Choosing a path
I peeked through the flap of our tent and saw a figure in the darkness digging through Brian’s backpack.
Tom shifted in his chair, and breathed out a lung full of distress. He might as well have farted.
Choosing a path
Being lost isn’t so bad
Editor’s note: The following story is part of a series on culture and religion in America.
By Stacey Warde
By Stacey Warde
Magoo’s food began to run out. We handed him treats from our packs and kept him going. He seemed happy despite Scott’s scolding for eating his hat.
“Bad dog!” Scott had said. He would never hit Magoo, only stare and scowl, and Magoo would stare and scowl right back, even licking his chops to prove the point that he’d gotten the last lick.
Scott knew Magoo had a point. You don’t pull a dog’s tail to hitch a ride across the lake.
They quickly made up; Scott petted Magoo’s head and Magoo licked Scott’s hand, then offered a low grumbling growl, as if to say, “Don’t ever do that again!”
The time had come for us to leave the Lower McCabe Lake and begin our trek to Tuolumne Meadows and re-supply. As we descended further into the forest, and closer to mountain campsites, we ran into more people.
“Maybe we’ll meet up with some horny chicks,” Brian said, musing, gazing at the spires of rocks pointing up through the trees above our heads. “Looking for some hard dick.”
Our solitary sojourn beneath the stars had come to an end. Other packers and campers, fleeing their suburban prisons, looking for an escape from their boring lives and jobs, joined us on the path. Students fresh out of school and religious groups in search of God fled into the wild, seeking renewal, searching for the juice that got sucked out of them every day at home and in the work place.
They appeared with smiles, warm greetings, and summer hiking gear, glad to have broken free, no matter how brief, from the dull routine that killed them every day: rising before dawn to battle traffic, pass through the company gate, park the car, find their desk and sleepwalk their way through the day beneath flickering fluorescent lights before returning home to start the degrading cycle all over again.
I’d seen my parents do this for as long as I could remember. They were tired, often broke, but never broken, even when my father stood on the picket line, wondering if he’d ever get his job back. I hated seeing them that way. And I couldn’t imagine spending my life the way they did. After our backpacking trip, I decided, I’d do it differently; I’d make something of my life without the humiliation of sucking up to the boss or taking it up the ass from some corporate schmuck.
“You take what you get,” my father said to me, frustrated that I’d try to look for something that wouldn’t kill me. “It’s just the way things are, son. Beggars can’t be choosy.”
I would have loved nothing more than to prove him wrong. I had tried recently without success to show him that I’d be my own guy. I’d find my own way, like this backpacking trip. When he handed me Army brochures midway through my senior year in high school, I said: “If you think I’m going to join the Army, you’re crazy.”
I had little else going for me. Without Uncle Sam, my future looked bleak. I signed for a three-year stint less than two months after my dad handed me the brochures. I’d go on active duty at the end of summer. In a few months, I’d be grunting through the swamps of Florida, far from the mountains and warm beaches and scantily clad girls of California, learning guerilla warfare tactics and how to stop “the Soviet Threat” from menacing our allies. I was going to be a Ranger and learn how to kick some ass.
My dad was proud. I had made a good choice, becoming a soldier. “You either kill or be killed,” he said, not realizing what he was saying.
Backpackers on the trail seemed dazzled by the sun and wind and fresh air—just as we were. I wondered why they would ever go back home. Ten days out of the year. They lived for this moment, I realized. The only ten days that meant anything to them. They’d go home and have stories to tell, pictures to show. They stopped to say hello and chatted up the path they had traveled so far.
“We saw a few elk by the river on the way up,” one said as he tipped his hat and ventured on with his companion.
“Elk. That means bear,” Tom said, looking up from his map, his brow scrunched and the lines on his forehead showing confusion. He put his head back down and studied the map.
Leaving the stark, naked wilderness of the alpine meadow for the lushness of trees and streams and ponds and lakes and mosquitoes, we decided to let Tom navigate. He’d taken the map from Scott after we huddled around its edges to go over our route. The next leg would take us into Tuolumne Meadows. We gave ourselves a day or two to make it but decided to push ourselves hard the first day out.
