Saturday, October 13, 2012



Yosemite National Park

By the time Drake exited the mini-mart the clouds had closed in, blotting out the sun and threatening sudden catastrophe. But down here, at a mere four thousand feet of altitude, he figured he would only have rain and fog to contend with. Still, according to the pretty girl behind the counter, he had to cover another fifteen miles or so before reaching his penultimate destination; Yosemite Village.
Drake glanced across the parking lot. Harlan and his brother were long gone. He blew out a harsh breath. Alone at last. A fine mist began to fall, causing Drake to look up at the lowering clouds. He turned and gazed back east toward Tioga Pass. And home, he thought. Drake hesitated, then sighed and yanked open the driver’s door.
As he climbed aboard, a sharp blast of arctic-cold wind pierced his heavy jacket and thick cotton shirt. He shivered and slammed the door, shutting out the elements. Inside, Hank—suffering the emotional pangs of separation—crowded over, exceedingly happy to see his master again. He greeted Drake with prancing paws and a big wet slobbering tongue.
            Drake pushed the dog away. “Yeah, yeah, I’m glad to see you too, Mutt,” he wiped his face. “Move over to your side so I can drive.”
            Drake started the Chevy and drove out of the service station-mini mart, stopping as he reached Tioga Road. “If I turn left I can be in Yosemite Village in a few minutes. If I turn right I can go back home and forget this whole stupid idea by tonight.” Hank seemed to sense his confusion; he nudged Drake’s side. Ignoring the dog, Drake continued his musing. “If I go left who knows what I’ll meet. If I go right I’ll only have to come up with a good excuse for the church.” He became aware of Hank’s attempts for affection and put his arm around the dog, pulling him close.
What to do? What to do? It would be easier to go left, but he really didn’t want to. It would be harder to go home, but at least he could return to status quo. Yet he knew, like it or not, he was going on; if for no other reason than Harlan’s nagging accusation that he lacked faith. Could Harlan be right? No, and I’m going to prove it.
With a sigh of resignation Drake turned the steering wheel left. Almost immediately he came to the intersection with Big Oak Flat Road, the park’s main north/south thoroughfare. He immediately ran into a surprise. The two men from the helicopter had established an impromptu traffic checkpoint. They were stopping each car, giving the passengers a cursory examination without actually searching the vehicles. Drake waited until the three cars in front of him passed; then it was his turn. Both government men closed in on Drake’s Suburban from either side. Hank began to growl, his tail slashing back and forth.
“Down boy,” Drake put out a steadying hand, “Don’t bother the nice men.”
Drake swiveled his head, looking out both sides of the Suburban; two sets of professional stares gazed back. He felt cold X-ray eyes, probing not just his truck and his dog but obviously scanning deep into his very being, searching for any indication of corruption. This is weird. His forehead tightened in thought. Why the big government presence? Come to think of it, the ranger at the Tioga Pass entrance hadn’t been the usual chipper, Boy Scout model either; more a law enforcement type.
Drake rolled both windows down admitting a blast of freezing wind. He winced, then stuck his head out like any nosey tourist. “Say, what’s going on here today?” He glanced from one man to the other. “Has there been a jail break or something?”
“Simply a routine precaution sir,” said the man on the driver’s side, a husky gent in his thirties with sandy red hair. “Nothing to worry about.” He spoke in that cold, not altogether reassuring tone, professionals tend to reserve for civilians. The guy on the right looked awfully cool to be a G-man. He sported a goatee and a snappy brimmed hat. Both wore navy blue windbreakers with large, yellow block letters; the kind of cheap, quick-identity jacket favored by law enforcement agencies. Drake tried to read the letters but the unzipped jacket on the near side guy kept flapping in the icy breeze. The sight of that open coat made Drake feel even colder. Finally he caught a glimpse on the other jacket: BATF. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms? Drake kept his face in impassive, pastoral-counseling mode. Curiouser and curiouser.
“Thank you for your cooperation, sir.” The man gave a stiff-armed wave down the road. “You can move along now. Please drive safely.” The guy didn’t seem the chatty, informative type so Drake stifled his curiosity, put the truck in gear and continued on his way.
