Below is the unabridged version of a conversation featured in the Fall 2018 Jeffrey Pine Journal.
In late August, Communications & Outreach Manager Alex Ertaud sat down on the deck of the Rock Creek Lakes Resort with Amy King Miller and Steve Miller, managers and co-owners of the aforementioned establishment. We touched on how they came into the role, what the place means to them, and how they came to be great supporters of the Trail Ambassador Program.
Alex Ertaud, Friends of the Inyo: Sitting here at the Rock Creek Lakes Resort, right, that’s the official name?
Amy King Miller, Rock Creek Lakes Resort: Yep, Rock Creek Lakes Resort.
Steve Miller, Rock Creek Lakes Resort: Circa 19—well that name was changed in like the ‘60s
AKM: Oh, really.
SM: To the resort, yeah your dad just told me that like yesterday.
AE: Oh wow, so what is the history of the place, the background?
SM: It kind of dates back to the dark ages. It was built in the ‘20s, and it was just a blip on every map that I’ve seen.
AKM: And we don’t really know…it’s unclear who built it. At least the information we can get is kind of unclear. I’m sure someone’s got the information somewhere, but most of what we know is that the Lyons, and then the Colbys and Raders, and then my parents.
SM: The Colbys and Raders had it in ‘47?
AKM: To Sixty-or, well I don’t know if it was that late…but anyways…a long time. My parents have owned it for 40 years.
SM: Since 1979.
AKM: And this is Steve’s and my first year as co-owners.
AKM: But we’ve been managing for about four or five years now. And before them the Colbys owned it, for the ‘50s and ‘60s at least. And the Lyons owned it before that, and someone owned it before that. We don’t know who.
SM: And it was just a tiny little store.
AKM: Yeah, the whole store is an add-on. The original building is where all the really low ceiling is, so if you’re over 6’5” you hit your head.
SM: All made with lumber from the mill at the lake [Rock Creek Lake]. It’s pretty rough in there. True 2 x 4s. [Chuckles].
AE: Oh wow, good old fashioned wood.
AKM: Yeah, and then the Colbys and Raders added on the store, and then my parents have added an addition to the back building. But the main center part of the building is all the old, original store.
SM: Yeah there were no cabins here until the Colbys and Raders built them.
AE: And that was in the ‘40s?
SM: That was like 1955. We have photos of [cabins] one and two being built, and you can see the lake. There were like no trees, the trees were like this high [raises his hands a foot or two off the ground].
AKM: The trees have grown so much up here since then. I mean Cabin 1 & 2 had a full view of the lake, and now it’s just forest. Which is cool to see.
AE: That is cool to see.
AKM: Yeah we hope to be able to add on, we’ll see.
SM: [Laughs] I don’t care to. I’m fine with what we’ve got.
AE: So Amy, your parents, picked it up in…
AE: Ok, so they were living down in Tom’s Place in the winter?
AKM: No, so they bought it in ‘79, and the first year they worked it either with the Colbys or the Raders, because it was a partnership. One of them stayed and worked the summer with my parents to show them the ropes. And from there on out, they were kind of on their own. And my grandparents helped them buy it, so they were up here during the summer. My mom’s brother helped out some summers, and both my dad’s sisters worked here a few summers, and so it’s kind of like a family thing. And they were not nearly as busy as us. They talked about how during the slow part of the day, they would all sit in the back and play cards.
AKM: And we can’t imagine. Even on our slow days I can’t imagine us doing that. But what was the question? I feel like I didn’t answer the question.
SM: Yeah, you just took off.
AE: Where were they during the winter? They didn’t live up here year around?
AKM: They did! For nine years, they lived up here in the winters. Originally they were hoping to get a winter thing going.
SM: Yeah they built two cabins off the bat that were fully winterized.
AKM: So they could rent them.
SM: And they did rent them out over the winter for a couple of years, and then they were just too much work.
AKM: Yeah they wanted to a nordic ski resort in the winter. They were both really into racing during that time. And I think after a few winters—that’s back when they didn’t plow the road past Tom’s Place—so after a few winters of shuttling guests all the way up the nine miles, on a snowmobile, with a sled.
AE: And back on an ‘80s snowmobile.
