Hot springs geyser out from the earth like a howl. Pool of green sulfuric water takes a body in whole, laps shoulders, wets heels, infiltrates all your caves. Oxidization: mineral, salt, bromide. On the east side of the Sierra, at the edge of the Great Basin Province, submerged in Grover Hot Springs State Park (an obvious mark in a clearing of pine forest and sagebrush) your loneliness finds corroboration in nature.
When the pool is viewed from some distance, rather than from directly overhead, the light that is reflected from the bottom loses certain wavelengths that are absorbed by the various color patterns on the bottom. The remaining light waves then pass back up through the water and are reflected at the surface. This reflected light is in the yellow-green wavelengths of the spectrum.
Because of the transitional topography of northern California’s Sierra slope, a full range of seasons can occur at any time, from major blizzards to dry scorchers, warm clear nights to intense, blasting thunderstorms. Winds of great speeds are capable of whipping through the region causing damage during any month of the year. Pristine warm days can be followed by cold stormy nights. You like this idea of a transition zone.
Later in the bed of a cheap motel on the outskirts of Markleeville, you sniff your sulfur-softened skin. The Great Basin, you learn from your boyfriend, is where rivers do not flow to the sea. This makes you consider your own hydrographic patterns. You know of your own rivers: they must flow out somewhere.
We’ve come to the wedding of his friends, cowboy types—there are still some of these in the Bay Area, out east, despite the creep of Silicon Valley yuppies. I fret over what to wear, deciding finally on a clingy flowered dress. Jim has a pickup truck now, and it bumps along a rutted road to the venue, a half-covered barn-like structure and an open circular field that looks like a vacated equestrian ring. We are in a canyon, Crow Canyon, bordered on all sides by rolling hills; leaning, wild-rooted oak trees; dusty creek beds; the occasional ranch. The bride, I see when I step out of the cab, is hugely pregnant, and for the rest of the wedding I fixate on this. How can these people our ages, Jim’s and mine, nineteen, twenty-one, be near-parents? The whole of it―the cowboy hats and corral of trucks and homemade plates of deviled eggs fogging under Saran Wrap—makes me want to both stare and look away. The groom is in pressed black jeans and gleaming black boots. The bride’s girlfriends and mother and aunts and sisters adjust her veil under the cover of the faded red barn roof (and this, despite partly wanting to run, I am envious of) just as heavy drops begin to coax the corral dirt into mud. A preacher appears and opens a book. The California air smells of hay, rose hip, Earl Grey tea. In the rain as she marries, the bride’s dripping dress clings to her belly like a fresh, new skin.
Jim and I have been together almost four years. Because I haven’t moved out of the suburbs into San Francisco, what I see around me of the kids who remain are pregnant twenty-year-olds, grocery checkout careers, girls with coiffed blond hair and quarter-carat diamond rings flashing proudly from their left hands (engaged) or right hands (promise ring).
A promise ring is what I have convinced myself I want. I think it will solve the stagnancy I feel with Jim. A promise ring, I understand, is a vague commitment to get married someday, a pledge of love somewhere between dating and marriage. Junior varsity commitment. Nevermind that Jim and I do not like many of the same things. That he watches Nascar while I read Nabokov. That his plans for his future, from what I can tell, involve becoming a police officer and buying a suburban tract home just like the one his parents have lived in for twenty-five years, while I fantasize traveling the world and maybe joining the Peace Corps before settling in a big city.
To ward off the insecurity of being twenty with the same steady boyfriend, of feeling stuck and small, I convince myself I want the ring. My imagination has been co-opted. The longer I spend in the suburbs dating Jim, the less I can imagine anything else.
