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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.

The students left the river, and hiked through the canyon, then crawled through the cave, and then made it to the trailhead. They approached Max’s Jeep, which was covered in dust. Someone had written “Abandoned” on one door.

“Hah!” Roger said. “That’s funny.”

Mad Dog left Palo Alto at the end of the summer and drove south to Los Angeles, where she took a job as a production assistant on a movie directed by a friend of one of her film professors. It was about a space alien that induces such terror in humans who land on its asteroid that they kill themselves trying to escape their imaginary fears. The crew liked Mad Dog’s tough talk and good looks and general competence, and they hired her again, and again, and she never made it back to the Sierra. Four years after she crossed the river on the rope, she was one of the top assistant directors in Hollywood. She wrote her own screenplay then, a thriller called "Beyond the Lost Lake.” It was about three students who stumble on the site where a plane full of marijuana crashed in the mountains. At first unaware that they are being trailed by mafia thugs, the students escape by jumping off of a cliff and miraculously surviving. Each studio she sent it to told her the same thing: “Too much Deliverance, not enough sex.”

After that, she wrote another screenplay, about a young man who struggles through emotional illness, and writes poetry, and only finds happiness when he walks through a secret passage and into a hidden paradise.

“If you’re going to have fantasy, you need laser guns,” one of the studio suits told her. “Isn’t depression a downer?” another suit asked. “What about if we make the guy a girl, and give her telepathy. And what if she falls in love with a bear? Or Sasquatch? The love scene will be edgy, but think of the word of mouth!”

Max enrolled in an MBA program in Ohio, then took a bank job in his hometown of Cleveland. Enough said. 

Roger hung around Palo Alto for a few years, working off and on at Sierra Designs, but eventually was let go for good when a new manager grew weary of customers complaining about the guy quoting Carlos Castaneda and blowing on his harmonica when all they wanted was a Gore-Tex jacket. He took a job at a bakery in Mountain View after that, and he would ride his bike there at 3:30 every morning. He spoke to Mad Dog and Max on the phone every few weeks after their Sierra adventure, then every few months, and after a while, no one heard from Roger anymore. When he stopped showing up at the bakery and disconnected his phone, it was as if he had disappeared.

The new manager at Sierra Designs would have certainly fired Jim, too, but he left before the new manager showed up, just a few weeks after the red-haired lady and her kids came into the store and started all the commotion. He didn’t disappear, like Roger. He died. One of the neighbors in his apartment noticed a bad smell, and he called the cops, who found  Jim’s body. It had been a heart attack. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a feature story two weeks later, entitled, “Mountain Man a Mystery Even in His Absence.”

It turns out, Jim was from Kentucky, and he had been arrested for attacking a man hitting his dog (but he was never imprisoned). He had been a math major, too, and up until his untimely death, he had been tutoring kids in East Palo Alto, even taking them on hiking trips to Pt. Reyes National Seashore. And he had been in love, according to the newspaper story, but his wife had left him years earlier. And he was rich. Apparently, Jim had been a card counter—a good one—and every month or so, he had been driving to Reno, where he would go from casino to casino, counting cards and playing blackjack. He earned enough to invest several hundred thousand dollars in a local start-up. The story mentioned all of that. It also mentioned the outrageous rumor that the “well-known and slightly intimidating repairman” had discovered a secret hideaway deep in the mountains some years earlier. And it finished with his puzzling legacy—the hand-written, notarized will he had left taped to his desk. The note listed his bank account numbers and locations, and it left everything to a woman and her child he barely knew—the red-headed lady and her dreamy little kid.




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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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