Labyrinth 2: Free
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Labyrinth 2: Free

“Why don’t you stay?”
I knew my dad. I knew his politics. But this shocked me. Disobey an order from the Feds?
“The drugs are gone, right? What’s the point of leaving? Yosemite’s a big place; keep a low profile.”
Well…he was my dad. If he said I could stay, why argue? Worries about boot camp faded. I felt giddy.
Talking to Brad and his parents through the windows of their car, I struggled with surges of guilt, shame, and relief. I fought laughter. I fought tears. I fought nausea, a hangover, and rainbow-colored fringes trailing everything that moved. I sank further into confusion when Brad looked happy for me, even as his stepfather ranted. “Your father’s a terrible parent! You’ll understand that some day.” When their car lurched out of the parking lot, I took my first deep breath of the morning.
Brad’s stepfather wasn’t wrong. My dad didn’t care much for parenthood, or conventions, or morals. For him , shoplifting was rebellion. He applauded when I pilfered the sleeping bag now hanging from my pack. He railed about injustice but drank when he drove. When cars tailgated, he lobbed beer cans from his open convertible, aiming for their hoods.
A week after my sister moved to Santa Monica, workers covered her bedroom walls with reflective wallpaper and posters of Della in the nude. A huge round bed appeared, covered with plush fabric the color of a wine stain. My sister’s old room was next to mine. I found it hard to sleep when my folks copulated with drunken strangers. Thankfully, this wasn’t a weekly event. Most weekends they drank in the bars. And if they brought people home after hours, they’re clothes usually stayed on. But whatever they did or didn’t do, the mornings after I picked roaches from the ashtrays and gathered the bottles for recycling.
No wonder I spent decades learning to discern right from wrong. Lack of moral compass in my youth caused many problems, but it also served me. As I learned from mistakes, I learned the corrosive feel of selfishness and harming. I gained an esthetic sense of goodness in myself and others, and began to trust that sense to guide my choices. Over time and very slowly, my feel for moral beauty matured. I began to think of it as innate to the body, like comfort in supportive, natural environments. I am grateful for how it safeguards my heart without locking it in a cage of rules.
But in 1975, far from wisdom, I thought only this: I was the luckiest kid in California! To keep that luck, I needed to put distance between me and the ranger station. I hoisted my pack and strode toward the mind-warping waterfall I’d seen upon release. By the time I got to its base, awash in spray, I felt stoned even without the pot the rangers had confiscated. Like the fringes of color, this was due—in part—to the LSD I’d deftly swallowed the night before. Intoxicated as I was, I’d managed to open the vial in my pocket, palm the contents, and pop them into my mouth with a fake yawn. My dad would have been proud of me. I’d avoided a bust for more reviled drugs, maybe saving him the cost of lawyer. Now I stood below Yosemite Falls, in glowing awe, on the tail of an acid trip.
A group of long-haired climbers stood nearby, and one of them passed me a joint. They were mountainous men, big as boulders. I’d filled out a lot in the past year, but I felt dwarfed by these guys. It wasn’t their physical size that intimidated me; it was their manly posturing. Their beards mirrored the falls overhead, flowing off their faces like drapery. They swaggered under coils of rope; cams and carabiners glinted on their hips. Smooth-faced and wearing new jeans and boots, I felt effete by comparison. I snuck self-conscious glances at my lopsided pack slumped against a nearby tree. The tent and sleeping bag I’d lashed onto it had slipped loose and sprawled on the ground.
Whether the climbers liked or just tolerated me, I couldn’t say. But an hour later I followed them to a walk-in campground not far from the Falls—and a fair distance from the Ranger Station. I stayed two weeks.
I enjoyed long summer days traipsing the Valley with other walk-in campers. Most were older than me, but I was used to hanging with my sister’s friends, six to ten years my senior. A few of us dropped acid and sat on the open upper deck of Park shuttles as they circled the Valley. At night we passed whiskey around overbuilt fires. I slept with a girl who slipped away from her friends and chaperones. We cuddled and kissed, but neither of us tried going further, a fact I didn’t mention when the guys needled me about my tent mate the next morning.