I always spend Christmas with Jim’s family, eating his mother’s cinnamon buns, unwrapping Santa and reindeer paper to reveal the gifts they get for me, trying to delight everyone in his family with the gifts I find for them scouring the malls for hours. This year, against the tableau of a crackling fireplace, Jim hands me a small wrapped box and I inhale sharply. This is it, I think, the gold ring I know will set me more firmly on a life course, even if it’s the blandest course. I pull the ribbon, peel back the St. Nick paper, and reveal a box, which, when I pry it open, hands trembling, contains not a gold band flecked with tiny diamonds or rubies revealing, in their sparkling facets, Jim’s permanent allegiance, but a new Motorola pager.
Jim told me that once his family could have been caught and killed in a fire. They were vacationing near Yosemite National Park. For a week or more there had been intense thunderstorm activity because of warm, humid air from the Gulf of Mexico piping over California. During that period, according to a California Division of Forestry estimate, lightning hit the ground at least 16,701 times, torching tinder-dry trees experiencing their sixth year of drought. Jays screamed and sixty thousand acres were blackened. When it became obvious that they would need to leave the area, Jim’s family hurriedly packed up the car and raced out on the highway before flames would close it down. I have the image, I don’t know why, of not only cars pouring out of the valley and mountains, but trains, too, in queues, threading away from the fire on hot rails, of animals―mule deer, Sierra Nevada red fox, black bears, and bobcats—bolting. None of this should come as a surprise, even if your life is moving along its track seemingly uninterrupted. Firestorm, dust storm, flood, quake: all are at home in the state of California.
I go for the summer to live in Gold Country and intern as a reporter at a newspaper that still operates out of a small-town frontier building so that when I leave college with a degree in a year I will be employable somewhere. Gold Country: a part of the central California map that time forgot, where miners appeared 150 years ago to make their fortunes or die or both, 130 miles east of San Francisco, adjacent to Yosemite National Park. I will cover county fairs, Main Street candy shops, police logs, and fires.
In the calm before, I am sitting inside an historic Berkeley theater at midnight watching The Rocky Horror Picture Show. My costume of platform shoes and tight black everything makes it hard to scramble out of a place fast. The one thing I will remember about earthquakes is how you hear them before you feel them. In the epicenter, above the campy whine of Rocky lyrics, I sense it, far at first, then rolling toward me, loose and wild, a low rumble that grows into a living growl, a roar, a thunder in the earth.
Aftershock, it is called. He feeds it to you from a frosted bottle. It is red, right? Flavored cinnamon, the liquor has a viscosity unlike water. Thicker, a hooded water, spiced ejaculate. It burns going down, and it goes down many times. You think you remember. Time passes more quickly when you are swimming in the cinnamon river. Also more slowly. Your limbs tingle, but this internal kinesthesia does not lead to actual movement. Your arms and legs and head are fixed in their positions, mudded. A morning rolls around, light filters dully into a room. Your body is in a semi-folded position, limbs swathed in the poisonous smell of cinnamon, but you do wake up. For the next three months the tips of your fingers and toes stay completely numb.
Your insides, which have been numb for a while now, stay that way for some time longer.
The frontier newspaper building was dark and cool inside. I was given an old-fashioned punch card that slipped into a metal box on the wall to register my work hours. The news staff included a rushed redheaded editor named Patty, two assistant editors, and four or five reporters. They were distracted, I thought, maybe because the newspaper was an afternoon publication. By midmorning, everyone had only a few hours in which to find and file their news. The day was always hanging over you.
On my first morning a grandmotherly woman named Emily handed me a camera, a heavy black and silver device with a black canvas neck strap, softened by years around the necks of small-town journalists.
We have a photographer, she said. But he can’t be everywhere so you’ll have to take your own pictures sometimes. Have you done that? I shook my head; I had never handled a manual camera.
When you come back in I’ll process your film, Emily said, gesturing toward the darkroom.
Patty told me I would mostly be covering community events and filling in for staff on summer vacation.
There will probably be some action on the forest beat, too—summer here we have a lot of fires, she said. That gives reason to go out past our regular coverage areas, into Yosemite sometimes. Fires are the biggest news that happens out here, except for that killing business.
Killing business? I repeated.
