Stan Drake stood atop of the wooden steps outside his cabin. The profusion of places to see had him glancing back and forth like a spectator at a tennis match. He scanned the map in his hands. According to the park service, the restaurants and Valley floor lay to the west of the cabin, the precipitous north wall directly ahead of his front door. He retraced his steps, walking back to the parking lot.
Near the driveway entrance he came across a massive, wooden, Park Service sign featuring Woodsy Owl imploring visitors not to trash the place. The sign gave directions to various points of interest. After looked over the listed options, Drake decided that Yosemite Falls looked like a good first choice. It had the virtue of being less than a mile away in case the impending rain made good on its threat.
“Hank, heel. Come on pup!” he stepped out, setting a brisk pace in search of adventure. Hank fell in and they snaked their way through the parking lot moving north, the direction of the Valley’s north loop road. There they came upon an unexpected urban touch, a heavily used pedestrian crosswalk, complete with flashing yellow lights. A two-way stop sign had been placed there in an attempt to regulate the considerable automobile traffic. Drake arrived at the crossing at the tail end of a chattering tour group.
He took a firm hold on Hank’s leash and bolted across the street. As he stepped up on the opposite curb, the deep-pitched, blare of an automobile horn announced that at least one driver didn’t intend to wait any longer. He jumped up, feeling a swift rush of wind tugging at the jacket on his back. Glancing left, he watched a beat-up recreational vehicle roar past. Hank strained against his leash, barking at the rapidly receding vehicle. A bright yellow bumper sticker had been pasted on the back. It read, TOO CLOSE FOR MISSILES, SWITCHING TO GUNS. Nice touch, he grimaced, restraining the urge to vocalize his displeasure.
Hank, skittish from the close passage, couldn’t decide whether to crawl between Drake’s legs or bolt for the hills. Drake squatted down on his haunches to calm the dog, “Hey Boy,” he scratched Hank behind the ears, hugging the dog close. Hank shivered, offering a few tentative licks, which Drake allowed for the sake of his pup’s composure.
Then he stood, wiped the drool from his face, patted his dog reassuringly, and set off again. Here, next to the main road, the path was simply another paved sidewalk. Soon however, he walked alongside a small creek, bubbling noisily back toward the lodge area. In places the crumbling concrete sidewalk had completely petered-out. Eventually, it became a hard-packed, well-trampled dirt trail. Stan Drake and his Wonder Dog Hank had reached the wilderness at last; sort of.
They continued along the well-established path coming across a series of helpful signs thoughtfully provided by the Park Service to prevent folks from falling into the sometimes-raging torrent of Yosemite Creek.
SLICKROCK – SWIFTWATER
Drake stepped to the trailside, stopping at a split-rail fence. He peered over into the streambed. Here at the tag end of the season, with a whole six inches of water in the creek, the signs seemed overly dramatic to Drake. After all, Yosemite Creek was little more than a trickle. However, as he walked he began seeing teenagers and even a couple of adults, dripping wet and limping painfully past him going the other way. Drake concluded it might indeed be wise to heed the advice on the signs. After he and Hank had trekked along for several hundred yards, the path began to meander. Without warning, they found themselves among rocks and boulders of considerable size. Finally, the trail ended completely in a crazy jumble of monolithic granite, right at the foot of the falls.
Drake looked up, trying to peer through the heavy mist. That was a waste of time. Although Yosemite Falls is supposed to consist of two long, spectacular drops, you couldn’t prove it by him that day. He could barely see fifty yards in any direction. Through the drifting mist, what he could see was a hoard of people milling around. The ethereal shapes of a whole stack of kids scampering among the boulders were dimly visible. Above their shouts and squeals the sound of Yosemite Falls, which has a combined drop of twenty-four hundred feet, could be clearly heard, trickle though it was. As far as aesthetic experience went however, Drake might as well have been listening to a shower running. The oppressive cloud cover denied him any sight of the legendary falls whatsoever.
He looked at his fellow adventurers. Several folks stood there at the foot of the falls, absorbing nature with their moisture. Among them, Drake couldn’t help but notice yet another loving couple, arm in arm, sporting those seemingly regulation hiking shorts; the expensive kind made of khaki, featuring huge pockets upon pockets, billowing legs and neatly rolled up cuffs. Handsome though they might be, Drake could never understand the compulsion people seemed to have for wearing them in every kind of weather condition from arid to arctic. The sight of all that bare, goose-bumped flesh set him to shivering empathetically. Unconsciously, he stuck his hands deeper into the warm pockets of his coat. Hank, on the other hand, was ecstatic over the soggy meteorological conditions. Given his liberty, he romped in and out among the slick rocks playing happily with the children.
