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Backpacker Magazine – November 2010

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.

by: Eddie Oglander

The original article, sent to backpacker in 1983. (Julia Vandenoever)
The original article, sent to backpacker in 1983. (Julia Vandenoever)
Restored photos show hidden peaks in the Sierras.
Restored photos show hidden peaks in the Sierras.

EDITOR'S NOTE: Hikers have long sought hidden trails, secret valleys and lush, untouched mountain meadows. A young man discovered such a place deep in California’s Sierra 35 years ago. Eight years later, in 1983, he wrote about the place and submitted it to BACKPACKER—then he disappeared. The story never ran, because we didn’t think it was true. We changed our minds after seeing this wire report.
 
August 20, 2010, Mammoth Lakes, Calif. (AP): United States Forest Service officials are refusing to comment on reports that a hiker recently discovered a journal buried near a stone cabin deep in Inyo National Forest, in the southern Sierra Nevada, or on speculation that the journal and cabin both belonged to John Muir, who died in 1914.

“There are lots of things buried in the mountains,” said a Forest Service official who requested anonymity, “and there are probably huts and cabins that only a handful of people have ever seen. That doesn’t mean they’re important, or anything to get excited about.”


Jim avoided the customers. He avoided smiling, too, and talking, and whistling.  Jim stayed in the back of the store, behind the thick green woolen blanket he had strung from the ceiling, far from the Thinsulate and the polypropelene and all the other materials and inventions whose names, when uttered aloud, made Jim grunt and hammer whatever he was hammering with extra attention.

He was a tall man, almost 6’5”, and skinny, with a long brown beard and thinning hair and the glowing brown eyes of a madman, or a rich evangelist. He could have been 35, or 60. He wore faded jeans and work boots and a wool button-down shirt, even in the summer, and he spent the better part of every day bent over the wooden bench in the back of the store, hammering nails into a boot, or sewing up a rainfly, or straightening a tent pole. Whenever a customer came in and asked one of the employees out front if he or she might suggest a good camping spot, invariably one with “nice views and clean water, and no bears and not too far,” the hammering took on a terrible, joyless cadence and the store rang with hammer blows and Jim’s grunts, and many times the customers’ eyes widened and they scuttled hurriedly out of the store without buying anything.

Why any merchant would ever hire Jim to work within earshot or eyesight of customers was a mystery the other employees discussed often. It was the spring of 1975, and they all worked at Sierra Designs, on the corner of Alma Street and University Drive, in Palo Alto, California. They were students at Stanford University, most of them, and they did the things college students did: They traveled to Grateful Dead concerts in San Francisco; threw Frisbees in the parking lot during breaks; and they drank beer and talked about how they would never compromise themselves. At lunch, over hamburgers and milkshakes at Peninsula Creamery, just a few blocks away, they swapped theories about what had broken Jim, what had turned him into the thing in the backshop.

He had been a millionaire, one of the college kids said, but gave it all up after his wife had left him. No, another said, Jim spent his boyhood striding the Sierra, with nothing but a stick and a piece of fishing line, and he lived off the land until a woman brought him to civilization, and then to emotional ruin. No, no, no, another said. Jim grew up poor and he was still poor. He came from the hills of Kentucky and he had attended Stanford on a basketball scholarship, but his college career came to an end when he was out for one of his midnight strolls and he saw a man beating his dog and he killed the man, choked him with his own dog collar! After his six years at Folsom Prison, Jim couldn’t get hired anywhere but here. That wasn’t the real story, either, someone else said. Jim had been a brilliant mathematician at Stanford, on the verge of his Ph.D., spending hours after hours in the library, working on Fermatt’s Theorem. Then late one night, when he was gazing at a harvest moon sinking toward the foothills, then down at some equations he was scribbling, then back at the moon, something snapped. The way this particular student heard it, Jim rode his bicycle to his apartment, burned his math books and math notes, planted a garden, and had been spending weekends in the Sierra Nevada ever since. He paid for his rent and his garden and his gasoline with the money he made repairing stuff in the back of Sierra Designs.




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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star

READERS COMMENTS

goodstorybadvibe
Jul 23, 2011

What a great story. It sure got me to look into who John Muir was. But it was pretty lousy to pass this off as a "report" related to a true event. Most of the time a great story can stand on its own.