SM: Well we got a taste of that two winters ago, we lived up here…
AKM: And we used the same snowmobile [laughs].
SM: Same snowmobile. We got it running, it was an ‘81 Bombadier. Single ski in the front [chuckles].
AKM: It felt like we went back in time.
AKM: It looks like a train, like the front of a train. There’s just nothing sporty about it. It’s like this box on a track.
SM: Puts down a nice track though [laughs].
AE: I bet.
AKM: Anyways, they did that for nine years, and I think were getting progressively busier, and wanted to travel during the winter. And it was just slow and a lot of work. So they stopped doing that, and built a house in Sunny Slopes [south of Crowley], and in 1990, the house was done. So after those first nine years, just during the summer.
AE: So you guys lived here this past winter [2017/2018]?
SM: No, the big winter.
AE: And then took the easy winter off.
SM: Right [laughs].
AKM: I think Steve would do it again, but I was like…
AE: Like you worked enough winters in that one winter.
SM: We got stuck up here for two weeks at a time, ‘cause of the avalanches down in the lower part [of Rock Creek canyon], and nobody would plow. I didn’t feel like skiing down…I had no reason to ski out, my truck was at East Fork.
AKM: It was good, I think summers are just so much now, and the building’s also thirty years older than when my parents were doing that. So it’s just hard on it, to be…
SM: And the water lines buried this deep [gestures to hip height].
AKM: So it froze several times throughout the winter, and we were dealing with that. And then since the building was heated—we had the store all closed off so it was still cold—but the back part was still warm, so we had an ice dam this big [gestures about 12” in thickness], under eight feet of snow. And we had to replace the whole roof last summer because the roof was leaking; it was just a mess. It was a really good experience.
SM: I think it’s cool now, it was a cool adventure, but in the moment, every day was working to survive…
AKM: [Laughs] Not literally.
SM: It wasn’t like oh this is fun, let’s go skiing, let’s go ski some powder.
AKM: We went skiing once, all winter, on this epic winter because we were just shoveling to survive.
AE: Yeah, I mean even people living in like towns, like Mammoth, that winter were doing that, so I can’t even imagine where you’re like, “Ok, well it’s down to just the two of us, if we can’t do it, no one’s coming to help.”
AKM: Yeah, we would just download tons of podcasts while we were down the hill and just shovel for eight hours straight and listen to podcasts all day [laughs].
SM: Not eight hours, it was only light until three ‘cause the sun goes down so early.
AKM: Yeah, that’s true, it would get cold.
SM: So as soon as it would hit three o’clock, we’d be inside, drinking beer.
AE: You were in great shape though I’m sure.
SM: I like to think my arms got pretty huge.
AE: Your back was probably like a bag of ropes.
AKM: [Laughing] Yeah, I know. And the best part was when it got so deep that we had to throw the snow, like everything had to be shoveled up, off the roof, because the snow was deeper than the roof, and our piles were getting higher than the roof. So we were like “Hooahh”, you know just like launching snow up over our heads. It was crazy. It was good experience, but I’m not itching to do that again, I think.
SM: Yeah, I’d have to make some changes.
AKM: We went to the desert all last winter. We did like the opposite.
AE: Even though it would have been a pleasant winter up here.
SM: It would’ve been OK in March. It was a little dry.
AKM: It would’ve. It’s complicated. It needs to snow so that the snow insulates the water lines.
AE: Got ya. Cause if it were no snow and super cold, that’d be the worst.
AKM: Yep. And what happened is that we turned on the water lines too early, and there wasn’t enough snow insulating, so the water line froze the day that it did not stop snowing. So if we had waited until then, that would’ve been fine.
SM: The first day of the rest of our winter.
AKM: So after that snow storm it snowed five feet. So then we dug all that up, found the water line, then a day passed where it didn’t snow, and then the next day started another two weeks of snow. It was just more trouble than it was worth. That’s a good way to put it.
SM: And every step outside you were in full on snowshoes—the big long ones—cause you can’t even take a step.
AKM: We had a little puppy too. We got a dog that winter, and he weighed like eight pounds when we got him. We brought up to snow, and he was like “No, [laughing] I don’t want to live here.” But now he loves it.
AE: So you said this is your fourth year co-managing it. What brought you guys back into the fold. Because I assume this was a part of your [Amy] childhood.
