“That’s an excellent choice, sir. It’s one of my partner’s better works.” Stan Drake had selected a large, sweeping watercolor of Half Dome. He liked the ethereal, muted look of the colors. They reminded him of the previous evening’s mist. At last, he thought triumphantly, toilsome hours of sight seeing are paying off. Drake’s first impression of the Bridalveil Gift Shop was of a frilly, overstuffed appearance of those chintz-and-lace, sweet scented, Victorian tearooms; the kind of place that women go ga-ga over, while sending most men in search of the nearest War Surplus outlet. Normally he would have avoided the place. An attendant at the Visitor’s Center had recommended Bridalveil Gifts as having one of the better original-art galleries in Yosemite. He’d decided to give it a shot.
Drake had steeled himself to run the gauntlet of feminine treasures and set out to find the place. At first glance it did indeed appear to be just as aggressively feminine as he’d expected. The gallery though, in the back room, turned out to be a sophisticated artist’s studio; something more than he had expected. There were a fair selection of the standard nature prints, including Ansel Adams’ almost obligatory black and white photos. What caught Drake’s eye though, were the watercolor originals, painted by the two women who owned the place.
The particular woman who sold the painting to Drake was medium-sized, trim and athletic looking. Dressed in paint-dabbed overalls and a pink T-top she didn’t exactly ooze femininity, yet she carried herself like a capable woman. At the same time she projected that indefinable, ex-tomboy aura. The kind that tells the world she is willing to take on all comers at hiking, swimming or any other sport of their choice. She’d probably beat them too, Drake thought, or at least give ‘em a run for their money. Drake paid the tab, accepting the paper wrapped, framed print.
“My name’s Stan, Stan Drake,” he said, trying to prolong the visit. “You’ve got an impressive gallery here in an absolutely breathtaking location.”
“Thank you Stan, I’m Paige… Mitchell,” she added. Her eyes, green, smiled back at Drake from a sweet, heart shaped face, framed by butter-blond hair, fairly short and not exactly flawless. She began to walk with Drake as he wandered aimlessly around the shop, absently perusing the wares.
“You’re right,” she answered, “Yosemite is a fabulous place to paint. The inspiration is inexhaustible. I’m always scouting new locations. If not for the tourists Yosemite would be just about perfect as far as I’m concerned.”
Uh-oh. “What’s wrong with tourists?”
“They’re becoming something of a burden on the environment. So many of them carelessly stomp around, spoiling the valley’s delicate ecosystem. They don’t even seem to think about it. A lot of folks would like to stop or at least slow down the tourism.”
“That’s awfully drastic,” said Drake. “Do you really think anyone could get away with that? National parks are a public trust, you know.”
“Well, there’s a growing feeling that the Valley should be completely closed to private automobiles. It would cause a huge political stink of course. So I don’t really expect that to happen. But really, sometimes I think those people are simply too dense to appreciate the magnificence that surrounds them.”
“I’m sorry,” Drake said, hanging his head, mock chastened. “I’ll leave right away.”
“Not you!” she laughed, waving an arm toward the shop windows at the unfortunate masses of degenerate humanity beyond. “I mean those… those vacationing Lemmings out there. They rush en mass from one camera spot to the next.” Suddenly she stopped as if realizing her attitude might be a touch too critical. “Whew,” she smiled, “maybe I ought to give my soapbox a rest, Huh?”
Instead of feeling insulted Drake felt gratitude, if for no other reason than her excluding him from the worthless Lemmings classification. Now, he thought, if I can only manage to graduate out of the male-slug category.
“So,” she said brightly, trying to pick up the conversation again, “how long will you be in Yosemite with the rest of us pure nature lovers, Mister Stan Drake?”
“Well, Paige,” he said judiciously, “I plan to stick around the Valley here through the end of the week. After that, why, I’ll grab my trusty compass and go trekking up the John Muir trail for another week or so.”
“Oh,” she said half-wistfully, “That’s sounds heavenly. I love to get out of the Valley sometimes and paint the high country. Maybe I’ll tag along with you,” she added playfully.
Just then the bell over the entrance suddenly jingled a high pitched Ting-a-ling and the front door swept open. Drake stared as a tall, breathtakingly beautiful woman breezed into the room. She was, to say the least, overdressed for rustic Yosemite Village. On first impression she appeared to have stepped out of a limousine, straight from Rodeo Drive.
