Journey to Youth


Ned boarded the Yosemite Valley shuttle and gazed out the window. He admired the oranges and purples of the early morning sky that lit up like fire. Magnificent, he thought. The shuttle circled around the Upper Pines Campground, where his RV was parked and looped back towards Mirror Lake. He used the campground as home base and took day trips from there, exploring different areas of the park. Being in Yosemite gave him the same feeling he used to get as a child, when he wandered the forest behind his family farm on the outskirts of Lewistown, Illinois. The wilderness seemed infinite back then, a kind of final frontier. He explored the land as a child, “claiming” forests and fields as his own, calling them his kingdom. What ever happened to my sense of adventure? he wondered.

Ned had met a couple at Lukens Lake the previous day that told him about the views along the Upper Yosemite Trail. It was a bit of a climb and would take most of the day, but it was a must, they explained, so he woke up at dawn to get an early start.

When the shuttle stopped at Mirror Lake two young men in their early twenties boarded the bus, each with large packs and sleeping pads strapped to the top of their bags. Their shirts were covered in dust and stretched unevenly in places. As they passed a musky smell emanated from them that Ned could almost taste.

“Where are you boys coming from?” Ned asked after they found their seat.
The young man closest to him took his cap off. “The Upper Yosemite Trail,” he said.

“I’m on my way there right now. The bus picked you boys up at Mirror Lake though.”

“We climbed the trail to the falls a few days ago, then across to North Dome and back down to the valley through Mirror Lake. We camped along the way.”

“Sounds like quite the trip. I’ve been here for a week now. Got another two left.” Ned laughed. “Retirement: it’s one of the good things about getting old. Actually, it’s the only good thing about getting old. I’m on a seven-month road trip. Going to visit as many parks as I can. My ex-wife, Margaret, she’d never do anything like this.”

The young man smiled as though he was searching for what to say next. “Nice.” He hesitated. “You camping in the interior of the park?”
Ned chuckled. “I’d love to, but I’ve never backpacked like you boys.”
“This was my first time,” he said, nudging his friend. “Phil showed me how.”
“It’s not as hard as you think,” Phil said. “Just make sure you have enough food and water. Maybe some warm clothes too.”
“I’ve always wanted to try,” Ned said.
“Do it then.”
Ned just shook his head.
“This is where we stayed last night,” Phil continued, moving into the seat next to Ned. When he reached for the map in his pack, Ned stared at his bicep: it was large with a vein along the ridge. His forearm was covered in mud, crusted onto his skin. “You can get there in half a day easy. Likely shorter than the trip you’re about to do now. Once you cross the footbridge here you go off trail.” He dragged his finger along the map to illustrate the route. It was scraped and scabbed from the knuckle to the nail, which Ned found alluring: he wanted to be that sort of man.

“The site was somewhere around here,” Phil said, pointing to a green area on the map where the forest was. “You just go back to the Mirror Lake where the bus picked us up and backtrack along the trail. The climb is a little tough, but it’s worth it.”
“This is our stop,” his friend said.
“Take it. We’re done with it,” he said, passing Ned the map. “Try it. It won’t kill you. Well, hopefully not.” He exited the back door.

The shuttle continued through the park down a winding road. “Last stop: Upper Yosemite Falls Trail,” the driver said as they approached the lodge. When they arrived the driver opened the front and back doors and turned the engine off. All the remaining passengers existed the bus but Ned remained seated. “Sir, this is our last stop.”
“Are you going back?”
“In a few minutes,” the driver said, stepping off the bus.

Ned anxiously picked at his right palm. Maybe I should get off, he thought, standing up. He walked to the front of the bus, stopped and took a seat behind the driver.

“No. I’ll stay.”

Ned noticed a father walking along the gravel trail by the side of the road with his son. He seemed to be explaining something to the boy, very serious, using hand gestures and a stern look—the same type of look Ned’s father used to give when he was being lectured. Ned couldn’t hear what he was saying, but the son was listening obediently with his tiny hand touching his cheek as though it allowed him to hear more clearly. The scene reminded him of when he had returned back home after finishing college, years ago, to tell his father that he wanted to take a gap year and hitchhike across the country just like Jack Kerouac did. After he had explained his plans, his father went into the fridge and grabbed two beers. Ned sat at the kitchen table picking at his right palm—it was the first time his father had offered him alcohol.

