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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.

There were as many stories about Jim as there were flavors of milkshakes at Peninsula Creamery, and just like the creamy drinks, one was as delicious as the other. None of them was exactly accurate, as it turned out, but all of them were partly true. 

The college students learned something about truth that spring, and something else about the heavy burden of responsibility and the delirious and unexpected joy of running from it. They learned about consequences, too, and how the more time passes, the heavier those consequences become. We all learned something that spring.

It was an odd time, or maybe it just seems odd now, in hindsight. Maybe now, 1983, will seem odd in a few years. Maybe all times are odd. Back then, a light plane had crashed in, or near, Yosemite National Park earlier in the spring, supposedly carrying a load of marijuana. Every week or so, someone would come into Sierra Designs looking to buy a sturdy pair of hiking boots and all the topo maps he could find of the area. The employees joked about gangs of backpackers headed into the mountains, searching for the legendary and reputedly hyper-potent “Yosemite Lightning.” That definitely qualified as odd. An heiress named Hearst was calling herself “Tanya,” pulling stick-ups in San Francisco. Odd. The Vietnam War was ending and Mitchell, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman were going to jail. Werner Erhard was charging rich people hundreds of dollars to sit in hotel ballrooms and get yelled at. Would anything ever be odder than that?

And more than ever before, people were driving to trailheads, tromping into the backcountry to reconnect with something they thought they had lost. Lawyers and doctors and dentists pulled into the Sierra Designs parking lot in their Volvos and BMWs and they strode into the store and asked about beautiful waterfalls and secret campsites that weren’t too terribly far from trailheads. Though sometimes they heard the awful hammering and left.

The college kids only saw Jim come out of the back once. It was a drizzly Thursday afternoon. A slim, red-headed woman wearing sneakers and a tired frown came into the store with two boys. The oldest looked about 12, and he lurked in the store entrance, scowling, smoking Camel cigarettes, pulling up the collar on his leather jacket, and glaring at people who walked by. His little brother sniffled and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his oversized sweatshirt and stared at the floor. She wanted a school coat for her sniffling kid, but only had 15 dollars. Did the store have anything? While one of the college kids tried to figure out how to tell this woman she was in the wrong store, that 15 bucks would barely get her a ground tarp, the blanket parted and out strode Jim. He didn’t say anything to the woman. Jim sidled up to the young boy, who was studying a giant picture on the wall, a picture of a waterfall and wildflowers and big, furry marmots. The boy was tracing grimy lines on the poster with soft, dirty fingers.

Jim bent down and whispered something to the boy and the boy whispered back—the mother was still talking to one of the college kids—and Jim walked back to his bench, grabbed something flat from the bottom of a giant cardboard box filled with old boots and shoelaces and nails and bits of nylon, then returned and thrust the object into the little boy’s hands. He looked at it, then folded it and jammed it into his hip pocket. At that moment, the mother said something that caused the college kid to blush and stammer a string of apologies, and then she marched out of the store, but not before smacking the smoking, leather-jacketed kid on the back of the head and hissing at the kid by the wall to stop his daydreaming, what the hell was the matter with him anyway, was he stupid, or just slow? As she got into her side of the car, the smoking kid punched the daydreamy kid in the arm, but the little boy didn’t say anything. It looked like he was used to it.

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