            The main park road turned out to be comfortably wider than Tioga. Still, the ever-present recreational vehicles and luxury compacts continued to endanger the highway with their incessant game of tortoise and hare. The light drizzle ceased, but the dark, rain-laden clouds continued to settle as if they were actually homing in on his vehicle. Before long a heavy blanket of fog enveloped the road. With visibility pert-near zero, Drake switched on the fog lamps.
A crisp, early autumn afternoon had disappeared under the oppressive gloom of a mid-winter twilight. The temperature must have already dropped into the low 40’s, he thought. The sudden temperature change forced him to switch on the heater, setting it high. By the time he reached the legendary Valley of the Yosemite, all he could see were ponderous banks of drifting fog, haloed red taillights, and an occasional natural object by the side of the road.
            Drake found his spirits responding in kind to the dark ambience of the surrounding landscape. He had embarked on this trip in an effort to break the iron grip of his mourning, or depression, or whatever it was. And now, even the very environment mimicked the heaviness of his heart, like there was no hope of escaping the suffocating emptiness. He sighed, wondering if he would ever cast off these emotional chains.
Drake’s wandering attention gradually came back to the immediate present, much like the fat beads of water vapor slowly condensing on the windshield. At first the vapor merely looked like condensation on a glass. Soon however, the droplets began to collect and cascade down the glass, obscuring the view. He flipped on the wipers, twisting the column-mounted knob to long delay. That took care of the thickening moisture. If only his state of mind could be squeegeed so easily.
He peered at the shroud of mist and congratulated himself for making such an intelligent decision back there at the mini-mart. “Good call, Mister Drake,” he pronounced as the Suburban splashed through a puddle, “Welcome to the Mystic Valley of Enchantment.”
By straining his eyes until they ached, Drake managed to discern the brown and white National Park Service signs through the deepening murk. Black on yellow directional arrows guided him around the valley floor. Following these roadside helps he arrived at the correct lodgings. But he was not yet home free. First he had to drive around, searching the crowded parking lot for a large enough gap. At last, finding a precious, unoccupied space, he blessed God and eased the big Chevy into the empty slot. Drake climbed down from the Suburban, aware of a lot more stiffness than he had felt at the mini mart a mere forty minutes earlier. There’s something about arriving at your destination, he reflected, which your body interprets as a signal to stop being patient with you.
            “Come on, Hank.” He crooked his arms, rolling stiff shoulders. “Out you come, pup.” Hank jumped to the ground, bowing his big black head between outstretched paws. The dog raised his rump in the air, bending like a musical saw and giving himself a good stretch too. Drake walked about for a moment, easing his cramped legs and taking in as much of the misty surroundings as he could.
            Curling his arms up, elbows high, he did several slow side-twists to alleviate the agony in his back, grinning for the benefit of a middle-aged couple who stared back as he went through his antics. They were decked-out in matching bush jackets, rugby shirts, hiking shorts and boots. The man had an expensive looking 35-millimeter camera suspended from his neck. They had frozen in the process of getting into a silver Volvo in the adjacent parking space. Feeling a bit self-conscious he dropped his arms, curtailing his mountain-high aerobics program. He took Hank’s leash in hand, heading toward the Lodge to register.
            “Just a minute,” said the woman from the Volvo, “Did you drive all the way here by yourself, in that oversized SUV?”
            “No,” said Drake, just a bit puzzled, “my dog rode up with me, too.”
            She shook her head in exasperation over this nonsensical answer, “Don’t you realize that driving a sport utility vehicle with only a single occupant is a criminal waste of our precious fuel resources? And that’s not the sole factor to consider. Have you taken into account the fact that your selfish self-indulgence is making the roads unsafe for other drivers? Those overgrown pollution machines are built like tanks. When they hit a normal car they nearly always cause death. You have an unfair advantage in any kind of collision.” Her silent husband stood beside her, gravely nodding his head in agreement.
            “Excuse me,” Drake responded. “May I ask what business my choice of transportation is of yours?”
