By D. S. McNab
Have you ever wondered why park rangers are so deliriously happy with their job despite the crap pay? The easy answer is that they just really dig nature. But pull back that mossy curtain, and you’ll find a slightly less pleasant explanation. Here’s a hint: It has a tentacle tongue, about three feet on Shaq, and sometimes leads to the early and unfortunate demise of hikers.
Okay, you might need a more terrestrial hint for this one, so in the words of my idol, John Muir: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” You see, during a trip I took to Yosemite National Park in my mid-twenties, I discovered that the opposite also holds true—that the forest wilderness is the clearest way out of the Universe. So let me pick up where my boy Muir left off and tell you exactly what I came to find out about the forest and its rangers on that fateful trip.
Ah, to be twenty-five again—young enough to still be spontaneous and delight in the simple pleasures of life, but old enough to rent a car without paying the underage driver fee. And that was pretty much my sales pitch when I asked my roommate, Matty, to go to California with me to celebrate the fact that we had just (as in ‘recently’ and ‘by the skin of our teeth’) graduated from college. But after days of driving around in a Smart car, with our kneecaps grazing our nipples, the ‘rental car’ reason started to chink away at that whole ‘delight in simple pleasures’ one.
“Dude, I think I just felt my liver pop from having to sit like this for so long,” Matty complained.
“First of all, livers don’t just pop,” I assured him before quickly adding, “Unless you have Animal-Balloon Liver Disease—which maybe you do. I don’t know.”
“Are you serious?” he asked with scared-little-puppy eyes.
This is probably a good point to mention that Matty and I barely graduated for two completely different reasons. While I’m a fairly brainy guy who just happened to enjoy getting high and reading Muir in the quad far more than going to class, Matty is—how you say—a dumbass. But he’s a loveable dumbass who doesn’t mind camping with me if there’s a forty in it for him, so we get along just fine.
“I’m kidding, dude! You’re way too young for ABLD. Besides, once we get to Yosemite, we’ll have all the room in the world to stretch out.”
“And drink,” he added.
“Exactly, and drink. Trust me, you’re going to love this place.”
When we rolled into Hetch Hetchy Entrance Station about an hour later, we were greeted by one of those sweet-faced, overly enthusiastic park rangers I mentioned earlier. You know, the kind of guy who might have lied about his age to stay in the Eagle Scouts just a teensy bit longer. But I’m not judging. In case you hadn’t gathered as much from my Muir references, I really dig nature myself—just not enough to take a job where the average salary is less than the amount I owe in student loans.
“Hi, fellas! Welcome to Yosemite National Park!” said the ranger, whose shiny nametag told me his name was Dennis.
“Thanks! Great to be here!” I replied in my best ranger voice.
“Is this a day visit or an overnight one?”
“Well, Dennis, since we plan on getting blackout wasted, I think we’re going to do the responsible thing and stay the night.”
Dennis laughed emphatically before handing me a couple of items he had grabbed from his station. “Alright then. Well, here’s your wilderness permit and a list of our camping rules. You fellas have a great time in the park, okay?”
“Will do, thanks.”
“No, thank you,” he replied. But then something weird happened. He got this super serious look and added, “Oh, and fellas. Stick to the established trails. I would hate for either of you to get injured… or worse.”
I shot him a closed-mouthed smile and a half-assed salute before driving off.
“Damn, that dude sounded a little serial killer-y in the end there,” Matty remarked.
“Yeah, that was weird. But I’m sure he was just trying to scare us into staying on the trails since there’ve been like four off-trail hiking deaths this year.”
Matty’s face went white. “People have died here? How?”
“Climbing accidents, bear attacks—but those were just flukes, Matty.”
“Hey, that dude works here, so if he says we need to stick to the trails, I think we should do it.”
I didn’t love the idea of letting some guy named Dennis tell me how to enjoy nature, but for Matty’s peace of mind, I agreed. “All right, fine. We’ll keep our hands, arms, and legs inside the trails at all times.”
