Tom hung up the payphone and lingered a moment in the stale fluorescent light of the shabby booth. Things weren't going well with his mom. What happened between them? She didn't approve of his new lifestyle, that was obvious, though she avoided saying anything about it directly. It was the way she alluded to her disapproval, never giving him a chance to relate his side of the story. She was making judgments without conversation. Nothing he said would change her thinking. He knew it. But to fold back into the buttoned-down accountant she loved and expected him to be would betray everything he learned about himself in the last two years. He didn't know what kind of man he was becoming exactly, but it wasn't that submissive spirit in the husk of a boy. Besides, the economy was taking a nosedive. It was impossible for him to go back the way he came.
He leaned against the Plexiglas, staring at the phone. The late September evening was unusually chilly and wet for Yosemite Valley. In the unexpected frost, the booth offered a brief semblance of warmth as his breath fogged up the panes. What now? He got the feeling his mother was withholding something from him. He worried about her. He had just told her he wasn't going to make it home for Thanksgiving. He could see how she took it personally, but it had nothing to do with her. He wasn't ready to go home yet. He didn't know how.
Tom stepped out into the gravel parking lot of sketchy-looking vans and hatchbacks. Some laughs echoed from a group of hairy young men congregating over a pile of carabiners and climbing ropes. He wanted to walk in their direction, but darkened silence beckoned him another way.
Where am I going? he wondered with a heavy sigh. The guffaws faded behind him as he made his way toward the campground. The walk-in paths were flooded and muddy, so he took a shortcut through a field of pinecones and dying tall grass. He walked under the tree with looming branches that seemed to reach down for him whenever he walked by. Before the phone call, he'd stashed his bedroll in the shadow of the great tree trunk. He didn't know where he would sleep this night. The campground was full, as usual, and he'd already overstayed the 14-day limit. He hoped to make some friends who might share their camp.
"HI, PARK RANGER." The voice of the law was unmistakable from the edge of the gravel lot, 30 yards away. Tom was reaching down for his bedroll when he heard the voice like a thunderclap in his ear.
Shit! Am I caught?
He panicked but stayed still.
No, he's talking to someone in the parking lot. ... Whew.
The cop caught a guy trying to sleep in his car. The sleepy man stuttered to explain why he didn't have a registered campsite.
"I'M CITING YOU FOR ILLEGAL CAMPING," the ranger said.
Shit, the badge is close! Tom's heart was still pounding. He measured his breath. He would've been caught if it weren't for his lucky timing and the thin shadow that cloaked his presence for the moment. For all he knew, the slightest twitch might cause the ranger to flick the flashlight his direction.
The voice was dense and monotone, but Tom was sure he detected pleasure in the ranger. There were two distinct, conflicting sides in the Valley: rangers and climbing bums. A ranger such as this one was forever at odds with freeloading dirtbags who treated people in uniform like dumb shits.
The lonely soul in the car was not getting out of this one, Tom knew that much. But he was, thank god. He analyzed his situation. His tree was the only chance of cover in the meadow. It would be very risky to walk 100 yards of open ground. Going anywhere was out of the question.
"SO THAT CARRIES A FINE OF $700 AND EXPULSION FROM THE PARK," the ranger continued, holding a clipboard next to the driver's window.
That scared Tom. What? Seven hundred dollars? Expulsion? He never imagined his crimes carried such heavy consequences.
Another ranger came over, shining his light into the sleepy man's car. Before long, they were searching the dude's load of smelly gear, perhaps making an example of him. Tom kept wishing for it to end, but the bust went on. His legs got so tired of standing still that he carefully laid down on the pine needles behind the tree. He was going to be there awhile.
Just two years ago, he would have never been in this situation. He'd been a rule-follower in all his previous 30 years. As long as he felt Mom was proud of him, everything seemed fine. That was until the first girl he ever loved shit on his heart by fucking other men in the bed he shared with her. He went wild after the breakup. He once hated and feared heights. Now, he craved that airy space where anything could happen, where the only limits were in his mind and body – so long as he didn't get caught breaking the rules.
Climbing was a thread of sanity as Tom gazed into a vast future of distant promise. At least in Yosemite's Camp 4, he felt a bond with strangers who understood his situation and rarely asked questions beyond what route they might climb the next day. It was a place of greasy beards, smudged glasses and tattered clothes, a land of twinkling metal on granite in the sunrise, an Eden for wandering souls asking for luck and illumination in the waterfalls around them.
Tom couldn't imagine where he would go if he were kicked out of the park. The desert? Perhaps. But what would he find there that wasn't here?
When he started the road trip – quitting his desk job and leaving the old notion of home behind – climbing was a miracle drug. It made it easier to ignore the dwindling bank account and his transformation into a hobo. A fit hobo, but still a hobo. Falling asleep in the dirt, Tom yearned to become something new, something more tangible than another beard in the woods. It didn't have to do with social recognition, only that his soul was empty, aching for purpose. And climbing was nothing without a soul, an endless void of cracks and ropes with which to crucify his body until there was nothing left.
He woke with a shiver and shake. It took a second to remember where he was, under the tree. The parking lot was quiet. Starlight glittered through the black branches above. He sat up, straining to hear a friendly sound. There were a few low conversations murmuring from camp.
Tom left his bedroll and walked softly through groups huddled around orange coals. The firelight flickered on pale faces, dark faces and oval faces alike; everyone looked the same except for a few mustaches, dreadlocks or pony tails here and there. Foreigners outnumbered Americans in the park that time of year. Tom heard Spanish, French and almost every other language but English.
How am I going to find a friend here? he despaired.
He walked into the grimy communal bathroom that had silver sheet metal for mirrors. An Italian man stood over one sink, openly washing his genitals. Tom remembered the moans of female pleasure emanating from the man's tent the previous night, and it was all he could do to look away and force the image from his mind.
He stared into the scratched up sheet metal where the blurry outline of his face looked back at him. Who are you? he wondered.
Just then a jovial pair of lads with Australian accents burst into the room, bantering with toothbrushes in their mouths.
English! Tom smiled, appearing to laugh at one of the Ozzy jokes.
"I'm so happy to hear English right now," he said, turning to the men. He explained how narrowly he missed getting caught by the ranger, and how needed a patch of legal ground to stay for the night.
"Yeah, sure, stay with us," said the tall man with blue, grinning eyes. "What's your name?"
"My name is Thomas," he said, shaking the man's hand.
And every moment is another chance to do something different, he thought.