My years in exile afforded me the opportunity to meet a wide variety of interesting and unusual characters. I became a junkie to the parade of personality rolling through the paradise of “My front yard”. One of the strangest cats I came across showed up on the eighteenth of July.
I awoke that day to the sound of my most recent crop of neighbors packing up and heading out. By ten o'clock they were all gone. It was the first time I had Bear Canyon to myself and I was looking forward to the solitude.
I walked around the general camping area above the lake, pulling lengths of rope out of the trees and bagging up other people's garbage to leave for the Toilet Rangers. Among the debris, I found a Leathernan tool on a rock by a fire pit and a canvas chair that was in need of repair. One of the plastic fittings had broken and the owners just abandoned it. In the next few years I would be surprised at the amount of gear and garbage that folks abandon or discard when they leave.
I once chased a caravan of church people a quarter mile and made them return and clean up their campsite. It was one of those hip congregations that targets young people. The leader of this particular cult played stupid with me, claiming he thought it was okay to leave their paper plates, coke cans, and chicken bones everywhere. He said he thought people worked on site picking up after campers.
The chair was a boon though, and I was happy to finally justify the heavy roll of bailing wire in my pack by wiring the chair together. Back at camp, and proud of my ingenuity, I sat in comfort for the first time in months. With the Maya dog at my feet, I reclined upon my new throne. I surveyed my kingdom.
Surveying one's kingdom gives pause for much introspection, so I retrieved my clipboard from my bag and documented the recent events leading up to my current position. As I was writing these few paragraphs, I heard the rumble of an approaching truck. It turned out to be two vehicles, a new Nissan Xterra and an old Dodge van. The Xterra pulled in about twenty five feet to the north of me. The van parked about a hundred yards to the south. Surrounded. So much for solitude.
The Xterra guy was a GenX-er. He was maybe 21 and wore shoulder length blond hair and surf shorts. He wasn't there long before he walked over to my camp and introduced himself as Jason. He was on a day trip, sightseeing on the Rim and he had forgotten to bring a can opener. I offered him the use of my new Leatherman and he returned to his truck and prepared his lunch on a propane stove. After eating, he invited me to join him for a couple of beers.
Jason was curious about me, as most people were. I was certainly an oddity, up here without a vehicle with just a tarp, dog, duffel, and now a chair. I told him about my original plan to hike Tonto Creek and the fires that had me cornered in this part of the forest. He looked at me appraisingly, with a glint in his eye, and produced a blue padded cloth bag from his back seat. Much to my delight, he drew a heavy glass bong from the bag.
As we smoked he questioned me about my journey. I told him the worst thing was that I didn't have a stove and there was a fire ban in effect that I was too paranoid to violate. Tired of eating raw trout, I offered to trade the Leatherman for whatever spare food he may be carrying. It took some negotiating on m y part, but I managed to end up with a few pounds of dog food, two beers, a hunk of colby cheese, and a can of beanie weenies. It was like Thanksgiving dinner to me. Before he left, we had a laugh at the guy in the Dodge. He'd parked right behind the shitter.
It was a full sized conversion van and it had come to a stop and that was it. Nobody stirred. I kept an eye on the thing late into the night, but there was no activity at all. I found this strange, but easily explained it by convincing myself that the driver had been on the road a long time and had sacked out upon arrival. The next day there was still no movement from the Dodge. By nightfall I concluded the occupants must have assembled their gear while I slept and hiked further into the forest.
After two weeks there was still no sign of life from the vehicle. I remembered the news stories I had heard about Robert Fisher, who had murdered his family and disappeared near the Rim. Having opened the door to thoughts of morbidity, I began to concoct scenarios of violence and serial cannibalism.
My sense of civic duty called for me to investigate or alert the rangers to a possible missing person or mouldering corpse. I wrestled with this dilemma for days. Then again, I thought, maybe this dude wasn't a bad guy. Maybe, like myself, he just needed to get out of town and lay low for a while. Rather than draw attention to myself, I chose a course of immediate inaction.