            “I’m a concerned citizen of Mother Earth. That makes it my business!” she said. “Instead of driving around in that, that thing, thoughtlessly destroying the environment and robbing the children of their future, you ought to be thinking about saving the planet.”
            Drake held his peace, a bit taken aback by this onslaught. It seemed just a bit hypocritical for someone riding around in one internal combustion vehicle to get all hot and bothered about the use of another—not to mention its pure and innocent driver. Their presumption puzzled him. According to Drake’s upbringing, it’s not neighborly to go around sticking your nose into other people’s business. It’s just not done. As a pastor, committed to his Christian faith, he would not feel right about sticking it to others like this. Witnessing with an opening might be one thing, pushing and shoving was unacceptable.
“Thank you for your concern,” he said, trying to be polite, resisting the impulse to thumb his nose. Turning away he said, “Hank, heel.”
Walking toward the lodge, he reflected on that evil instrument of doom, the sport utility vehicle. An awful lot of people seemed to be getting just a tad unreasonable about them these days. When you got right down to it, an SUV was nothing more than a sturdy cross between the old family station wagon and a practical, utility truck.
Even Drake’s own state had passed laws to restrict the demon SUV. Then there was the latest idiocy being espoused; a call to mandate that sport utility vehicles be constructed in a manner that would render them less crashworthy, thereby giving a diminished advantage in any collision. As he waited for a Ford Explorer to pass, Drake shook his head in wonder and silent derision over mankind’s inherent tendency to loonyness.
            Inside Muir Lodge, Drake found it looked just like a real hotel. The reservations desk stood to one side of a wide hallway filled by a whole lot of folks aimlessly milling about. A quick look around revealed a sprawling structure, housing all the tourist amenities, including several grades of restaurant, and of course, the obligatory tourist gift-shop.
Drake hoped this building was not a taste of what he could expect of the rest of Yosemite’s architecture. It looked like one of those sixties-kitsch office buildings—the kind sporting floor to ceiling plate glass windows and wandering trails of indoor-outdoor carpet. Even the synthetic ‘native’ stone and pebbled-concrete sidewalk did little to create a rustic atmosphere.
“Humph,” he jammed his hands deep into his pants pockets, Hardly the setting for a rustic mountain adventure. But the initial dismay faded when he realized that the building merely reflected the soaring, “space age” architecture of the 1950’s. He remembered that he had found pretty much the same style at Mt. Rushmore.
            After looking the place over, Drake maneuvered back through a sea of hustling bodies. He got in line, waited his turn and finally gave his name to the clerk behind the counter, explaining that he had a reservation. The clerk gazed back with raised eyebrows and began working on a desk-mounted office computer, opening applications and scrolling through several tiled screens, amassing the requisite information.
Based on his pre-trip research, Drake had discovered that one does not simply stroll into a Yosemite Valley hostelry and request a room. Even the camping sites, both drive in and hike in, require advance reservations. Drake had made his, both for a cabin in the valley and a week in the high country, months in advance. Of course, he reminded himself, back then the reservation had been made for two. He sighed and shoved that thought aside, trying to focus on the moment.
            The clerk stopped his Mister Technology Guy performance. Holding out an imperious hand, the thermal printer churned a hard copy right into his waiting digits. “Here we are,” he intoned happily. “One efficiency-cabin for the fifteenth through the twenty-first.” The clerk produced the usual magnetic strip plastic key card.
“Thanks,” Drake accepted the receipt. “Where can I find my cabin?”
“Just follow the sidewalk out front to the right, and then over two rows,” he said. “Go right on past the Lodge, and pass through a small stand of trees. On the other side of those trees you will find the detached the cabins.”          
Drake stuffed his paperwork and key card into a coat pocket and followed the walkway, passing through the little grove of pines. He found himself in the midst of a wooded acre of individual cabins. The cabins were much more in line with his idealistic vision of bucolic, backwoods habitation. They were sided with rough-sawn, overlapping pine boards, covered with faded green stain. The roofs were surfaced with ancient, moss-bedecked cedar shakes. Even the windows were old-fashioned; wood-frame, swing-open types. He mounted the steps, opened the door and surveyed number thirty-eight; not an ounce of politically correct, cutting edge, energy efficient, government approved, high technology to be seen. He loved it.