Hundreds of wildflowers lined the Wapama Falls trail that spring—from lupines to monkeyflowers to clovers—and at one point, I stopped to check out some butterflies drinking nectar from them. Watching orange wings flutter over petals of pink, purple, and yellow made me feel like I was looking through the end of Mother Nature’s kaleidoscope. I had never seen anything more beautiful in my life.
“Oh God. This is like your idea of porn, isn’t it?” Matty said to me.
“It is. It really is.” I then pretended to unbutton my pants and added, “Can you give me a minute? I like to do this next part in private.”
“Really? Come on!”
“No! Not really, my gutter-minded friend. All of this is far too beautiful to be porn. If anything, it’s like my idea of Heaven.”
“All right, dude. Well, if we don’t start drinking soon, it’s going to become my idea of Hell, so can we keep on moving?”
“Fine, but I want to savor it a little tomorrow, okay?”
“Yeah, okay. Tomorrow, deal.”
And with that, we made our way to the Rancheria Falls backpackers’ camp and got completely wasted on beer and whiskey to celebrate our first night in Yosemite.
My morning joint took the edge off the hangover I had from the previous night’s shenanigans, and I was still super excited about hiking to Vernon Lake and camping in the backcountry. Matty, on the other hand, was struggling. His face was beet red and drenched in sweat, and in just an hour, he had already stopped to vomit not once, not twice—but thrice.
The second we reached Tiltill Valley, he threw off his pack and mumbled through huffs and puffs, “I’m done, dude. I can’t go any further.”
“But we’re not even halfway there!”
“Go on without me. I’ll set up camp around here, and you can just come back and get me when you’re ready to leave.”
I reluctantly agreed, and after helping him set up his tent and chugging a beer in front of him for giggles, I pressed on toward Vernon Lake alone.
I’m not even going to lie. Hiking without Matty’s constant whining and random vomit stops was awesome. And maybe it was the weed playing tricks on me, but I started to feel like Muir himself—exploring nature and enjoying the freedom that it brings. The funny thing about freedom, though, is that too much of it can make you feel invincible.
When I was only a couple of hours away from Vernon Lake, I saw a small bear saunter into the trees, and while I normally would have wiped the droplets of sweat off my forehead in relief, cartoon-style, that isn’t how it went down that day. Instead, my weed-induced, Muir-like confidence took over, and I decided to go off-trail to follow the little guy. And right about now, you’re probably thinking, I bet this moron gets attacked by that bear. Well, there was no mauling of any kind, you little sadists you, but something terrible did happen.
After a half-hour of creeping through sparse trees, I came to my senses and realized that I had far better things to do than chase deadly animals through the wilderness—things like sitting down and smoking more weed. So I took off my pack, propped my back against a large pine, and pulled out my afternoon joint. But just before I could light it, I heard something in the distance—the sound of sticks cracking beneath someone’s feet. At first, I thought it might have been the bear coming back to show me who’s boss, but it turned out to be someone far worse: It was Dennis.
My entire body tensed up as I watched him walk about fifty or so feet to my left, headed in the same direction I was facing. I was hoping he wouldn’t see me because not only was I hiking off-trail against his instructions, but I was doing it alone—the absolute worst way to do it. Fortunately, though, he didn’t seem to notice me. He just went about his business, which is where the story really gets interesting.
With one final lazy glance over his shoulder, Dennis slowed to a stop in front of one of the largest trees in the area—an oak, with a trunk at least three times as wide as the pine trees that surrounded it. He then lifted his ranger hat off his head and pressed at something inside its crown with his finger. For a second, I thought he was trying to kill some sort of insect that thrived on the blood of controlling men with male pattern baldness, but then a sliding mechanical door suddenly appeared in the tree.
At this point, my logical side told me that I had seen something I wasn’t meant to and that I needed to get the hell out of there. But then another voice entered my head—a nasally, pulsating one urging me to follow Dennis through the door. “Come to me,” it said.