Meanwhile, on the weekends, campers came and went. Most of the time I was alone with the mystery van. By the eighteenth of August, I was beside myself with curiosity and fear. I caught myself testing the air for the odor of death.
I was writing how the van had been there for a month to the day when Jason rolled back into camp. I barely gave him a chance to get out of the SUV before I sprung the story of how the damned thing had been there all this time and nobody came or went. He said, “They must get out to go to the shitter, you must just be missing them”. I told him that wasn't likely, during the fire ban I would often forgo the unpleasant raw trout, instead subsisting on salads I scavenged within sight of the area. I spent entire days without ever leaving camp: foraging for greens, writing in my journals, and tending to housekeeping chores.
Jason removed a couple of chairs and a cooler from his Nissan. As he loaded that magnificent bong, he said we should just walk up and bang on the door and demand that anybody inside the van come out and explain themselves. I thought him naïve and that line of action a bit dangerous. I recounted the news stories about Fisher and elucidated with the scenarios of violence and serial cannibalism I had cooked up. Jason asked the obvious question: “What kind of person would come to such a beautiful spot and not get out of their vehicle for a whole month?”
“Somebody who goes to extremes not to be bothered, that's who”.
“There could be a dead guy” Jason exhorted, 'We have to check it out”.
After several drinks and bong rips to muster up our courage, we devised a plan. We would act like we were going to the shitter and swing wide in a broad arc that would carry us close to the van for a better look. As we neared the driver's door, it suddenly sprang open and the mysterious occupant leaped out like a demented Jack-in-the-Box.
At first glance, I thought he was just a kid, maybe kidnapped and his attacker was lurking nearby. He was small and thin, maybe five foot five. He couldn't have weighed more than a hundred and ten pounds. He wore a polyester leisure suit and had his name tattooed on the knuckles of his right hand. With his slight stature, baby face, and sparse mustache, only his thinning hair betrayed his adulthood. “Do you guys know anybody who could give me a ride to Payson and back? I have a hole in my radiator”.
I was incredulous. “You're telling me,” I said, “That you've been here and haven't gotten out of your van for a month because you have a hole in your radiator?”
“I just ran out of food and pot” he said. By now I was nearly raving. “What?” I ranted, “You've been here for a month and had food and pot? Why didn't you say anything?”
Apparently I wasn't the only one keeping an eye out for Robert Fisher. The kid told me he thought I might be him, or I might be a Ranger. I wore all green, slept on a green canvas tarp, and began and ended everyday writing on a clipboard. He'd seen a uniformed ranger in camp one day and noticed him writing on a clipboard like mine. Even though I laughed with him at our mutual paranoia, things didn't quite add up to my satisfaction. I asked to see his radiator and it was indeed damaged. I figured maybe he was too. I didn't recognize the degree of his pathology, but soon would.
We found several people willing to give him a ride to Payson, but none willing to haul him back. In spite of my assurances that a fellow walking in the mountains with a radiator will get a ride, he refused to try. He was fearful he wouldn't be able to get back. Fear was a big thing in this little dude's life. He was afraid to leave and afraid to stay. He had no business in the forest. I worried he would bring heat if not handled right.
He was traveling under the ironic moniker of Jefferson Shattsworth. I asked for ID which he provided. Having already contemplated the scatological humor of his name, I lost it when he walked into my camp the next morning and informed me he was an avid collector of animal excrement. What's more, he claimed to find a prize specimen of bear dung right outside his van. I was skeptical. I had seen no sign of bear nearer than three or four miles. Jeff proudly produced a sandwich baggie with his trophy inside. It was from Maya. The erstwhile Marlin Perkins had mistaken it for bear droppings because of the squirrel fur and fish bones. I nearly fell out of my chair laughing. He could not be persuaded that what he had was a sack of dog shit.
