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.
Maybe you’ve guessed…that’s not what happened. If it had, you wouldn’t be reading this. 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 likely 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. A year earlier, I’d given marijuana brownies to a fellow camper. We’d been slipping away to hold hands and occasionally kiss. I was working up the courage to slide my tongue into her mouth. When she bragged about how often she got high, I knew how to impress her. As a “Counselor-In-Training”, I spent a lot of time washing dishes. Alone in the kitchen one evening, I baked the brownies. The pot wasn’t potent, but I had a lot of it. So I loaded the batter mix with enough marijuana 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 for much of my childhood. They knew me as a troubled but teachable kid. They also wanted to protect their reputation. I spent my last days at camp in a room above the cafeteria. The small bed took up half the floor space, and the walls were a dirty beige. I took meals alone and was banned from all activities. And I was banned from returning. Ever.
So Della had begun enrolling me in military camp, but my father intervened. He usually let my her steer my fate, but when the soldiers in Texas demanded a crew cut, he grabbed the wheel. He wore a beaded headband when teaching at UCLA. He wasn’t going to cut my shoulder-length hair. 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 hike the 211-mile John Muir Trail. I hadn’t heard of the trail and had no idea what to expect. I told him it sounded great!
But now we’d been released from a vomit-scented jail. The night before, we’d rolled out our sleeping bags in a parking lot, so drunk we believed it uncharted wilderness. We briefly woke in a spotlight’s glare and heard barked, amplified warnings; then we passed out again. When the rangers returned, they shook us awake, searched our packs, discovered our stash, and read us our rights. With hands cuffed behind us, we spent the next 90 minutes crashing back and forth on a narrow bench in the rear of their van.
They drove us to Yosemite Valley and booked us for the night. So here Brad and I stood, outside the jail but in the custody of his parents. I walked to a phone booth while the three of them climbed into their Plymouth. As I dialed, I watched them in the car. His mother stared forward, blankly. His stepfather was turned back toward Brad and appeared to be shouting. My friend looked withered, chin on chest.
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 when doing yard work to earn money for this trip. Taking the Valium 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. No doubt my dad had been drinking with Della a Venice Beach dive. So now I was telling him 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. I was worried about what was coming. My first stop would be LA; my next would be Texas.
Then my dad surprised me.