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The Last Best Place

More than three decades ago, a tiny band of California hikers discovered a magical valley in the Sierra Nevada. They possessed a rough map, but told no one. Now, the truth comes out.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Hikers have long sought hidden trails, secret valleys and lush, untouched mountain meadows. A young man discovered such a place deep in California’s Sierra 35 years ago. Eight years later, in 1983, he wrote about the place and submitted it to BACKPACKER—then he disappeared. The story never ran, because we didn’t think it was true. We changed our minds after seeing this wire report.
August 20, 2010, Mammoth Lakes, Calif. (AP): United States Forest Service officials are refusing to comment on reports that a hiker recently discovered a journal buried near a stone cabin deep in Inyo National Forest, in the southern Sierra Nevada, or on speculation that the journal and cabin both belonged to John Muir, who died in 1914.

“There are lots of things buried in the mountains,” said a Forest Service official who requested anonymity, “and there are probably huts and cabins that only a handful of people have ever seen. That doesn’t mean they’re important, or anything to get excited about.”

Jim avoided the customers. He avoided smiling, too, and talking, and whistling.  Jim stayed in the back of the store, behind the thick green woolen blanket he had strung from the ceiling, far from the Thinsulate and the polypropelene and all the other materials and inventions whose names, when uttered aloud, made Jim grunt and hammer whatever he was hammering with extra attention.

He was a tall man, almost 6’5”, and skinny, with a long brown beard and thinning hair and the glowing brown eyes of a madman, or a rich evangelist. He could have been 35, or 60. He wore faded jeans and work boots and a wool button-down shirt, even in the summer, and he spent the better part of every day bent over the wooden bench in the back of the store, hammering nails into a boot, or sewing up a rainfly, or straightening a tent pole. Whenever a customer came in and asked one of the employees out front if he or she might suggest a good camping spot, invariably one with “nice views and clean water, and no bears and not too far,” the hammering took on a terrible, joyless cadence and the store rang with hammer blows and Jim’s grunts, and many times the customers’ eyes widened and they scuttled hurriedly out of the store without buying anything.

Why any merchant would ever hire Jim to work within earshot or eyesight of customers was a mystery the other employees discussed often. It was the spring of 1975, and they all worked at Sierra Designs, on the corner of Alma Street and University Drive, in Palo Alto, California. They were students at Stanford University, most of them, and they did the things college students did: They traveled to Grateful Dead concerts in San Francisco; threw Frisbees in the parking lot during breaks; and they drank beer and talked about how they would never compromise themselves. At lunch, over hamburgers and milkshakes at Peninsula Creamery, just a few blocks away, they swapped theories about what had broken Jim, what had turned him into the thing in the backshop.

He had been a millionaire, one of the college kids said, but gave it all up after his wife had left him. No, another said, Jim spent his boyhood striding the Sierra, with nothing but a stick and a piece of fishing line, and he lived off the land until a woman brought him to civilization, and then to emotional ruin. No, no, no, another said. Jim grew up poor and he was still poor. He came from the hills of Kentucky and he had attended Stanford on a basketball scholarship, but his college career came to an end when he was out for one of his midnight strolls and he saw a man beating his dog and he killed the man, choked him with his own dog collar! After his six years at Folsom Prison, Jim couldn’t get hired anywhere but here. That wasn’t the real story, either, someone else said. Jim had been a brilliant mathematician at Stanford, on the verge of his Ph.D., spending hours after hours in the library, working on Fermatt’s Theorem. Then late one night, when he was gazing at a harvest moon sinking toward the foothills, then down at some equations he was scribbling, then back at the moon, something snapped. The way this particular student heard it, Jim rode his bicycle to his apartment, burned his math books and math notes, planted a garden, and had been spending weekends in the Sierra Nevada ever since. He paid for his rent and his garden and his gasoline with the money he made repairing stuff in the back of Sierra Designs.

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