Shattsworth spent the morning hanging around my camp and whining about his food supply and radiator. He kept mumbling “I'm going to die”. I couldn't make up my mind if he was serious or begging or looking for sympathy. Some people wig out when they get too far from their comfort system. I asked him what kind of gear he was carrying. They guy had fishing gear and a camp stove. All he was lacking was know how and confidence.
I took him to my favorite spot and taught him everything I had learned about trout fishing at Bear Canyon Lake. I was stymied that even though he appeared to be doing everything exactly as I did, in two hours he hadn't got a nibble, while I had caught my limit of six nice trout. I'd seen this kind of thing before, and I swear, some people just can't catch a fish. While I was hauling one after another in to shore, he just sat there looking dejected. I suppose when it comes to angling, like everything else in life, attitude is important. You gotta believe.
I tried to explain this as I cleaned the fish. On the hike back to camp I told him my favorite story to illustrate my point.
In 1992, I was on an extended camping trip in the Colorado Rockies for the Rainbow Gathering with my ex wife. We had hiked the five miles from our camp to our car at Electric Mountain Reservoir to retrieve supplies. It was a tough hike. Being at about 9,000 feet elevation, the air was thin. About halfway to our camp, was a fallen tree where we liked to rest in the sun and have a smoke.
We hadn't been there long enough for me to finish rolling a joint when we were interrupted by a fellow in his twenties who asked if he could join us for a rest. He told us he'd read in the local paper that the hippies were out there eating al the groundhogs and crapping behind every tree. He introduced himself as Bill, a Evangelical seminary student. He had come to save the heathens. I suppressed a smile and concealed the reefer.
He said “How long have you been here?” I told him about 45 days and his eyes got real big. “What?” he responded, “How much longer do you plan to stay?” Tory told him we might stay another month. Again his eyes grew wide and he said “What!? Don't you work?”
I told him “Certainly I work, but its important for us to be here. If my boss didn't let me off, I'd just find another job”. This really blew his programming and he asked “How do you live? How do you eat?” He began to breathe hard and stood up, clutching his Bible to his chest.
I think this was the moment where he realized that despite our clean cut appearance and collared shirts, we were probably some of the heathens he was there to save. I saw an excellent opportunity to speak to the guy in his own language, put him at ease, and maybe even make a friend AND a point.
I asked him if I could see his bible a minute. He handed it over and I stood up and turned to Luke and read: “Therefore I say unto you. Take no thought for your life, what ye shall eat...Consider the ravens: for they neither sow nor reap and God feedeth them. The least of God's creatures are taken care of: how much more are ye better than them?”
Then, at 9,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains, high atop the continental divide, we were distracted by a rustling sound on the hill above us on the opposite side of the trail. We all turned and saw the weeds and grasses moving as something made it's way down the hill toward us. It broke through the brush on the edge of the path, crossed the trail, and stopped right between my feet. It was a grapefruit.
We just stared for a long silent minute. Bill the evangelist was pale. Finally, Tory picked it up and held it out to him. “You see that?” she said. “That's Magic”.
Well, you don't say “Magic” to an evangelist. He stumbled backward a few steps, promised to pray for us, declined our invitation to dinner, turned, and we never saw him again.
I like to think that someday, eventually, it dawned on him and he got the message. I'm not saying God manifested a piece of fruit and rolled it at me or anything. Obviously, some hippie on a higher trail had lost his grapefruit and it followed the designs of gravity. But when I think of everything that had to be in line for that particular event at that particular time, I have to believe the Universe was in agreement with my message.
W As Jeff and I rounded the hill to my camp, we noticed two grocery sacks sitting beside my chair. I was beaming with the satisfaction of a point well delivered. A grapefruit wouldn't have been better. Jeff turned to me and for the first of many times asked “What's your scam?”
Evangelists aren't the only ones afraid of Magic.