“Here son,” his said, passing him a beer. He smiled yet his eyes were stern, which always frightened Ned. “You’ve been seeing Margaret for how long? Four years?”

“Three and a quarter.”

“The fact is you’ve got your whole life to see the country, but now you have take responsibility. Right? Those people that hitchhike or travel by caravan, they don’t commit themselves to anything. They end up on drugs. They’re irresponsible and that’s not my son. Never has been, has it? You only have one life, don’t waste it.”
“Yes, sir.” That’s all Ned said. That’s all he felt he could say. He grew up in the era where father knows best.

“Don’t kid yourself. Girls like Margaret, they don’t wait around forever. Right?”

Margaret was a big city gal born and raised. Her entire family lived in Chicago so she had no desire to leave the state. In the 38 years they were married, they left Illinois five times. They went to New York City once (it was too big for her), to Toronto once (she complained that there was nothing to do), twice to Boston (she liked it the first time but thought it was boring the second), and to Miami (it was way too hot). He tried to convince her to go to Yosemite but she was afraid of bugs and snakes; plus, all the dust—it’d be a waste of money. “There are plenty of parks in Chicago,” she always said when he brought it up.

The driver returned a few minutes later with a cup of coffee and settled back in his seat. “Did you forget something?” he asked, looking at Ned through the rearview mirror.

“I’m going backpacking. I need to grab my things.”
“Will be a beautiful day for it.”

They started again down the road, back through the park. Ned got off at the Upper Pines Campground and walked along the dirt path to the clearing in the forest where all the RVs were. The sun flickered light from between the branches and leaves, blinding Ned at times. It was so early that there wasn’t a single person out. The trailer park seemed deserted with lawn chairs toppled over from the night’s wind, and toys and bicycles spread out on the pine needle floor.
Ned went into his RV and found the tent and sleeping bag that he’d purchased before his trip. He bought them with hopes of camping out on the beach somewhere along the coast of California like some beatnik.

He figured he could grab some dehydrated food from the lodge for lunch and dinner, and have dry cereal for breakfast the following morning. One night really isn’t that long, he told himself.

When he went to the wilderness office to get a backcountry permit, he was surprised that they didn’t ask more questions about his experience in the wild. They’d let anybody go out there, he thought. They gave him a small black canister for food so that bears couldn’t get at it. The idea of bears concerned Ned, but the Park Ranger assured him that the black bears in the area were pussycats. He printed him a permit and explained the rules of the park, one being how he should defecate. The logistics hadn’t occurred to him. It was obvious that there wouldn’t be toilets in the wild, but it just hadn’t crossed his mind that he would have to do it out in the open the way he explained.

“Dig a hole?” Ned said. “Guess there’s nothing wrong with losing a bit of civility, huh?”

“Just make sure to do it thirty yards away from any river or water source so you don’t contaminate the water,” the Park Ranger said.

Ned’s pack didn’t feel heavy when he walked through the valley alongside Mirror Lake, but when he got to the foot of the mountain, the trail zigzagged upward so steeply that the pack put pressure on his lower back. After an hour of climbing, he stopped to catch his breath. “How on earth am I going to get all the way up there?” he said.

Along the mountain trail it was hard to tell what sort of progress he was making because the leaves on the trees were so thick that they blocked his view all around. It’s not a race, he told himself. After a few minutes, he stepped forward onto a loose rock. A sharp pain shot up through his leg. “Damn!” He threw his pack off. He considered turning back around, for a moment, but he couldn’t give up. Margaret accused him of giving up on their marriage several times after he told her that he wanted divorce. “It’s not the same,” he said aloud, trying to shake the thought.

A few months before their divorce, Margaret had organized a cocktail party for some of their church friends in celebration of her sixty-second birthday. She drank far more than she was expecting to—everybody did. It was a good party in Margaret’s mind, though Ned wondered whether she enjoyed herself because of the alcohol alone.