The Sund-Pelosso murders, she said. We didn’t cover it much, left that to the AP and the big-city papers.
She must have seen my face then; it must have blanched. They’ve got the guy now, Patty said, nodding her head reassuringly. It’s done with.
Gold Country: deceptively suburban-looking ramblers dwarfed by sixty-foot-tall trees. I rented a room for the summer from a nurse. While the neighborhoods of San Francisco glowed their ice-cream-colored summer sunsets until ten p.m., out here the shadows curtained down on the nurse’s cul-de-sac by late afternoon.
I drove down a mountain on the Golden Chain Highway to my summer job early each morning. Skinny pines dressed in dry needles pushed out of the sloped earth, purple in the dawn. Rusted billboards, long-shuttered family resorts, and park signs with names carved yellow in Sherwood-Forest script conjured a campy but deserted feel. Though the quiet stretch of two-lane state highway was flanked mostly by conifers, I got the feeling there were houses back there, too, hidden where I couldn’t see.
Later, I typed “Yosemite killings” and waited for the slow tick of the nurse’s dial-up Internet.
When a news page finally loaded, it told me that in February, a woman and two teenage girls—Carole Sund, her fifteen-year-old-daughter, Juli Sund, and their travel companion, sixteen-year-old Argentinian exchange student Silvina Pelosso—had been abducted from Cedar Lodge, just outside Yosemite, where they were staying while exploring the area. The missing women touched off one of the largest manhunts in Sierra Nevada history. For weeks FBI agents, highway patrol officers, and National Park Service rangers combed the rugged area with dogs, helicopters, and equipment.
On March 19, on a logging road near the northeastern edge of the park among abandoned gold mines and dense forest, Carole and Silvina were found in the trunk of the charred remains of Carole’s rented Pontiac. Both were burned beyond recognition, identifiable only through dental records. A note was sent to police with a hand-drawn map indicating the location of the third victim, Juli. The top of the note read, “We had fun with this one.” Investigators went to the location depicted on the map and found the remains of Juli. Her throat had been cut.
I kept reading. Through the spring, police searched for the killer, who it seemed had disappeared into the woods. Then just days ago, right before I had arrived in Gold Country, the lead investigator on the case had made a public declaration: the killers were safely behind bars. Without identifying any suspects by name, FBI District Chief Jim Maddock acknowledged that media accounts had “identified some of the people we are looking at.” Maddock then added, “I do feel we have all of the main players in jail.” It seemed charges would be filed imminently.
There was a sense of relief, according to the news stories I scanned. Tourists were returning to Yosemite in droves, and residents believed it was safe to again walk in their woods.
“Of the four million visitors to Yosemite [in 1998], just 15 were victims of violent crimes, a 70 percent drop from six years earlier,” Joshua Hammer wrote in an article in Outside magazine called “The Yosemite Horror.” “Homicides in the 54 national parks are rare; indeed, 64.5 million visitors thronged the parks in 1998, and remarkably, there were no murders. Until 1999, perhaps the most terrifying crime against women in the national parks occurred in May 1996, when two experienced backpackers, Julianne Williams, 24, and Lollie Winans, 26, were knifed to death at their campsite a few hundred yards off the Appalachian Trail in Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park. The two women had been out for a five-day circuit hike in the park when they were attacked. The last homicide inside Yosemite’s boundaries occurred in 1987, when a man pitched his wife off a precipice to collect on her insurance policy. According to a statistician at the University of Florida, the odds of being murdered in a national park in 1995 were about one in 20 million—less than the odds of drowning in one’s own bathtub.”
I am swimming in the pool of my mother’s apartment with Jim, Suzanne, who is visiting me in California, and Jim’s friend Jackson. The day starts sunny but not hot. We have the pool to ourselves. The plan is to swim, get dressed up, go out clubbing in San Francisco later tonight. All Suzanne and I care about is that we’re together. The balance of everything is only right when we are in the same place on the map. Being with each other in California, which over many visits the past few years she has come to love, too, is all that really matters. It has been this way ever since we met in the fall of sixth grade after I transferred to her school and we were put together for a research project on sharks. She loved sharks and I had zero interest in them, but I had a lot of interest in a black-haired, fast-talking eleven-year-old girl.
