Old cabin in the high Sierra Nevada near Lake Tahoe

Hide Out

GRK Valley is an old family-owned hide-out in the middle of the Desolation
Valley Wilderness area of the high Sierra Nevada. It’s less than twenty miles as
the crow flies from Lake Tahoe, but the thick virgin forest is traversable
only by horse or on foot and it would take you a year to get there. The Ice
House Store is the nearest place to buy cold beer, gasoline or Children’s
Tylenol, and that’s ten miles down a sickeningly curvy two-lane road.
Thirty-five years ago my cousin Stephan flipped his VW Beetle over the side,
but managed to crawl up the steep ravine and flag down a passing County
Sheriff, who called a tow truck. When they winched out the smashed up Bug,
Stephan banged the fenders back from the tires with a hammer, then drove the
last several miles into GRK under a crushed roof with no windshield. My
point is that GRK is a rugged place made for rugged people (more on this in
a moment).

GRK Valley is the brainchild of my Uncle Toby Grether, my dad Ron Rico,
and my Aunt Heidi Kingsbury. Hence the name G.R.K. Valley. In 1968, during
the Cold War, each family pitched in $9,000 to buy these eighty acres just
in case Russia figured out a way to launch a nuke at the West Coast. The
three sturdy A-frame cabins that Toby, Ron and Heidi built among the White
Fir, Silver Tips and Sugar Pines still stand, a rust encrusted generator
provides electrical power, and an old deep well pumps out iron-rich, orange
tinged water. We call it “indoor camping”, Sierra Nevada style.

A sign on the rough plywood wall in our cabin says “GRK Valley Second
Only To Heaven” and it’s true if you like things rugged. There are five
horses stabled in GRK, all high strung Arabians except for one game Spanish
Pony/Tennessee Walker mix named Oreo who let Ado sit on his back and yell
“Giddy YUP Oweeoooo!” Despite not having been on a horse for a decade, I

Suzanne Rico on a horse in High Sierra Nevada

Evita and Me, Sierra Nevada Style

jumped on Evita, a particularly spunky chestnut mare, and raced at a full
gallop along a velvety green meadow studded with blue, yellow and white
wildflowers. It was a pretty storybook moment until the saddle’s rigging
broke without warning and I pitched sideways and crashed into the dirt. My
neck and back crunched like a walnut and I watched in slow motion as Evita’s
iron clad back hoof cleared my eyebrow by a couple of inches. Covered in
the fine, brown GRK dirt, I moseyed on shaky legs back to the corral –
saddle under one arm, blanket under the other – to find Evita calmly
munching on the grass outside her corral. Back at the cabin, I downed four
Advils with a small airplane bottle of Absolut Mandarin vodka and that
calmed me down too. Like I said, GRK’s a rugged place.

Griffin and Ado both think the horses are cool (and mommy falling off
was REALLY cool), but they much preferred tearing down the road on the old
Honda 70 mini-bike or the KDX 125 dirt bike that have been in GRK forever.
What was definitely NOT cool is when Griff took off with his 16 year old
cousin Dallas on the big green KDX just as the sun was falling behind the
big pines and didn¹t come back. Dallas had assured me he was a safe,
experienced rider and that they were just going up Granite Dome Mountain, a
ten-minute ride tops. But after half an hour, the sun casting long shadows
across the cabin’s front deck, concern turned to worry. After an hour,
worry turned to panic and we all dispersed on mountain bikes, on foot and in
cars to search the surrounding forest. It was full dusk as I drove my step
dad’s Prius too fast over dirt berms, gullies and rocks toward the main road
two miles away, dust billowing out behind me like a smoke screen. All I
could think was “Is this going to be the worst day of my life? Is this the
day that will forever split time into ‘before’ and ‘after’? I rounded a
big hairpin turn at the top of the hill and saw something in the distance.
It was a head – a small one – bobbing along and coming further into view as
it crested a small rise. With a sob, I recognized Griffin. He was perched
on the shoulders of a shirtless and sweating Dallas, walking down the road.
They’d taken a dirt logging road down the back side of Granite Dome, run out
of gas, then hid the dirt bike behind a woody Manzanita bush and headed for
home. “I was trying to hurry,” Dallas said, “because I knew people would
be freaking out.” Yeah, people were freaking out – like me. But my rugged
little Griffin was smiling, quite proud of his big boy adventure, and when I
reached up to pull him into my arms, he brushed my cheek and asked “Mommy,
why are you crying?”

That night we built a huge bonfire in our communal Sierra Nevada campground, roasted
the obligatory marshmallows and constructed paper airplanes from the old
files that Ethan brought from home because he’d had no time to shred them
before we left. Aircraft of all shapes and sizes soared over the ten-foot
high flames, lifted on the hot air currents until they caught in a tree
branch or were singed so badly they crashed to the ground. The guitars came
out and as we mangled “Proud Mary”, a big deer bolted through the campground
scared either by our bad singing or by one of the black bears that
occasionally break into the storage shed looking for Pringles and beef
jerky.

We left GRK yesterday and checked into the Holiday Inn in Redding, CA,
with the temperature clearing 108 degrees. We snuck Marley into our room
(conveniently located just four doors away from the laundry machines), then
headed to the pool with an ice bucket full of Silver Bullets. With a
fabulous view of Interstate 5 out our window and the “Kids Under Five Eat
Free” plan, it seems we’ve just traded one paradise for another. Our next
week will be spent cruising up the West Coast the Lake Shasta Caverns,
Boiling Springs Lake and Bumpass Hell in the Lassen National Forest, the
Lava Bed Caves and Crater Lake in Oregon, then a night at a fancy hotel in
Portland called “The Nines”, which my sister Simone swears has one of the
best restaurants in the world. Then onto Seattle and points east.

kid pretending to drive a Kawasaki 125 motorcycle

Not Yet!

Our house is rented and it feels strange and a little sad to think of
someone else living there. We sold the Prius and put our clothes, family
photos and toys in storage. Most of our loose ends are tied up (like finally
getting drapes hung in our master bedroom an interesting process from
three hundred miles away), bills are on auto-pay, and the Odyssey Mini Van
(we call her The Oddy) with TWO rocket boxes on top, is so loaded we’ve
dubbed ourselves the Toluca Lake Hillbillies. Our on board pharmacy (a big
duffel bag) is stocked with Tylenol, Neosporin, sunscreen, Bandaids, Advil,
cough drops, q-tips, hydrogen peroxide, thermometer, nail clippers,
Thera-flu, and Valium, just in case any shit hits the fan while we are off
the grid. It’s weird to be gone, but leaving Los Angeles also feels really good –
like saying goodbye to your extended family members after they come for a
long holiday visit. We love LA, but it was time for a break.