny job in Palos Verdes. As it turned out, Gloria was nothing like her younger cousin, my mother. She was cheeky, tenacious and vibrant. We became fast friends and I spent time at her home in Costa Mesa every chance I got. When I was heartbroken over the end of a relationship, Gloria said, “I know what you miss most, it’s the sex!” My mother was a proponent of chastity, but her older cousin talked candidly and gave good advice.
And if adventure was what I’d been looking for, I’d come to the right state AND the right family. Gloria’s son, his wife and their young children were sailing around the world for a year. Sometimes her husband would join them on the boat from port to port. I think Gloria needed the company as much as I did. And when the family returned, I gratefully gained more cousins.
For several years I’d heard stories of the family vacation home at June Lake. The land that Gloria bought in 1963 with her inheritance after her mother died. The old mobile home dubbed the “pink bomb” that sat on the property for 15 years until the rustic log cabin was built in 1978. The photos of her boys in the snow and their children growing taller than the porch rails as the years passed.
When he was in his early twenties and newly married, Gloria’s eldest son had lost a battle with cancer. His widow remarried and her husband and children remained a vital part of Gloria’s family. They taught me that endings don’t have to mean the end and opening your heart means it can be filled all the more. And of course that meant my life was being filled with more cousins.
In the winter of 1997, my new husband and I first went to the June Lake cabin with Gloria and Bill. Having grown up in North Carolina, I didn’t know real mountains until I ventured west. Back home we had the rolling hills and the gray-blue ridges of the fir-covered Appalachians. The arched peak of Mount Mitchell, at only a little over 6,600 feet, is the highest mountain in eastern North America. In the Sierra Nevadas, I was surrounded by the treeless tops of the snow-covered jagged cliffs that surround Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States at 14,000 feet. The spectacle from highway 395 dwarfed the country roads of the Blue Ridge Parkway.
There in that A-frame cabin overlooking Carson’s Peak, with a deer head hanging between the triangular windows, and old wooden skis painted bright red and crisscrossed above the pot-bellied stove, I discovered what the family’s June Lake lore was all about. On the wall hangs a wood plaque that says, “It doesn’t matter where you go or what you have. What matters is who you have beside you.” Together with my relatives, then in their 70’s, we danced to Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra, drank wine and ate spaghetti. We watched snow silently cover the porch and spent a day trying to keep up with Bill on the June Mountain ski slopes. You’re only as young as you dare to be, he said.
When our children came along, we brought them to the cabin, making winter memories by building snowmen, sledding and tubing, riding snowmobiles and dogsleds, and waging epic snowball fights. More often than not, we’d find the pipes frozen upon our arrival and we’d melt snow by the fire to flush the toilets for a day or two, drinking and cooking with bottled water until we could get back down the mountain, stop at the Tiger Bar for a bite and a beer, and call the town’s only plumber. We had no cell service in those first many years and trips were a total escape filled with hours spent reading by the fire or playing games of Boggle, UNO and darts.
In summertime we’d fish on June Lake, pedal boat on Gull Lake or kayak on Silver Lake. We rarely caught anything, probably because my son would jump in the metal motorboat and scare the fish away. We’d return to the dock with nothing but a school of soggy Goldfish crackers falling out of his life vest. Once, when he was about 5, he brought along a toy Batman fishing rod. He and my husband had been fishing for over an hour while my daughter read her Magic Tree House book and I flipped through an Oprah Magazine. Getting tired and cranky, the little guy handed me his Batman pole and I absentmindedly held it over the water while continuing to read. Within ten minutes I caught the only fish of the trip.
Summers also meant side trips to the spooky ghost town at Bodie or wandering into the magical Yosemite Valley from the Tioga Pass, always stopping at the Whoa Nellie Deli along the way. We’d hike up to aspen lined Parker Lake, explore Mono Lake’s unusual limestone tufa towers, journey around the stunning trail of twenty lakes in the Saddlebag loop or up the steep trail to Fern Lake.
That hike to Fern Lake is a 1,600-foot incline in a little over a mile and a half. Hiking with two young children and a couple of fishing poles is a challenge, the slope so sharp in places that even the most fit can feel it and a seven year-old, with legs no longer than the height of the boulders in the path can either turn it into an adventure or make it an agony for themselves and everyone with them.
We opted for a grand adventure and brought along Starburst to keep our young explorers motivated. When we finally arrived at the lake, with its breathtaking views of the surrounding mountains still snow-capped in July, my husband led us on a trek along the shore seeking the “perfect fishing spot.” We tried a couple of the rocks jutting into the cold crystalline water at the first few clearings, but he was sure there was something better. We packed up and scrambled over boulders along the base of a mountain until we came to a glade along the shore. But the fish just weren’t biting there either. So we packed up and ventured through a marshy area, thick with swarming bugs, past a clearing where a rather large animal had recently passed, until we came to another opening that called to my husband. He answered, but the fish didn’t. We hiked further along the path, about as far as the little legs accompanying us could go, when my husband declared that he had finally found that illusive perfect fishing spot. It turned out to be one of the first rocks we’d come upon at that first clearing. By the time we headed back down the steep path, lunch had been eaten and our packs were lighter and we still had no fish to carry.
After dozens of June Lake adventures with our family of four and sometimes with extended family or friends, we joined Gloria and Bill at the cabin just one last time. Bill died in 2002 and Gloria passed away last year. In tribute to the salty sailor that he was, most of Bill’s ashes are out at sea. But some of them were mingled with Gloria’s and they were buried together in the bailiwick back behind the cabin. The family, my beautiful extended family, with all the newest young cousins and those of us who are nearing the age Gloria was when I met her, gathered together and shared memories of time spent at the cabin at June Lake and in the surrounding mountains. We paid tribute to she who brought us together, that sassy, vibrant soul who made certain that the magic and majesty of the Sierra Nevadas is woven into the stories of our own lives. She also made sure that we all know that beyond these family trips to June Lake, it simply doesn’t matter where you go or what you have, what always matters most is who you have beside you.