Saturday, December 1, 2012



Yosemite National Park
SUNDAY afternoon

Megan Cameron Downshifted her sporty red Miata into third gear and stomped the gas pedal. The power boost sent them around a sharp curve into the gaping mouth of Wawonna tunnel. Drake felt himself pushed up against Megan by centrifugal force. The Miata shot into the highway tunnel. At that speed they experienced a nearly instantaneous transition from bright sunlight to stygian darkness.
Drake kept a firm grip on the passenger handle with one hand while grasping his wind whipped hat with the other. His eyes dilated, straining to adjust to the change. Hank perched precariously in the tiny backseat. His hairy head hung over the side, ears flapping, tongue lolling in the breeze. Within the confines of the tunnel, auto horns unleashed short honks and long blares as cars full of families flooded through the long, curving bore of the subterranean passage. The piercing blasts echoed from the confining walls, beating back against Drake’s protesting eardrums.
            As they exited the northern end of the Tunnel a vision of exquisite beauty unfolded before their eyes. They looked straight up the long axis of Yosemite Valley. Majestic El Capitan framed the left side of the scene, Bridal Veil Falls, capped by the Cathedral Rocks, the right. Centered in the middle, like a jewel in a crown, were the precipitous, skyscraping heights of Half Dome.
Drake remembered Paige’s challenge to climb Half Dome. That brought to mind the startling differences between the two roommates. His idle thoughts were banished in an instant as Megan swerved her agile little sports car across two lanes of oncoming traffic. She dashed across the road into a scenic overlook parking area, ignoring the blare of angry horns that passed behind them. Megan brought the roaring little beast to a sliding stop in one of the few open slots; nothing but net. Knees slightly wobbly, Drake gave silent thanks and wiped his brow as he climbed out of the car. Hank nimbly hopped out of the backseat, displaying zero signs of distress.
“This view from Wawonna Tunnel is the favorite of photographers and painters,” Megan said in her best tour guide voice.
Drake reflected that Megan’s ‘little ride’ had turned out to be a long, grueling drive all the way to the southern end of Yosemite and back again. Megan drove in the same over-the-top manner in which she approached everything else. Her actions proclaimed a passionate belief that a car was not really moving unless it was scraping bottom at every low point and kissing the guardrails in the curves. Now she sat gazing into the visor mirror, calmly patting her disordered hair into place and making artistic conversation about the scenery.
“Breath lungs, while you can,” Drake said, sotto voice.
“What’s that you’re mumbling?” she inquired archly.
“Not mumbling,” he replied with a grin, “singing; a great old Hymn of the faith. You might want to learn it. It’s called Nearer My God to Thee. Your little suicide move, blowing across three lanes of traffic back there, inspired me.” 
Megan tarnished her cool, sophisticated, femme fatale image by sticking her pink little tongue out at him.
She had called him that morning, offering to take him on a magical journey to Wawonna and the big trees at Mariposa Grove.
“Sounds great,” he said. “Why don’t we take my Suburban?”
“Darling, I’m a woman, not a farm hand,” she said, derisively vetoing the idea. “Let’s keep your truck in reserve for hauling fence posts or manure some other macho task, shall we? Besides, it’s such a beautiful day I want to drive with the top down and the wind in my hair.”
A brightly colored scarf ensured the wind was not given much of a crack at her hair. She continued to look cool and beautiful all day. A large wicker basket in the trunk contained an ample picnic lunch. They ended up making a day of it. Megan obviously knew her way around. She seemed determined to show Drake every rock or tree that had any kind of historical significance attached to it. He had to admit she did a good job. By the end of the day Drake commanded a knowledge of Yosemite’s sites equal to many locals.
First they visited to Mariposa Grove, site the Giant Sequoia redwood preserve. Megan explained that early foresters believed the trees to be a godsend to the timber industry—until they tried to harvest them, that is. Turns out that those majestic trees have a simple, effective defense mechanism protecting them from logging; they splinter into millions of worthless tooth picks when they are cut down, leaving very little in the way of useable lumber. Megan played hostess to her romantic little picnic in a magical sun dappled glade of sequoias. Drake found the place as awe inspiring as any cathedral built by human hands.
After lunch and a hike to settle their stomachs, they had driven back north past the historic Wawonna Hotel. Megan had gone into her tour guide routine again, “Originally, a man named Clark built a guest cottage there in 1857. I guess he saw the flood of tourists traveling to Yosemite Valley and decided he might as well cash in on them. Wawonna,” she carefully explained, “is a Native American word meaning, ‘Big Trees.’”
            At the end of a long day of sightseeing they found themselves at the picturesque Tunnel View Overlook. Drake deemed the beauty of the spot undeniable, and humbling. And romantic. Megan gracefully slipped her arm around Drake’s waist, cuddling close to him. Drake found himself responding by awkwardly putting his arm around her shoulder. For a while they simply stood motionless taking in the profound splendor of the view, oblivious to the hordes of picture takers and overactive children scampering around them.
            “I always come here when I’m sad,” She said quietly. “This spectacle is so powerful. I find it almost healing. Don’t you think so too, Stan?”
            “Yes, it’s absolutely awe-inspiring,” He said, while his inner voice chastised him. You, Stan Drake, pastor of First Baptist Church, Zurich, California have no business getting involved with this woman. Haven’t you learned your lesson yet? He thought with disgust. Had a member of his congregation come to him with this situation he would have pointed out the biblical proscription against becoming ‘unequally yoked’ with an unbeliever. To his shame he found himself as stubbornly rebellious as anyone he had ever counseled. He knew he was flirting with trouble. Don’t mince words, Stan, call it sin. He decided to try redeeming the situation by acting pastoral.
“The majesty of creation serves to give us perspective in life.” He swept his free arm to encompass the view. “I mean, no matter what might be going on in our lives, there is something greater—someone greater than ourselves and our petty little problems. The majesty of Creation proclaims that there must be an even greater Creator. And if we recognize that there is a Great God, then we have hope that life is not just random and pointless.”
            “Amen, Reverend,” she said in a mocking tone.
“Ouch.” You deserve that too, Pal, He told himself. I feel like a big hypocrite. Here I am speaking the truth while pursuing the flesh.

