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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.

Roger had given the note to me, the last time I saw him at the hut, four years ago, in 1979. I stayed all summer, and one drizzly afternoon in August, he loped up the hill beside the stone hut and disappeared behind a ridge. When he came back, he unwrapped something tied in plastic and told me I was ready to see it—to see inside it. I sat by the wood-burning stove and listened to the fierce popping and hissing of wood and when I opened the book—the same ancient, leather-bound one with the initials J.M. etched into its cover—I almost choked on the dust.
“We are now in the mountains,” J.M. had written, “and they are in us, kindling enthusiasm, making every nerve quiver, filling every pore and cell of us.” That was dated 1868.

I didn’t know who J.M. was at the time. Now, I suspect I do. In 1872, he wrote, “No amount of word-making will ever make a single soul to ‘know’ these mountains. One day’s exposure to mountains is better than a cartload of books.” Later the same year, he wrote, “God has to nearly kill us sometimes, to teach us lessons.”

I read for an hour, and J.M. seemed to grow more disenchanted with humanity and enthralled by the glory of the mountains on every page. At some point, I fell asleep, and when I awoke, to the sound of bad harmonica music, Roger was sitting next to me, in his purple robe. The book was gone, and neither of us spoke of it again.

When I left a week later, he gave me the note for his parents. He asked me to drive to Arizona, or Nevada, he didn’t care, and to pick a post office—any post office—and to mail it from there. And I did. I did it because Roger saved my life. I don’t know where I’d be if not for Roger. I suspect it’s somewhere bad.

I was lost when I followed Roger and his friends to the magic place, and even after feeling the alpine sun on my face and the spongy grass beneath my feet, I stayed lost. Roger tried to show me the way during those long summer weeks. He tried to tell me that wounds could be healed, that if someone just kept looking, he might find his way. For him, the answer was in the stars, and the morning sun and the flowers like Frisbees, but he saw that those things weren’t my answers. He gave me some books to read, and he told me I should try to describe a mountain peak in a paragraph. He said that for some people, words lead to peace.

That’s what I’ve been looking for. I’m a writing fellow at Stanford now. I’m walking the same halls once inhabited by Edward Abbey and Wallace Stegner and Ken Kesey, men who tried to use words to re-create the earth, and the sky, and in so doing somehow managed to limn the borders of peace, and love, and what it means to be alive. I tell my students—kids not much younger than I—that conveying joy or grief with language is difficult, and capturing a mountain peak is impossible, and that artists fail every day of their lives when they attempt to describe their perfect, shimmering visions. I tell them a capacity for enduring such failure is terrible and painful, and yet they must possess it if they want to continue.

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