What2be
May 11, 2011

I dont care what you write Steve, but a small disclosure with the word "ficiton" in it would have saved me the trouble to read it. I could care less about fiction, so now Im pissed you wasted my time.

Anonymous
Apr 20, 2011

Best story I've read in Backpacker yet

Becki
Feb 20, 2011

I'm confused as to why Backpacker touted this as real. Why not just let it be a good fictional story?

Tasty Beverage
Jan 29, 2011

I should have jumped online sooner; I've had this issue opened on my nightstand for a while meaning to make a contact... I agree it was a great and mesmerizing story, but I'm always suspicious of what gets sent out near the Halloween season. I was even more suspicious when I noticed that "Eddie Oglander" is an anagram for "Died or a Legend." Nice idea for a pen-name Steve! Great read. - crachor062202athotmaildotcom

Tasty Beverage
Jan 29, 2011

I should have jumped online sooner; I've had this issue opened on my nightstand for a while meaning to make a contact... I agree it was a great and mesmerizing story, but I'm always suspicious of what gets sent out near the Halloween season. I was even more suspicious when I noticed that "Eddie Oglander" is an anagram for "Died or a Legend." Nice idea for a pen-name Steve! Great read. - crachor062202athotmaildotcom

Steve Friedman
Jan 15, 2011

I'm also known as Eddie Oglander, and yes, the piece is fiction. Norm, as to your question about whether any of the story is true: I actually went to Stanford in the mid-70s, worked at Sierra Designs, and went on quite a few backpacking trips, many with a friend of mine who drove a Jeep Cherokee, and once or twice with a woman we called Mad Dog, still a friend. The truest and most important part of the story--at least to me--is the idea that wilderness can provide peace and even salvation, sometimes to the most troubled among us.

Cindy
Jan 14, 2011

I was mesmerized by the thought of getting to a place so tranquil. That secret magic place exists for each of us if we just take the time to believe and perceive our surroundings.

norm hall
Jan 12, 2011

Norm Hall
Like many others, i just read the story "The Last Best Place" and found it to be a wonderful piece.
So I understand that this is a fictional story written by Friedman under the name Eddie Oglander.... Is there ANY truth to the story? the Beginning causes us to believe that a journal was really found and at the end suggests that the guy actually taught creative writing at stanford and that the article had been submitted some time ago and then found.... again, is any of this real or total fabrication? norm.hall@greenville.edu

chris
Jan 09, 2011

wonderful story especially since it was sitting around for so long. how did packpacker ever find it again? jim is not muir. jim worked at sierra designs. anyway....the story keeps me believing.

Dan
Jan 08, 2011

So, where is this place?

livefree
Jan 06, 2011

help me here...what am i missing is Jim, john muir If not whos this jim and how does he relate to the John Muir story?

david maisel
Jan 03, 2011

This is one of the best stories I've read in backpacker. No offense to the writers at backpacker... I love lots of the articles, but the content here is what my dreams are made of.

David in Denver
Dec 29, 2010

I'm not sure who wrote it, but it's a brilliant story. There's a bit of magic in the creativity of writing sure as in the last lost places of this shrinking world.

Cory
Dec 28, 2010

Help a fellow BP reader win a trip to Glacier NP. Only takes a second and a click to vote! http://stinkatnothing.com/?p=619

JGH
Dec 25, 2010

dis is tizzight

Anonymous
Dec 25, 2010

I bet Eddie is still out there

Coop
Dec 23, 2010

Should have saved this one for the April Fools issue

R. Wilkinson
Dec 23, 2010

I'm sure secret, wonderfull places like this exist all over the country. I know of a few in the Unintah mountians. If not for familial obligations I could be lost (or found) for a long long time.

June Fitzpatrick
Dec 12, 2010

My question is a simple one, where's the book "J M" wrote?
Sorry I have a second question, is there a map or guide book of this trail?

Of all the wonderful articles I've read in Backpacker this one is an A+, don't think it's the masterpiece. Keep writing and exploring Steve Friedman, I am right behind you.

June Fitzpatrick
Whidbey Island Wa.

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