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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In the summer of 2010, my mother fell ill on July 4. By September 3, the Friday before Labor Day, she died. It was the shortest eight weeks of my life and it was the longest eight weeks of my life. Even today, I can’t recall all of it. Maybe I don’t want to recall all of it. I still don’t understand it. Well, maybe I should say I don’t understand my reaction to it. I finally understand the physiology of what happened to Mom because I read Sherwin Nuland’s “How we die.” I wish I would have read the book before she died so I could have seen it coming. Instead of spending eight weeks thinking I needed to pace myself for Mom’s extended illness and figuring out every detail of her long-term care, I could have spent eight weeks talking to her about what’s really important. Like how much I love her. And what a great mother she was.
When it was all over, I was beset by a kind of grief I have never experienced. I think I sleep-walked through most of the fall. I don’t recall much, except an overwhelming feeling of sadness and regret and disinterest in everything around me, including my job. And especially our neighbors in Colorado and their incredibly infuriating and burdensome lawsuit against us.
Unfortunately, I was forced to deal with our neighbors because 18 days after I buried my mother, I left my kids in the care of a friend so Mr. Mom and I could travel to Colorado for our long-awaited trial. I have very few recollections of that week. I know I wasn’t fully alert in the courtroom and I can’t today tell you the legal details with any precision. I have snippets of memory, but I have relied on Mr. Mom to recall most of it for me.
I do recall thinking how hard it is to sit in a courtroom for eight hours and pay attention. About an hour into each day, the attorneys and the witnesses started to sound like Charlie Brown’s teachers to my ears. Every night when Mr. Mom and I would return to our hotel room and he would begin to orally dissect every nuance of the day’s proceedings, I would say things like “Our attorney said that? Really, the judge did that? I must have missed that part.”
I also remember sitting quietly and mentally calculating the approximate cost of specific parts of the proceedings. As each hour ticked away, I would think “There goes $400 to pay our attorney.” When one of the attorneys referenced a deposition or an exhibit or called on an expert witness, I recall thinking “We just paid $4,000 for that.”
I also recall staring at the Unfriendlys. Really, I bored holes through them with cold, vacant eyes. I dissected every aspect of their demeanor, their clothing, their expensive jewelry and designer bags, their movements, their garish manicures and pedicures, their words, all the while trying to understand what motivates people to tell lies about their neighbors. I asked myself, what motivates one human to wish ill on another? What compels a family to do their utmost to do another family in? Were we a modern day Hatfields and McCoys? Nobody had shot anybody but I dare say both sides were angry. I started to think about how disputes get out of hand and the thin threads that tie most people to rational thinking in the face of frustration and duress. Needless to say, it was a dark time for me.
So what happened at the trial? A lot of people talked for hours and days on end while my mind fixated on everything except what was being said. One of my main diversions was watching the Unfriendly’s attorney, Dick Slick. I had nicknamed him Doc Hollywood because – although he lived in Denver – he had such a California air about him. He was tall and had an even taller presence because he wore expensive suits and gold jewelry. I guessed him to be not much older than me, but he had a full mane of white-gray hair that he styled into an elaborate pompadour. Despite his careful grooming and polished outward appearance, he was a bumbler. He always seemed to be a day late and a dollar short on everything. His papers were disorganized despite an expensive leather bag that he toted around. He could never seem to make a point clearly or concisely, and he came across like a giant, dandified, scatterbrained, windbag.
He had a young assistant, though, named Sven who seemed to be the exact opposite of Dick. I thought Sven was such an odd name and so I fixated on him, too. He was short and slight, he wore the same, inexpensive suit (and no tie) during every day of the trial, and his grooming was as basic as it gets. He was efficient, he was calm, and he was on the ball in every way Dick was not. Every time Dick bumbled, Sven picked up the pieces. At several points during the trial, Sven would hastily compose a hand-written note he passed to Dick, after which the wind-bag would stop talking, take a long time to read the note, then immediately reverse course or move on. I began to wonder how Dick ever got through a trial without Sven. I began to think how convenient it would be if Sven could be hit by a bus while at lunch. I daydreamed of various tragic scenarios and how court might be so much more rewarding if Sven simply failed to show up one day.