            Since the rolling, heavy mist still defied all his attempts to experience any kind of view spectacular or otherwise, he slipped the card through the lock and went inside. Now this, he smiled, is a cabin. Hoss, Lil’ Joe, fetch in some firewood, boys! Drake found himself in possession of a room about the size of a single car garage. It contained a massive wooden bedstead, an antique swivel-mirrored dresser, a small, scarred dining table and chairs, sink, stove, mini fridge, and an ancient gas floor heater. Beyond a door in the kitchen he found a small, serviceable bathroom. The place was perfect.
Drake went back to the parking lot and moved the Suburban. He parked it as near the cabin as possible. With Hank romping at his side, he began the demanding process of hauling in mountains of gear. He had lots to carry, but Hank helped out by straying constantly underfoot, threatening a heavy tumble for both of them.
“Hank!” snapped Drake with some annoyance, “Settle down boy, heel!” Hank obeyed, but gave Drake the benefit of his wounded innocence look. The pup took position at Drake’s side, his head keeping station with Drake’s left knee.
After feeding Hank, the first item of importance was setting up his work station. He lugged the leather bag over to the table, opened it and took out his new computer. Like anything is ever new in computers, he scoffed. Hardware and software both are out of date, practically before you get them home. Drake powered up the computer which soon mated up to the lodge’s wifi network. While the system checked his e-mail account he went back out to the truck for another load.
He left the camping equipment in the cargo area behind the back seat. There wouldn’t be any use for it until he headed up to the high country, anyway. Finally he had everything stored away. He checked the computer finding no new E-mail. Pulling a cold drink from the fridge he flopped into the ancient easy chair with and a sigh. Mountain Man, Drake has arrived, ready for action….Yes sir.
            Quiet… With all the chores done he had only Hank for company. Dogs didn’t give much lip but they contributed very little to the intellectual climate. Drake found his heavy mood returning. It never left him for long in any case. Here he sat like a useless lump in one of the world’s premiere vacation spots and Stan Drake didn’t want to do anything. What, load up the camera and take some simply enchanting pictures of fog? Go to a restaurant for a cozy meal by myself? Take a nature hike and watch the mist turn into a deluge? Nuts.        
            He got up, stripped off his sweaty travel clothes and trudged into the shower, luxuriating in steaming hot water. He found himself staring bleakly at the chipped blue tiles in front of his face, remembering how he and Linda had planned this trip over a year ago. Sighing over his past, and equally sorry present, he ran the soap roughly over his body. On stepping out, he found that the little bathroom had become a mist-shrouded sauna. By contrast the rest of the cabin felt dank as a meat locker. Shivering, trailing streams of water across the floor, he plodded to the heater, switched it on, and began groping for some warm clothes.
            After dressing, with the room nearing a more comfortable temperature, he felt a bit more like his old self. But he still didn’t feel like doing much of anything. Idly, he went to the computer, opening his vacation plans. The folder contained files of maps, schedules, points of interest and gear checklists: the works. Drake’s master plan for his personal conquest of Yosemite began with five days on Yosemite Valley floor. Using the cabin for a base he figured he could take his time prowling around every piece of glaciated real estate the place had to offer.
            Afterwards, he planned to check out of the cabin and head into the high country for another week devoted to backpacking, camping and being alone. A campsite at Merced Lake, up beyond Half Dome to the east, had his name on it. Drake wanted to spend a full week in Yosemite Valley in order to allow himself a gradual adjustment to the altitude. Nine thousand feet up in the alpine wilderness his lungs were going to need all the acclimating they could get. But he had no need to rehash all his plans again. He already knew this stuff by heart; he also realized he was still moping around.
            Okay then, he asked himself, feel better? Yeah, I guess so. Well then junior, let’s get out there and follow the footsteps of ‘ol John Muir. Drake switched off the computer, grabbed his coat and hat, and whistled for Hank. The dog jumped up from his pallet, bringing his leash to Drake. A quick check of the weather convinced him he might as well forget about the camera for the damp, dark present. He led Hank outside, shutting the door on a disagreeable afternoon.

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