After their guests had left, Ned went into the living room and began cleaning up. He thought Margaret had passed out.

“I want you in me,” she said, startling him. She brushed her white hair back with her left hand while balancing herself on the arm of the sofa with her legs spread and thighs swaying.

You’re drunk, Ned thought. She hadn’t wanted to have sex with him in at least five years and hadn’t said anything like that to him in at least ten. Why now?

She hiked her dress up and got on her knees.

“Can we go to the other room?” Ned said.

She picked herself up and teetered toward the bedroom. She threw herself onto the bed and landed on her back, careful not to put her head down and crush her curls. She’d spent over an hour on her hair, fussing and spraying and cursing. Ned dropped next to her and began kissing her neck. He could taste makeup on his lips: it had a bitter, chemical taste, but smelled like baby powder.

He slid his pants and underwear down to his thighs and raised her dress. It’d been so long since they’d had sex that he was quickly aroused. After a minute of being inside her, though, she pushed him off and turned to her side. “Can you just turn a bit?” she said. “You’re putting too much weight on my leg.”

“Sorry.” Ned lost his erection. He began stroking himself but he couldn’t get hard. She looked at his crotch and smiled, desperately.
“Are you having trouble?” she whispered.
“I was fine.”
“I’m not as pretty as I used to be.”
Ned ignored her and continued stroking himself.
“We can use Viagra,” she said.
“Really, Margaret?”
“You’re sixty-three. It’s normal.”
“Haven’t they expired?”
“They don’t expire.”
“Where are they?”
She pulled out the bottle from the top drawer of the nightstand. “Remember the doctor said to only take half.”
“Yes, Margaret. I know.”
She grabbed her pack of cigarettes and lit one. “Did you have fun tonight?”
“I’m getting tired of these cocktail parties.” Ned bit the pill, swallowed one half and placed the rest on the nightstand. He could still taste her makeup on his lips. Or was it the Viagra?

It hadn’t kicked in but he played with himself until he was hard again. He climbed back on top of Margaret who continued smoking. She looked past him and smiled. “What is it?”

“Was just thinking about the party.” Ned put the cigarette out and flipped her around on her stomach. Anytime he looked down at her he felt like he was going to lose his erection again, so he closed his eyes and thrust his hips harder. “Ouch!” Margaret curled her back. His penis slid out.

“Sorry,” he said with a sigh. He was about to get soft, so he grabbed onto her thighs and squeezed, pumping as hard as he could. He closed his eyes, focusing on her fleshy skin. It didn’t take him long to cum.

The room was silent.

After a few moments, he opened his eyes and looked down at Margaret. Her head was resting on her arms like she’d fallen asleep. He was still squeezing her thighs so he loosened his grip. It felt like she was hardly there anyway. When they first met her skin used to feel tender and gratifying, like it was all that mattered. Touching her made him dizzy; he couldn’t think sensibly and was aroused easily. She had a quirky sort of look, not conventionally attractive, what with her tight curly hair, which was kind of frizzy, and her crooked nose but he thought she was the most beautiful woman in the world. He met her at a party in college and immediately fell in love with her eager smile, how she’d bite her lip when she got excited and the way she’d cover her mouth when she laughed really hard. Then there was her curious gaze that appeared as he got to know her more, when she was admiring art or listened to new music. It was like she wanted know things, things that they could find out together. After they married and bought a house she became complacent though, almost overnight, and was less interested in the world outside of their neighborhood. She began emulating the actions of her friends, the things they did: it was about shopping at certain stores, trying trendy diets, and reading the newest bestseller. Their circle of friends grew, yet their world became very insular. The larger group took turns organizing cocktail parties and the inner circle (the even smaller group that they jokingly called the “A-Listers”) hosted private dinner parties for each other. There was the one year that Margaret had upset their neighbour Sue. It was a menial row about a party invitation that Margaret had sent out. It got lost in the mail but Sue took it personally and made it everyone else’s problem. Margaret was excluded from all dinner parties for four months. It was like her world had ended. She put all her effort into redeeming herself, and proving that she was the loyal friend that she needed to be. The more their lives went on like this, the bigger the world seemed outside of their marriage. Ned tolerated it as best he could.