The thing about sharks is you can have no idea how close they are because they comprehend body motion and understand whether a human is facing forward or backward. With this intelligence a shark will always have the ability to sneak up behind its human prey. You can be navigating the most transparent waters, sand right there, shore close, pretty coral and rainbow fish undulating in the gentle swell, and then the shark is on top of you. Suzanne and I are talking by the side of the deep end when it comes to us, gliding across the pool from where the boys are play fighting in their bare chests, swim trunks like loose sails: someone, one of them, I want to think it is Jackson, makes a joke about the Holocaust. Suddenly the water is very cold. Suzanne and I get out quickly, leave them floating there like bloated bodies.
Where is her father these days? Certainly California is not the other side of the galaxy. Why doesn’t he come into the picture?
The last time she spoke to him they sat in a car in Montreal, the spring before she moved away. She was fifteen. It was a cold spring, one of the coldest on record. They were in his black Volvo. They had not spoken in more than a year, since he had married his wife. When her father and his girlfriend first began dating, the divorce of her parents—the childhood home sold, the lapsed pool membership, the family rituals all evaporated—was still raw. The father moved in with the girlfriend and her five-year-old daughter. Meanwhile, the first daughter yearned for a feeling of family, of a house that was not going to slip down a wormhole. She was so very lonely. The father’s girlfriend said that if she wanted to visit them, no problem, she could sleep on the five-year-old kid’s bedroom floor. She never went to sleep on the floor.
The wedding was large, more than a hundred people, mostly the friends and family of her father’s fiancée. She had been fourteen. She wanted to bring both her best friend, Suzanne, and a boy to the party. Her father said it was too much, that the new wife’s family was paying for a lot of the wedding, that it was very expensive. Pick one, he said. But she couldn’t pick. If she chose the boy, if she even had the courage to ask one, they could dance at the party, but there would be no one to talk to for all the rest of those hours and it would be awkward. If she picked her best friend, whom her family knew well, who felt right at home with them all, she would have a constant companion through the ordeal. But what about the dancing? She asked again for two guests or maybe the indulgence of three—a date each for her and Suzanne. She was told no, stop making waves, this was not about her.
So she boycotted. She told them to take their fancy party and their stranger-guests and the overgrown baby sailor dress they had bought for her to wear to the synagogue and all the bad adult choices she thought everyone had been making recently and shove them. Surely, in cosmic terms this choice of hers would function as the event horizon of their relationship. She did not speak to them after that, and they did not speak to her. No appointments with an understanding family therapist were set up to process the chaos of their recent collective past, no mediations to talk through the ungraspable things—secrets and how the lives we know and inhabit can fade so suddenly like they had never existed. What settled instead was anger and silence, which she carried with her everywhere.
So then, in the Volvo with her father that cold spring day before she moved with the pasted-together step-family to California. Her father, understandably, was angry at the plan to take his children across the continent. Outside, the air was vapored ice, and inside the Volvo their breathing fogged the windows. Do you want to go? he asked her. His tone was clipped.
She remembered the first time she had heard of California, from the book in the school library in fourth grade. She remembered the feel of beach on her palm, the smell of the ocean from when they lived down south so long ago, just her and her mother and father in another dimension. She thought of no one knowing her, of starting new.
I guess, she said indifferently.
Well I’m going to fight to keep your brother, said her father, angrily, and this, finally, split a tiny fissure. In the freezing, fogged-up car her tears stung. She thought of her middle brother, the only other thread that connected both her parents to each other and to her, the four of them to one another. She thought of their baby brother, of his different father, all these entangled people, the connect-the-dot games they played with scratch-and-sniff markers stretched out on the carpet on quiet afternoons, of how impossible it was in real life to connect the dots, scattered stars across space.