Between the unexpected magnetism of this voice and the traces of weed in my system, my logical side lost out, and I quickly sprinted through the door just as it was closing.
The hiss of the steel door closing behind me as I stood on a small metal platform inside the entrance was unsettling to say the least—partly because it signaled that there was no turning back, and partly because it made it sound like I farted. Luckily, there was no one around when it happened because Dennis had already cleared the concrete steps that were connected to the platform.
After making my way down those same steps, I found myself in a long, steel hallway with giant ducts and pipes running along the ceiling. It was a cold and sterile environment—a jarring departure from the warm, many-hued meadow I had just been in the day before. And its creep factor was only amplified by the fact that it was seemingly desolate. The only other person besides me in this hall was Dennis, but even he was soon gone, as he turned the corner to continue down another hallway.
The voice was still beckoning me, and as I followed in Dennis’ footsteps, it became louder and clearer. “I can feel you getting closer. You’re almost here,” it said.
Psyched to meet the owner of this voice, I picked up my pace—first jogging and then full-on sprinting toward the hall that Dennis had turned down. I wound up taking that right turn so quickly I nearly ate it, but fortunately, Dennis was nowhere to be seen. At the voice’s command, I kept running past unnumbered doors and turning down creepy halls, until finally, the voice told me to enter a room with two large swinging doors. For some unknown reason, I kicked them open like a hero ready to rescue his damsel, and sure enough, there was a prison cell on the other side. But the thing inside it was no damsel—it was a scary ass alien.
Standing ten feet tall, he had shimmery black, salamander-like skin with yellow streaks that seemed to float just beneath the surface. His eyes were like two black holes set in pools of blood, and though his body was jacked, his face was almost skeletal. Despite the fact that there was a wall of thick glass between us, I started to think that maybe this guy had lured me there to kill me.
With a slow deliberation, he placed both of his hands on the glass and leaned toward me with a look that penetrated my soul. And then, with a slight upward nod, he telepathically delivered the most startling message to the center of my brain: “Sup?”
As you can imagine, I was a little shocked by this development. But not wanting to be rude, I answered, “Um, not much. Sup with you?”
“Bored to tears, man. These fools keep me locked up in here with nothing to do,” the alien shrugged.
“Yeah, I wasn’t going to say anything, but your little room there leaves a lot to be desired,” I said without much thought. But then, his terrifying eyes of death quickly reminded me that criticism is best when it’s constructive, so I added, “I feel like some floral curtains would do wonders for your extra-large wall of glass.”
The next thing I knew, Dennis strolled through the doors, almost fainting at the sight of me. “What the heck are you doing here?” he asked with a look somewhere between shocked and annoyed.
“Nice to see you, too, Dennis.” I said, looking down my nose at him.
“I specifically remember telling you not to leave the trail. Clearly, you didn’t feel the need to listen. And now you’re here, and you’re probably going to die.”
Suddenly, a tentacle came flying out of the alien’s mouth and thwack! It struck the window right where Dennis was standing and began to slide down, leaving a trail of green sludge in its wake. Dennis’ jaw dropped in utter disbelief that the alien wanted to do to him whatever it is that aliens do with tentacle tongues.
Secretly happy that Tentacle Face found Dennis as insufferable as I do, I told him, “Don’t mind Dennis here. He just thinks he’s cool because he’s a park ranger.”
“Don’t tell him that!” Dennis whined. Turning to the alien, he informed him, “I don’t think I’m cool because I’m a ranger.”
“Oh, but you think you’re cool? Typical Dennis egotism,” I said, shaking my head disapprovingly.
Appalled by my flagrant disrespect, Dennis just stood there, obviously too dim to come up with an awesome comeback. Finally, he demanded, “How on Earth did even you get in here? There are cameras everywhere!”
