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 May 2011, Mr. Mom and I were living apart – me in our new place, establishing myself in a great new job with a new employer, and he in our old place, packing up our household and finishing his last season as a tennis coach in our hometown of “Mayberry.” We had recently learned the outcome of the lawsuit against us by our Colorado neighbors. The Unfriendlys had sued us for trespass and sought damages exceeding a million dollars, while we claimed we had a valid easement and a right to access the road we had spent years improving. After five years of legal fighting, the whole thing had ended – by a judge’s ruling – in a draw. The Unfriendlys were awarded $1, and we were left landlocked and without an easement to our property. Forgive me if I sound forevermore jaded in my opinions about the legal system. But to me, the truth was the lawyers had gotten rich, while neither the plaintiffs nor the defendants were happy with the outcome of the case. Somebody had been fools in this equation and I didn’t think it was the folks with law degrees.
Though I had been pouring myself into my new job for two months, working nights and weekends both as a distraction and to establish myself with a new employer, I decided to take a weekend off and go home to Mayberry. Even with a new job, my weekends had gotten very long and lonely in our empty new house. I missed Mr. Mom. I missed the kids. I missed my old house, so I decided to “go home” one last time before my family joined me in our new town.
Mr. Mom and I spent much of the weekend discussing the case. I had a million questions that I hadn’t had the time or patience to ask over the phone. It was nice to be in the comfort of our old home with Mr. Mom’s full attention and the time to talk at length about everything that had happened since we’d been apart.
After the ruling two weeks earlier, our attorney, Atticus Finch, referred us to a man he said was an expert condemnation attorney in Colorado. Matthew O’Malley had been handling these kinds of matters for decades, Atticus said, and could help us gain access to our road. Mr. Mom had talked at length with O’Malley about the particulars of our case and now believed a condemnation proceeding was the way to go. Mr. Mom had talked to Mother and she agreed we should give it a try. Jack had bowed out, saying the dispute with the Unfriendlys had cost him more money than he’d ever imagined and he was done. Jack had resigned himself to owning a piece a property he could only hike to.
I felt a lot like Jack. I couldn’t imagine that after all the money our family had spent on legal fees over the last five years, we were going to spend more to continue the dispute. I wanted to quit. I wanted to walk away. Sure Mother’s land (property that we would inherit) was practically worthless without a road to access it, but so what? I felt like life was too short to spend so much of it arguing in court. Mr. Mom – who had always considered the mountain his birthright – couldn’t imagine giving up. Yes, he conceded, the last five years had been expensive and frustrating. But now we had a clear legal path to gaining access. We just had to hang in there a little longer. We can’t possibly roll over and let the Unfriendlys deprive us of our land, he argued.
In the end, I decided it was up to Mr. Mom and his mother. If they wanted to keep going in their battle to gain access to their property, I wouldn’t dig in my heels or make the process miserable for them. I told Mr. Mom I would sign on, then I silently hoped for the best.
After coming to a conclusion about the road with Mr. Mom, I spent Sunday doing laundry. Since Mr. Mom and the kids hadn’t moved yet, I’d been living in our new place without a washer and dryer. I despised the Laundromat, so I had brought home three baskets of dirty clothes and linens. I had forgotten that one convenience of the Laundromat is doing four or five loads at once, and it seemed to be taking forever to finish up my enormous chore one load at a time. I had hoped to leave Mayberry by noon, but it was after 3:00 pm when I finally loaded up my car and pulled out of the driveway.
About a half hour into my nearly five-hour drive, I noticed the sky had turned dark and the wind was really whipping the trees. “Typical May weather for Oklahoma,” I thought. Unlike some folks, I had always found the prospect of tornadoes a little bit exciting. The truth is, when you grow up in Oklahoma, threatening weather is a routine event. I had weathered my share of bad storms, including once taking shelter in a mobile home that was momentarily lifted off its foundation just as I stepped inside the front door. It took far more than a dark sky to scare me.