“Darling!” she exclaimed gliding up to Paige, making those silly pretend kisses on both cheeks. “I just this minute sold that horrid Bletsmer piece.” Grasping Paige’s arm she swiveled around to face Drake. She had a pale, oval face framed by mounds of glossy, curly-permed, black hair. Raising her super-dark, super-stylish sunglasses she exclaimed, “Paige, dear, who is this yummy man?”
Drake began to turn red under her direct appraisal. He soon discovered to his not-so-great surprise, this had to be Paige’s partner, Megan Cameron. In contrast with Paige’s wholesome, girl-next-door appearance, Megan was a genuine, glitzy, Greenwich Village type, a real Artist Babe. Drake hazarded a wild guess that she probably did not do her shopping at Kmart. Megan’s abundant red overcoat seemed to be made of extravagantly expensive wool, heavy with body; the exclusive kind of material that always seems unavailable to the toiling masses. A huge, dramatic collar alternately hid and exposed her face as she constantly posed and preened. Her clingy blue dress, revealed as she removed the coat, grabbed attention as well; low cut above, cut high below, with seemingly endless legs beneath.
“How gracious of you to choose one of my landscapes.” She gushed to Drake. Abandoning Paige’s arm, she latched onto Drake’s. “Are you an artist as well, Mr. Drake?"
“No,” he confessed, head reeling from her overpowering presence as well as her fragrant perfume, “I do like to draw some,” he explained, “but I’m afraid most people would just call it sketching.”
She gently took his face in her gloved hands placed her bright red lips close to his own and gravely assured him, “Sketching can be serious art.”
Drake pulled his gaze away from her dark eyes and looked past her bouncing head of curls to see Paige watching, arms crossed a tolerant, amused look on her face. Apparently this was a not-unusual event. He saw Paige become aware of his scrutiny, abruptly busying herself with some paperwork on the counter.
“So, Mr. Drake...”
“Please, call me Stan,” he interjected.
“Stan,” she pronounced weighing the name. “I think I like that better than Stanley. A little boys name; don’t you think?”
He silently nodded in hearty agreement.
“So, Stan,” she began again, “If you are not an artist, just what other important occupation is it you do?”
“Well,” he said, bracing himself for the usual reaction, “I’m a minister.”
“A what!?” Paige’s head came up from her work, a ‘bad fish smell’ look on her pretty face.
“But Darling, how silly of you!” exclaimed Megan. “Religion is Art!” she proclaimed with papal authority. “But… where are your robes? You must have robes or collars or amulets or something sacred, don’t you?”
“I’m a Baptist,” he said. “We’re allowed to wear regular clothes just like real humans.”
Paige apparently did not find Drake the least bit humorous. “You sure put on a good show for a while,” she groused sullenly. “When can we expect you to start acting holy and pious, or maybe you only do that for the suckers at church?”
“Paige, I’m sorry to disillusion you.” he replied, a bit put off, then added with a trace of wounded sarcasm, “Perhaps you’d be happier if I scowled, or took an offering or something?”
She turned abruptly and exited the room through a door at the back of the gallery. Drake regretted his unthinking sarcasm, but this too was a not-unusual event in his experience. He turned his head to look at the smiling beauty still clinging to his arm.
“Would you like me to ring a bell and cry Leper too?” he inquired, deadpan.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” she purred. “J’adore unusual men.”
* * *
Drake found himself at a party and he did not fit in. As far as he was concerned it had nothing to do with drinking, which in this case was moderate or even partying in general, which—saint though he is—he usually enjoys. Considering the cultural problems confronting society today, the idea of demon rum seemed nostalgically quaint to Drake. There weren’t even any drugs in evidence, this being the natural-high crowd. No, he simply stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. A white-sequined Elvis suit could hardly have been more conspicuous.
Megan had invited him to escort her to the great room of an ancient timber lodge in Yosemite Village. Once there, she had blown him a kiss and almost magically been swallowed up by the crowd. Drake stood nursing a coke in front of an enormous, furiously blazing fireplace. Looking around, he tried to take his mind off his discomfort by appreciating the surroundings. Stuffed heads, Antlers, and skins covered the upper reaches of the walls. Massive beams and rafters crisscrossed the open ceiling fifteen feet above the oaken floor. Tremendous iron and cut glass chandeliers, suspended from the rafters by stout looking chains lit the room. Drake fit in just great here. The room’s other inhabitants established the clash.
It seemed he had inadvertently wandered into a convention of Banana Republic clothing buyers. He found himself immersed in a sea of expensive British great coats, Russian tanker sweaters, Italian jump boots, Australian Tommy, kneesocks and enough khaki shorts to have outfitted Operation Desert Storm. Drake felt exceedingly aware of his own J.C. Penny brand outdoor clothing; tres proletarian.