Please don’t fight it, she begged. We need to stay together. And this at least, it seemed, he granted her.
My father had a California dream before any of us. When he was seventeen he gathered his high school buddies, bought an old VW van, and headed west on a wild trip across Canada and down the West Coast. My mother, fifteen and already his girlfriend, was left behind for the summer. Picture: early seventies, band of boys, long hair, bell-bottom jeans, Chuck Taylors, threadbare white T-shirts hugging lanky frames, tents they could only half operate, seizing their freedom. My grandmother probably handed him a canister of homemade poppy-seed cookies as he left, trailing down the driveway in her flowered housedress pleading, Take care of yourself! to their back bumper.
Who knows what happened on the way out west. Girls, diners, national parks, and dutiful postcards. Young lungs filled, between Kent puffs, with exhilaration. The important part is what happened in the Golden State. They took turns driving the van. One evening after crossing the border from Oregon and meandering south along the coast, whoever was at the wheel veered west, off Highway 1, their goal to get to the fabled California beach as soon as possible. Fog had set in. Probably some of them were asleep or stoned. The driver followed his instincts, the smell of salt, the shhhhhhhh of surf. But the epic California fog, like rolling secrets, like vaporized pearls, encased the VW and before they knew it they heard, they felt, sloshing all around them. As they came to their senses they sensed themselves inside a swell. Whoa, man, whoa! The driver crawled to a stop. They popped open the side door, looked down and saw
themselves, van and all, embedded already in the Pacific. Sitting in the ocean, waves lapping mesmerizingly around them, marine life starting to seep through their Chucks. California, with her mist and her myths, her tiding amniotic, had called them like a siren, so sweetly they washed right into her.
California is a dream. My father knew it. Before our family came into being he went there in a fabulous van on a timeless journey fueled by boyhood myths. It loomed over us most of my childhood, unspoken but crackling with magnetic pull, a rich state of dark matter, the heart of promise. Mysterious but everything. The distant frontier, the farthest type of life from ours, the place the Beach Boys sang about from the grooves of spinning 45s, connected to us by a current of energy and a hazy wish. A centrifuge from which everything spun. The thing we could achieve separated but never together. It spoke to me my whole girlhood, one Eden spun out from another.
California is a fable. A fantasy. A fiction.
Jim and I traveled once underground to a place not far from the Gold Country town where I spent a summer. In his truck after a long quiet drive we pulled into the parking lot of the Mercer Caverns and followed a guide down a narrow set of rock stairs. With each step the California sky above us shrunk, a blue hole closing, until we were entirely absorbed by the dark, thin air inside the earth. The stairs circled into a wide-open room and, side by side but not holding hands, we stood silent as the glow of lanterns illuminated a castle.
For the Gold Country newspaper, I go to the county fair. I’m asked to find any story I want among the whirling rides and fried cotton candy. In a covered ring I come across a red-haired boy about ten bent over a young cow, sweeping a brush down the animal’s hide. I ask if I can interview him and the boy says yes, flashing me a shy smile.
He’s in 4-H, of course, and has raised the cow since birth. I know nothing about livestock and will not remember the breed, but I’m stunned at the softness of its fur up close. From a distance cows appear untextured. In actuality their fur is dense, a shag rug rising and falling with beast breath and blood.
You must be proud, I say to the boy. What will you do after the contest?
We’ll sell her for slaughter, he says. I want to believe my eyes when I think I see his own quiver.
In spite of its beauty, I found Gold Country hard to navigate. There were not many landmarks, nor many buildings once you got away from a town’s pioneer-themed central square. Nature overtook civilization and to me it all looked identical: sun-dappled country roads one after another; fields of hay bales and chewing cows; parched barns; curtains that rippled in windowsills; carpets of wildflowers.