“Where the hell’s that ridgeline we were following?” Tom mumbled to himself.
“It’s just on the other side of those trees,” I said, pointing. “Look, you can kind of see the spires of the ridgeline if you stand on your toes.”
Tom lifted himself on the tips of his boots, held his hand over his eyes and scanned the tops of the trees. “I don’t see anything.”
“The ridgeline’s over there,” Brian interrupted, pointing behind us.
“No it’s not,” Tom barked. “That’s a different ridgeline.”
“I’m pretty sure it’s the right one,” Brian shot back, still pointing behind us. “I was wondering why you started to go this way. We need to go back and follow that other ridgeline.”
“You’re crazy,” Tom said as he put the map down and we gathered around to consult and find our bearings.
We walked in circles for more than an hour, unable to find a landmark to orient ourselves. We got off trail and beat the brush. The map changed hands several times and we each had a try at getting back on track. We were lost.
“We’d better find a place to set up camp,” Tom said. “It’s getting late. It’ll be dark soon.”
We found a brackish pond, the only decent water source in the area. Mosquitoes buzzed in our ears, the air felt thick and heavy, and we were hungry.
“I’ll start some water,” Brian said, “and make us some tea. Then, we’ll eat.”
No one complained about being lost. The worst part was the murky pond and the mosquitoes and the lack of foot traffic and girls. It was supposed to be our night of hooking up, and making camp with some willing honeys we’d meet on the trail. We might even take them into Tuolumne Meadows and into the final leg of our trip. We were so far off the trail we hadn’t seen anyone in hours.
“This isn’t so bad,” Tom said as he leaned against his pack and sipped his tea. “We’ll figure it out; first thing in the morning we’ll find our way back.”
Scott opened his pocket Bible and began reading: “How think ye? If a man have an hundred sheep, and one of them be gone astray, doth he not leave the ninety and nine, and goeth into the mountains, and seeketh that which is gone astray? And if so be that he find it, verily I say unto you, he rejoiceth more of that sheep, than of the ninety and nine which went not astray.”
“It really isn’t so bad being lost is it?” Tom said, sipping his tea, smiling.
We found our way back to the trail in the first light. We were determined to re-supply, stuff Magoo’s orange pack with more dog food, and make a quick return to the wilderness.
We got to Tuolumne Meadows before noon, thrilled at the sight of the river, the lush meadows and the general store. The two-lane Tioga Road separated the meadows from the store and the adjacent campground.
We placed our things at an empty campsite and visited the store. I walked alone to the meadow across the way. As I lay upon the tufted grasses beside Tuolumne River, the sun felt soothing, its warm rays calmed me and soon I was out, dreamily lost in the golden green lush of nature.
I awakened to learn that our trip had taken a sour turn. We would have to go home sooner than planned. A park ranger met Scott at our campsite and told him we couldn’t go back into the wilderness with Magoo. We couldn’t stay in the campground, either. No pets. We’d have to leave as soon as possible. We’d have to get a ride out. It put a damper on our spirits.
We called Scott’s brother from the general store and asked if he’d come get us. He couldn’t make it until the next day.
“But the rangers told us we have to leave. We can’t stay here,” Scott pleaded over the phone.
“I can’t do it, Scott,” we heard his brother’s response crackling through the receiver. “I’ll pick you up tomorrow.”
“Fuck!” Scott hung up the phone and scowled at Magoo. “Goddammit! Let’s go talk to the rangers,” he suggested. “If they want us outta here, they’ll have to help us.” We grabbed our gear, ready for action, eager to get on our way. Maybe we could get back into the wilderness, after dropping off Magoo. We’d still have a couple of days.
No, the rangers said, they weren’t available to drive us out of the park and help us get back on the road to June Lake, less than an hour’s drive away.
“Well, how the hell are we supposed to leave?” Tom asked. The ranger lifted his chin, registering the first rise in temper, sizing up Tom, who had proven through his wrestling prowess that he was the strongest of our group, and probably the strongest of any budding man his size and age.
At 17, Tom had already stood down a couple of Marines who threatened to beat his ass in the parking lot of a Carrow’s Restaurant.