*          *          *

            Drake left Hank in the shade outside the Yosemite medical dispensary. He and Megan went inside to look in on ranger Gutierrez. Yosemite Village had a small, well equipped clinic. Unlike much of the Park’s buildings the dispensary was of recent construction. Inside, its walls and floors were covered with a surrealistic amalgam of medical contraptions. Some of the equipment would probably have been recognizable to old John Muir himself. Other items would not have caused comment had they been seen on the set of Grey’s Anatomy. They found Gutierrez in a small six-bed ward. All of the other beds were empty. In fact, aside from a hiker being treated for some minor scrapes, suffered in a trailside tumble, Gutierrez was the only patient in the place.
And He was not expending much effort at being a model patient, either.
            “Man I hate these smelly places,” he greeted his visitors. “And these doctors. They get a big charge out of strapping you down, laughing like mad scientists. You’re at their mercy. They pump you full of drugs, and run bizarre experiments on you. Madre de Dios! I feel like Frankenstein’s monster wired up to all these weird gizmos.” Drake looked around. The patient did have a plastic ID bracelet cruelly taped around his wrist. And there was a single IV in place, attached to a plastic bag hanging from a metal tree. It appeared to be dispensing a simple saline solution. Drake grinned at the suffering patient. The leg didn’t look too bad. It sported a massive discolored bruise but the swelling had gone down.
            Doctor James Wu chose that moment to enter the ward. He seemed quite hardened to the Ranger’s complaints, taking them in stride. “Now, Rudy,” he said, Looking up from a medical chart with a peaceful, tolerant expression, “You know I have to detain you here in order to keep you off that leg. Your proximal tibial shaft has a hairline fracture. It won’t be a permanent problem if you give it a few days to begin healing. I want to prevent any chance of a compartment syndrome. As for drugs, humph!” he scoffed, “I’ve yet to see a patient get hooked on extra strength Tylenol. Now, lie still and stop stressing,” he warned darkly, “or I will sedate you.”
After making a slight adjustment to the intravenous fluid drip on the IVAC monitor, Wu cruelly subjected the ranger to the customary medical checks of pulse, blood pressure, and pupilary response. He probed the leg, made a few notations on the chart, and left the room.
            Rudy Gutierrez called after the doctor’s retreating back, “Si Jefe, you’re right!  Absolutely right. I’ll be a real good boy, Dr. Wu sir!” Then—quietly—he added, “I’ll do whatever it takes to get out of here.” Laying back into his pillow he sighed with feeling. “So,” he said looking around at his visitors, obviously angling for sympathy, “did you come to tease the animal in his cage, too?”
            “Better than that,” said Drake in the same tone, “we brought some peanuts to toss at you.” Switching moods, he asked, “Seriously, how’s the leg, you are going to be okay, aren’t you?”
            “Oh sure, you heard the Doc, right? He just wants to keep me off it until the swelling goes down some. Hurts now o’ course, but at least nothin’s broken, man. Guess I’ve got you to thank for hauling me to safety. So what’s your name, anyway? Didn’t I hear that Federal guy—Baker—call you Reverend or something?
            “Yes, I’m a minister. My name is Stan Drake. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Ranger Gutierrez.”
            “Call me Rudy. Well Preacher,” he said extending his right hand, “I want to give you my sincere thanks. Y’ know, that’s the first time I’ve ever been medivac’d under fire by the Padre. I mean it man, Thanks.” Gutierrez lay back with a smile, then sat right up again, his eyes looking beyond Drake.