In a matter of mere minutes he discovered that, a. this was a meeting of the Sacred Earth Society. b. Drake was not a member. c. He did not have the proper credentials to be a welcome participant. And, d. he had no desire to be associated with hypocritical people who make great moral distinctions between mountain lions and human beings when it came to, oh say, hunting for instance.
Unfortunately, his pitiful attempt to remain an aloof observer came to a quick conclusion. Almost without conscious thought he found himself involved in a rather forceful discussion with an earnest young graduate student, Sidney Cole.
“Don’t you see,” Sidney said, “that mankind—wielding technology as an irresistible weapon—is devastating the entire planet? Everywhere humans go we encroach on the habitat of helpless creatures, perpetually creating more and more endangered species. We’ve got to stop this pillaging of the environment—cynically justified as progress—before there’s nothing left to save.”
“Hold on a second,” said Drake, “are you saying that mankind has no business being in this forest?”
“Yes,” Sidney responded, “as long as we’re murdering species and destroying critical habitat we simply have no place being here. You can see what our presence is doing to the mountain lion population. First we almost kill them off completely, under the mistaken notion that they are somehow dangerous to humans, then we encroach on their range, inevitably increasing the contact between humans and lions.”
“Okay, I’ll challenge some of that,” responded Drake. “I seem to recall that there’s still an acre or two of undeveloped land left here in the Sierra’s. The simple fact is, both the lion and human population is growing. I don’t see the pumas doing anything to curb their birthrate.”
Sidney sneered at that, “Don’t be ridiculous, we…”
“I’m not finished,” said Drake. You and I are creatures on this planet, so is the mountain lion. Both classes of creature need to eat to survive. In fact, we actually need some other animal to die in our place so that we can eat it in order to continue living. Where’s the difference?
“I don’t kill animals,” snapped Sidney getting angry.
“No, you just eat them, letting someone else be the evil animal murderer. I believe we had chicken cordon bleu for dinner, right?” Drake asked. “Do you really believe that you are somehow removed from death just because your dead carcasses come to you via the butcher?”
“No,” said Sidney triumphantly, “I refuse to murder and eat my fellow creatures, I am a Vegan.”
“That’s your choice of course, but it’s hardly something to feel all moral and superior about. The last time I checked plants were classified as living things too. I restate my point, in order for a living creature to stay alive some other living thing must die and be consumed. So there you stand, profiting from the death of innocent plant life, telling me how evil it is to kill and eat animals. At the same time you champion the big cat’s right to kill and eat anything or anyone in its path. Its outright hypocrisy,” he charged, as Sidney stared back aghast.
While the whole conversation had been unfolding, Drake continually overheard brief snippets from other conversations taking place in the immediate vicinity. The ongoing discourses were liberally laced with references to spotted owls, receding wetlands, the environmental depredations of Congress, and of course the ever popular ozone scare. But the main topic of discussion for the evening turned out to be the so-called Mariposa Militia. Drake soon found that he didn’t have as much information as everyone else in the room seemed to. All he knew about the Mariposa Militia made them another of those nebulous, extremist, anti-government factions which seemed to be sprouting up all across the country like mushrooms after a heavy rain.
He had not known before that night that this particular militia achieved notoriety because, in the name of the old Mariposa Battalion, they claimed Yosemite National Park as an exclusive historical Militia reserve. Whatever that meant. From the available evidence the Militia appeared quite willing to employ violence as a means of achieving their ambitious goals. Consequently, the Sacred Earth people were just a bit peevish about the whole matter, hadn’t they already staked their own noble claim on Yosemite first?
As a matter of fact, Drake learned that night—to his surprise—that one of Sacred Earth’s goals, was not just to ban automobiles from Yosemite but to completely close the Park to any and all casual tourism. Of course he soon discovered that they carefully avoided classifying their own membership as casual tourists. He concluded the proximity of two such mutually exclusive groups in Yosemite might possible the real cause for all the repressive, quasi-military checkpoints, heavy security, and general air of paranoia he kept encountering.
After what seemed like a long while, Drake found himself in the act of trying to effect a tactful withdrawal from a particularly strident little group. But before he could manage it the obvious leader, a man introduced as Professor Brooks Hollingshead, B.Sc., Ph.D.—and so many other degrees, he qualified for the title Dr. Celsius—asked Drake, “How shall we address you, Sir, as Reverend, Father, or what?”
