Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Chapter 6 - Horse Rustlers

I always wanted to live in Arizona. Home of Tombstone, Wyatt Earp, the Painted Desert, Indians and big Saguaro cacti that I’d seen a thousand times in cowboy movies, Arizona just beckoned me to explore. So I moved to the ultimate Arizona cowboy town - Tucson.

Back in Pennsylvania it is impossible to get lost. If someone were to drop you by helicopter into the middle of a forest, which we mostly called woods in Pennsylvania, you couldn’t walk for more than a mile and you’d come to a paved road. Take a map of Pennsylvania and a crayon and color the state green. Then draw in all of the roads and highways. You won’t be able to see very much green any more. The there are so many roads and highways that you can barely see the state outline. If you look at a road map of Arizona, you’ll see mostly green. There is a lot of wide open spaces to explore, and I took advantage of that as often as possible.

I had a friend named Dan who lived near me in Arizona. He had the same wanderlust that I had, and we became companions. We trekked, by car, by horse or by foot, almost every inch of Arizona. On one of our weeklong excursions, we found ourselves in the Four Corners area of Arizona. This is where the far northeast corner of Arizona and the states of New Mexico, Colorado and Utah all come together and actually touch each other. Except for a US Government marker delineating the spot, there is not much there. In fact, the closest convenience store is probably some 50 miles distant. A couple of hours drive away, into Colorado, is the Mesa Verde National Park.

Mesa Verde National Park is over 50,000 acres large. Most of it is definitely off limits to the general public. There aren’t a lot of roads in the park, either. There is only one small road, one lane in each direction, that leads to the visitor center, then winds around the park, providing parking spots where one might park and view, off in the distance, 1,000 year old native American ruins. Jutting off of this small road are some dirt roads with locked gates and signs that say “U.S. Forest Service access only. All others prohibited.” Dan looked at me and said, "Do you think they mean us?"

A few years earlier, I had met a very beautiful, yet quite homely, young lady while camping. Her name was Linda, and she scared the daylights out of me. I was camping alone on a mountain top near Tucson, Arizona when I came out of my pup tent at 6 AM to find her trying to extinguish the remains of my very small campfire. I thought that if I kept a small fire going during the night, the numerous bears that lived in this mountain range would leave me alone.  Linda was an employee of the US Forest Service, a genuine US Forest Ranger. She chastised me for the fire, asking me if I was trying to burn down the whole mountain. My entire fire, including the rock circle that I had built to contain it, was less than 12 inches across. If you put a coffee pot over the heat, you wouldn’t be able to even see the embers. I asked her if she was serious, and she said “no.” We became friends right away and we spent most of the day together. I talked her into trading me her official US Forest Ranger badge for some vegetable matter, the kind that I used to keep in the secret compartment of my 1965 Volkswagen.

Before we parted that day, she told me about the combination lock codes that the US Forest Service used on the locks that were used all over the USA. These are the padlocks that keep the public off the many small roads in United States National forests, monuments and parks, making access restricted to officials. These are the roads one sees with signs that say “US Forest Service access only. All others prohibited.”  All of the padlocks were combination locks with four small dials. The combination could be anything between 0000 and 9999. Linda told me the code was usually the same as the current year. For example, in 1992 the code would be 1992. She said that some locks were maybe a year or two behind, depending upon how often some remotely stationed US Forest Service Ranger actually came upon one of the locks.

So Dan and I find ourselves driving slowly on the main, and I think, the only paved road in Mesa Verde National Park. If one were actually able to leave the main road, which is definitely not allowed, one could see unimagined splendor and truly be “away from it all.”

We were taking in the incredible beauty of this place, and telling each other how cool it would be if we could park the car right here and simply wander off into the wilderness. All of a sudden the road took a hairpin turn, and we came upon one of the primitive dirt roads with a sign that said “US Forest Service access only. All others prohibited.”  There were two obstacles blocking us from driving down this road. There was a rather large and heavy chain stretched across this dirt road, and as if this were not enough of a deterrence, there was a very heavy metal gate also blocking the way. I guess the governments was serious about keeping the regular people out of this area. Both of these obstacles were held closed by, wouldn’t you know it, an official US Forest Service combination padlock.

Trying to seem very suave to my friend Dan, I said to him “I think I can open these gates” and got out of the car. Sure enough, both of the padlocks opened in an instant. We had the car inside the gates, had the gates locked backed up again and were traveling down the dirt road within 60 seconds. We could see that the road took a sharp turn to the right about 100 yards away, and we knew that once we were around that bend in the road, no one would know we were there. We drove rather slowly, however, because we didn’t want the car to kick up a large dust cloud which would give us away. It seemed like it took an hour to get around that bend. In reality, it only took a few seconds.

As soon as we rounded the bend, we were met by some of the most majestic views I have ever seen. The land went on forever, the sky was an incredible bright blue, and on top of it all, we could see two horses off in the distance, about 500 yards away. We parked the car off the road, hidden as best we could hide it under the boughs of a Spruce tree that was probably 1000 years old.

Way off and down a valley we could see a lake. The lake must have been about three miles distant. I had a small, retractable fishing pole in the car, and some lures. I thought that if there were any fish in that lake, I was going to catch them. But the lake was simply too far to walk to, so Dan and I decided we’d try to make friends with the two horses, and simply ride them over to the lake.

