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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.

That must have been what Jim thought, too, when he’d slipped my brother the map. So I did bring him to the magic place. But my brother did not really like the outdoors, and he didn’t really need the secret hut. He just needed something to occupy that big, dreamy brain of his. My mom used the money Jim left her to find that something—in an accelerated math program at a private school. Now my kid brother’s working on computers. He says someday they’ll be small enough to fit on a person’s desk. It seems to make him happy, though I can’t fathom why anyone would need a computer instead of an adding machine. But I never was much of a businessman.

Me? Turns out, I was the one who needed the magic place. I returned there every summer for the next three years. I loved being there in late August, when shadows were lengthening and the Sierra days shortened and you could smell the coming cold. I would pack in canned food, and I would spend my afternoons replenishing the firewood for the stove, and mornings and evenings I would read about bullfighters in Spain and hunters in Africa and fishermen in Cuba. Roger had lugged in the books. He told me he wasn’t much of a reader, but that he thought I might find what I was looking for if I checked them out. He knew I was looking for something.

So as winter blew its chilly breath on our hidden meadow, I walked the dusty trails of Yoknapatawpha County and I felt the fluttering caress of the butterflies in a place called Macondo, and as the season changed, so did I.
When I finished high school, I enrolled in college. That was thanks to Roger. Even though he called me “Spirit,” and even though there was something off with him, I think he knew I was just an angry, confused kid, an older brother and a forgotten son who wanted to be a man. Roger helped me find the way.

But he stayed missing. His parents called the Palo Alto police in the fall of 1979 when they hadn’t heard from their son in six months, and when the cops searched Roger’s apartment, all they could find were some incense sticks and, in the refrigerator, shriveled sprouts. The police tracked down Max and Mad Dog, but they didn’t tell the cops about their hiking trip from four years earlier. After another six months, the cops stopped looking. A month later, Roger’s parents received a letter in the mail, on yellow paper from a legal pad, with a dried wildflower larger and more drenched in color than any they had ever seen.

“I love you,” Roger had written. “I’m safe. Stop looking for me. I am found.”

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