Dragon at Dawn
From the day she learned that she was dying and would have to move back to the city, Carla Sutton started out each morning thinking about all the things she would miss about her life in Monitor County: the long weekend hikes and camping trips through the splendid mountain scenery with her husband, Dave; her part-time job - already lost - driving the county public bus on the scenic mountain highway to and from Lake Tahoe; her other job working the front desk at the St. Ives resort; her monthly Saturday afternoon movie program at the little Byrneville public library; the people she knew and, of those, the ones who had become friends; she would miss the sure, comforting rhythm of the seasons.
But most of all, she thought as she awoke again in night's closing minutes and shook another flying dream out of her mind, she'd miss these sweet moments just before sunrise. After she learned the terrible news, she'd been taking her time putting on her robe in the morning air because she wanted to feel the cold slap her body. As she sat at the foot of the bed and looked out into the fading darkness, she thought about how she would never see the scraggily little side yard outside the bedroom window again, where, after another long but heroic winter, green grass and wild flowers would soon blaze in springtime to deliver a sweet shock through long-wintered souls. As her body was slowly dimming, she would be taken away from a world that was growing ever more beautiful, the closer she drew to death.
Most of all, she'd miss this ritual that had drawn her from sleep every morning before the sun came up, ever since she and her husband had moved here two years ago.
She looked west out the bedroom window, waiting and watching, breathing with a soft gentle rhythm like meditation. As always, Kat, the Sutton's pretty calico cat, snuggled in next to her with a steady purr, as loyal as a dog.
As morning light spread over from the eastern mountains behind her, the mountain seemed to float into view up from the depths of a black pool, its outline teasing and tantalizing. The sky passed through all its shades of blue, the stars were washed away until there was only a smattering left around the distinctive peak that loomed over their world.
Where it got its name no one knew, but Dragon's Ark was Monitor County's most stunning feature. The mountain rose like the prow of a sinking ship as though defying the gray and white waves of the Sierra Crest that rose behind it. It lorded over a plateau that dropped off to the north into a hidden crack in the earth that was known as Alpine Canyon.
The Ark may not have had the altitude of the Sierra Crest, but it had plenty of attitude, a personality, confident it would remain standing while all the other mountains around it would erode to nothing. Some visitors were put off by how it seemed to stab the sky. A fundamentalist preacher was heard to declare the mountain "a vicious knife to the heart of God's Heaven." Others though were happily swept away by its Gothic glamour. Some folks were even enchanted into moving into its shadow, folks like Carla and Dave.
The Suttons lived in a old rented bungalow on Walsh Springs Road, a mile west of the village of Byrneville (pop. 150). From here, they could see the top third of the Ark rising from behind the Samson Hills. The Samsons' altitude was low and their pine green contours pleasingly soft, but those contours concealed some of the toughest hiking in California. They'd defeated - and occasionally swallowed - their share of overconfident backpackers and high-stepping day hikers. Few ever returned to try again, describing their experiences as disorienting and draining. Dave had treated some of these hikers for injuries, altitude sickness, and exhaustion.
"The Samsons give me bad dreams," said a distinguished outdoor photographer who never explained why he never pub