Apart from the rest of the crowd, standing in a small huddle were three obvious red-neck types drinking beer out of long-neck bottles. Their scraggly beards made their bulging multi-hued ski jackets look effeminate in that setting. They were making crude jokes, pointing at people in the crowd and laughing boisterously. Every so often they would playfully slug and slap one another; just generally horsing around.
The person who really caught Drake’s attention was by far the most conspicuous in that rugged, outdoor setting. He was large, impressive, bald headed man, sort of a wannabe George Forman. When Drake first noticed him, he appeared to be photographing yet another of the Forest Service’s numerous wooden signs at the end of the trail. Drake thought he must be having a hard time getting the shot because of all the people milling around. Every time he seemed ready to take a picture someone would casually wander by, spoiling the shot. Drake found the man’s boundless forbearance impressive.
Of all the folks there at the foot of the falls that evening, this guy stood out. He was dressed for a safari into the very heart of Metropolis, right down to his thin soled, black patent leather shoes, shined to a glossy perfection. Over his charcoal gray suit he wore a de rigeure, taupe colored, London Fog raincoat. Drake figured him to be a fairly prosperous businessman, the kind of person who always holds permanent reservations at his favorite vacation spots, and always—of course—at the finest hostelries.
Drake watched as the man wiped the lens of his expensive camera with an equally expensive chamois. He seemed particularly engrossed in his task. Drake grinned, what a clever fellow I am for leaving my expensive optical gear inside on a sodden evening like this.
Banishing the incipient smile from his face, Drake made his way over to Mr. Corporation. After all, Drake thought, he’s probably the likeliest person around who can tell me where to find a decent place to eat. Drake prudently cleared his throat saying, “Excuse me,” in his best friendly-stranger voice; the sort of voice he would have used asking an unknown person for the time.
At the sound, the man whirled around and stared accusingly, as if Drake might were trying to swipe his camera. Drake grinned. Well, I guess it is a nice one, but I already have one of my own. After a strained moment, the big man relaxed, appearing to sense Drake was only a garden-variety, amiable stranger, not the midnight mugger.
“Yes,” he said tersely, making it a question.
“Excuse me,” Drake repeated. “I wondered if you might be able to tell me if there is a restaurant around here that served something other than burgers.”
The man stood as still as the granite face of El Capitan—a perception enhanced by his clean-shaven scalp. He stared unblinkingly back at Drake. Only his dark eyes moved, examining Drake from beneath a set of heavy brows. For the second time that day, Drake had the uncomfortable feeling that he stood as an accused man in a criminal line-up. The big man finally pulled his sable eyes away from their minute examination of Drake. He swung his head, looking suspiciously around.
He’s probably checking to see if my brother ‘Homer’ is hiding in the rocks, filming the whole exchange with his totally hidden video camera, thought Drake.
When the dark eyes returned to Drake, having completed their brief reconnaissance, the man re-fixed his cold stare on the hapless preacher. “I suggest the Le Conte Lounge at the Ahwiyah Hotel,” he said, exhibiting an amazing economy of speech. “Or you may wish to try the Cathedral Room at Curry Lodge.” The man’s icy, jet black eyes continued to watch unblinkingly, awaiting Drake’s reaction.
“Yeah, okay. Thanks for your help,” Drake stammered nervously. “I’m new around here,” he added inanely.
“You’re most welcome,” the man replied. The ice in his voice fairly crackled. He turned his back on Drake, pointedly returning to his photographic pursuits.
Sheesh! thought Drake, kicking himself mentally as he turned. Next time I guess I’d better put on a coat and tie first or just settle for fast food. He walked away feeling self-conscious and slightly ridiculous. That man had been as intimidating as a hangin’ judge. He’d merely asked a simple question. From the ungracious reaction anyone would have thought he’d tried to address the President of the United States with a banana sticking out of his ear.
Drake sighed. The idea of driving all the way over to the Ahwiyah Hotel, foraging for a parking place, then going through the parking hassle all over again on returning to the cabin wasn’t really appealing after a long day. He decided that the nearby Cathedral Room would enjoy the honor of his presence that night.
At a white cloth-covered table Drake sat back and blessed “Mr. Corporation’s” grudging advice. The service was conscientious and surprisingly quick. The steak was excellent. Even the check appeared in a timely fashion. All in all he found the whole experience a happy change from the usual tourist spots that exist primarily to cater to folks on vacation. Since they have little incentive to worry about repeat trade, they often don’t bother. Not the case here, thankfully.
