In partnership with Karen Wellington Foundation

How one family living with cancer got to experience their dream vacation

The Regruths made memories to last a lifetime at Lake Tahoe

By Kelly Davis

View of Lake Tahoe from Emerald Bay Road. | Photo: Hakan Ozturk/Shutterstock

When you’re an Ohioan visiting California, the last thing you’d expect is a sleet storm in July. But during a trip this past summer to Lake Tahoe, on the way back to Truckee from one of the lake’s popular beach spots, the Regruth family—dad Chris, mom Tammy, and teens Jared, Joel, and Jack—hit the kind of weather you might expect from a Midwest storm in early spring, not a summer shower in California.

“It went from 70 degrees to, I’m guessing 45 or 50 degrees,” Chris recalls, “and so much sleet that it looked like snow on the ground.”

This isn’t a story about driving in tough conditions, but rather about the unexpected moments—like a sleet storm in July—that make a vacation memorable. The Regruth kids stuck their hands outside the car windows, Chris says, grabbing for chunks of ice and taking cellphone photos of the changing landscape. The family was in a place, mentally and physically, they couldn’t have imagined being just months earlier.

On Thanksgiving Day 2017, Chris underwent a bone marrow transplant in hopes it would quash the multiple myeloma he’d been diagnosed with three years earlier. A form of cancer that attacks healthy white blood cells, multiple myeloma also weakens bones, leaving Chris with seven very painful broken vertebrae to contend with in addition to the transplant—a procedure that, even under the best conditions, “sucks fully and resoundingly,” he says.

The Regruth family at Lake Tahoe. | Photo courtesy of Chris Regruth

In April, more than four months into Chris’ recovery, the Regruths got an unexpected surprise. A counselor at Archbishop Moeller High School in Cincinnati, where Jared was a senior, had nominated the family to receive a trip from the Karen Wellington Foundation. The foundation, whose namesake died from breast cancer in 2007, has provided vacations—more than 460 over the last decade—to cancer patients. Though the foundation’s target population is women living with breast cancer, they occasionally make exceptions. Chief Giving Officer Lisa Farrell says they were moved by Chris’ story.

When they got the news by phone, Chris says he and Tammy couldn’t believe what they were hearing.

“I looked at my wife, who was crying, and we realized, ‘Oh my God, this is pretty amazing,’” he says.

The foundation had just one request: What kind of climate did the family prefer?

They live in Loveland, Ohio, just north of Cincinnati, and occasionally go to Florida to visit relatives, so the choice here seemed pretty clear: mountains.

And that’s how the Regruths ended up in a sleet storm on Highway 267 between Kings Beach and Truckee, in a rental SUV they’d picked up at the Reno airport and dubbed “Arial.”

The family had been to Southern California before, Chris says, but never Lake Tahoe. The freshwater lake, located in the Sierra Nevada mountains along the California-Nevada border, is one of the largest in the U.S.

“It’s not a place I ever thought we’d go,” Chris says, “although I’d heard about it and seen pictures. So when they came back with Lake Tahoe, we were all just, like, ‘Awesome.’”

Through their vacation home donation program, Karen Wellington Foundation found the Regruths a quintessential alpine-style, high-ceilinged A-frame vacation home in Truckee, a mountain town located roughly 12 miles north of the lake. The family had six days to take Arial to the picturesque towns, villages, beaches, and ski resorts that surround the lake.  

Climbing with a view of the lake. | Photo courtesy of Chris Regruth

It wouldn't be a visit to Lake Tahoe without paddling. | Photo courtesy of Chris Regruth

Chris is thankful to the Karen Wellington Foundation for providing a respite. | Photo courtesy of Chris Regruth

The area is popular in July, so though there was some occasional traffic around touristy hubs, in between were chances to check out views Chris describes as “incredible.” Particularly stunning, he recalls, was Emerald Bay Road, which winds along the lake’s southwest shore. It’s considered one of California’s most scenic—and scariest—drives.

“As you’re driving away from the main lake, but along the bay, you’re about, I’m guessing, 400 feet above the water, driving without any guard rails to your right and it’s just a drop straight down to the water.”

(The drop’s actually more like 600 feet.)

The kids were oohing and ahhing, Chris says, while he tried to keep his eyes on the road. They were able to find parking at a vista spot to take in a view that included an old-time steamer chugging past the lake’s tiny Fannette Island.

Having a house to return to each evening meant the family could relax, play games, hang out in the jacuzzi on the back deck, and walk to a nearby grocery store to grab stuff for dinners and picnics. The house had a rec room with a pool table and ping-pong, which led to some epic tournaments. And Chris and Tammy taught the boys how to play Euchre, a popular game when they were both students at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio—where Jared’s currently a freshman. Family game nights were something they hadn’t been able to do in a while, Chris says.

The Regruths were set up with an alpine-style vacation home in Truckee. | Photo courtesy of Chris Regruth

The foundation also treated them to a catamaran cruise and a gondola ride. The family saved the gondola ride for their last day. Located at the Heavenly Ski Resort in South Lake Tahoe, the gondola soars 2.4 miles above the lake. Chris wrote about the views in a journal he kept: “Every which way we turned, another poster-picture scene … The lake’s varying shades of blue; the rising, falling mountaintops far off; the tiny cars in the town below. The boats in the water, leaving a trail of white.”

Back in Ohio, Chris is continuing his recovery. He’s looking forward to Thanksgiving and celebrating the anniversary of his bone marrow transplant. He says he feels almost back to normal, save for occasional fatigue. He’s considered to be in remission, though there’s currently no cure for multiple myeloma. The bone marrow transplant bought him some time—his doctor hopes five years—before the disease returns.

“If it comes back, I’ll do the exact same thing I did before,” he says.

When Roadtrippers talked to him, Chris had just received an email from the Karen Wellington Foundation about a woman with end-stage breast cancer who’d been able to take a final trip with her family. The foundation’s mission continues to impress him, he says.

“The foundation is providing a respite,” he says, “and, in some cases, a great memory once the end comes. Pretty amazing stuff.”

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