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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.

The students left the river, and hiked through the canyon, then crawled through the cave, and then made it to the trailhead. They approached Max’s Jeep, which was covered in dust. Someone had written “Abandoned” on one door.

“Hah!” Roger said. “That’s funny.”

Mad Dog left Palo Alto at the end of the summer and drove south to Los Angeles, where she took a job as a production assistant on a movie directed by a friend of one of her film professors. It was about a space alien that induces such terror in humans who land on its asteroid that they kill themselves trying to escape their imaginary fears. The crew liked Mad Dog’s tough talk and good looks and general competence, and they hired her again, and again, and she never made it back to the Sierra. Four years after she crossed the river on the rope, she was one of the top assistant directors in Hollywood. She wrote her own screenplay then, a thriller called "Beyond the Lost Lake.” It was about three students who stumble on the site where a plane full of marijuana crashed in the mountains. At first unaware that they are being trailed by mafia thugs, the students escape by jumping off of a cliff and miraculously surviving. Each studio she sent it to told her the same thing: “Too much Deliverance, not enough sex.”

After that, she wrote another screenplay, about a young man who struggles through emotional illness, and writes poetry, and only finds happiness when he walks through a secret passage and into a hidden paradise.

“If you’re going to have fantasy, you need laser guns,” one of the studio suits told her. “Isn’t depression a downer?” another suit asked. “What about if we make the guy a girl, and give her telepathy. And what if she falls in love with a bear? Or Sasquatch? The love scene will be edgy, but think of the word of mouth!”

Max enrolled in an MBA program in Ohio, then took a bank job in his hometown of Cleveland. Enough said. 

Roger hung around Palo Alto for a few years, working off and on at Sierra Designs, but eventually was let go for good when a new manager grew weary of customers complaining about the guy quoting Carlos Castaneda and blowing on his harmonica when all they wanted was a Gore-Tex jacket. He took a job at a bakery in Mountain View after that, and he would ride his bike there at 3:30 every morning. He spoke to Mad Dog and Max on the phone every few weeks after their Sierra adventure, then every few months, and after a while, no one heard from Roger anymore. When he stopped showing up at the bakery and disconnected his phone, it was as if he had disappeared.

The new manager at Sierra Designs would have certainly fired Jim, too, but he left before the new manager showed up, just a few weeks after the red-haired lady and her kids came into the store and started all the commotion. He didn’t disappear, like Roger. He died. One of the neighbors in his apartment noticed a bad smell, and he called the cops, who found  Jim’s body. It had been a heart attack. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a feature story two weeks later, entitled, “Mountain Man a Mystery Even in His Absence.”

It turns out, Jim was from Kentucky, and he had been arrested for attacking a man hitting his dog (but he was never imprisoned). He had been a math major, too, and up until his untimely death, he had been tutoring kids in East Palo Alto, even taking them on hiking trips to Pt. Reyes National Seashore. And he had been in love, according to the newspaper story, but his wife had left him years earlier. And he was rich. Apparently, Jim had been a card counter—a good one—and every month or so, he had been driving to Reno, where he would go from casino to casino, counting cards and playing blackjack. He earned enough to invest several hundred thousand dollars in a local start-up. The story mentioned all of that. It also mentioned the outrageous rumor that the “well-known and slightly intimidating repairman” had discovered a secret hideaway deep in the mountains some years earlier. And it finished with his puzzling legacy—the hand-written, notarized will he had left taped to his desk. The note listed his bank account numbers and locations, and it left everything to a woman and her child he barely knew—the red-headed lady and her dreamy little kid.

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