While driving to or from my assignments, which were mostly some distance off―rural homesteads, state parks, and neighboring towns with names like Angel’s Camp and Confidence and Twain Harte, which hosted the conjoined spirits of literary myth-makers—I had to look frantically for road names every time I came to an intersection. I was always disoriented, armed only with a basic cell phone that didn’t work outside town. I learned that street signs are not a given in the country and the more you need one, the less likely it is to be there. One empty rural road forks to others. A Thomas Guide became my talisman: I figured out how to look up roads that began with numbers, ponds with no names, clapboard houses planted at the ends of posted no-trespassing lanes. I held the spiral book of county map pieces on my lap as I pointed myself from one story to the next along still and softly chirping roadsides, checking and re-checking the map key and my odometer for clues of distance, the faint thumping of my heart sounding like a roar in my ears. The possibility of getting lost was real and hung over me every day, and it made each assignment seem mildly threatening.
For the first time in my life, it felt like no one was keeping track of me. There was someone waiting for my story assignments to be filed by noon or one p.m., yes, and my clumsily snapped images, but after that the editors turned their attention to the needs of newsprint and ink and would not think of me until I came into the building again the next morning. If I slid down a rocky embankment, no one would know. No one would know if I didn’t come home at night (the nurse I lived with was gone at the hospital for days at a time). Jim was often not around when I called and had not come to visit any weekend since I had moved to Gold Country. I tried to allow myself to submerge into this sense of isolation, to submit to a dominating loneliness. Hadn’t I wanted to no longer feel like I was being watched?
One day after my work shift I decided to drive to Yosemite and hike. I would weave my way into the forest, leave my car somewhere and forge into the remoteness on foot to confront it because that seemed to be the thing to do out here. I would learn to love being alone in this wilderness, I thought, navigating my car east on Highway 120. I would coerce myself into a free spirit or terrorize myself trying. “Bohemia has never been located geographically,” Bret Harte wrote in 1860, “but any clear day when the sun is going down . . . you shall see its pleasant valleys and cloud-capped hills glittering in the West.”
But by the time I got to Big Oak Flat, barely the true mouth of wildness, I was clammy. However it is possible to feel at once that no one is watching you and yet someone is―I found that possibility. Veering to the jagged right edge of asphalt, I pulled off the road, swung into the arc of a U-turn, and sped away from my own foreboding and the forest’s infinite unseen.
The weeks roll on. My summer is a stack of paper news stories. In the nurse’s wood-paneled rambler, I reread them to remember what I’ve done, where I have been.
On June 13, 1999, an intermediate-sized rock fall of about 279 cubic yards (660 tons) forces me all the way into Yosemite. The rock fall has killed one climber and injured two others who were climbing along a route beginning near the top of the eastern talus cone at Curry Village, immediately below the “release area.” Knowing nothing about rock, I am to write a story, conducting interviews about the impact on tourism and getting “local color.” In speaking with park geologists I learn the travel of rocks along the talus and airborne splatter of rock was very similar to a previous “release event” on November 16, 1998. The arch-like rock mass involved in this rockslide was composed of granodiorite and tonalite rocks from a unit included in the Sentinel Granodiorite. A trigger for that event cannot be determined, though daily temperatures did fall below freezing for eleven of twelve days before failure.
Curry Village was established in 1899 and eventually extended upslope onto two major talus (debris) cones that are themselves the result of prehistoric rock falls. Part of the charm of Curry Village is the presence of the cabins amongst huge boulders. The currently active release area is above the eastern part of a large composite talus cone behind Curry Village. The lower portion of this cone is an area referred to as the Terrace and contains tent cabins used for seasonal housing for employees.
On June 23, when I am sent by the newspaper back into the park to report subsequent crumbling stemming from hairline cracks developing after the recent fatal slide, some of the airborne splatter pieces, approximately the size of footballs, reach the wood-platformed tent cabins and, falling at steep angles, pierce the canvas roofs of tents 28 and 36, break beams, and fall to the floor. The propagation of cracks is accompanied by occasional audible rock popping.