            “There you are Chiquita, I thought you had forgotten all about me and my desperate plight.”
            Paige entered the room bearing a large covered lunch tray. “Now, Uncle Rudy,” she chided, “you promised me that you’d behave. Hi guys,” she added for Drake and Megan’s benefit.
            “Yeah,” he sighed, “I did promise, didn’t I?” he replied good-naturedly, “but did you mean I have to behave right now?”
            “Yes,” she said firmly, “right now.” Paige gingerly maneuvered past Megan and Drake through the crowded room. She placed her burden on the rolling, over-bed table.
            “Very well,” Rudy said with affected dignity, “I shall start by partaking of this marvelous feast you have so graciously brought to me. Mmm, mucho gusto,” he said, inhaling the aroma. He lifted the covering sheet and made a face. “Eeww, What is it?”
            “It’s soup and a sandwich!” she said, sharply, then added impishly, “Goat tripe and sour kraut; your favorite, I believe.”
Gutierrez laughed and dug into his meal with undisguised gusto. Megan quietly excused herself and left the room, leaving Drake and Paige in yet another awkward conversational limbo. Drake casually stepped back from the bedside to give Rudy some time with Paige. Her uncle? In doing so he managed to stomp directly on Paige’s foot. Their simultaneous reflex actions only served to tangle their legs, sending them both sprawling.
“Aw hey, you guys are so thoughtful!” said Gutierrez, “I’m so lonely bein’ the only bed patient in here. Thanks for joining me. You know Padre,” he added severely, “it’s kinda dumb to survive a fire fight only to turn around and buy it in the doctor’s office.” 
Drake carefully untangled himself from Paige, a chair, the IVAC stand, and an overturned laundry hamper. He finally stood then offered his hands to Paige. She hesitated with a wry expression as if she were expecting a trick. Then with a smile she extended her own hands upward.
“You’re a surprising man,” she said. “How did you ever wind up in such a people profession, clumsy as you are?”
“There’s a spiritual principal,” he explained awkwardly, “God shows His greatness through our weaknesses.”
“Well then, He’s got a real gold mine in you now hasn’t He?”
Drake’s face reddened appropriately as he helped her to her feet. Gutierrez glanced over their way, but concentrated on wolfing down his food. “Hey, careful with my niece,” he said around a mouthful of sandwich. “If you break her I’ll have to stop liking you.”
Drake felt a long awkward pause as they both stood avoiding each other’s eyes. He desperately tried to figure a way to jump-start the conversation. Then Dr. Wu walked past the doorway, Megan wrapped around his arm. Wu appeared to be giving a tour of the facility. Drake became aware of Paige’s scrutiny. He realized the sour expression on his face must betray his thoughts. Stan Drake reflected that the more time he spent with Megan the shallower the relationship got. Two hours ago he had sold his soul, standing arm-in-arm with her, soulfully gazing out over Yosemite Valley. Now here she was flirting with some doctor while on what was arguably a date with Drake.
“It’s really none of my business, Stan,” Paige said gently, “but you ought to understand that Megan enjoys surrounding herself with diverse types of men. Don’t take it too hard and don’t give up hope. But I wouldn’t make any long term plans just yet, either.”
Drake knew wisdom when he heard it. With a sigh he let the ugly expression fade from his face. “Thanks,” He said, a lopsided, ambivalent smile dissipating the tension on his face.

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