“Go ahead, motherfuckers,” Tom had said, facing them, relaxed, ready to roll. Tom was lightning fast and one of the strongest grapplers I’d ever encountered. He could easily lift you off the ground, spin you and throw you hard, and try to break you, and he enjoyed doing it.
I’d stood by his side with two other high school wrestlers and with our best badass glares locked horns in a stare-off with the Marines. They laughed at us, waved us away, and said, “Ah, you’re not worth it,” and went off into the night.
The ranger stood firm, listening, thinking. “Tell you what. I’ll let you guys camp the night here, but then you’ve gotta be outta here by tomorrow.”
“Deal!” Scott said, and we trudged off to find a campsite in the waning light.
We were feeling ragged from the previous long day of pushing hard to re-supply Magoo with food.
“This sucks,” said Brian, as we left the ranger station and found our empty site. We placed our packs on the ground, quickly set up our tents and started dinner.
The campsites offered picnic tables, the first we’d seen in nearly a week. We threw our cookware and a light on the table and made a big batch of macaroni and cheese. We sat at the table and ate; glad to have food, but disappointed that we were no longer in the backcountry.
“I guess we’ll be going home tomorrow,” Scott mused, scooping up his grub.
“We could just sneak back into the wilderness, get up before the sun rises and make a trail,” Tom suggested.
“Fuckin’ A right!” Brian said, hitting Tom on the shoulder. “Let’s do it!”
“Sounds good, but I don’t wanna risk losing Magoo,” Scott said. “The ranger said he’d impound him if he caught us out there. And my father would fucking kill me.” We were more or less stuck, deflated and out of gas.
We drank from a skin Brian filled with whiskey he’d purchased from the general store. The guy behind the counter winked us through the line. He knew we weren’t 21, even though we pretended to be with our beards and rough appearance.
“Let’s drink and hit the sack early,” Brian said as he took a swig and handed the bag to Tom.
“Good idea,” Tom said, “time to get royally fucked up and pass out. Here’s to our last night in the wild.” He hoisted the bag and we passed it around until it was dry.
We left everything out on the table, too tired and drunk, too angry to care about cleaning up or worrying about critters.
I passed out in the tent with Tom. Scott and Brian snored away in their tent at the other side of the campsite. I awakened in the middle of the night to rustling sounds outside Scott’s tent.
I peeked through the flap and saw a figure in the darkness digging through Brian’s backpack.
“Brian!” I whispered loudly. “Brian! What are you doing? Brian, is that you?”
“Gro-o-o-nk. Gro-o-o-nk. Gro-o-o-nk.” The response sounded like an enormous beast chewing grits.
“Tom,” I said, shaking him awake, “Tom, I think there’s a bear outside.”
“A bear? Shit! Duck into your bag!” he said, pulling his sleeping bag over his head.
“What the fuck are you doing, Tom? I thought you were going to jump up and pound some rocks if we saw a bear.”
“Get in your bag!” he said. “If he comes over here and swats you around, you’re not going to like it. If he sniffs at you, don’t fuckin’ move!”
I ducked in to my bag, poking my head out, peeping through the flap of our tent, keeping an eye on the bear. I quaked, fearing the worst, wishing we had never come to this place, wishing we hadn’t been so stupid to leave our food out on the table, wishing the park rangers and wild animals would leave us the fuck alone. Magoo started barking. I started praying.
“Magoo, shut up!” Scott said from inside his tent.
“Scott, there’s a bear digging through Brian’s pack,” I shouted.
“A bear!” I said.
“A BEAR?” a startled voice asked from the campsite next to ours.
The beast tore through everything in Brian’s pack and ate all his food. It ripped his backpack into shreds, bending the frame and leaving strips of canvass where the pack used to be. It sampled all of our packs, bending and tearing through them, chewing through granola and nuts and dried fruit, and spitting them out inside our destroyed packs. It swatted at the pots and pans on the picnic table, bending and crushing them, and then, after more than an hour of eating and sampling all our food, it lumbered off into the woods.
