Saturday, November 3, 2012




            For several hours that day Drake managed to lose himself and his quirks in the wonders of creation. He concluded Yosemite National Park had to be the world’s finest example of a glacier carved valley. John Muir had said of it, “God Himself seems to be always doing His best here.” To be sure, Drake knew there were impressive glaciated valleys found in Northern Europe, but he also knew he would need a submarine, or at least a good exposure suit to see them, as they were more commonly known as the fjords of Scandinavia.
            According to his extensive pre-trip research the entire shebang had started, as near as the geologists can figure it, around four and a half billion years ago. How they know these things wasn’t exactly clear to Drake. He figured it would probably be wise to give or take a billion or so years, just for the sake of scientific objectivity.
            Anyway, longer ago than Drake or anyone else could seem to remember, the mighty Sierra Nevada mountain range was in fact a gently undulating sea bed. The silting action of the ages had deposited a massive layer of sediment on this sea floor. Under the weight of the ocean’s pressure and its own accumulated burden of silt, the sediment began to compress into rock. Further stress caused by the earth’s geologic activity and marked by the receding of the ocean, caused the sedimentary rock to fold, forming ridges and hills: Behold the infant Sierras.
            Meanwhile—geologically speaking—there began an up-thrust of molten granite from beneath the hills and ridgelets. Liquefied stone violently surged upward into the folds and crevices of sedimentary rock and then cooled, leaving a marble-cake effect and forming the raw material out of which Yosemite Valley would eventually be sculpted.
            Drake had concocted a mental picture which helped him visualize the whole process. He imagined the Western United States as an immense floor. In that expanse he thought of the Sierras, running roughly North and South, as a long trap door hinged on the western, San Joaquin side. This great door had begun a massive thrust upwards from the Eastern side, so that the hinged San Joaquin side of the Sierras developed a gradual slope while the Eastern side assumed an abrupt, precipitous ascent.
            Rivers that for centuries had meandered through the gently rolling hills and dales of the pre-Sierra gradually assumed steeper and more direct descents out of increasingly higher elevations. Those rivers began doing what respectable rivers always do, cutting channels into the ancient sedimentary rock, carving characteristic “V” shapes into the valley floors.
            Had the course of nature continued to run along those lines Yosemite would have remained a typical, narrow, deep valley with a river running along its foot. God however, had bigger plans for Yosemite.
            The next sweeping geologic change occurred a short time ago as geological ages go. Within the last million years the great ice ages had scoured their way across the northern hemisphere. California, on the whole, had escaped the great sheet of ice that stretched across Canada from Siberia to Greenland. There were, however, many comparatively smaller glaciers rumbling through the more southerly mountain valleys.
            Like its former river, Yosemite’s glacier rolled westward down the valley. Unlike the flowing river, the new shape carved by the great, grinding river of ice was not a narrow deep “V” but a wide flat “U.” As the glacier rumbled and ground its way along the valley it scraped and gouged out the less permeable sedimentary rock dating back to that ancient seabed. It also scoured away the weaker, fractured granite as it passed over. And this was just the glacier to do the job too. Solid ice filled Yosemite Valley to a depth of some four thousand feet, finally petering out at the present valley entrance. Eventually that first great glacier melted leaving a scattered jumble of stony refuse in its wake.
            Drake knew that all that activity merely represented the roughed out work. Over the ages another glacier appeared; smaller—a mere thousand feet deep. This second glacier had done the finish work, polishing the faces of the exposed granite and bulldozing the debris left over from the last time on ahead of it. It shoved the stony debris all the way to the foot of the valley forming a moraine, or natural dam. When that second glacier finally melted the glacial waters had been contained behind the rocky moraine, forming ancient Lake Yosemite. Over the course of another gazillion years or so, the lake had slowly received the sediment steadily washed down by rivers and streams until it too became silted up, thereby producing—viola!—the level valley floor Drake found himself standing on.
            He spent the morning meandering around the meadows with Hank in tow. Yesterday’s storm had blown through, revealing the Yosemite hidden from his brooding thoughts of the day before. The clouds had passed leaving everything scrubbed and glossy in their wake. Drake found himself mesmerized with wonder, astounded by the sheer magnitude of the valley’s stone towers and buttresses. Human language fell short of adequately describing his jumbled impressions. The place humbled him in a way that Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome had failed to.
