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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 stinks in there,” Betsy said. “No way am I going. We don’t even know if the map’s accurate. And even if it is, I don’t trust Jim. And…”

But Roger was already gone. It would take an hour to hike back to the trailhead, and then another hour to drive to the ranger station. And what would they tell the ranger? That they had followed a map drawn by a madman, that their idiotic adventure had led to them losing their maybe-unstable friend, who had disappeared into a cave they were afraid to enter?

“Listen,” Betsy said urgently. “I heard something.”

“It’s the wind,” Max said.

“No, listen.”

They stopped, and they both heard it, something faint and rhythmic. Something that sounded like “Om.” It was coming from the cave.

“Roger!” they both shouted.

“C’mon in!” Roger yelled.

Betsy and Max stared at each other again. Should they go?

“Head for my voice,” Roger yelled.

“I’m not going to crawl in…” Betsy said, but it was too late, because Max—careful, button-down Max—was already on his belly. Betsy followed.
After just 10 minutes of scraping forward, toward Roger’s voice, they saw him silhouetted against daylight at the cave’s far end. They emerged onto an oblong swath of emerald grass. They stared at each other, and then at the map, and then up the canyon ahead, which is where the map indicated they should go.

“Trust the universe,” Roger said, and entered the canyon.

They followed the canyon for a mile, until they came to a place where walls stretched up 400 feet, sheer as glass. In front of them was air. The canyon stopped there, and they couldn’t see what was below. 

They all looked at the map. On it was a stick figure, leaping from a ledge into a tiny pool. On the little zero of blue was drawn a happy face.

“This seems to be the way,” Max said, frowning.

“There is only one path, and we’re on it,” Roger said.

“No way I’m jumping off a goddamn cliff,” Betsy said, sitting down in the middle of the trail, trying and failing to light one of her cigarettes.

She did jump, though, after Roger and Max. They landed in a lake, only 20 feet below. They managed to pull themselves and their packs out and they lay there, panting.

They sat in silence and shivered and looked around them. They saw the hidden path—invisible from the top of the ledge high above—and they followed it away from the lake, away from the cliff.

“I think I heard something, like a splash,” Betsy said, looking back at the lake. They all looked in the same direction, but saw nothing.

 The path led away from the lake and alongside a boulder field and then past three smaller lakes. After two hours, they left the fourth lake and entered a dark forest, which narrowed to another canyon, and then plunged into a deep gorge, where it dead-ended at a wall of solid white granite.

Roger sat down and chanted, and Betsy lit one of her cigarettes. Max studied the map and took out a compass, and studied the map again. Betsy said she heard something in the woods, and now what the hell were they supposed to do, anyway?

Max ignored her and looked from the map to a thick bush of thorns at the bottom of the steep walls. He crouched  down by the bush and dug underneath a triangular rock until he managed to pull it up. “C’mon,” he said, “here’s the tunnel.” It was pitch black, and smelled like something had died in it recently. They heard squeaking.

“I’m not going in there,” Betsy said, but of course, Roger had already squirmed into the opening and was wriggling downward.

“Suit yourself,” Max said, “but please cover the hole once I’m in, and good luck finding your way back to the car alone.” Then he started for the hole.

Betsy looked again at the woods, and she thought she saw movement, so she shoved Max aside and dove in. Max followed, but he went feet first, and when he was almost entirely swallowed, he grabbed the triangular rock and pulled it back into the hole.

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