As he squeezed her thighs that evening he felt nothing but flesh. He let go and collapsed onto her. “You’re crushing me,” she said quietly. When he rolled over she sat up and grabbed her pack of cigarettes. “Did you like that?” she said. Behind her fear he still saw that young women that he fell in love with. It broke his heart to see her like that, to know that he had to abandon her, but they simply wanted different things. That’s what he kept telling himself when he had doubts.

After the divorce, Ned got fit and followed the doctor’s orders. He went on a low cholesterol diet, walked daily, even if it was just around the block and started to go to the gym three times a week. Though he was in the best physical shape of his life, he knew that he was in over his head in hiking up the mountain in Yosemite with such a large pack, but he wasn’t going to give up.

He made his way up to a steep incline of broken rocks that took him the better part of an hour to climb. With his head down, he forced his body forward, removing himself from the pain that he felt. When he stopped to take a break, he looked up. He was at the foot of a large granite cliff, towering above him, bigger than any skyscraper he’d ever seen. He knew he still had to climb it and more, but found inspiration in the sight. It was proof of nature’s power. There were stains from inclusions and scrapes from glaciers. He ran his hand across the granite surface, moving his fingers over the patina. When he pressed his palm against the rock it felt warm, like it was alive.

The trees became scarce the higher up he got, offering a clear view of the valley down below. The ancient trees that covered Mirror Lake looked like tiny bushes from up there. He struggled on through the pain and head games of the climb. He slowly ascended to the top, clearing his mind of all thoughts of the past: all that mattered was that he was a man climbing a mountain. After another hour, his feet felt raw, and his right boot began digging into his heel. His thighs felt like they were going to give way, so he placed his hands above his knees and pushed down whenever he took a step up. Sweat dripped from his forehead, onto his eyes, blurring his vision, but he could still make out the trail at his feet. As more time passed the land levelled out. He didn’t realize it at first, but he’d reached the top. He finally dropped his bag and collapsed, far too tired to express the excitement he felt inside.

Ned continued north on the path along the top of the mountain. He crossed the footbridge that the young man had told him about, and then deviated south from the trail through the solid green area on the map. Soon he was in the thick of the forest, pushing past the pines that were like grill brushes at the car wash, scratching his arms and legs.

His whole body felt itchy and his pack kept getting caught in the branches of the trees, slowing him down. No matter where he turned, everything was starting to look the same: there were miles of pines in every direction. After half an hour of wandering, he noticed a break in the trees to his right so he walked towards it. As he moved closer, a granite wall appeared from the between the trees. “Is that it?” he said. The Half Dome unveiled itself as Ned moved through the limbs of the landscape towards the cliff at the edge of the forest. “Wow,” he said, as he got a clear view of the mountain. Its north face stared back at him, so familiar, the way he’d seen it in books and on the Internet. The late afternoon sun shone on the tip of its granite crest, making it stand out amongst the other mountains like a champion.

Without much energy to continue he decided to camp at the edge of the cliff. He wasn’t sure where he was, or how to get back, but he knew he wasn’t going to find a better view than that. I’ll worry about returning in the morning, he thought.

It took him no time to set up camp. When he finished, he filled his tin mug with red wine and sat on a nearby rock. His body was so sore that once he settled, he felt like he couldn’t move.

“I did it,” Ned said to himself. When he laughed, it hurt.

The sun set and darkness took over the forest. The Half Dome was nothing more than a shadow amongst the night’s blue sky. The bird’s singing was replaced by chirping crickets and the wind. When Ned switched his flashlight on it made the forest darker, so he turned it back off and continued sipping his wine. He was feeling tipsy and vulnerable, unfamiliar with such a wild night. He was never afraid of the dark, but this was different—there was so much out there that he didn’t understand and probably never would.

He couldn’t imagine Margaret’s reaction to him sitting there. She’d be speechless, he thought. What an adventure.

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