            “Come on, Pup,” he recalled Hank from his own canine-type explorations. “Lunch time.” He knelt to tussle briefly with the hound. “Back to the cabin.”
            That afternoon Drake wandered over to the Village, leaving Hank curled up on the rug with orders to be good. He had no real agenda beyond seeing the sights and perhaps finding some of the local artists he had heard about. He made a conscious effort to avoid the tourist trinket shops, sticking to the official displays and museums. The highlight of the afternoon, as far as Drake was concerned, consisted of the bear museum; not a zoo but an imaginative collection of displays, photographs and videos detailing the less favored activities of the local Black Bears. Drake discovered it is unwise—not to say futile—to hide food from bears, in your car or anywhere else for that matter. There were impressive photos of shredded coolers and even automobile doors peeled—top to bottom—like a banana by enterprising bears.
            In a recreated Indian village, visitors were privileged to see what life had been like for the Valley’s original Native American population, before white men officially “discovered” Yosemite. In 1848, while pursuing a fugitive from justice, a semi-official posse known as the Mariposa Battalion had stumbled across the entrance to the valley. Since that time Yosemite has been a ‘must see’ destination for travelers to the western United States.
            At one point, Drake made a near fatal mistake. Engrossed by the sights, he stopped near a shop and narrowly avoided a grim and certain death-by-trampling from a horde of eager souvenir hunters. He thought about the ultimate in vacation irony. Once at Muir Woods in northern California, he had watched a load of tourists disembarking from a tour bus.
            “Remember,” the bus driver called after them, “we leave promptly in fifteen minutes. Don’t anybody stray too far!” 
Drake had watched as all but one of those tourists headed directly for the gift shop, in search of real-live, redwood burl salt-n-pepper shakers stamped with the legend: Muir Woods. The lone holdout had simply walked down the path a few feet and stood quietly in the glade for his fifteen minutes. That had made a firm impression on Stan Drake. To his mind, though there might be nothing really criminal in buying a Muir Woods salt-n-pepper set or a Yosemite T-shirt, he certainly hadn’t paid good money and come all that way just to buy the same old junk that he could get at Wal-Mart, back home.

*          *          *

            Just inside the western entrance to Yosemite a lumbering Recreational Vehicle lurched to a stop at the Big Oak Flat visitor center. Lettering on the vehicle’s flanks proclaimed it the Sacred Earth Society’s Mobile Classroom. The vehicle’s presence and educational activities in the park had become commonplace. Inside, The RV’s occupants exchanged tense looks with one another. From beneath the linoleum deck a series of low-pitched, feline growls filtered up. They peeked through the curtains with short, nervous glances. Sidney, tall and fair, was not exhibiting his usual satirical approach to life. Behind the wheel sat Carl, a stocky young man with dark curly hair and, despite the early hour, an already shadowed face from his heavy beard. Both were graduate students serving as summer interns with Sacred Earth.
As they sat waiting in the dining area of the custom-built Recreational Vehicle their demeanor revealed mutual anxiety. Quick glances, short breathing, and nervous drumming of fingers served more to build the tension rather than dissipate it. Sidney and Carl were carrying out a delicate mission for the Sacred Earth Society. The Mobile Classroom had been specially modified to fulfill their mission in a number of ways. Restless sounds emanating from beneath their feet were an annoying reminder of one of those special modifications.
            “Finally!” said Sidney jumping up, “Here comes Megan.” His responsibility for the mission tended to cause worry over what failure could do to his career. Sharp footsteps strode along the pavement outside. Abruptly, the side passenger door swung open, actually increasing their strained wait was over. Megan Cameron entered, pulling the door closed behind her. As before, both men were vaguely taken aback by her appearance. It seemed unusual, to say the least, to encounter a woman dressed to the nines in the midst of these rugged surroundings. As she mounted the steps she glanced up at the men waiting above, a nervous smile playing across her face. They faced one another for several taut, silent seconds that seemed to stretch into eternity. Then, despite her obvious apprehension, Megan flashed them a jaunty high sign; thumbs up.
