by Robin Chotzinoff • Photography by Kate LeSueur
On a hot evening in early June, Kathie Lebeck Sever starts dinner by making a fire in a circle of rocks in her Austin backyard. Backpacking season has just begun in the High Sierra of California—her favorite place on earth—but this summer, she’ll be way too busy to spend much time there. This outdoor dinner is a compromise—not cooked at a rugged campsite on a small white-gas stove, not in response to a pleasantly bottomless hunger, not after a long day of hiking. It triggers good memories all the same.
“There’s something primal about walking all day long, not thinking about much except how to get to the next place you need to be in time to eat,” Sever says. “I’m always so desperate to be there that when I finally arrive, I feel instantly blissed out. Because some parts of life are just so fraught—doing what’s best for your kids, dealing with your business, wondering how to afford to keep living in Austin. It’s a never-ending hustle. But somehow, very, very strenuous backpacking is not.”
The view from her fire ring comprises roses and tomato plants, her kids’ well-used trampoline and the unassuming shack where her popular line of swank and rustic western-inspired, custom-embroidered (and sometimes recycled) clothing is designed and made. A few years ago, she rebranded her business as Fort Lonesome, rebuilt a vintage chain-stitch sewing machine and put it to use. The new entity took off. Several well-known musicians and actors were already wearing her handmade shirts, but now the fashion world was paying attention. She hired four seamstresses, added more vintage machines and took Fort Lonesome on the road to maker events, trade shows and music festivals nationwide. The validation has made her as happy as an intensely private person can be, but no amount of success, she says, is a substitute for the solitude of her beloved wilderness backpacking. Her need to go there, and do that, is genetic. “My mom and dad were outdoorsy,” she says. “They met leading trips for the Sierra Club. In the 1960s, my mom was hired as cook for an expedition in Alaska. The men went off and did a first ascent while she made camp and fended off grizzly bears.”
Sever’s California childhood was full of extended hikes with extended family—beginning on her mother’s back in a homemade backpack, continuing through her sometimes grumpy teens and persisting even after moving to Montana and then to Texas. These days, she treks with her children (11 and 15), her sister Debbie and her kids, and her mother, who is more devoted to solo expeditions and minimalist gear at 80 than she was at 40. Sever and her sister like to spend winters planning food for the next family hike. They don’t mess with the expensive, freeze-dried meals sold by outfitters. Instead, they stockpile extra portions of one-pot dinners—preserving them in a dehydrator and measuring them into zip-close bags. “In camp, you add boiling water and let it rehydrate,” Sever says. “We’ll bring tubes of butter or coconut butter or ghee, and add in some fat, or maybe a can of sardines, with the oil. My sister and I are all about the ritual. We’ll take our time, stirring and chatting.”
Sever’s kettle begins to boil on the grate over the open fire. She empties a bag of multicolored food flakes into a bowl, adds hot water and stirs—taking her time. After a while, the ingredients reassemble into chicken curry with chard and jasmine rice—a hot and surprisingly substantial dinner. “It turns into a sort of heavenly goop,” Sever says. “And it almost always tastes amazing. At the end of the day, when the sweat starts to cool and you’re feeling a little chill and you finally get that first taste of food? Like nectar of the gods.”