But a half-hour later, the sky had grown so dark it looked more like 10:00 pm than 4:00 pm. It had been raining hard – so hard I had slowed down to a crawl. I was on what was usually a very busy Interstate when I gradually realized something was up. I called Mr. Mom on my cell phone. “I’m wondering if I should be nervous,” I said laughingly when he answered. “I just realized I’m the only person driving on the Interstate and the weather is pretty bad. The only other vehichle I’ve seen in miles was a news truck filming the sky. Are you watching the weather?”
Mr. Mom turned on the television and told me there were indeed severe storms in my area, but that it looked like they were moving south of the Interstate and I should be okay. Since hanging out on the shoulder of a deserted highway in the middle of a rural area of Oklahoma didn’t seem all that attractive as options go, I decided to keep driving. I was in the middle of a pretty nasty storm, but I kept telling myself I had seen worse.
By the time I reached the outskirts of Joplin, MO, a few minutes later, I was spooked. The sky was green and I’d been in enough storms to know that was a bad sign. I decided to pull off the Interstate at one of Joplin’s busiest thoroughfares, Range Line Road, so I could check the weather on my phone and call Mr. Mom again. I figured if things were really bad or likely to get that way, I could always rent a hotel room and spend the night in Joplin rather than drive through the storms.
As I pulled off the Interstate, I realized something wasn’t right. The streets were nearly deserted and the traffic signals weren’t working. The power was out in the commercial strip of restaurants and hotels that lined Range Line Road. I pulled over immediately at a Hampton Inn, thinking I might need to get a room. The lobby was in chaos. Panicked-looking people were congregated in small groups making frantic phone calls on their cell phones while others sat and cried. I asked a woman what was going on and she said, “A tornado just went through town. We don’t know how bad it was, but we heard Wal-Mart was blown away.”
“How long ago?” I asked.
“I don’t know, maybe 10 minutes” she replied. “It just happened.”
“How far away is Wal-Mart?” I asked.
“Not far” she answered. “A mile or two.”
I immediately called Mr. Mom. “A tornado supposedly just hit Joplin,” I said. “I don’t think it makes sense to stay here. But on the other hand, if more bad weather is headed this way, I’d rather be in a hotel without power than on the Interstate in my car.”
Mr. Mom went right to the computer to assess the weather. “I think you should keep driving,” he said. Based on the radar, I think you can outrun the storm. It’s headed south and by the time you get a few miles outside Joplin, the Interstate turns north and you’ll be driving away from the weather.”
I took his advice and started driving immediately. Not five minutes after I got back on the Interstate headed east, I saw for myself what had happened just a few minutes earlier. A huge swath of destruction was visible through the city of Joplin, Missouri. I concluded this had clearly been a major tornado. Dozens of cars and semis were overturned and lying crumpled. Trees and power poles were down or broken off at their bases like snapped toothpicks. Roofs were torn off and entire structures were missing from their foundations. Debris was everywhere. It was still raining and people were walking along the Interstate, bloodied, dazed and confused. I had never seen anything like it in all my years in Oklahoma. “Good lord,” I thought to myself. “If my last load of laundry hadn’t delayed me, I would have driven right through the middle of a hellish storm.” I gripped my steering wheel hard to stop my hands from shaking while I drove east, slowly at first because I was dodging debris and disabled vehicles strewn across the road, and then gaining speed as I got farther away from the center of the city.
What would normally have been a three-hour drive from Joplin to our new home took me less than two that evening. The Interstate remained deserted in the eastbound lanes so I drove 90 mph in my effort to outrun the storms and get home. (I later learned the Interstate had been shut down in Joplin just minutes after I left the hotel.) The westbound lanes, however, carried heavy traffic in a steady stream of fire trucks, police vehicles, ambulances, Highway Patrol cars, and National Guardsman, all headed to Joplin. By the time I got home and checked the news, I realized I had driven on the tail of an F-5 tornado and missed it by less than 15 minutes. Later that week, we were all stunned to learn the storm had killed 158 people and injured more than a thousand, becoming our nation’s costliest tornado ever.
“Holy cow,” I thought to myself, “the Law might not be on my side, but luck surely is.”
To be continued . . .