“If you grow up in California, Yosemite is holy,” writes author Dennis McDougal in his book The Yosemite Murders. The climber’s death within these boundaries of national park splendor and legend sent those in the region back into a state of being on edge.
It seems stupid, but I am afraid to use the nurse’s hot tub in the house where I’m staying. It is set out on her back patio, which because of the slope of her mountainside lot is raised two stories off the ground, surrounded by the spikey trunks of tall pines. I am afraid to place my body outside, alone, exposed. I am afraid of not being able to reach the door to the house fast enough if I should need to. Of being a beacon of soft flesh under a night of shadowed mountain sky. Of slipping in wet feet should I need to run across the cedar patio. Of, of, of.
Joie Ruth Armstrong, twenty-six, is a friendly, strawberry-blond naturalist from Orlando who works at the nearby Yosemite Institute. Armstrong is as at home in the backcountry as I am not, leading hikes and teaching visitors, many of them children, about the history of Yosemite’s indigenous plants, animals, and geology. Joie lives with her boyfriend, Michael, another naturalist, in a nearby pine cabin they call The Green House, a rustic building where they chop wood to stay warm on crisp nights and haul water up from the creek to boil tea and admire the beauty of the glen outside that was cleared ages ago by yet another fire. Beauty birthed from annihilation.
I don’t meet Joie, but if I did I feel we could be friends. She is the kind of friend I desperately need in my currently friendless-in-Gold-Country state, a woman five years older than me who is not terrified by independence but energized by it. Someone who has figured out how to be at ease, who talks to everyone and has many friends. Someone who writes in a letter to a girlfriend back home in Florida: “I love Michael with my soul and every last cell in my body. I love the big meadow with all its daisies and incredible history.”
I do not meet Joie. On July 21, she packs her car for a trip to Sausalito. With Michael gone, and despite the reported news that suspects were in custody, she had told friends she was worried about a possible murderer on the loose after the killings of Carole, Juli, and Silvina. At dusk, just before she leaves her cabin for her trip, a car pulls up the dirt road. The young man inside the car confronts Joie, forces himself inside the cabin with a gun, gags her, binds her hands and feet, drags her outside, shoves her into his car and drives up the road.
Joie attempts to escape, jumping from the moving vehicle and running 150 yards before the man catches her, cuts her throat, decapitates her, and leaves her body in the forest not far from her beloved Green House at the edge of a golden meadow.
Three days after her murder, Joie’s killer is caught. Once he is in custody, it immediately comes to light that he also killed the mother and two teenage girl tourists that winter. Law enforcement officials are forced to admit to the general public that since June 10, for the past six weeks at the height of the summer tourist season, the serial killer was on the loose in and around Yosemite hunting women while they had mistakenly assured terrified locals and wary travelers that the culprit in Carole, Juli, and Silvina’s killings was already in jail. “We have all of the main players in jail, but we are in no rush to charge them,” FBI chief James Maddock had told the newspapers in June.
Furthermore, the killer had actually been questioned by FBI agents in February, days after the three tourists were reported missing but before their bodies had been found. Finding nothing suspicious enough about him, police had let the killer go.
Necessary concocted interrogation with real-life news responses
Why did you tell the media that there was no fear of a killer on the loose, when in fact there was?
“I’m confident we’ve done everything that could be reasonably done.”
Why didn’t your department, during its investigation that winter and spring, contact transportation outlets in the area, including the cab driver who said she picked up a man matching the killer’s description from Sierra Village near where Carole and Silvina’s bodies were later found and gave him a $125 cab ride back to Yosemite Valley?
“These are not for the most part Perry Mason moments, where you interview somebody and they immediately confess. They aren’t solved in thirty minutes, like on television.”
How do you explain the fact that you could have prevented the murder of another woman in Yosemite if your team had done its job?
“I’ve struggled with that issue for the last twenty-four hours and continue to do so.”
