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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As the summer of 2006 drew to a close and we eased into fall, our family life resumed its regular rhythms and Jack continued to improve the road in his spare time and with the help of his friends Bob and Tom as they were available. Jack rented an excavator and managed to cut a road all the way through his property to the very top, which meant he and Mr. Mom could now travel back and forth between their properties.
Meanwhile, the Unfriendlys went haywire. We heard from Jack that Mrs. Unfriendly had told her housekeeper about our efforts to improve the road. She said “I know they’re going to get their road, but I’m going to make it cost as much as possible.” (Mrs. Unfriendly didn’t realize her housekeeper had a connection to Jack and word travels fast in a small town.)
In December of that year, we received a letter from Mrs. Unfriendly’s attorney which claimed, among other things, that we widened the historical road to 60 feet (not true), that we left debris by the side of the road that had become a haven for vermin (Jack had previously explained to Mrs. Unfriendly we planned to remove all debris, but that clean-up is the last step in road building), and the road was an “ecological disaster.” Our attorney responded by refuting their width and disaster claims, assuring them we would clean-up debris upon completion of the road, and asserting our legal right to access our easement and improve the road.
We made another family camping trip to our mountain in the summer of 2007, but compared to the previous year, it was non-eventful except that shortly before we left home, we received another letter from Mrs. Unfriendly’s attorney. This one reiterated her previous claims but said the road had been widened to 80 feet (again, not true). Our attorney again responded by refuting their claims and asserting our rights. We never ran into the Unfriendlys that summer, but we noticed they had installed a motion-detection camera near their gate. We smiled for the camera every time it snapped our photo driving up the road to our property.
In the mean time, Mr. Mom had a hunch about a detail that – if he could pull it off – might get the Unfriendlys to back off. As part of closely examining all the deeds after the Unfriendly’s first letter, Mr. Mom and Jack noticed that the Unfriendlys purchased their property without purchasing all of their mineral rights. After a little sleuthing, they figured out that fifty percent of the Unfriendly’s mineral rights were still held by a distant corporation that used to own land in the area. Mr. Mom did some research and tracked down the executive who managed the company’s mineral rights. After a few weeks time and for an investment of only a few thousand dollars, Mr. Mom and Jack formed a limited liability mining corporation and purchased the remaining half of the mineral rights to all of the Unfriendly’s property. We figured those mineral rights were a big negotiating stick that we could use to our advantage at a later date if Mrs. Unfriendly decided to make good on her threats.
Our Christmas present that year was a “cease and desist” letter from a new attorney the Unfriendlys had hired. Since it was winter, there was no work happening anyway. Our attorney told us we “absolutely had a right” to our easement and to improving the road, and responded similarly to the Unfriendly’s new attorney.
Throughout the spring, our attorney continued to talk with the Unfriendly’s attorney. The Unfriendly’s attorney admitted to ours that our easement was valid but continued to relay false claims from the Unfriendlys about the scope and use of the road.
Later that year, the Unfriendly’s attorney suggested mediation. As we understood their offer, the results would not have been legally binding and the Unfriendlys would be allowed to select the mediator. Because it would have cost us several thousand dollars to go through the process, and because we would not have been able to hold the Unfriendlys to any agreement reached, we declined. (After all, Junior had already agreed once to our road improvement plan then reneged.) But, we volunteered to sit down with the Unfriendlys and work out a solution. We suggested that we would be willing to talk about the ownership of their mineral rights as part of the solution. They declined our offer.
In the summer of 2008, as we planned our annual trek to the mountain, Jack offered us accommodations in his sister’s cabin. As the kids grew older, they had gotten increasingly bored with campfires as entertainment. Plus, I had arranged to be off work for two weeks and Mr. Mom planned to spend his days driving Jack’s dump truck and helping Jack and Bob on the road. Staying in the cabin would give the kids and me easy access to both the swimming hole and the highway (thus, Pueblo) if we got bored.
Despite the lure of shopping and dining opportunities in Pueblo, I spent a couple of days on the mountain watching Mr. Mom and Jack and Bob work. Jack drove a loader and Mr. Mom drove a dump truck and Bob drove a bulldozer. Together, they moved and spread some 800 tons of decomposed limestone (dirt to us laymen) to improve the road. Jack used his loader to dig the limestone from the side of our mountain and drop it in the dump truck. After Mr. Mom dropped a load of dirt, Bob moved in with the bulldozer to smooth things out. It was a fascinating process to watch, especially for girl who never once considered how roads got made. Because the road was too narrow for the dump truck to turn around, Mr. Mom spent most of the week looking over his shoulder and backing down the road with his loads of dirt. I rode with him once and found the whole thing harrowing, given much of the road has sheer cliffs on one side.
Earlier, during a long hike in our canyon, we had discovered a giant mound of decomposed granite (gravel to us laymen), which would provide a ready top layer for the final improvements to our road. Mr. Mom and Jack would have to cut in a new road on our property to access nature’s stash, but it seemed like a good tradeoff for free gravel. So far, except for time and labor – which on Jack’s end was extensive but free – our mountain provided its own resources to improve the road. We shared the gas expense with Jack, which for heavy equipment is not inconsequential, and attorney’s fees, which at this point were still modest.
Now that Jack had a rough road to the top of his property, he set up a small camper and he and his wife, Mindy, spent weekends there while Jack worked on the road. Better yet, Jack had built an outhouse – a very nice outhouse by outdoor privy standards – and he invited us to use it whenever we needed. It was a five-minute drive up the road from our favorite meadow and I found myself spoiled by the convenience. I bugged Mr. Mom to build us one and to make sure it was as free of spiders and odors as Jack’s.
During our trip to the mountain that year, conversations between the Unfriendly’s attorney and ours continued. Their attorney repeatedly relayed claims we knew were false, so our attorney decided to drive the road for himself. (The road had been improved enough at this point that his two-wheel drive vehicle handled the road just fine.) Afterwards, our attorney told us he was “outraged” by the Unfriendly’s false claims. He told the Unfriendly’s attorney what he had seen with his own eyes and advised him to restrain his clients from harassing us.
Jack told Mr. Mom he had bought a sawmill and was thinking of setting it up on his mountain property. The two of them talked about how they could use it to build their cabins. We seemed to be getting closer and closer to our dream. Mr. Mom thought he might be able to start building the very next summer. As our 2008 summer vacation on the mountain came to a close, Mr. Mom and I reflected on what a blessing Jack’s friendship had been and how – though it had been slow going over the previous four years – we never could have managed to restore the road without him.
Even though we avoided seeing Mrs. Unfriendly on our vacation that year, Jack continued to have the occasional encounter with her and she was nasty every time. One day while he was working, she told him she planned to put a stop to the road improvements. Jack reminded her we were just proceeding according to our agreement with Junior. “Those verbal agreements don’t mean anything in a court of law,” she retorted. Jack was stunned, and more than a little fed up. “Oh, I see,” he said, “so you intend to lie about it?” She stated again that verbal agreements were meaningless, then added “These Pueblo attorneys won’t do anything, so by God I’m going to Denver to get me an attorney who’ll do something about it!”
To be continued . . .