When the coffee and dessert arrived, Drake felt pretty good. But when he sat back to take in the surroundings, his contentment stopped in mid-sip. Nothing but couples, couples as far as the eye could see. He wondered, as he had innumerable times over the past year, just what his problem was. Taking a quick personal inventory he thought, I’m not too bad looking. Although, he experienced a touch of guilt, I could do a little more about this bulge around the ‘ol waistline. I guess my personality is okay; maybe a little cynical, but it’s hard to be objective on that subject.
Not that he and Linda had been without their problems. Though they had been married for years, adjusting to the pastorate had strained that marriage. In the three years following seminary, Linda really struggled with her imposed role as pastor’s wife. She found the expectations of others to be burdensome. Each church member seemed to have a separate list of qualities and duties for Mrs. Reverend Stan Drake to fulfill.
Linda’s frustrations sometimes boiled over into outright confrontation. She worked at being sweet, but she considered unwanted advice as nothing more than meddling. Drake remembered being caught in the middle of several of those disputes.
She’d meet him at the door after work. “The ‘Church Lady’ and I had words today,” she’d say. Or, “I neglected to make the correct pie for the bake sale.” Linda would roll her flashing brown eyes. “How can they expect me to know the correct pie unless I’m told? I’m not prescient, like you, you know.”
At the time Drake had been mortified. The ‘church lady’ would call him at home, expecting him to stand up for her; after all he was her pastor. At the same time, Linda expected him to support her; after all, she was his wife . . .
. . . Drake looked around Curry Lodge’s crowded dining room. To his admittedly prejudiced eye, every couple there looked happy and content. Yes, he’d hated those tug-o-wars. But I’d gladly endure them the rest of my life for the pleasure of Linda’s company again.
The accident that took her had been as petty as it had been unexpected. In fact, it had followed one of those church lady spats. Drake had exploded, storming out of the parsonage. He’d gunned his Datsun and roared out of the driveway. At his private hideaway back in the hills he’d brooded over the situation, rashly wishing himself rid of such a troublesome wife. Stan Drake would be better off alone, he thought.
Alone: that’s a laugh.
When he walked through the front door later that night, sheepish and defensive, he’d found her on the kitchen floor. Dead.
The coroner’s report stated she’d slipped on a chunk of ice from the freezer. She had fallen, striking her head on the kitchen counter’s edge. Buried in the report had been the coroner’s opinion that Linda had lingered sometime before dying. A cruel thought ran through his mind. Something he and his seminary friends used to laugh about. The grim joke among preachers is; you’re better off murdering your spouse than divorcing her.
Drake had yet to forgive himself his three-hour pity party up on the mountain.
Afterward, he’d halfheartedly tendered his resignation, but his congregation had surprised him. After a unanimous vote of confidence, they had flatly refused to accept his resignation. They had supported him through the inquest and funeral. Gene and his wife Norma had been especially supportive over the past year. They had practically forced him to take this vacation. How can you ever thank people like that? He wondered.
“Go on,” Gene had said, speaking as on behalf of the whole congregation. “Go to the mountains and recharge your batteries. Think about something other than church programs and office work for a couple of weeks. We’ll still be here when you get back.”
So he’d done it. He’d packed up and taken the long-planned trip to Yosemite. Only now that he was here—very alone—the peaceful solitude only served to dredge up all the past year’s emptiness and pain. “Alone” was almost bearable but the gnawing feeling that he had brought about his own loneliness was despair itself.
Though he hated to admit it, Drake felt completely out of step with the single women he kept meeting; another factor contributing to his unease. So many singles were either emotional wreaks themselves from their own abominable relationships, or so self-assured and competent that they certainly did not need any kind of man, least of all Stan Drake. Not that he wanted a woman of the no-opinion, barefoot and pregnant persuasion. But the hardest thing to take were those times he had been treated as a potential slug simply because he happened to have been born with a Y chromosome.
Of course, there’s always Hilly. That thought brought the ghost of a smile to his lips. Hilly Newham—Hildigard for heaven’s sake! She was a young widow in Drake’s congregation. Hilly believed with the passion of martyrs that she and Drake were divinely ordained soul mates. She’d been obviously chasing him for the last six months. If nothing else, this trip would give him a small respite from her attentions.