AKM: Yeah, my sister and I grew up here, and spent every summer of our life here. I’ve actually spent every summer—I’ve moved away a couple of times for school—but always have come back. I just love the Eastern Sierra. I’m sad when I’m leaving to go on a trip, and I enjoy my trip, but there’s like an ache inside of me that makes me feel like this is my home. We just keep coming back—or kept coming back—and Steve was willing to do it. He was probably more excited about the idea at first than I was. He was like, “ we should take over this place.” And I was like, “No, too much work.” [Laughing] And we just spent a few years deciding if we wanted to do that, and started managing, and I think really fully committed two or three years ago, when we said, “OK, we’re gonna do this.” and so we’ve just kind of been in this take over process with my parents. And still really excited, still what I want to do.
AE: You mentioned a love of the Eastern Sierra broadly, but what does this place—Rock Creek—mean to you?
AKM: My parents actually had it for sale when I was in high school, and I was distracted just by being a teenager, but I would think about it sometimes and say, “man, it’s going to be really weird if it sells, and we can’t just walk in the back door and be there”. They took it off the market after a while because they weren’t getting offers that they wanted to sell it for. And I started thinking about it more and more and it was like, “Man, I really want that place to stay a part of our family.” It is just so much a part of us. And I don’t want to see it change that much. I guess we’ve changed it a little bit, you know getting rid of pies—that’s a pretty big thing.
AE: I wasn’t going to bring it up [laughing].
SM: Those were dark times [laughing].
AKM: [Laughing] I think we had to just cut that off, just to figure out what we could do. And so now we’ve brought back the cobblers, and we’ve found a way to incorporate my mom’s pie crust recipe—which is a huge thing for a lot of people—and use some of her filling recipes. So we don’t have all the cream pies, and necessarily all the pies that we used to have, but we still have some that are just served deep-dish style and it’s the same recipe with the crust and the filling. For us that’s a doable way to keep her legacy going a little bit, but also be able to make it our own too.
AE: And at the end of the day, it’s still serving delicious food.
AKM: And the pies were awesome, they totally were, it just wasn’t something that we were going to be able to carry and keep on doing personally.
SM: I didn’t want to be the pie lady.
AKM: And I didn’t want to be the pie lady. And we didn’t want them to be made somewhere else. We wanted to keep the food under our control, and still serve really good food, but just do something that was doable for us.
AE: And make it your own a little bit.
SM: Something that we enjoy making.
AKM: Just back to Rock Creek, I think it’s one of the most special canyons in the Eastern Sierra. It’s hidden….like if you’re down by Tom’s Place, you don’t know that [turns and points at the Mt. Morgan skyline] is here. I think we wanted the lifestyle too; where we work really really hard in the summer, and winter we’re able to explore more and take some time off, and go on vacations, and get ideas from other places we visit, of what we want this place to be. Every time I drive up this canyon, it just makes me feel so good. When you wake up on a clear morning and just look at the mountains, it’s gorgeous. I think it’s one of the most beautiful places.
AE: [Turns to Steve] Anything to add, as someone who’s come into the fold more recently?
SM: I oftentimes fantasize about blowing up the road at the bottom, and being able to live up here by myself.
AKM: He’s joking!
SM: No, my family had vacationed up here my whole life—we’d always go to Mammoth—but I’d never been to Rock Creek until I met Amy eight years ago. That was the first I had come up to Rock Creek. And that was in the winter, because I was helping them shovel the roof.
AE: One thing that I think is so cool about Rock Creek, in addition to the scenery—which is amazing—there’s a legacy of the people, of people coming up here for generations. And that’s one thing that I think is so cool about the Eastern Sierra in general; you meet a lot of people who say, “I learned to fish at Twin Lakes up in Bridgeport in 1952.” And I can only go, “Holy smokes, that’s a long time ago.”
SM: Yeah, we have some cabin customers that have been coming since before your parents [turning to Amy] have owned the place.
AKM: Yeah, and my Dad used to come up here with his family and camp at the lake as a little kid. And that’s crazy, that my Dad’s family has been coming up here for that long. They have all these old photos of them fishing on the backside of the lake fishing, and it’s so cool.
SM: Didn’t your granpa even come up here when he was a kid?
