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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 for the past six months been spending all of his spare time, when he wasn’t working at Sierra Designs, sitting in his apartment with the lights out. “I’m thinking,” he had told Betsy and Max, when they asked why he didn’t go outside more often, or answer his phone, or ever join them for beer and burgers at The Oasis in Menlo Park. (Roger had stopped eating meat midway through his junior year.) Roger’s coworkers worried about him. His parents worried, too, ever since the previous winter break, when, back home in Corvallis, Roger had refused to say anything unless it had been written in The Hobbit or Catcher in the Rye or Be Here Now. When his parents told him he had to eat his dinner, and wondered if being a vegetarian was really such a good idea, and he started talking about dwarves and elves and how time was just a man-made construct, they made him see a psychiatrist. The doctor told Roger and his parents that he was suffering from depression, and that he needed help. But Roger said he needed to think, that it was the world that was messed up, not him. Back in school, he didn’t show up for class, and the Sierra Designs manager had to remind him to cut his fingernails, and to wash.

“Don’t be a punk,” Mad Dog had told him two weeks earlier, in his dark apartment, as the trio studied the hand-drawn map that Max had grabbed from the counter at Sierra Designs.

Now they drove down the eastern spine of the Sierras, on 395, with loaded packs, and a map that promised magic.

They didn’t notice the motorcycle following them through the night.

Mad Dog, Max, and Roger arrived at the trailhead just before dawn. They carried sleeping bags and two tents, because Mad Dog insisted on one for herself. They carried no stove, because they planned to build fires at night. Max and Mad Dog studied the map while Roger sat cross-legged underneath a Jeffrey pine and chanted. He took off his clothes then, and pulled his purple satin robe from his pack and put it on. Max and Mad Dog exchanged glances—but Roger shouldered his pack so they did, too—and the trio hiked across a meadow and through a dense pine forest, and up a series of rocky switchbacks toward what Roger thought was Shadow Lake, or Cedar Lake—he could be fuzzy with details.

“No one told me this was going to be a death march,” Mad Dog said, after the group had been hiking straight up for an hour and a half. 

Max grunted. “Maybe if you’d cut down on the cancer sticks, it wouldn’t hurt so much,” he said.

“Thanks, jerkhead,” Mad Dog said.

“We create our own pain,” Roger interjected. “We can replace it with love. Love is all around us, if we can only be here…”

“Jesus Christ, Roger,” Mad Dog said, “you give even hippies a bad name. Will you can that life-is-bliss routine while we climb this freakin’ mountain?”

After 40 or so switchbacks, they came upon a deep blue lake ringed with fir trees. At the far end was a low, cavelike opening, so obscured by brush it was barely visible, and a path to the right of it. They found a flat rock that jutted into the water, opened a giant bag of gorp, and looked at the map. They found the large blue oval, encircled by trees. They also saw that while the path next to the cave continued up to more switchbacks, on the map was etched a dotted line that headed straight into the dark hole in the stone. It was one thing to study maps and plan great adventures. Crawling into blackness was something else.

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