That’s when an old guy in a white coat stepped out of the shadows of the room with two lackeys and said, “We let him in—because as soon as he got close enough to our base, the subject’s brainwaves started to read just as they did when he was communicating with the other.”
“Sorry to interrupt, but I’m new here. Uh, what do you mean by the other?” I asked.
“There has only been one other person in the history of this operation, which spans over a century, who has been able to communicate with Currak telepathically.”
“Currak?” I interjected. “Now that’s an awesome name. Dennis, take notes.”
The man in the white coat then continued, “But that human has been dead for quite some time. Perhaps you have heard of him. His name was… John Muir.”
Had this been a movie, this revelation would have been followed by a dun, dun, DUN! But instead, it was followed by my schoolgirl gasp. “Sir, if John Muir was still alive today, I have no doubt that we would be best bros. I’ve read about everything he’s ever written, and I just get him,” I said excitedly.
“So basically, they’re like deputized secret agents. No wonder they love their job so much!” I exclaimed. “Though, I’m not so sure this one’s cut out for it,” I added not too quietly.
Dennis then turned to the white-coat trio and pleaded, “Can you guys please kill him and let me stage it like a bear attack?”
“Is he serious? Is that what you guys do here?” I sputtered.
“It is an unfortunate byproduct of our existence, yes. Despite our rangers’ best efforts,” the white-coat man began with an eye roll directed at Dennis, “the occasional off-trail hiker will discover our facility. In those instances, we terminate the hiker and then stage the death as a simple hiking accident.”
“That’s right, which doesn’t look so good for you,” Dennis smirked.
The white-coat guy then turned to Dennis and said, “Actually, given this young man’s highly unusual ability to communicate with Currak, killing him isn’t an option. I believe there is much more that we can learn from Currak now that we have a means to understand him.”
“So, what? You’re going to make me a scientist now?” I asked.
With a knowing smile, the man in the white coat replied, “No, I think I have an even better idea.”
Squinting to keep the sun’s rays from burning my eyes, I tried to make out the individuals who were rapidly approaching my position. Were they large and burly or small and wiry? Did they come in peace, or did they have epic chips on their shoulders? Basically, I needed to know if they were going to be a problem. The answer then appeared—in the form of a four door Volvo with a couple and their two children.
“Welcome to Yosemite National Park, folks!” I said cheerfully, knowing that these four wouldn’t be a problem.
Yup, that’s right. Because I had an affinity for nature and a Bachelor’s Degree, the top-secret-facility folks decided that making me a park ranger would raise the least amount of suspicion with my friends and family. And they were right. Everyone, including Matty, bought that I would move all the way across the country to work at the park that Muir helped build. Little did they know, half of my days were spent talking to a large and deadly alien named Currak about his feelings without even the courtesy of a pay differential.
Don’t get me wrong, I was super stoked that they didn’t kill me when I snuck into their building and forced myself into a room with an alien lifeform they’d been hiding from the public for over a century, but I could be paying off my student loans a hell of a lot quicker with a middling job in Corporate America. I guess that’s just the price I have to pay to stay alive. Well, that and having to share a station with Dennis. So if you take anything away from this cautionary tale, let it be this: The next time you pay Yosemite a visit, tip your ranger and, for the love of God, stick to the established trails!
About the Author
D. S. McNab, who previously worked in the creatively challenged world of finance, is a lover of all writing genres. However, sci-fi and fantasy hold a special place in her heart. When she’s not writing about magic and aliens, she’s working as a freelance editor or cuddling with her husband and two dogs in sunny Florida. Her work has appeared in Youth Imagination Magazine.
About the Narrator
Eric Luke is the screenwriter of the Joe Dante film EXPLORERS, which is currently in development as a remake, the comic books GHOST and WONDER WOMAN, and wrote and directed the NOT QUITE HUMAN films for Disney TV. His current project INTERFERENCE, a meta horror audiobook about an audiobook… that kills, is a best seller on Audible.com.