AKM: I don’t think so.
SM: Well, he always told a story of him driving up here…
AKM: That would have been in the 1920s…
SM: and the car, or the truck—whatever he drove—the Chevy would overheat on the grade up here, and he’d have to run down to the creek with buckets of water and run back up.
AKM: I dunno…
SM: He’s told that story multiple times…
AKM: Yeah, but he could be talking about somewhere else.
AE: That’s a pretty great story, whether it’s true or not.
AKM: [Laughing] Yeah. But there are so many people that come in and say, “I used to come up here when I was a kid.” It’s a really special place for a lot of people, and I think that’s part of why it makes me feel so good when people say “we’re so glad you’re keeping this in the family, because we’ve been coming up here.” And they don’t want things to change too much, and I really appreciate those comments…
SM: [Laughing] ‘Cause we’re about to throw a lot of curve balls, make this place a five-star resort and hotel.
AKM: [Laughing] No, not at all, we’re not doing that. I think it’s really easy to look at the place and say, “Oh man, we should replace this and that and that.” But when you start doing that, it loses all its character. So I think the goal is to make it better but keep it…
SM: Any changes we’ve made, I think add to the character. Like the smoker, hat’s added a lot of character.
AKM: People love that thing! That’s like the new wagon; there used to be a wagon out front that’s getting fixed up but people loved to take pictures of it and sit in it, and now everyone’s looking at Steve’s smoker in the back, taking pictures of the smoker.
SM: Yeah, any changes are going to be small like that, we’re not going to gut it and make it cookie cutter.
AE: And your parents are still a part of it! When I come up, they’re still back there helping out. Not letting them off the hook yet? [Laughing].
AKM: Oh no, we’re trying to get them to go out—and they’re actually on a backpacking trip right now, a short one. But my mom has been able to take quite a bit of time off this summer, which has been nice.
SM: Most of the summer it’s been a couple of days a week.
AKM: Yeah, and some weeks she hasn’t had to work at all. But my dad…
SM: This is Jim’s life, he’s not leaving.
AKM: It’s going to be hard for him to not be here.
AM: Which is fine.
AKM: Oh my gosh yes, we love having him here. I mean if we don’t have the answer to something, he’s got the answer. But he’s going to work here until his legs won’t move anymore. He loves this place. I mean it’s been his life for the last forty years. So he’s still here, very much so. This might be his first…well no, he’s taken a couple of breaks.
SM: Yeah, he goes home every night.
AKM: I think he finally feels comfortable enough to step away if he needs to, but at the same time he’ll say, “ No, I should just go up there and hang out.” He doesn’t have to be in here, hands on, he can go up to make sure our Pelton wheel is working, just kind of do his projects.
AE: That’s awesome. [Turning to Steve] And has your family been up at all?
SM: Yeah, my dad has been working here for the last four years. My sister’s worked here for four or five years. My mom’s worked here, and she was just here the other day helping. It’s a joint family affair.
AKM: Yeah, his dad is a big part of the restaurant, with Steve.
SM: He’s the Miller in ‘Miller and Son”.
AKM: He’s helped come up with new menu items, and that kind of thing.
SM: He’s been the pie lad–I mean the cobbler lady a couple of times [laughing].
AKM: Yeah, he helps make desserts. But he works here part time, but all summer, like he works here four days a week.
SM: And my mom’s up in Mammoth just spreading the word.
AE: Out there pounding the pavement!
SM: Her and Julie [Rolfe].
AKM: If people say why they’re here, and they’ve come from Mammoth Visitor’s Center, it’s either Julie, or Steve’s mom told them about this place.
SM: [Laughing] Yeah, they’re our street team.
AKM: It’s good, because I think it’s really easy for people to just drive by this canyon. Since it’s not in your face, like “wow, this is what’s up here,” you’ve just got those low-lying hills at the bottom.
AE: Yeah, if you don’t know, you don’t know. And that’s what makes this place nice—obviously we want people to come up here—but there are spots where it doesn’t take long to get off the beaten path, and not see anyone.
SM: It’s like a filter.
AKM: Oh yeah. On my days off I just wander around and hike on the opposite side of the creek, or head up there [pointing to her favorite spot]. There’s never anyone up there!