“Actually, I prefer Stan,” Drake replied with, he hoped, a disarming smile, “but, if you want to be formal, you may address me as Your Eminence. I’m not really particular.”
Dr. Hollingshead spared a wintry smile for this sophomoric humor, then proceeded with what turned out to be a minor inquisition. “Have you come to lend us your spiritual guidance in our current crisis, Reverend? Or are you here in the capacity of a Militia Chaplain?”
“Neither,” he said, “I’m just a guy who wants to vacation in Yosemite.”
“That’s not very credible given the present circumstances,” Hollingshead replied. “Indeed, I find your presence here now, at this precise moment in time, entirely too coincidental.”
“Really?” Drake felt genuinely astonished. “What in the world would my presence here have to do with anything in particular?"
“At this precise moment,” Hollingshead uttered pedantically “there is a murderous, Right Wing, fascist militia gang, viciously seeking to establish control over this very public National Park. Do you claim to be unaware of this?”
“No…” said an even more puzzled Drake, “but I do claim to be unaware of your point.”
Now the good doctor appeared astonished. “Why, you are a member of the Christian Right, are you not?” He inquired.
“Well,” Drake snorted, derisively, “that depends on how you define the phrase ‘Christian Right.’” Drake felt his face flush with irritation. “I mean, are you referring to religious people who actually have the unmitigated gall to believe what they proclaim? Maybe you’re talking about an organized group of politically conservative Christians who all vote in a block? Or could it be that you’re referring to mean, bigoted, self-righteous jerks who want to cram their beliefs down your throat? I mean, that term is kind of loaded these days, don’t you think?”
Hollingshead changed his point of attack. “Are you a Gaeist, Reverend Drake?”
“No,” said Drake deadpan, “I’m straight.” He thought that deserved at least a rim shot, but he only received a few strained moments of humorless silence.
Hollingshead went on as if there had been no interruption, “I refer to the spiritual discipline of reverence for our Earth Mother, personified in the goddess Gaea."
“Oh,” Drake said brightly, “you mean witchcraft, Druidism, that sort of thing, right?”
“Please, Reverend!” Hollingshead protested, “do not indulge your Fundamentalist literalism with us. We are men and women of science and spirituality, not superstition.”
“‘Scuse me.” Drake returned. “But if the religion of Gaea is not recycled, earth-worshipping, Animism, how would you define it?"
“Well, for one thing,” Hollingshead retorted loftily, “we are not bound by primitive notions of reality. Neither are we restricted to your medieval religious categories. The spirituality of our Sacred Earth is bound up in the timeless interconnection of all living things. Our fragile and living planet teems with endless biodiversity; from the lowly chemical chains bursting out of the primordial ooze, to ever greater morphological forms as a result of the genius of natural selection.”
“Listen to you, you’re trying to have it both ways,” Drake answered. “You want to be taken as rational, objective scientists, rejecting my silly notions about a Heavenly Father, while at the same time you’re off on a mountaintop worshipping an Earth Mother.”
“Life is All and All is One,” countered Hollingshead, “Surely even your religion recognizes that.”
"No sir, it doesn’t,” he said. “And I don’t know where you get your ideas about ‘my religion.’ Christianity sees earth and its glory as creature, not Creator. We’re supposed to be responsible stewards of the earth, not its devotees. For instance,” he said reasonably, “take that cougar last week—the one that mauled the lady hiker. In Christian terms, that animal is known as a living creature, not to be confused with Almighty God. You guys are all hot and bothered about saving the world, but you cheerfully ignore a human death here and there for the sake of what you call nature. You act as if you were strictly rational and scientific, denying that God created man in his image. You say that man is just another animal on this planet. Okay, fine, but then you turn right around and complain that anything the human race does is unnatural. I’ve got a problem with that kind of biased, selective thinking. Make up your mind for heaven’s sake.”
“It sounds to me,” said the Doctor with a touch of satisfaction, “as if you were getting a bit defensive, Reverend Drake. We don't wish to see you become unreasonable.”
“Defensive? When the wagon train is surrounded, and the pioneers try to defend their position, do you call that unreasonable too?
Four pairs of angry eyes stared at Drake without reply. He felt uncomfortable in their presence but at least he didn’t feel as big a fool as he had when talking to the bald man at the Falls the night before. He finally concluded this exchange had developed all the warm-fuzzy inclusiveness of the age-old mid-eastern hassle. Time to excuse himself.“I’ve forgotten my manners,” he said as politely as possible. “This is supposed to be a party, not a debate.” With a polite bow of his head, Drake went looking for Megan.