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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.

A week later, the woman was back, and this time she marched into the store, and when one of the college kids asked if he could help her, she slapped him across the face. The manager saw it and asked what the problem was.
“The problem?” the woman asked. The problem!?!? The problem was one of his dirty, drug-addicted, hippy workers had been putting dreams in her kid’s head, and there was already something off about the boy, and now he wouldn’t shut up about the magic place, and did she look like she was someone who believed in magic?

The little kid was standing by the car, playing with a daffodil, humming. The kid with the motorcycle jacket was standing in the doorway, smoking another cigarette.

The manager said, “If you would explain what…”

She shoved a wrinkled piece of brown paper at him. There were mountains and valleys drawn on it, and rivers and waterfalls, and a skull and crossbones next to a circle of blue touching a dotted line. And at the end of a red dotted line, a few inches past the blue circle, dancing golden fish and a little stone house with smoke curling from its chimney. The smoke curled into letters that said, “Magic Lives Here.”

“Look outside,” the woman commanded, pointing past the kid in the leather jacket, at the little boy talking to his daffodil. “Does that look like someone who needs more dreams cluttering his head? Do I look like I need it?”
“But,” the manager said.

“Does that look like a child who needs another fairy tale from another man?”
“I see…” the manager said.

And did she look like she could afford to take a weekend off and go gallivanting in the hills? Did she look like some fancy housewife who could take her son away whenever he got some fancy notion about make-believe in his head? What was wrong with that idiot with the hammer and the crayons, and why was he even allowed to talk to children?

As she yelled, the manager kept glancing toward the back of the shop, behind the canvas curtain, where the sound of hammering had fallen quiet.
“I’ll take care of this right now,” the manager said, and walked back toward the curtain. And as the lady was leaving, grabbing her chain-smoking kid by the ear and dragging him to the car, one of the college kids snatched the homemade map off of the counter. At closing time, for the first time any of the college kids could remember, Jim stayed late. The students played hacky sack in the parking lot, and drank Olympia beers, and they heard Jim rummaging through drawers and slamming things around and muttering. When he came out, he cut them all looks, but they ignored him. They were planning a trip to the place where magic lived, a trip that would change their lives in ways none could have guessed.

There were three of them, all Stanford seniors, and oddly matched the way college friends often are. Betsy was a blonde, blue-eyed film major from Kansas City whom the others called Mad Dog because of her early morning, pre-caffeine crankiness and grouchy demeanor even in good times. Betsy drank her coffee black and referred to the two male students with her as “punks,” as in, “Are you punks ready to get this show on the road yet, or what?” Betsy was only 5’2”, but she scared people much bigger.

Max drove. Max was studying political science, and had announced his plans to be a millionaire by the time he was 30. Max wore button-down shirts and loafers, shaved every morning, even on weekends, and called adults “Sir” or “Ma’am.” He had brown hair and brown eyes, was a shade under six feet tall, and he never seemed to worry about anything. The three friends were riding in his Jeep, a green Cherokee that had been a high-school graduation gift from his parents.

Roger sat in the backseat. Roger had started as an English major, switched to philosophy, and ended up studying Eastern religions. He carried around a copy of Baba Ram Dass’s Be Here Now with him at all times, and lately had taken to wearing a purple silk robe that he had found at a flea market and playing his harmonica, loudly and badly, in public places. His hair, parted in the middle, hung to his shoulders. He was the same height as Max, but thick with muscle where Max was lanky. Roger had been recruited out of high school, from Corvallis, Oregon, to play point guard on the Stanford basketball team. But after a week of practice, when he told the coach to “mellow out,” the coach kicked him out of the gym, and Roger never returned.

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