            “Everything’s set,” She announced. “The rest of the team is waiting in Yosemite Valley to receive your furry little passenger.” Both men loosened up a little with that news, exchanging expressions of relief. Megan watched with amusement as their bodies visibly relaxed. Seeing their nervousness massaged her own ego.
“Good to hear,” said Sidney, striving to project an air of nonchalance. “Alright,” he continued briskly, “before we move out, I’d like to go through the whole plan once more. I want us all to have our parts down pat, no mistakes.”
Megan cleared her throat delicately and looked Sidney in the eyes, “Wally says the Professor has been waiting for you. Apparently he’s getting a bit impatient. Maybe we’d better skip the dress rehearsal and just get going.”
Sidney traded a look with Carl, the dark silent one. Carl swallowed hard and nodded his curly head; “Let’s go.”
“Alright-y then,” Sidney said, reaching for nonchalance, “places everybody. Let’s get this circus moving.”
Carl climbed back into the driver’s seat. He started the engine and wrenched the gear lever, sending the big green RV rolling out of the parking area. Turning right on Old Big Oak Flat road, Carl headed south for their programmed encounter some twenty-five miles away in Yosemite Valley. The knowledge lay heavy upon them that before they arrived they would have to pass through one of the newly established, Federal Government checkpoints at the Tioga Road junction. In fact they had half-expected to be examined before leaving Big Oak Flat, but the rangers there had simply passed them through, apparently because their vehicle was such a frequent Park visitor. That gave them a sort of semi-official standing. At least it had worked at Big Oak Flat. From past experience they knew that luck could not be counted on.
The checkpoints worried Sidney. Sure, what they were doing the right thing and all, yet it was still technically illegal. The recent nuisance of the ATF, brought about by those crazy idiots calling themselves—with typical right-wing pomposity—the Mariposa Militia. When Sidney and his team had made their first delivery, just two weeks ago, they had accomplished it without being stopped at all. Of course, there had been no checkpoints at that time, therefore nothing really to fear back then. They hadn’t even thought a real vehicle search within in the realm of possibility.
That was two weeks ago. At present, because of those Militia wackos, every vehicle entering the Park was now subject to some kind of search. But the ATF wasn’t being systematic. You were never sure just how thorough a search you could expect. Of the three test vehicles that had been sent through, one had been completely torn apart while the other two had barely been glanced at. Apparently that meant that the searches were completely random, depending on however the people manning the checkpoints felt at any given moment.
As a scientist, Sidney hated such randomness.
That left them with only one option, they had to develop a plan which would cover all conceivable contingencies. Scientists were good at that sort of thing. And so, they put phase one of the plan into action. While Carl drove, Sidney and Megan thoroughly sprayed the interior of the RV with a powerful disinfectant, heavy with pine-fresh scent. The pine scent, they hoped, would mask the musky, cat odor permeating the vehicle’s interior.
“We’re coming up on Check Point Charlie,” called Carl from behind the wheel. “I hope you two are ready back there.”
“How many cars are there ahead of us?” asked Megan.
“Looks like, oh… about eight.”
“Then relax, Darling,” she said. “We have scads of time.” Megan made her way down the short, narrow hallway, taking her action station in the RV’s claustrophobic bathroom. The combination commode, sink and shower all shared the same cramped space. Megan found the space so confining she left the narrow door open for the time being. She’d close it if they were actually searched. The clumsy vehicle unexpectedly lurched forward a few feet. Her arms flew outward bracing herself from falling, and then again when the RV stopped. Each lurch signaled the passing of another car through the checkpoint. In the tight confines, bouncing off the walls, Megan made her preparations. In the event of a vehicle search, it would be her job to implement phase two of the distraction plan.
Out in the living area of the coach Sidney busied himself getting his own props together. First he opened a can of beef stew, then wet down a large bath towel. Then he waited, trying to keep his growing tension under control.
“How are we doing, Carl?” apprehension distorted his voice.
