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.
To read the preface, click here.
To read Part 1, click here.
To read Part 2, click here.
After we returned home from our first family vacation on the mountain, we couldn’t stop talking about it. We talked about it to friends and family, we talked about it to ourselves, we talked about it to anyone who would listen. We read books on cabin building and spent hours debating the relative merits and costs of the various types of construction. We talked about where we would place our cabin – in the meadow, or in a wooded area where the tall pines would provide protection from wind and snow. We talked about how we would source water. How we would heat the cabin. Whether solar panels made sense.
We talked about it so much we sparked the interest of my friend Sandy, who had always loved vacationing in Colorado and was an experienced backpacker and camper. Though her two sons were pretty small boys, she and her husband, Jeff, agreed to accompany us on our next summer’s camping trip in July 2006.
While we spent the year accumulating camping gear and planning our trip, Jack continued to make progress on the road. Jack and Mr. Mom talked by phone frequently for updates. Jack had a couple of run-ins with Mrs. Unfriendly and she had been difficult, bordering on nasty.
Throughout the process, Mr. Mom learned a lot about road-building. He’s always been a pretty handy guy and he came to the conclusion he wanted to help Jack improve the road and to build our cabin by hand. He envisioned spending a couple of summers there, working full-time with Parker as his apprentice, helping Jack on the road, and felling logs and constructing a small dwelling suitable for our summer adventures. I dreamed of a screened pavilion, where we would sit and drink coffee and nap (and perhaps even sleep when we didn’t feel like sleeping in the cabin). Mr. Mom thought he could cut his teeth on my pavilion and then move on to the cabin.
Our two-family vacation that summer is now the stuff of family lore. It was beset by calamity from beginning to end and I lampooned it in our family’s Christmas newsletter later that year by writing: “In a story-line reminiscent of John Boorman’s 1972 landmark film ‘Deliverance,’ a long-awaited vacation for our family became a terrifying battle against the forces of nature in the Colorado Rockies.”
It all started when, only a few miles from our home, half of our gear flew off our trailer and scattered across a busy highway. We were delayed an hour dodging cars, retrieving our underwear and sleeping bags, repacking, and securing our gear to the trailer with more care. Things took a turn for the worse when we arrived at Sandy’s house to discover she had been ill with a sinus infection, had made a last-minute trip to urgent care, and was nowhere close to having her family packed and ready to go. We had planned to leave Sandy’s house at 6 pm and arrive in Pueblo at 6 am, where we would sleep a few hours, then trek up the mountain. Instead we left Sandy’s house close to midnight, exhausted and more than a little behind schedule.
By 6 am, we were in the middle of a grueling drive through Oklahoma’s panhandle and only halfway to our destination. I was so tired I was close to a nervous breakdown. If ever tortured, I would crack in a minute if sleep-deprivation was used against me. Mr. Mom kept telling me to sleep while he drove, but he was as tired as I was, and I was afraid to doze off for fear he would also.
Finally, we pulled over and told Sandy and Jeff we couldn’t drive another minute without sleep. “Give us an hour to sleep in the truck,” I said, “and we’ll soldier on.” Problem was, Sandy’s young boys had slept soundly since we departed and they woke up just as we pulled over on a quiet country road. As we tried to sleep, Sandy attempted to keep her two small and very energetic boys from running up and down the road, throwing rocks at each other, and announcing their every thought at the top of their lungs. We caught a catnap of about 20 minutes then realized the effort was futile. Our kids had awakened, too, and wondered why we were stopped, plus it was growing ever hotter in our truck without the air conditioner running. Parker declared he was cramped and decided to ride with Sandy’s family in her minivan. We started our engines and moved on.
A couple of hours later, in the middle of nowhere, Sandy called our cell phone with an urgent message to pull over. Once stopped, the side door of their van flew open and Parker bailed out and rushed toward our truck saying one of the boys had thrown up inside the van. We were yet again delayed while Sandy’s youngest son continued to puke by the side of the road and she attempted to clean the interior of their van with a handful of wet wipes. The look on every adult’s face in our two-vehicle caravan said it all: Holy hell, can I just die now?
We arrived in Pueblo in the early afternoon, at which point we realized “a little sleep” was out of the question if we expected to make it up the mountain and set up our campsite before sundown. The adults had all been awake for 30-some hours and we were more than a little punchy. We stopped by Jack’s house and he followed us to the mountain in his four-wheel drive truck because we knew Sandy’s minivan couldn’t navigate the road.
At the bottom of the mountain, Sandy and her family unloaded the contents of their minivan and our trailer into Jack’s truck bed while Jack rode up the mountain with us in our pickup, sans trailer. We could see the progress he had been making on the road, but it was a very difficult, very slow drive even in our four-wheel drive truck. On one particularly steep and rocky section, a spot we nicknamed White Rock Hill, our tires kept slipping and it took expert maneuvering by Mr. Mom and more than one try to make it up what was essentially a limestone hill. (In later stages of road building, we would add 300 tons of fill dirt and a Switchback to make this section much easier to drive over.) As we drew close to our meadow, a particularly sharp rock punctured our tire and brought us to an abrupt halt.
Perfect. Sandy and her family were at the bottom of the mountain and we were at the top. We had a flat tire and were running out of daylight. Jack and Mr. Mom spent another half hour changing the tire, then told Parker and me to chill in the meadow while they went to get our friends and our gear.
Chill was the operative word in this scenario, because just a few minutes after Mr. Mom and Jack disappeared down the mountain, the sky turned dark, the wind picked up, and a scary lightning storm appeared with a few rain drops and considerably cooler temperatures. Parker and I were dressed in shorts and t-shirts – without jackets, without any gear really, just each other and our dog, Ed.
It sounds stupid, but I had no idea what to do. I didn’t grow up on the mountain – Mr. Mom did. And he had told our family a frightening story years ago about being caught in a freak hail storm in the middle of summer and nearly succumbing to hypothermia. I honestly didn’t know if standing in the middle of the meadow or huddling together under a tree put us at more risk of being hit by lightning. We decided to huddle under the tree as the lightning and thunder and wind grew ever more threatening.
Parker was 10 at the time. As we shivered and as the sky grew ever darker, he looked at me and said with all seriousness, “Are we going to die on the mountain?” “Of course not,” I declared, but at that moment watching the violent lightning that was moving closer, I worried it was a crapshoot. “Dad will back soon,” I added, knowing the dirt road would be impassable if it started raining. For all I knew, we could be stuck on the mountain alone all night.
To be continued . . .