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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.

I didn’t take it personally that Jim hadn’t mentioned me. He hadn’t even noticed me. People usually didn’t. My mom didn’t, because she was so worried about my dreamy little brother. The students, for the most part, didn’t notice me because I stayed behind them on my motorcycle when they drove to the trailhead, and stayed hidden when I followed them through the woods and off of the cliff and across the river. I’m pretty quiet when I need to be. Roger was the only one who noticed me (except for Mad Dog, who I scared one morning when she was doing her business), and the only one I talked to. He talked to me about all sorts of things: fitting in, and getting lost, and how to find peace in a world so filled with chaos, and whether it’s OK to keep magic places secret when so many people need magic. Even though I was just an undersized 16-year-old with a perpetual sneer, I could tell there was something wrong with him. For one thing, he kept calling me “Spirit,” which creeped me out, even after I told him my name was Eddie. For another thing, he kept telling me that life was suffering and people were cruel, and that love was the answer. If anyone else had talked to me like that, I would have said something smart-***.

He showed me the secret book, too. It was twilight, the second week of my first summer in the Sierra. We were watching the sunset, listening to the plaintive trills of birds mourning the day’s passing. Roger handed me a leather-bound tablet of yellowed and flaking pages. I don’t know where he had found it. Burnt into the rough cover leaf, in surprisingly delicate script, were the initials “J.M.” I asked if it was Jim’s and Roger said no, definitely not. Roger let me touch it, but wouldn’t let me open it. He said its author had wanted others to see nature’s beauty, and that I should look around me before I looked inside the book.

“Right,” I said, and rolled my eyes. If you remember being 16, you probably understand my response.

He told me if I helped others, I would help myself, and he said he wished he were better at helping others. “Spirit,” Roger said, one warm spring day, “bring the little boy here. He needs this place.”

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