We had some apples in the car, and Dan used one to bribe the horses into letting us near them. Within 10 minutes, those horses belonged to us. They both had a simple bridle on, but no saddle. I took my belt out of my pants, and attached it on the bridle so that I could use it for a simple rein. Dan did the same, and we were good to go.

These were beautiful horses, each about 15 hands tall. Both horses had been branded “US” which we figured meant they were the property of the US Forest Service, which only stood to reason, since we were on US Forest Service private land. Trespassing, no less.

With a little difficulty, we each hopped up onto our own horse, and with our jury-rigged reins in hand, we were off to the lake. Happily, both horses were extremely well trained and quite gentle.

We were very pleased that we had “borrowed” these horses from the US Government, because it took us about 45 minutes on horseback to reach the lake. But once we got there, we were in heaven. The lake was about a mile across, and ice cold. There were trout in the water that I don’t think have ever seen a human being. I caught ten of them in the span of about one hour, but always threw them right back into the water.

Dan and I spent many hours out there in that beautiful wilderness, drinking Johnny Walker Red with a twist, eating apples and some wonderful cheese we had brought, and sharing the kind of material one may hide in the secret compartment of one’s Volkswagen. We were both sorry when it was time to go. We knew we had to put these horses back before we got caught stealing US Government property, and besides, it was beginning to get dark. We moseyed on the horses back to where we took them from, removed our belts, kissed the horses goodbye and thanked them, and began the short walk back to our car.

Quite incredibly, our car was gone. We knew we were looking in the right place for the car, so we figured either somebody stole it, or we were in a lot of trouble. We started walking back around the bend in the road that hid our car from the paved road, when we immediately saw our car. It had been moved out from under the tree, and all four doors were open. There was one, and only one, US Forest Service Ranger at the car, and he had the reddest hair I have ever seen. With much dismay we noticed that all of the seats had been removed from the car and they were sitting on the dirt road like so much lawn furniture. The door panels had been removed from the doors, the trunk lid was up in the air, and the spare tire and everything that was previously in the trunk when we parked the car hours earlier was sitting on the dirt road.

Apparently we surprised “Red” when we approached, because as soon as the Ranger spotted us, he went for his gun. I more or less freaked, and dropping to my knees, I shouted “Oh pleeease don’t shoot us, we give up!”

The Ranger holstered his gun and asked us who we were and whether this was our car. We provided him with our names and confirmed that the car was ours. He already knew Dan’s name, because he had entered the license plate into the NCIC or whatever it’s called national bad guy computer system. Fortunately, at that time, Dan didn’t have anything felonious on that computer.

Officer Red Ranger told us that we were under arrest, and he called for the proverbial back-up. We were too afraid to ask what the charges were, so we kept quiet. We didn’t know just what the charges would include – trespassing on forbidden US Government lands, stealing US Government property, holding illegal controlled substances, you know, minor charges like these.

Another Ranger appeared soon thereafter in a Jeep with no windows, windshield or doors. We hopped up into this Jeep and within ten minutes we were taken to a back room not far from the Mesa Verde National Park Visitor Center. There were no windows in the room, and only one door. We were the only people in this room, and we discussed how the hell we were going to get out of here. We tried the door, but it was locked. And even though Dan was six feet four inches tall and weighed 245 pounds, we did not think that it would be a real good idea to simply use one of Dan’s shoulders to open that door.

After making us stew over an hour, the redheaded Ranger came into the room, all by himself. He told us he had completed his search of our car, and that he was not able to find the pottery. “Pottery?” we asked. Seems that this national park has a lot of ruins that are off limits to the public, and every now and then some professional pot hunters come into the park to plunder those pots.

Pots? Pots! Dan and I both started to laugh hysterically, which Red didn’t think was funny. He went for the door, saying that he was going to run our names into some other governmental computer system listing the names and whereabouts of known professional pot hunters. We knew we were going to be getting out of here soon.

Red came back after we simmered for another hour, and told us we were clean. I said “I could have told you that,” and then Dan asked about the disposition of his car. Red actually drove us himself to our car, which by this time was parked out back of the Visitor Center. Everything was back where it belonged, except for a small baggie that we thought we had hidden extremely well. Apparently not well enough, but no one ever mentioned it, and to this day, Dan and I continue to believe that Red liked us more than he let on.

No one ever asked us just what we were doing out there in the back country that day, and to this day the government has no idea we hijacked a couple of their horses. And as for “pottery,” when we left the lake and were about half way back to where we had left the car, I realized that I had forgotten my 20-year-old retractable fishing rod back at the lake. I had also left my package of lures, and some “pottery,” if you know what I mean. It was too far to go back for it all, so we just figured it was the way we ended up paying for the use of those wonderful horses. We did, however, have to pay a $45 fine, each, for trespassing. And we were told to never come back to Mesa Verde National Park, but I don’t think they can legally say that, and I’ve been back several times since. I’ve never seen Red on any of my return visits. Maybe next time I go I’ll try to look him up.


1 comment:

  1. This is great, I have heard this story many times, in fact just last week in the same accuracy.

    The son of Dan-

    yut the hay!