Labyrinth 2: Free

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. A jittery feeling of joy grew inside.
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 glad I was staying, even though he was leaving. Meanwhile, his stepfather ranted. “Your father’s an awful parent! You’ll realize 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. He was also weak on conventions and morals. For him, theft was rebellion. He’d applauded when I stole a sleeping bag from a sporting goods store, the same bag now dangling from my pack. He railed about corruption but drank when he drove. When cars tailgated, he lobbed beer cans from his open convertible, aiming for their hoods.
He and Della did not model stable domestic behavior. They ate out four or more nights a week. At first I had my older sister for company, but after she moved out when I was in junior high school, I spent these nights alone. I began drinking my parents’ vodka, mixing it 50:50 with orange juice in a large glass. Because I was only twelve, the concoction nearly knocked me unconsciousness, which made my loneliness easier to bear. Months passed before Della confronted me, upset not by my drinking, but by the cost of the vodka and the fact I was using her orange juice.
Sometimes my parents brought people home after the bars closed. The guests roared up the drive on motorcycles, then filled the house with shouts and laughter as they danced to rock music and dove naked into the pool. You can imagine our family’s reputation in that neighborhood of ocean views and Lincoln-Continentals.
Though I used to feel ashamed of my youthful mistakes, I’ve learned to go easier on myself. It seems obvious my role models made it hard for me to know healthy from unhealthy. Plus, despite the harm it caused myself and others, I now believe being raised without ethical compass had advantages. It meant I learned morality not as a system of rules, but as a natural recoil from the corrosive feel of selfishness.
Very slowly, I awoke from moral slumber to discover my healthier intuitions and the wholesome feel of goodness in myself and others. I was middled age before this really took hold, yet learning ethics late nourished my compassion. How can I condemn others for their failings, when for so long I behaved so badly?
As my love of moral beauty has matured, I’ve come to think of it as innate to the human body, like contentment, as biological as breathing.
But in 1975, I wasn’t thinking about morality, or even the consequences of dumb behavior. I thought only this: I was the luckiest kid in California! To keep that luck, I needed to put distance between myself 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 I saw around everything, 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. But beyond the drugs, something else was stirring inside me: a recognition, like the love at first sight I felt when I met Mandy, my wife. Feelings of wonder, like coming home, were repairing my synapses and soothing my heart.
A group of long-haired climbers loitered nearby, and one of them passed me a joint. They were mountainous men, big as boulders. I’d filled out some in the past year, but I felt dwarfed by these guys. It wasn’t their just physical size that intimidated me. I was awed by their thick beards, their coiled ropes and gear-laden packs, the cams and carabiners glinting on their hips. They stood with studied swagger.
In a zoo some years ago, my wife and I watched a silverback gorilla lumbering around his enclosure with easy arrogance. Even yards distant from him, we smelled his potent musk, thick with pheromones. I watched Mandy’s knees go a little weak in that cloud of testosterone. Though I tried to talk myself out of it, I felt a bit unmanned by comparison. Which is how I felt standing with those climbers beneath Yosemite Falls. With my peach-fuzz beard and stiff new boots, I snuck self-conscious glances at my lopsided pack slumped against a tree. The Boy Scout tent and stolen sleeping bag had slipped their ties and sprawled on the ground in an amateur’s heap.
Whether the climbers liked or just tolerated me, I couldn’t say. But I followed them to a walk-in campground a good distance from the Ranger Station. I stayed two weeks.
Those weeks were fun. I spent the 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 decks 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.
After two weeks the food in my pack began to run out, and so did my money. I’d started with just enough cash to cover two resupplies. Having eaten my backpacking food and spent money on burgers and LSD, there was no way I could afford to continue.
Rick, an older guy in camp, didn’t have a home anywhere, though I didn’t think of him as homeless. He seemed like a mountain man, living in the wild. When I told him about my dilemma one night, he looked interested. The next day, he said we should trek the Trail together. He said the problem was my belief I needed expensive freeze-dried meals. He’d show me how to backpack on the cheap.
I knew almost nothing 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-week 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. Water rolled in vast sheets over boulders as big as vans, roaring its way to the Valley. My body thrummed, resonating with the clamor. By the time we’d topped Vernal Falls, it felt almost orgasmic.
By afternoon, we’d reached the top of Nevada Falls and entered Little Yosemite Valley, an area crowded with campers. This wouldn’t do. I looked for a spot away from the masses. Walking the edge of the Merced River we’d been beside all day, I reached a spot where it sluiced down a tilted slab of granite. The river was broad at this point and little more than ankle deep. It flowed smoothly, clear as glass. The smooth shore on the far 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 on, the smooth slab broke into a jumble of jagged rock. What was swift, clear flow above churned as 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 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 urge to sleep far from others 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 from a low branch. In the shadows, it looked bigger than 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, though 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.