In contrast to Dick and to Sven, our attorney, Atticus Finch, was the picture of refined composure. He wore dark suits (nice but not too nice), starched white shirts, plain ties, black cowboy boots and a white straw hat (which of course he removed as soon as he entered the courtroom). His age was hard to peg because he looked fit and healthy, but I guessed him to be pushing 70. In his spare time, he was a horseman, and he looked every bit the genteel, southern gentleman. His voice was soft and he was unfailingly kind and polite. He betrayed no emotion in the courtroom and, unlike Dick, he never raised his voice, never used sarcasm, and never badgered the witnesses. He was the kind of man every girl wants as her daddy – a cool and collected and wise Atticus who could right the world’s wrongs with his superior intellect and legal skill. I hoped with every ounce of energy I could muster that he would right ours.
The basics of what transpired at trial boiled down to a few simple points. The Unfriendlys claimed:
- They never agreed to our road improvement plan.
- We never had a legal easement and, thus, had been trespassing for five years.
- The historic road never existed and we were lying when we said it did.
- We destroyed their property and their pristine forest in the process of building the road.
- Because of our destruction to their property, the bunnies no longer frolicked in their forest. (Yes, they said those words. And their despair didn’t just hinge on the bunnies. We had ruined the lives of squirrels and birds and a host of other wildlife, they said.)
- Because of our destruction of their property, they had suffered greatly. They endured illness as a result of the stress – including anger management problems and insomnia and TMJ and depression, all of which required them to be medicated and to undergo counseling.
- They endured extreme financial burdens as a result of their legal fees, and for both their health and financial burdens, they deserved compensation.
- It would take at least a million dollars to restore their land to its original state because we had removed hundreds of mature trees and the only way to replace them (because of the extreme topography and unsafe road) was to fly new ones in by helicopter and build an elaborate irrigation system to support them.
- The Unfriendlys openly acknowledged the validity of our easement to us and to our attorneys.
- They not only agreed to our road improvement plan, they participated in the design of it.
- There is no other possible route to our property due to extreme topography.
- The historic road had existed for more than 70 years and had been used freely and regularly by local citizens, including our family.
- Their property was not destroyed, but was in fact enhanced, protected from fire, and its value improved by a passable road.
- We had endured financial burdens as a result of their actions, including a loss of income by losing access to our land and being prohibited from our timbering plan, as well as excessive legal fees as a result of their frivolous legal actions.
Interestingly, it took five full days to make these few points. And during those five days, I alternated between barely concealed rage and uncontrollable laughter. Dick Slick had an interesting interrogation technique in which he turned an assertion into a question, the result of which was witnesses often didn’t understand his questions. He seemed to have trouble composing clear questions and our attorney, Atticus Finch, objected frequently, after which the judge would tell Mr. Slick to rephrase his question. During one particularly convoluted line of questioning about the state of the road, he appeared to be denigrating the quality of our work and the resulting safety of the road. He had a “road expert” testify the road was too steep and therefore could only be traversed at a speed of less than five miles an hour. When Mr. Mom was on the stand, Dick questioned him about how fast he could drive on the road. Mr. Mom said it depended on the section – some parts required a relatively slow speed, say 10 mph, and some parts could easily be driven at speeds greater than 25 or 30 mph.
Dick said “Would it surprise you to learn that our road expert drove the road and could only go 5 mph?” Mr. Mom sat quietly for a moment, truly not sure what the attorney was asking. To be safe, he asked Mr. Slick to restate the question. Mr. Slick was annoyed and restated the question by speaking very slowly and loudly and emphasizing the surprise part. (“I . . . SAID . . . WOULD IT . . . SURPRISE YOU . . . TO LEARN . . .”) At this point our attorney objected and as the judge was sustaining his objection, Mr. Mom wrinkled his forehead and blurted out “Are you asking me how surprised I am?”
The courtroom erupted into laughter, and I was the loudest. And then – I think due to stress – I got a case of the nervous giggles and I continued to guffaw after everybody had quieted down. I knew I was acting inappropriately and not helping our case at all, but it was either uncontrollable laughing or uncontrollable sobbing. I put my head down and hugged myself and continued to laugh quietly for several minutes.
After five mind-numbing days of testimony, the trial concluded and we drove home to await the judge’s verdict. There would be absolutely nothing else regarding the case to ever laugh at again.
To be continued . . .