AE: And a lot of big horn sheep.
SM: And a lot of ducks. Up on Dorothy [Lake], they’re all—I think they’re pintails—they were all ducklings all summer. They’ve kind of grown up, but one of them fell off of a rock into the water, so they’re still a little clumsy. It’s cool to see birds up there.
AKM: Yeah, and like you said it’s really easy to do the main hikes and be around a lot of people, but it’s also very easy to go on a hike and there aren’t going to be very many people. And we stayed smoke free pretty much all summer.
SM: I’m sure it’s coming though.
AKM: Well some summers are really bad. It all depends on where the fire is on the west side [of the Sierra Crest]. Some summers you can’t even see across the street, like three summers ago.
SM: The Hume Lake fire.
AKM: This summer we’ve had a few hazy days, but overall it’s stayed pretty nice up here. So I think there were some people from Mammoth and Bishop that were sent up this way to get out of the smoke.
AE: Well, when you’re flanked by 12,000 foot peaks on either side, it makes for a nice blockade.Things have to get high to get over here.
AE: Well, now that we’ve talked about the past, and how you guys came to be a part of it, I want to talk about the way we [Friends of the Inyo and Rock Creek Lakes Resort] became partners. And that is through the Trail Ambassador program, which you generously support. I think Julia [Runcie, Stewardship Director] said it was one of the easiest pitches she’s ever had to do. She said you were just so into it right off the bat.
SM: I’ve been hoping for something like it for a couple of years.
AKM: I know, it was something we had kind of talked about. Getting involved with cleanups, or his mom was always saying how it would great to lead hikes out of the resort. But it would always seem…complicated.
AE: Yeah, and whenever you add something on top of what you’re already doing, it gets tough. There are only so many hours.
AKM: Yeah! So it was perfect. I didn’t even know that you guys [FOI] were even doing that. So when Julia got in touch with us, we were pretty stoked on it.
SM: Yeah, I didn’t need any convincing.
AKM: No, it was definitely something we wanted to be a part of. Keeping this place clean, and educating people on how to take care of the environment, and just cool things about this area too. It’s neat to be able to help with that.
AE: And we were talking about how it [Rock Creek Canyon] is not quite as busy as other spots; still very busy though. I mean if you go to Mosquito flats on a Saturday past 10 AM…good luck finding a parking spot. It’s a very accessible hike, so it attracts a lot of people.
AKM: Right, you only have to hike about a half-mile in, and you’re going to see amazing views.
AE: Yeah, and so I think having a presence in this canyon is so important.
SM: Yeah, before you guys started working up here, Raul—I think he was a volunteer ranger for the Forest Service—would come up everyday and hike up Little Lakes Valley. And he would tell us stories about how he had to tell a handful of people that they were doing something that wasn’t super eco-friendly.
AKM: ‘Cause they just didn’t know. Or he would break up illegal fire rings.
SM: And he’d constantly be educating new people coming to the area. After hearing all that, with the fact that he’s not doing it anymore…
AKM: Because he was just a volunteer.
SM: I was pretty worried about the state of the landscape.
AKM: Like what was going to happen? Who was going to take that?
SM: And fill his shoes, because he did alot.
AKM: And you guys [FOI] not only filled those shoes, but you took it a step further. You have cleanups, and guided hikes.
AE: Well, thanks to y’all! Without the support you were able to give us, we wouldn’t have been able to do it all.
SM: That’s the thing with you guys, we know exactly what our money is going towards.
AKM: Yeah, that was really cool. We got a schedule, and got to know exactly what events we were sponsoring.
SM: And we got a say in the dates.
AKM: It was really cool.
AE: Well again, thanks so much. And to kind of look to the future, it seems like you guys like it up here, and you’re making cool changes. The smoker is delicious, and the beers on tap—did your parents have a tap back there?
SM: No, that was me [smiling].
AE: [Laughing] Those are some very welcome additions that make this a great place to stop after a bike ride, or run, or any adventure.
SM: And people need dessert, they have to have dessert. So I’m glad that we’ve found a way to continue the “pie”. Which the definition of pie is a fruit filling topped with a pastry crust.
AE: And the cobbler fulfills that!
SM: Yeah, cobbler is in the category of pie according to the Webster dictionary. So, I just want that to be noted [smiling].
