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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 really was a magical time—even when Roger cried once, one afternoon when they were on their backs, looking at wispy, pink clouds. He said he was so happy, and that he was afraid to go back, that he wasn’t depressed, and why couldn’t he feel happy like this all the time? What was wrong with him? Mad Dog and Max told him nothing was wrong with him and no one had to go back—not for a long time—and that as long as they were happy now, why worry about the future? Later, they worried that Roger had been crying other times, that they had only witnessed it once.

Then one morning, Mad Dog came sprinting back into the peaceful little camp, yelling that she had seen someone in the woods, and he was staring at her. Max said that was impossible, who could be out here? No one would ever be able to find the place. Could it have been a bear? No, Mad Dog said, it wasn’t a damn bear. It was a kid.

“It’s the spirit of the woods,” Roger said, and Betsy told him to shut his LSD-addled yap, this was serious, and she was scared.

“There’s more than one way in,” Roger said, “and there’s nothing to be scared of.” Max and Betsy ignored him, as they had learned to do when he talked about things like mastering fear and spirits.

Max tromped out into the place Mad Dog said she’d seen the kid, but he didn’t see anything. Neither of them saw anything the rest of the time they were there, except for crimson and purple sunsets that looked as if they’d been splashed onto the sky in hues that didn’t exist elsewhere, and stars so thick and sparkling the students didn’t need flashlights, and a high, hard blue sky that made them think of nothing at all and everything at once.

It’s said that time outdoors will change a person, that getting away from it all is really about drawing closer to what matters. It’s said that divinity bleeds from a single blade of grass, that God pulses in every molecule of a lonely stream, and it’s no coincidence that so many holy visions take place on mountaintops and desert bottoms. But the weeks the students spent in the magic place that summer of 1975 didn’t seem to change anyone in obvious ways.

Except for me.

Sometimes after dinner, before Roger walked away from the fire, pretending that he wanted to meditate on the sunset alone, to give his friends privacy, they would all talk about returning to the magic place. It was then that Roger said something odd. He said that the three of them would probably never return to this place together, that in fact, very few people would ever come again, because the way in was so difficult.
“But we found it, Roger,” Max said.

“There’s a freakin’ map, Maharishi,” Mad Dog said.

“Maybe,” Roger said, “but who knows if that route will work after we leave?”

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