Was Joie’s killing a preventable tragedy?
“It was a tragedy, but was it a tragedy caused by not doing what should have been done? I don’t think so.”
What do you think the repercussions should be when the FBI has a killer in their hands, then lets him go, and the killer kills again?
“From the standpoint of the FBI’s Washington management, it’s always hindsight and Monday morning quarterbacking.”
I have a dream I am inside the pages of a Thomas Guide at the center of a two-dimensional mint green topography, cartographic elevations undulating in black wavy lines, county divisions and paper borders cordoning off a knoll upon which sits a steaming hot tub; a quaint green cabin represented as a pile of modest lines in the left-hand corner; all the bodies of water—hairline streams, pebble-shaped lakes, rivers, forks, deltas, creeks, narrows―inked red, for blood.
A few nights before I leave Gold Country I am alone in the nurse’s kitchen. I look out the sliding patio doors and see eight glowing points of light. As my eyes try to adjust to the dark behind the points, a low growl crawls toward me. Two paws with sharp claws levitate off the ground, rise up and slam forward into the door, then two more and two again, allowing me to see in an instant the forms of four large raccoons, their thick underbodies streaked flaxen, amber, burnt bronze, banging on the glass, roaring to be let in.
One day many years after, I have a memory of climbing the rocky line of a mountain in Yosemite with Jim, of my legs trembling uncontrollably on a rough-hewn staircase because my fear of heights would not let me take another stony step forward. What route did we take? I google “Yosemite hikes.” Clear in my mind is a hot, rough ascent, a backed-up line of hikers ahead of me, cable handrails on either side, my hands shaking on the cables, a definitive point at which, after hours of pushing myself through fear to progress, I said, No, and would not move any farther and turned around. For the lay hiker there are only a couple of choices in Yosemite that seem familiar to my memory. A modest day hike to Vernal Falls involves an often-wet stone staircase. The images from the internet, with other tourists grinning in the sun from their various moments of conquest, look like somewhere I might have been. Like somewhere I could feel if I close my eyes. But, though there are granite stairs wet with waterfall spray and some twisting, turning railings to grab on one’s crooked climb, there is no straightforward stepped path with cable rails of the kind my mind recalls. There is such a path, steep and exposed, on another hike: the eight-mile ascent to Half Dome. From my google search returns, the images of this trail loose a tremble in my fingers so that even typing becomes difficult. I can feel the urge of Jim’s body behind me, the safe but never-changing. To go forward, or not. C’MON, GIRL. But we would not have hiked sixteen miles in a day, nor planned to scale a steep four hundred-foot final vertical stretch like the one Half Dome’s summiting requires. Is it a false memory, this believed communion with rock and steel and the sheer cliff of my worst fears, on the edge of a Pleistocene formation whose striking profile represents the majesty and mythos of California herself? Millennia can disappear considering California and how one lone body figures in her long scope. How was I there when I wasn’t? I read on about the formation of the valley, the Sierra block, the domes, numerous fracture joint planes. Uplift, erosion, exfoliation, the pattern of glaciation and thaw, of constantly coming into a state of being.
From California Calling: A Self Interrogation, by Natalie Singer
(Portland: Hawthorne Books, publishes March 1, 2018).Copyright © 2018 by Natalie Singer.
Reprinted with permission from Hawthorne Books. hawthornebooks.com
NATALIE SINGER is the author of the new memoir California Calling: A Self-Interrogation (Hawthorne Books, March 2018). Her writing has been published in journals, magazines, and newspapers including Literary Mama, The Washington Post, The Seattle Times, ParentMap, Alligator Juniper, Brain, Child and Full Grown People. She has taught writing inside Washington State’s psychiatric facility for youth and Seattle’s juvenile detention center, and she has worked as a reporter at newspapers around the West. Natalie earned her MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics from the University of Washington. Originally from Montreal, she lives in Seattle. (@Natalie_Writes)