The next day, we sat on the side of Tioga Road next to the general store, looking like a band of homeless wanderers, disheveled, hung over, our packs shredded and misshapen. Brian bought another fifth of whiskey and we drank beside the road from the skin while we waited for Scott’s brother to pick us up. The rangers left us alone.
His brother arrived in a big pickup truck several hours after Scott called. He pulled up alongside the road and we stood and wobbled and heaved our packs into the back. “You guys look like shit,” Scott’s brother said. “Dad’s pretty pissed off, Scott. He’s waiting for you at the cabin.”
Tom and I sat in the back with Magoo while Brian and Scott jumped into the cab with his brother.
“Fuck, I’d hate to be Scott right now,” I said to Tom. “His dad’s an asshole.”
“I can’t wait for this shit,” he responded. We sat quietly, looking into the vast beauty of the mountains, the distant waterways and lakes, the green forests, and rocks tumbling into the road where goats jumped higher and away from curious motorists. The air felt clean as we rolled up the highway through the pass and wound our way back toward June Mountain. I could feel our brief taste of freedom coming to an end. The closer we got to June Mountain, the more I could feel the claws of parents and obligations and self-righteous assholes clutching my throat.
Scott’s dad sat stiffly in an armchair, holding a Bible in his lap, when we entered the cabin. He regarded Tom and me with disdain and turned to Scott, “You boys get yourselves cleaned up, shaven and dressed, and then we’ll talk.”
“I’m not shaving,” I said, brushing past his glare, avoiding the flare of his nostrils, remembering our first free and dissipated nights in the cabin, smoking pot and drinking, before starting our adventure into the Sierra wilderness.
As I stepped into the bathroom, the old man roared, “You’ll shave or you’ll find your own way home!” Magoo skulked down the hallway—head low, tail tucked—into a distant bedroom. That was the last time I ever saw Magoo.
The old man sat patiently as we showered and shaved and put on clean clothes.
He wore reading glasses and pored over a page in his Bible, preparing his scold.
He asked us to sit comfortably and when we had settled ourselves, he peered over his glasses and looked at each of us, as if taking measure and making mental notes.
“You boys are pretty full of yourselves,” he started, directing his gaze at Tom and me, “coming here with your weed and smoking pot and drinking—in MY cabin!”
“Excuse me, Mr.…” Tom started.
“I’m not finished,” Scott’s dad snapped. Still keeping his gaze on Tom and me, he continued: “I have a good mind to haul your butts down to the sheriff’s and let him deal with you.”
“Mr.…” Tom tried again.
“I’M NOT FINISHED! You’ll get your chance to explain yourself in a minute. For now, you listen to me!”
He aimed his gaze at Scott. “I don’t have to tell you Scott how disappointed I am. You already know. Your mother couldn’t even talk about it. Your friends here,” he turned back to Tom and me, “need to understand something.”
“This is bullshit,” Tom muttered.
“You’ve got a rude awakening coming, young man!” Scott’s dad howled, his face turned red and his nostrils flared again. “I’ve already talked to your parents and they’ve got a thing or two waiting for you when you get home.”
I squelched a laugh. Tom’s parents were the coolest people on earth. I could picture them snickering on the phone as Scott’s dad told them how their son had started down the wrong path, and how he was a bad influence and now was the time to steer him in the right direction. I sneaked a peek at Tom and gave him a quick “what-a-fucking-joke” signal with my eyes.
Scott’s dad turned his attention to the Bible in his hand.
“The Bible, as you know, is the word of God. Its words bring comfort to your troubles and afflictions. Its guiding light will either chasten or comfort you, depending on where you stand with God.”
Tom shifted in his chair, and breathed out a lung full of distress. He might as well have farted. Scott’s dad flashed his eyes at Tom and continued.
“Solomon was the wisest man who ever lived,” he said solemnly, “and he wrote a book of Proverbs for young men like your selves, who need guidance and instruction. Listen to these words, gentlemen, because they could mean the difference between a life of misery and a life of joy.” §
Parts I and II of this trilogy can be viewed here:
Stacey Warde is editor of The Rogue Voice. He can be reached a firstname.lastname@example.org.