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.
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If you’ve never hiked a mile up a steep mountain road that has turned to slime in the pouring rain while wearing a bathing suit and flip-flops – well, I can tell you unreservedly that you haven’t lived an adventurous life.
And, unfortunately, that’s exactly what I found myself doing near the end of our two-family vacation on the mountain. Walking uphill on rocky mountainous terrain in flip-flops is difficult on a dry day. In pouring rain when the dirt has turned to mud, it’s darn near impossible. You’ve seen the jungle scene in “Romancing the Stone,” right? Well I was about as prepared for my trek through the wild as Joan Wilder (Kathleen Turner) was. And on that day, Mr. Mom wasn’t looking nearly as cute as Michael Douglas.
Sandy and her family had been smart enough to wear water shoes with rubber treads, so they weren’t doing too bad. Lloyd had on leather Oxfords. They had slick bottoms and they would soon be ruined, but at least his shoes stayed on his feet. Mr. Mom and Parker had on athletic shoes so they managed to keep a strong pace. Only Kate and I were struggling. Kate, because she wasn’t used to the terrain and me, because I was so darn out of shape. We both slipped and fell and moaned and cursed our way up the first half of the mountain until she finally caught a groove and started outpacing me. (I kept having to stop and grab my knees because both my legs and lungs were burning from the altitude and the incline.)
And just when I thought I had it the worst, Sandy and Jeff’s youngest son had a total emotional breakdown. He threw a doozy of a fit, just like I wanted to do. He cried and screamed and flopped in the mud and refused to take another step. Jeff picked up his screaming son and hoisted him on his shoulders, picked up his melting bag of ice, and continued to hike up the mountain, albeit much more slowly, while his child screamed in his ears and held a death-grip on his forehead. “My god,” I thought to myself, “if that were me, I’d run screaming into the woods and leave Mr. Mom to care for our children for the rest of their lives.”
Despite Jeff’s extra load, he managed to out-pace me and I soon found myself alone on the road. Everybody had left me behind and I couldn’t even hear voices anymore. I had made it to White Rock Hill and the stupid mud and limestone was so slippery I was sliding out of my sandals as my sandals simultaneously slid off the rocks. I put my flip-flops back on my muddy feet, turned sideways, and tried to walk uphill the way an Alpine skier does using exaggerated, knee-high side steps.
The sun was setting and even though I was tired and hurting, I knew I had to keep pushing or I’d be just as wet and miserable – with the added bonus of being alone in the dark. I felt really sorry for myself. I wondered if anyone would care if I cried. I once again bent over to grab my knees and catch my breath when I heard a noise behind me. I turned to look over my hip and caught a glimpse of a stunning sunset. I stood up, turned around, and gave myself over to the stillness of the pouring rain while a blazing red sun dipped between two blue-grey mountains framed by the tall green pines that lined our mountain road.
It sounds crazy – but I had an epiphany at that moment. I was tired and I was hungry and I was scared and I was angry — and yet I was in one of the world’s most beautiful places watching an amazing sunset. It occurred to me that if I was at home, listening to rain and watching a gorgeous sunset out my picture window, I’d be saying how gloriously lucky I was. Did a roof really make that much difference in my life? Why was I afraid? Why was I angry?
Suddenly, I wasn’t any more. I was alone in the rain, standing tall and letting it pour over me. I took off my muddy flip-flops and rinsed them in the rain. I alternated standing on one foot while rinsing the other foot in the rain. I held my head back and closed my eyes and let the rain wash my hair off my face. I put my sandals back on and continued up the mountain in peace.
By the time I made it to our campsite, it was almost completely dark and I could see the light of a lantern inside each tent. The voices inside sounded calm. I took off my sandals, unzipped the door of our tent, and stepped inside. My whole family and Lloyd, who had come back to a soaked tent, were waiting inside for me. They had changed into dry clothes and had retrieved leftover cold pizza out of the cooler for dinner. Mr. Mom held up a blanket and I changed clothes, then sat down to eat the slice of pizza they saved for me. I was so hungry it tasted even better than it did the night before.
The thunder grew louder and what had been a steady rain turned into a gully washer. But we were dry and safe inside our tent. Kate pulled out a pack of Uno and the five of us played cards by the light of our lantern. The thunder and rain on our tent was so loud we had to yell to hear each other, but we shouted, then laughed at our shouting, and spent the rest of the evening enjoying our game as if being huddled together in a tent during a thunderstorm in the wilderness was something we did regularly.
The next day turned out dry. As did the next. By the afternoon of the second dry day, Mr. Mom walked down the mountain to check on the state of the road and his truck, which we had abandoned just beyond the Unfriendly’s gate. The road was drying up nicely and Mr. Mom figured he could drive back up. As he got closer to his pickup, Mr. Mom realized he had company. Mrs. Unfriendly and Junior and an older man were standing nearby.
“Do you have any idea how long it takes to grow a tree?” Mrs. Unfriendly snapped at Mr. Mom as he walked up. She pointed to a small tree with about a two-inch diameter trunk that had been pushed over when Jack scraped the road. Mr. Mom had heard from Jack that she was unhappy about the road improvements so he wasn’t surprised. “You want a tree? Mr. Mom responded. “I’ll give you tree.” He meant it sincerely, as an offer to replace whatever perceived loss was upsetting her, but she considered him a smart aleck and got even angrier. She pointed to the man Mr. Mom didn’t know and introduced him as her new husband. “He’s a California real-estate developer and he says you can’t just do this!”
Junior stepped in and tried to calm his mother. He took Mr. Mom aside to talk privately. He pulled out some maps and suggested his mother would calm down if Mr. Mom would agree to re-route the road away from their gate and around the back of another neighbor’s cabin. Mr. Mom pointed out that he didn’t have an easement through the other neighbor’s property so that idea wasn’t feasible. He pointed out that road work had begun and Jack had stuck to the historic road except for the deviations around Mrs. Unfriendly’s meadow at their request. As Junior and Mr. Mom talked, Mrs. Unfriendly got angrier and louder in her conversation with her husband. She finally shouted at Mr. Mom “I’ll tell you what – you might go up that mountain, but Jack never will!”
Mr. Mom excused himself and drove up the mountain. It was our last day and we had a lot of packing to do. Plus, Jack had promised to drop by and say goodbye. He ended up bringing his friend Tom and another friend Bob, both of whom had helped him work on the road. We had some thawed catfish still in our cooler and Mr. Mom fried it in a cast iron skillet over the campfire for our lunch. We sat around the campsite enjoying our fish, talking about our adventurous week (and record rainfall), and commiserating over Mr. Mom’s encounter with Mrs. Unfriendly. Mr. Mom and Jack talked about her at length and finally concluded that she had been unused to travel on the road for so long (and happy to have absentee neighbors), that nothing about our presence and the restoration of the road would make her happy.
As the afternoon wound down, the sky started turning dark again and Jack suggested we’d better get down the mountain before it started raining. We broke camp, loaded up, and headed to Pueblo for a dinner out and a night in a hotel.
We had no sooner driven into Pueblo when a fierce storm hit. We ran inside our hotel and checked in, but shortly after we arrived in our room, the power went out for several hours. It seemed a fitting end to our wild week on the mountain.
To be continued . . .