The two-weeks of food in my pack began to run out, and so did my money. There was no way I could afford enough freeze-dried meals to hike the John Muir Trail.
Rick, an older guy in camp, didn’t have a home anywhere; he moved from camp to camp. When I bemoaned my dilemma one night, he looked interested. The next day, he said we should trek the Trail together. He’d show me how to do it on the cheap. I knew little about him, but what could go wrong? The day before we hit the trail, we walked the aisles of Yosemite market. Rick tossed low-cost grub into my basket: boxes of mac & cheese, ramen packets, instant oatmeal, pancake mix, dried salami, etc. We walked out with a two-weeks supply for each of us.
The next morning, we embarked near a sign that read, “Mt Whitney—211 miles”. We climbed a trail that hugged the Merced River as it tumbled down a long cascade. The water churned oceanward, arcing over boulders and roaring between them. By the time we’d topped Vernal Falls, the thrum in my body felt almost orgasmic.
By afternoon, we’d reached the top of Nevada Falls and entered Little Yosemite Valley. It was crowded with campers. This wouldn’t do. I looked for a spot away from the masses. Walking the edge of the Merced, I watched it sluice down a tilted slab of granite. The river was broad at this point and a bit more than ankle deep. It flowed smoothly, in many places clear as glass. The granite mound on the other side was nearly deserted. I dipped my hand in the water; it was icy, but so what? “Let’s camp over there! We can wade across!”
“Sure,” Rick said. He sat down and watched me unlace my boots. I stuffed them with my socks and tied them together. The smart choice was to move fast. I’d clamber across before the freezing water grew too painful. I strode three of four sure steps, then stopped, uncertain. My feet burned with cold. The river didn’t seem so shallow anymore. It surged against my legs and curled into a wave that rose above my knees. The flood of melted snow pushed hard against me, nearly knocking me down. I teetered on the slick granite, vainly trying to grip the rock with my toes. I took my first good look downstream. Fifty yards ahead, the sluice plunged down an apron of rough rock. What was swift, clear flow above broke into white water below. The rapids roared at me. Chills rattled through my body, and it wasn’t just the icy Merced that caused them.
I inched backward, time nearly frozen as I eased toward the river’s edge, feet numb and hurting. When I reached safety, I noticed Rick in the same spot, boots still laced, resting his back against a gray boulder peppered with black flakes.
I felt uneasy but hushed my doubts. Surely, I thought, he was psyching himself up for the cold water. I hadn’t waded very long; a few more moments, and he’d have followed me. I acted nonchalant, laughing about the damned cold water. I said nothing about nearly losing my life.
My boots back on, Rick and I hiked to where everyone else was camping. We pitched our tents near a Boy Scout Troop, then sat around their fire. The heat settled my chills. My desire to sleep on barren rock was forgotten. For now, it felt good to be in a crowd.
As darkness gathered, a scout leapt up and shrieked, “BEAR!” The rest of us swung toward where he pointed just as the beast rose on its hind legs and yanked down the food I’d hung in a small tree. In the shadows, it looked as huge as a horse. It dropped to all fours, then lumbered away with a sac in its jaws. Without thinking, I gave chase. I ran and screamed until my throat was raw, while the bear loped upslope and out of sight. I kept pursuing, but my resolve began to flag. Just as I was about to give up, a ripped nylon bag caught my eye.
In the fading light, I surveyed the remnants. The bear had gulped down all the brown sugar, leaving only a cleanly licked piece of the box. It had bitten holes in two cans of spam and ripped open my pancake mix. Nothing was left of the salami but shreds of oily paper. After wrapping the tattered sack around the punctured cans and remaining pancake mix, I returned to camp in defeat.
Shouts of “Way to go!” and “Awesome, man!” greeted me. Scouts slapped my back. They promised to give me food so I could continue the John Muir Trail. After the ruckus settled down, and we’d circled back to the fire, their leaders leaned into this teachable moment. My sacs were hung too low; it’s dumb to chase a bear; what was I thinking? The lecture vanished like smoke as the scouts and I yammered into the night.