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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.

It’s been three years since I saw Roger at the stone hut. I’ve returned there every summer, to read, and to write, and to try to feel the glory, or the peace, or the relief that Jim felt, and Roger, and J.M., and sometimes I do feel it. I hiked to the stone hut last year—1982—and the flowers still rioted, and the stars still blazed and the fat, golden trout took my hooks like the fish were little kids and I had candy. I tried to imagine Roger happy, and I tried to envision a life in the mountains, under the vast, uncaring sky. I failed, but I kept trying.

I’m back in Palo Alto now, and I have bad days sometimes. In those dark moments, I feel like walking into the mountains forever. Once, the dean “suggested” I visit the university hospital, where doctors gave me pills. For the four months I took them, I didn’t think about the mountains much, or leaving this world. I don’t remember what I thought about. It was a fuzzy, worry-free time, and I hated it. I tossed the pills away. I’d rather have bad days.

I think of Roger often, and the magic place. Sometimes, I wonder how anyone can remain true to himself in a world like ours, where the opportunities to go astray are so many, so tempting. Isn’t that why people grab tents and sleeping bags and head into the wilderness in the first place? Not to find a hidden meadow, or a hushed and gentle valley, but to find their true, uncorrupted selves? To find peace? Isn’t that why J.M. built the stone hut in the first place?

Roger told me that what made him happiest was lying in the mountain meadow grass, soft as dreams, and looking at the high, hard sky while he thought of everything and nothing at all. He told me that maybe he would be able to do that somewhere else, but he wasn’t sure. He told me he didn’t want to take the chance.
People say that secrets should be shared, and that hoarding magic is selfish. But the place where magic lives was never my secret. First it was J.M.’s, then Jim’s, and he’s gone, and then it belonged to Max, and Mad Dog, and Roger, and then Roger cut the rope across the river.

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