Carl glanced back, hands locked on the rim of the steering wheel, “There are still three cars ahead of us,” he said. “Oops,” the Motor Coach jerked ahead again, “make that two.”
“Megan?” Sidney glanced back, “get ready. And shut that door!”
“I’m ready, don’t worry.” came the muffled reply. The door remained cracked as the RV staggered forward again.
“Okay, said Carl, “They’re shining the next two cars on. It’s our turn, now. Maybe we’ll get a free pass too.”
“Come on, guys,” Sidney whispered to himself as he crossed his fingers, “ignore the nice, innocent, environmentally-pure rolling classroom. Wave us through.”
No such luck.
At the direction of a serious-looking young woman, wearing a blue ATF windbreaker, and one of those head-mounted radios, Carl brought the big green Coach to a halt. Outside, on the other side of the vehicle, someone began pounding on the passenger door. Carl left his seat, moving back to open the door. He stuck his head through the crack. “Yeah?” he asked as casually as possible.
“Excuse me, sir,” said a husky young man, sporting an identical blue windbreaker and “fast=Food” radio headset. Carl grimaced. The cop held up a leather-covered badge. “My partner and I are Federal officers. You have entered a Safety Control point on Federal property. I have legal authority to search your vehicle. Please open the door.”
“Oh, hey,” objected Carl, “we just got checked ten miles back.” He put a touch of belligerence in his voice. “What if we don’t feel like doing it all over again?”
“No problem, sir,” responded the officer, controlling his irritation. “You can just turn your vehicle around and leave the Park.”
Carl pulled his head inside to check on their readiness. Sidney got down on his knees, tossed a generous amount of beef stew on the floor and began smearing the mess around with the bath towel. “Alright, don’t shoot. I surrender,” said Carl. “Come on in poke around and get it over with. But I’m warning you, you’ll be sorry. Just make it snappy, will you? We’ve already had a rough enough trip as it is.”
 The young officer mounted the steps and entered the RV. “Pe-ewww!,” he exclaimed, involuntarily wrinkling his nose. A heavy—almost overpowering—concentration of sharp acidity overlaid with a saccharine sweetness filled the confined atmosphere. “What is that awful stench?”
“That’s what I’ve been trying to tell you,” said Carl patiently. He pointed down the aisle to where Sidney crouched, scrubbing the floor. Carl continued, “The poor guy got carsick rolling around all those curves. He finally barfed up his lunch all over the floor.
“Yech!” observed the officer, a queasy feeling churning in his own stomach. “Hey, I’m really sorry,” he said, allowing a tone of human feeling to poke through the professional demeanor. “But look, I still gotta check the place out, Okay?”
“Be our guest,” said Carl with a magnanimous wave of his arm.
The officer spent several minutes lifting cushions, checking bins, and poking through cupboards. He accomplished all this while holding his nose, and managing to avoid the stuff on the floor. When he finished with the forward part of the vehicle, he gingerly moved down the short hallway, leading aft. Sidney groaned loudly, sliding onto the dining settee. “Sorry man,” said the officer as he stepped past. Sidney groaned pathetically, Megan’s signal to initiate phase two of the diversion.
As the man walked down the narrow passage, he heard a muffled question from somewhere behind the plywood walls. The bathroom door suddenly flew open right in front of his startled face. The Federal man stood there, one hand clamped to his nose, the other on his holstered weapon. Sidney and Carl worked hard to keep from laughing out loud at the ridiculous sight. The cop starred, dumbfounded, at Megan’s beautiful, towel-draped form emerging from the bath. Megan’s damp towel and hair proclaimed her fresh from the shower. She had carefully chosen the smallest towel she could find. Putting on a show for the government man, she allowed her eyes to widen, feigning shock while moving her right hand to her open mouth. The shifting of her hand allowed a strategic corner of the towel to drop, giving the Government man even more of a show. He stood there flat-footed, embarrassed by the intimate circumstances, but obviously enjoying the view.
“Uhh…” he hesitated, “Well… Um, I guess I’ve seen all there is to see here,” he stammered, face reddening. “Thank you for your full and complete cooperation,” he added ironically. On the way out, standing in the doorway, he looked back in time to see Megan blow him a kiss goodbye.

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