AKM: I think Steve really excitedly took over the restaurant portion, and he’s excited about that and wants to keep growing that. That’s a good thing to have, to have people stop in here and hang out.
AE: I mean the food’s delicious.
AKM: A lot of the new stuff that’s been added to the restaurant was your [Steve’s] idea. That’s your thing, the restaurant, and I just want this place to be an experience as a whole.
SM: Amy put a lot of pressure on me with the restaurant. She was stressed when we cut the pies.I think a lot was on Amy’s shoulders, with people saying, “Why don’t you just do what your mom did?”
AKM: And for me, this place needs to be about coming up, having a day at the lake or going on a hike, coming back, having a good meal, sitting on the porch, having a beer, looking at the mountains, that’s what I want this place to be about.
SM: And we have seen that trending that way. People come in for breakfast early…
AKM: Then there’s a gap period while people go on hikes.
SM: So you know people were doing stuff. But with the pie, people were in here at 10:30, and most people didn’t even know that the lake was right across the street.
SM: We’d run out of pies, and they’d say, “Well I came all the way up here for pie.” And I say, “Well, why don’t you go for a hike or check out the lake?” “There’s a lake?” [Laughing]
AKM: It just seems like people are exploring more.
SM: They don’t feel that pressure to be here at a certain time, to get something that’s going to run out.
AKM: Right, they’re getting out and enjoying the canyon.
SM: And the happy hours have been the same way. People come in late, to have an early dinner, after hiking.
AE: Awesome. And we’ll probably end on this, you mentioned you like to get away for the winter, and here we are, late August. It’s getting chilly, feel like I should have brought a sweater, so what fun trips do you guys have planned?
AKM: Well, we have a pop-up camper on our truck, so we usually go to Baja [California] after the resort closes, just to kind of take a break, and have summer.
SM: Amy’s a really good surfer, that should be noted.
AKM: [Laughing] No, that’s weird. I make us go to Baja, because I really like to have summer, and it’s still summer down there. The water’s eighty degrees, and the air’s ninety. So we go surfing, and hang out on the Sea of Cortez side, go kayaking and fishing and that kind of stuff. And then we’ll normally take a couple of camping trips out to Death Valley and Panamint Valley.
SM: We do a California road trip in the spring, to go mountain biking. Of course we hang out here most of winter.
AKM: Everytime it snows, we ski up and shovel the roofs. Even if it doesn’t, we’ll come up one to two times a week and check on the place. And Steve does snow removal in Mammoth, so when it snows, he has to work, and I do part time stuff for the resort.
AE: So you don’t to completely kick the feet up and relax.
SM: That’s what a lot of people think, but no. And like tax season is pretty hefty as far as our office work goes. There’s a lot of licenses and permits that we have to run through and take care of. And reservations, people start calling to make reservations in February.
AKM: Yeah, we do a lot of office work in the winter, and hiring.
SM: Though we can do that from the road. So we have a lot more free time, but we’re still working.
AE: Yeah. and last thing, just as a part of the iterative process, what can we look for from Rock Creek Lakes Resort in 2019?
SM: More of the same [laughing].
AKM: We want to make small improvements, maybe add on some smaller cabins, for one-night rentals.We have talks of maybe extending the porch out a little bit.
SM: I want a bigger porch for maybe space for some live music. Maybe a barbecue, craft beer festival.
AKM: Some more outdoor seating. Yeah, Steve wants to do some barbecue and beer festival. And we want to continue working with Friends of the Inyo!
AE: Yes! Likewise, this is a great partnership.
SM: Yeah, maybe grow our donation next year.
AE: [Laughing] Well great, we’ll have to chat about that off line.
SM: I want to keep doing this, and do even more.
AKM: I think there are a lot of cool events that could happen.
SM: I liked when you guys set up a tent out in the parking lot, and everyone was hanging out.
AKM: And there was a sign out front, telling people to stop by and help out.
AE: Maybe we could even collaborate on a barbecue sauce?
SM: A Friends of the Inyo series?
AKM: That would be cool.
SM: What would that taste like?
AE: Maybe some sage and juniper berries?
SM: Pine nuts.
AE: Well thanks so much for the support, and sitting down with us today.