All of us are products of our life experience, right? And each of us can name a time that altered our path. One of mine was the summer of 1975.
On a morning in June, I saw Yosemite for the first time. Lightheaded, I watched a white sash of water fall from a cliff-edge a half-mile overhead. I was standing on the steps Yosemite Jail, hungover and banned from the park for 30 days.
Awe gave way to dread. Soon, I’d be packing for military school in Texas.
Of course you’ve guessed…that’s not what happened. Instead, I spent a wild summer in the mountains and became a different sort of sixteen-year-old. No longer did I see marijuana dealing as a promising career. Something better took root in my mind.
Military training had been my stepmother’s plan. Della couldn’t ship me to the posh summer camp I’d inhabited for half of each summer since second grade, because I’d been banned from it. A year earlier, I’d given marijuana brownies to a fellow camper. We’d been slipping away to hold hands and occasionally kiss. When she spoke about how often she got high, I thought I knew how to please her. As a “Counselor-In-Training”, I spent a lot of time in the kitchen, usually washing dishes. Alone there one evening, I baked the brownies. The pot wasn’t potent, but I had a lot of it. I loaded the batter mix with enough vegetation to color it greenish-brown, foreshadowing many poor decisions to come. My girl ended up in the arms of the camp nurse, shaking and sobbing. I was busted.
Only I wasn’t. The camp’s owners calmed her parents and kept the cops out of it. They’d taken care of me—six weeks per summer—for much of my childhood. They knew me as a troubled but teachable kid. They also wanted to protect their reputation. So they kept a lid on the mess, and I spent my last days at camp in a room above the cafeteria. The small bed took up half the floor space, the wall paint was dull and beige. I took meals alone and wasn’t allowed to participate in any activities.
Because sending me back to camp this summer was out of the question, Della had signed me up for military camp. Then, my father intervened. Usually, he let her steer my fate, but when the soldiers in Texas demanded a crew cut, he grabbed the wheel. He had longish hair himself and wore a beaded headband when teaching at UCLA. He wasn’t going to reduce me from shoulder-length to buzz cut. I’ve wondered since why the haircut mattered more than Texan military drills. Back then, I was simply grateful.
A problem remained. Spending the summer around the house was NOT an option. My stepmother would be slamming doors and breaking things unless I disappeared. I’d be lucky if she didn’t poison me. My friend Brad—freshly graduated from high school—suggested we backpack the 211-mile John Muir Trail. I hadn’t heard of it and had no idea what to expect. I told him the trip sounded great!
But then came that morning in June, after our release from a vomit-scented jail. The night before, we’d rolled out our sleeping bags in a parking lot, so loaded on rum and valium we believed it uncharted wilderness. We briefly woke in a spotlight’s glare and heard barked warnings over a PA system; then we passed out again. When the rangers returned, they shook us awake, searched our packs, discovered our pot, and read us our rights. They seemed pissed off, which I realize now was because they were compelled to drive us to Yosemite Valley, to the jail some ninety minutes away. So they cuffed our hands behind our backs, and we spent the next 90 minutes crashing back and forth on a narrow bench in the rear of their van. The jarring ride kept us awake despite our intoxication. Once in Yosemite Valley, we were booked, photographed, fingerprinted, and locked in a cell with four beds. We slept on the two that were empty.
So here Brad and I stood on a cool Yosemite morning, outside the jail but in the custody of his parents. I walked to a phone booth while the three of them climbed into a Plymouth the color of wet sand. As I dialed, I watched them in the car. In the front seat, Brad’s mother stared forward, blankly. In the back, my friend looked wilted, chin on chest. His stepfather, in the driver’s seat but turned toward Brad, was pointing and shouting.
This mess was my fault. It was I who’d stolen a bottle of rum after the bus dropped us off in Lee Vining. It was I who’d stolen Valium while doing handiwork to earn money for this trip. Taking the pills on the bus and drinking rum before hitchhiking into the National Park were my ideas, too.
I’d called home at the time of booking but hadn’t reached anyone. Probably my dad had been drinking with Della in some Venice Beach dive. Now, he was hearing what happened for the first time, minus the part about it being all my fault. I wasn’t worried he’d be angry about the arrest. I figured he’d blame ‘the man’, and he did. My worries focused on what was coming. My first stop would be LA; my next would be Texas.
Then my dad surprised me.