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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.

There were as many stories about Jim as there were flavors of milkshakes at Peninsula Creamery, and just like the creamy drinks, one was as delicious as the other. None of them was exactly accurate, as it turned out, but all of them were partly true. 

The college students learned something about truth that spring, and something else about the heavy burden of responsibility and the delirious and unexpected joy of running from it. They learned about consequences, too, and how the more time passes, the heavier those consequences become. We all learned something that spring.

It was an odd time, or maybe it just seems odd now, in hindsight. Maybe now, 1983, will seem odd in a few years. Maybe all times are odd. Back then, a light plane had crashed in, or near, Yosemite National Park earlier in the spring, supposedly carrying a load of marijuana. Every week or so, someone would come into Sierra Designs looking to buy a sturdy pair of hiking boots and all the topo maps he could find of the area. The employees joked about gangs of backpackers headed into the mountains, searching for the legendary and reputedly hyper-potent “Yosemite Lightning.” That definitely qualified as odd. An heiress named Hearst was calling herself “Tanya,” pulling stick-ups in San Francisco. Odd. The Vietnam War was ending and Mitchell, Ehrlichman, and Haldeman were going to jail. Werner Erhard was charging rich people hundreds of dollars to sit in hotel ballrooms and get yelled at. Would anything ever be odder than that?

And more than ever before, people were driving to trailheads, tromping into the backcountry to reconnect with something they thought they had lost. Lawyers and doctors and dentists pulled into the Sierra Designs parking lot in their Volvos and BMWs and they strode into the store and asked about beautiful waterfalls and secret campsites that weren’t too terribly far from trailheads. Though sometimes they heard the awful hammering and left.

The college kids only saw Jim come out of the back once. It was a drizzly Thursday afternoon. A slim, red-headed woman wearing sneakers and a tired frown came into the store with two boys. The oldest looked about 12, and he lurked in the store entrance, scowling, smoking Camel cigarettes, pulling up the collar on his leather jacket, and glaring at people who walked by. His little brother sniffled and wiped his nose on the sleeve of his oversized sweatshirt and stared at the floor. She wanted a school coat for her sniffling kid, but only had 15 dollars. Did the store have anything? While one of the college kids tried to figure out how to tell this woman she was in the wrong store, that 15 bucks would barely get her a ground tarp, the blanket parted and out strode Jim. He didn’t say anything to the woman. Jim sidled up to the young boy, who was studying a giant picture on the wall, a picture of a waterfall and wildflowers and big, furry marmots. The boy was tracing grimy lines on the poster with soft, dirty fingers.

Jim bent down and whispered something to the boy and the boy whispered back—the mother was still talking to one of the college kids—and Jim walked back to his bench, grabbed something flat from the bottom of a giant cardboard box filled with old boots and shoelaces and nails and bits of nylon, then returned and thrust the object into the little boy’s hands. He looked at it, then folded it and jammed it into his hip pocket. At that moment, the mother said something that caused the college kid to blush and stammer a string of apologies, and then she marched out of the store, but not before smacking the smoking, leather-jacketed kid on the back of the head and hissing at the kid by the wall to stop his daydreaming, what the hell was the matter with him anyway, was he stupid, or just slow? As she got into her side of the car, the smoking kid punched the daydreamy kid in the arm, but the little boy didn’t say anything. It looked like he was used to it.

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Reader Rating: Star Star Star Star Star


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.

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.

Apr 20, 2011

Best story I've read in Backpacker yet

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.

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?

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.

Jan 08, 2011

So, where is this place?

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.

Dec 28, 2010

Help a fellow BP reader win a trip to Glacier NP. Only takes a second and a click to vote!

Dec 25, 2010

dis is tizzight

Dec 25, 2010

I bet Eddie is still out there

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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