Hilly aside, Drake found himself put off by the tricky ego-game relationships he had discovered in the current dating scene. In Drake’s opinion, love, to use a rather overworked little word, ought to be something two people do for and with each other on all levels, not some prize for which you and your significant other compete. Bottom line; he was beginning to doubt that there were any women out there with whom he could share anything more than a casual friendship. And even more important, he struggled to believe that God was doing anything at all to redeem the situation.
Rats, he thought in disgust. Whenever you find yourself strolling down memory lane, Stan, you always dirge yourself back to the oh-so-sad wreckage of your life. Excuse me waitress, I believe I’ll order the extra large crying towel to go with my whine, please. He paid the tab and took his sunny disposition out into the damp, dark night where it belonged.
Halfway back to the cabin the incipient rain, looming all evening, at last made good its threat. A real live duck-drowner suddenly thundered down, with Drake standing smack-dab on ground zero. Stunned, he found himself standing there stupid and indecisive for a long moment.
Gazing heavenward, water streaming down his face, his sarcastic, fleshly nature finally got the better of him. “Terrific!” he shouted heavenward, “Really great! Thanks a whole lot! Hey, the perfect end to a perfect day!”
Drake sloshed back to the cabin, groping through his pockets for the tricky little magnetic key card to make sure he got the right cabin number. He was drenched to the bone long before he reached the door. Fumbling with the balky electronic lock, his chilled fingers were slow to cooperate in the simple act of opening the door. This served to raise his simmering temper to a nice rolling boil.
“That does it!” He slammed the heavy door shut with a crash, rattling the windows in their wooden frames.
“Get down, Hank!” he barked, as the loyal animal jumped up to greet him. Outside, the storm beat furiously down upon the little cabin. Inside, Drake stormed and thundered to match.
“Welcome to romantic Yosemite,” he snarled, stripping his thoroughly saturated clothing off. “Oh yes, the perfect vacation spot. The campers dream! The photographers paradise!”
Completely stripped, he threw the sodden mess into the still-clammy bathroom, roughly toweled himself off, shrugged into a heavy cotton sweat suit and jumped shivering into bed. As he lay there, tightly clutching the blankets to himself, a hoard of uncharitable thoughts paraded through his head concerning Yosemite in general and the Reverend Stan Drake in particular. This, without a doubt, is going to be the worst ten days of my life. What a dope I am. I’m cold and tired, alone and unloved. And bald people are mean to me.
There did not seem to be a lot of profit in that line of thought. Drake closed his eyes for a contrite prayer then ordered himself to knock it off. With clenched teeth and a tightly furrowed brow, tension in every muscle of his body, Drake reached for the book he had laid on the nightstand earlier. When it fell open to the bookmark, his face flushed hot with chagrin as he saw the reminder he had written before leaving home. “Just remember the old Boy Scout rule,” it read, “the first night of a camping trip is always a loser.”
All the frustration and fury transformed to shame as he remembered typing the fool note to himself. I’m a prophet and don’t even recognize myself. Listen to the sage advice of bygone years and experience, Mr. Junior Camper. Drake realized he was simply exhausted. The natural rhythm of endeavor and fatigue, expectation and disappointment had simply taken its inevitable toll. That’s all. Sack time, that’s what he needed, about twelve hours worth. He shut the book, switched off the lights and zonked out in moments.
“No Megan,” Paige stood in her bedroom doorway. “I told you I have absolutely no desire to go.” She shut the door with the proper amount of firmness, switched off the light and crawled into bed.
“Paige,” Megan’s attenuated voice wheedled from the other room. She opened the door, her lithe form silhouetted against the light as she stood with her hands braced on either door post. “You never go anywhere anymore. You need to get back into circulation, girlfriend.”
“Oh please,” Paige fluffed her pillows with more force than necessary. “You sound so Hollywood-ghetto when you talk that way. Besides, I’ve already done more than my share of circulating, thank you. I’ll pass.
Megan shook her head, dark curls bouncing. “Have it your way. But you’re going to miss a great party. Hey,” a mischievous twinkle came into her eye. “Maybe I can pick up some people and bring the party here.”
“Megan, you wouldn’t dare.” Paige’s eyes flashed in exasperation.
“Well, maybe not.” Her hands dropped to her sides. “But Honey, someone has got to climb that dark tower and rescue you, O’ fair princess. Besides, I can’t see why it should make any difference to you. You’re already an irredeemable trollop, to hear you tell it. What else have you got to lose?” Laughing from her clever parting shot Megan left before Paige could respond.
When the door had shut Paige stared after it. She clamped here eyes shut and quietly said: “You can’t be irredeemable, if there’s no God to enact redemption.”