Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Forest Fire Part II: The Shakedown

     As I started back to camp, a white suburban with a red light bar on top rounded the corner and stopped next to me. Its sole occupant rolled down the window and asked what I was doing here. He wore a gold badge and a nametag which read "Jeremy Smith" Before I could answer he asked why I was talking to the other ranger. I explained that I was backpacking and concerned for my safety and the safety of my dog. Then ranger Smith proceeded to ask me the same questions the previous ranger had asked, only this guy wasn't friendly.
     Once he was through with me I went back to camp, made my last pot of coffee, looked over my maps, and assessed my situation. I decided to go and have a look at the lake before hitting the road. There was a trail that led to the lake from a quad track north of camp. I strapped on a machete with the hope of finding a nice piece of Oak along the way to make a bow.
     Maya and I walked maybe two hundred yards when we were overtaken by the white law enforcement truck. This time there was an older man driving. As the truck pulled along side, Jeremy Smith dove out of the passenger side and snatched the machete from my hip. "It's a tool, not a weapon" I said with my hands up.
The older man got out on his side of the truck and assured me that his partner's actions were for safety reasons only and promised that he would return the machete once I met them back at my camp for "a little friendly chat". It was the worst and most insincere good cop-bad cop routine I had ever seen.
     When we got back to my camp, Jeremy Smith immediately got out of the truck and, choosing a poker stick from my fire pit, proceeded to explore a nearby area where campers had left the woods littered with toilet paper. Smith would locate one of these "landmines" and lift the paper up with the stick, inspecting whatever was underneath. I didn't know what he was doing, but figured if he walked a little farther back and found the latrine I dug, he'd be happy.
"     What's your buddy doing over there?" I asked the older guy. It looked to me like the man was insane.
"Don't you worry about him (I thought that was funny but held my laughter), we have important matters to discuss and I would appreciate your help". Then he chose a stick of his own and began drawing in the dirt. He continued asking me questions while he created a map of the lake. Mostly he wanted to know what time of day I hiked there for water and what vehicles I saw. I retrieved my journal from the pack and related to him the approximate times and locations of anything of interest I had noted.
      He completed his map with a heavy line across the path leading to the lake. He explained that it was important that I tell him what the line represented, that he couldn't tell me unless I identified it.
"That's a big dead tree on its side", I informed him, "The trunk is maybe four feet thick". This got him all excited and he mumbled a fast "Very good, very good". Then he looked up at me and his demeanor changed. He became quite somber. "Now", he began, "I'm going to ask you a very important question and I need you to think about it before you answer. Okay"?
     "Do you have any marijuana, son"?
     This time I did laugh. I didn't have any pot and told him so. Then he told me his buddy had been through my pack, while I was out of camp, and found my marijuana among other things. At first I was puzzled, then I remembered a pouch of an herb called mullein that I used medicinally for Miss Maya. I handed it over and asked if this was what they had found. "Hey"! he yelled at his partner, "Is this what you found? This isn't marijuana"!
     "This isn't all we found. Why do you have so many packs of rolling papers? What are the baggies for? We suspect you have a large amount up here and you're selling it". Now the guy with the stick made sense. Barely. They were looking for the mother load. Jeremy Smith finally gave up and joined us as they made me unpack everything in my packs.
      Once I had emptied all but one zippered pouch on the side of my external frame pack, I remembered a baggie full of seeds I had been saving. Also in that pouch was a collection of stones and fossils I had collected. I slowly pulled each rock out and told the story of where I found it, what it was used for, how it was formed, and what tools, if any, I would use to work the stone. About eight rocks into this process the older ranger asked, “Is that all you have in that pouch; rocks”?
     “Yes”, I replied.
     “I don’t want to see any more fucking rocks”.
      By time they were done, they had confiscated two pipes, the mullein; "in case it is a controlled substance", and a fishing tool called a Magic Worm Blower. The worm blower is like a Visene bottle with a hypodermic needle on the end. It's used to inflate worms. I told them I only used the one pipe for tobacco. Smith smelled it, then returned it to me. It still had some pot in it.
After robbing me they gave me a receipt. Curious what the receipt was for, I asked if I could use it to claim my property from some office somewhere. They said if I tried, I’d be arre sted.
      “What’s the receipt for then”? I inquired. 
      “That’s to show that we didn’t steal anything from you”.
      “The way I see it, that was my stuff, now you have it, and I don’t have any choice in the matter. That sounds like you stole it to me”.
     “Look, we’re not going to arrest you or even give you a ticket for the paraphernalia”.
     “I’ll shut up”.
      As they drove away they told me to enjoy my stay in Coconino National Forest.


     I repacked my gear, smoked the rest of the pipe they returned (I still have it), and hit the trail. About three miles down the road I came across a large wooden sign which read: “IT IS ILLEGAL TO GROW MARIJUANA IN YOUR NATIONAL FOREST”. I was eager to remove the seeds from my possession, so I scattered them all around the sign. I've been there since. The sign is gone.
     The Universe chose to thrust Jeremy Smith onto my path no less than a half dozen times during my life in the Forest, although I have every reason to believe he didn't recognize me. Upon each occasion I witnessed acts and attitudes that contribute to the negative image frequently held by the public concerning the police. Our very first meeting was indicative of his ignorance and lack of sense. I always had a certain respect for Feds. They’re supposed to be smart. Jeremy didn’t have a clue. He’s like a mall cop without the mall. It's a shame that bullies have always been attracted to law enforcement. Don’t believe me? Get out your high school yearbook. Find the bullies. Now go down to the local cop shop. How many of those guys do you see on the wall? I thought so.
     I expect more from the Feds. I imagine they do too.

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