Author’s note: This story, at its essence, is about a mountain and the people who loved it. It is inspired by our experiences with the legal system, which are a matter of public record. However, I have fictionalized the details of this story and the characters (except for my family), both for narrative convenience and for privacy reasons. Also, I am not an attorney. If you are, and if you read this story and note that I have used the words “district court” when I should have said “appellate court,” well — perhaps, you should read a John Grisham novel instead. My point in telling this fictionalized account is not to discuss the finer points of the law, but to relate some of the life lessons learned by two ordinary people who were trying to achieve a modest dream and found themselves at the mercy of our nation’s legal system.
This story began 48 years ago when Mr. Mom’s parents — Mother and Father — purchased a mountainside tract of land in Colorado. Mother was a schoolteacher and Father was a college professor. The state of Colorado offered a special land deal for educators to encourage them to put down roots. Mother and Father bought 160 acres in the Wet Mountain Range, a beautiful and pristine tract of land that was bordered on two sides by the San Isabel National Forest and only a half-hour drive from their home in Pueblo. In today’s parlance, we say the property is “off the grid.” There are no utilities, no services, no civilization — just an undeveloped piece of land, so beautiful, so inspiring, so abundant as to take your breath away.
Mother and Father and their four young children spent many weekends on their mountain, hiking, picnicking, camping, rock-hounding and doing what families do on mountainsides – enjoying the view and nature’s bounty spread out before them.
As the kids grew older, a couple of them moved out and family picnics fell out of favor. But Mr. Mom, a teenager at the time, continued to spend many of his leisure hours on the mountain, either alone or with a friend or two. For Mr. Mom, the mountain has always seemed more like his home than whatever house he lived in. He knew its contours, its caves and its wildlife, its seasons and its treasures, like some people know their backyards. He thought about living on the mountain some day. He knew it would always be his.
When Mr. Mom was 16, Father took a job in Oklahoma. The family moved and built a new life, 600 miles from their mountain. But Mother and Father knew how special the mountain was so they never sold their property. Mr. Mom continued to visit it as often as he could, often in the summer and often accompanied by his Oklahoma friends who were happy to tag along on a trip to Colorado.
By the time I met Mr. Mom, he had been busy with college and building a small business. He didn’t visit the mountain very often anymore, but he talked about it endlessly and I could tell he was a man for whom the mountains were as central to his being as the plains are to my people. Through our three-year courtship, I never visited the mountain, though I longed to see the place Mr. Mom had described in such vivid detail.
Once we married, we busied ourselves even more, building Mr. Mom’s business and my career, and raising a family. Money was in short supply and vacations were few and far between. Finally, when Parker was nine months old, we decided to schedule a grown-up trip. We left our kids with my mother and drove to Colorado in mid-summer for a week’s vacation.
By this time, the historic mining and logging road that led to our mountain property had deteriorated. By way of explanation, some years earlier new neighbors had purchased an acreage downhill of Mother and Father’s property. Mr. and Mrs. Unfriendly fenced their property and put up a locked gate. On the occasions when Mr. Mom visited the mountain from Oklahoma, he parked by the Unfriendly’s gate, climbed over it, and hiked all the way to his property via the historic road, which over time had become increasingly impassable by vehicle.
When we planned our trip in 1996, we knew the mountain road would be difficult and the Unfriendly’s gate would be locked. With a newly weaned infant back home, I was in no shape for a challenging backpacking trip, so we decided to camp at a public campground a few miles from the mountain. I was new to this camping thing anyway, so I enjoyed the cleared campsites, the picnic tables, the public toilets and the groomed trails. Our tent was small and our camping equipment minimal, but we spent an enjoyable week seeing the area and enjoying the outdoors. On one of our hikes, I even encountered a bear cub (who, fortunately, ran promptly away). Given my lack of conditioning, we never made the long hike into Mr. Mom’s family property, but we skirted the boundary via the National Forest and I got a sense of just how majestic his treasured mountain was. I left our vacation wanting more.
But as is typical for young families, more was a long time coming. Although Mr. Mom made a couple of hunting trips to Colorado in the mean time, we wouldn’t visit again as a family until 2004. By this time, one of our friends had moved to a city about an hour from the mountain, and he invited us to stay with him. Since we were so close, we decided to attempt to hike up the mountain so that our family could finally see the place Mr. Mom had talked about for years.
By this time, the road had deteriorated so badly it was more like a trail. It was overgrown and very steep and rocky in places. While a mile doesn’t seem like a long hike, it got the best of Kate and me. We called it quits about half way up and turned back. Mr. Mom, who wanted more than anything to set foot in the meadow he enjoyed all those years ago, kept going, along with Parker. Kate and I waited patiently in our truck at the bottom of the mountain, parked by the Unfriendly’s locked gate, while Mr. Mom and Parker hiked to the top of the property and back down.
While driving back to our friend’s house for our last night in Colorado, Mr. Mom excitedly told me about his trek up the mountain, how the property had changed and how it had stayed the same, and how he longed to improve the road so he could someday build a cabin in his favorite meadow. To me, it seemed like a pipe dream.
Then, out of the blue, Mother called. A day earlier she had received a phone call from a man named Jack, who said he owned property partially adjoining ours. He owned several pieces of heavy equipment and wanted to restore the historic mountain road. Mother asked if we would call Jack back and possibly meet him while we were in town to better understand his proposition.
Mr. Mom returned Jack’s call and agreed to meet him the next day on our way out of town. Over two hours in a small diner, Mr. Mom learned that Jack had inherited his property from his father but, like us, had long been unable to drive to it because of the deteriorating road and the Unfriendly’s locked gate. Though the historic road had never extended all the way to Jack’s property, he had driven it years ago to the point where it ended and then hiked across our property to get to his land.
Jack told Mr. Mom he had consulted an attorney, who suggested that Jack should go to the courthouse and look up the deeds of adjoining land owners to determine what easements existed. Upon examination of the deeds, the attorney advised Jack that our family had an easement across the Unfriendly’s property. The attorney said Jack could have access if he negotiated an easement with us and the Unfriendlys. Thus, Jack proposed that he would improve the road at no cost to us if we would give him access across our property. At the conclusion of the meeting Mr. Mom shook Jack’s hand and made a deal: you improve the road and our family will give you access across our land.
As we drove back to Oklahoma, we were giddy. It seemed as if a dream was coming true. With a passable road to our family property, we would be able to visit it whenever we wanted — to camp, to hike, and to someday build the cabin that Mr. Mom had always envisioned.
Heck, we thought, we might even summer there in retirement.
To be continued . . .