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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Once the spring thaw of 2009 arrived, the Unfriendlys removed two steel culverts (also known as tinhorns) from our road and then dug deep trenches in the road near their gate, making it impossible for Jack to cross with his equipment and to continue working on the road. We responded by restoring the culverts and filling the trenches, and Jack resumed work on the road through the spring.
However, Mr. Mom and Jack were fed up and they consulted our attorney, who said we could file a lawsuit against the Unfriendys for trespassing (because they were obstructing our rightful use of our property and impeding progress on the road). Unfortunately, our attorney said he would be unable to take the case because his firm did not handle litigation. He referred us to another firm and recommended we seek the assistance of an attorney there named Dave Moore. He said Mr. Moore was the best attorney in Pueblo to handle our situation.
The school year had just ended, so Mr. Mom made an unscheduled trip to Pueblo with Kate as his companion. He and Jack had hoped to meet with Mr. Moore during his visit, but the attorney said he could not see them for two weeks at the earliest. While he was in Pueblo, Mr. Mom also met with a forester because he had become increasingly worried about the health of our forest and the fire danger on our property. With limited access for so many years, we’d never conducted regular “stand improvements” (routine maintenance that improves the health of the best trees and removes those that are in their way). Mr. Mom enrolled our property in a forestry service program that compensates landowners for making stand improvements, and he worked out a plan with the forester to complete the work in coming years.
Also while there, Mr. Mom decided to begin constructing an outhouse. I had been so enamored with Jack’s deluxe privy, I wanted one of my own. Mr. Mom decided to build it out of felled trees – log-cabin style – which was time consuming. He and Kate managed to build about half of it before they returned home. He assured me he’d finish my privy when we came back later that summer for our family vacation. Little did we know, everything – including our summer vacation — was about to go off the rails and finishing our outhouse would be the least of our concerns.
Early in the summer of 2009, the Unfriendlys hired a Denver attorney named Dick Slick. Before Mr. Mom and Jack could meet with and hire Mr. Moore to take action against the Unfriendlys, Dick Slick filed a lawsuit against us on behalf of the Unfriendlys. Just a few days after Mr. Mom and Kate returned from Colorado, we were served papers that accused us of trespassing. We also were notified the Unfriendlys were seeking a temporary injunction to prevent us from stepping foot on the their land and continuing to improve the road.
With papers in hand, Mr. Mom and Jack pressed for an appointment with Mr. Moore, and he agreed to make time for us – though we had a sick feeling that we had been beaten to the punch and that our position was weakened. Although Mr. Mom had to meet with Mr. Moore by phone, he agreed to handle our case and assured us he would take action to prevent the injunction.
Midway through the summer of 2009, we were notified out of the blue that the injunction had been granted. We didn’t understand why or how this could be done without us at least appearing in front of a judge. When we called Mr. Moore, he said he was taking care of it. In the mean time, the injunction not only halted all work on the road but also effectively barred us and Jack from accessing our properties via the road. We were stunned to learn we had been locked out by the court. Our summer vacation was less than a month away and Mr. Moore assured us he would get the injunction lifted so we could camp on our annual trip.
On our drive to Colorado that summer, we received a phone call from Mr. Moore saying the hearing had been postponed and we wouldn’t be able to go to our property. We had so many concerns about everything that had transpired, we decided to continue on to Pueblo and spend our vacation in a hotel, which would give us time to meet with Mr. Moore and investigate matters more thoroughly.
There seemed to be a pall cast over the entire trip. We met with Mr. Moore and he answered our questions, but we still left not fully understanding how we could be denied access to our property without due process. (At least it seemed to us like due process had been missing from the string of events.) Mr. Moore continued to assure us he had things under control and the injunction would be lifted soon.
Without access to our property, our vacation was more than a little disappointing. No campfires, no hikes, no beautiful views or stunning sunsets made their way into our trip and we were bored out of our minds after just a few days in a hotel. We decided to spend some time at Jack’s house. He lived on a scenic acreage in the middle of the high prairie, well outside cell phone coverage and not far from our mountain. Visiting him gave us the opportunity to enjoy a day outdoors, which we sorely needed. As dinner time drew near, Parker kept reminding us it was his turn to pick the evening’s dinner destination, so we said our goodbye to Jack and drove away.
Ten minutes into our drive, Mr. Mom’s cell phone started buzzing with a backlog of missed calls and texts from a handful of friends, all with the same message: Call me.
Mr. Mom called the first friend on the list, but the reception was so bad he couldn’t seem to understand what Chuck was saying. “What?” he kept repeating. “I’m losing you. What?”
Then I heard him ask “Fatally?”
The phone cut out again. “What happened?” I asked urgently as Mr. Mom tried to drive and redial.
He wouldn’t talk. He couldn’t talk. “What happened?” I asked again and again as his face turned red and his eyes watered and he finally said “Give me a minute.” He kept driving, though his speed slowed considerably as if he had simply lost the strength to bear down on the accelerator. The two-lane highway was deserted, an apropos metaphor I would later conclude. I wanted him to pull over but Mr. Mom kept slowly moving forward, trying — I now understand — to reach a spot where he could finally talk uninterrupted.
He dialed Chuck again and mostly listened through this phone call, occasionally saying “I don’t believe it. I don’t understand.” He pulled over to the side of the road and put his head down. “What happened?” I asked again. He swallowed hard and without looking up told me one of his longtime friends had shot himself that morning.
It was as if I didn’t understand Mr. Mom’s words. “What?” I asked reflexively. Mr. Mom responded in a halting voice. “Matt shot himself this morning. He’s dead. Our friend Kenny found him. It wasn’t an accident.”
We sat on the side of the road trying to comprehend. Our kids were as stunned as we were and never opened their mouths. Mr. Mom tried to compose himself and kept saying, “I don’t understand. I can’t believe it.”
Mr. Mom had known Matt since he was 17. Matt stood up in our wedding and Mr. Mom stood up in his. Our first children, daughters, were born within months of each other. One blonde and one brunette, they hunted their first Easter eggs together, popped their first fireworks together, and marveled at their first circus together under the watchful gaze of two young fathers for whom life was just beginning to unfold.
Mr. Mom worked alongside him, just the two of them together, for 12 or more hours a day, 6-7 days a week, for more than 15 years. Mr. Mom burned out and said so. When Mr. Mom sold it all to him and moved on, Matt worked alone at the same relentless pace.
Mr. Mom pulled back onto the highway and drove to the edge of Pueblo, where he stopped at a Starbucks. I gave the kids some money and asked them to go inside and have a snack and to wait for me to come and get them. Mr. Mom and I sat in the truck and cried. We called other friends and family to see if anyone knew any more details than we had already learned. We talked of Matt’s wife and two daughters and tried to imagine their shock and pain. We sat in silence for a while. Finally, there seemed to be nothing else to do but leave. I went inside and got the kids. It was around 6 pm and nobody wanted to go to our hotel, so we drove to the restaurant that Parker had already chosen as our evening’s destination. We picked over our dinners in stunned silence. Then we drove to our hotel and crawled into our beds and cried some more. Mr. Mom and I decided we would drive home the very next morning to see Matt’s family.
Our summer vacation, such as it was, was over.
To be continued . . .