I had my first disappointment on my seventh day in the forest when an armed paranoiac came into my camp with an unleashed pit-bull making threats on my life. He was the second person I had contact with since I arrived. I hoped that I had left people like that behind in the city, but I've learned that in any group, you will find the same elements that comprise the greater populace. As unfortunate as it is, you'll have that.
The day started out according to my plans. I was growing used to the altitude and pace of the trees and awoke with the rising sun. We rolled out of the tarps, dismantled the camp, and moved to a spot I had previously scouted that was even more off the beaten path. Friday was here and I didn't want to be seen. Last weekend my spot was beyond all other campers, but I knew I couldn't count on that being the case again. Considering travel time and work schedules, we probably had several hours before the weekend warriors converged on our paradise.
Just south of onion camp was a quad trail that ran up a hill to the west and then turned north. It looked like it might be rarely used. Leaving the path at the bend and instead traveling southwest a few hundred feet, was a small copse of trees. The towering pines obscured all but the forest itself. It seemed as if we were miles from any sign that people had ever been there. Scratching Maya behind the ears, I surveyed our new home and said “Look at our front yard!”
I was able to set up there and be virtually invisible to anybody unless they blundered upon us. The curvature of the trail and proximity of the hill would naturally draw the eye of any quad riders away from our direction. There was a huge old Ponderosa at the turn that worked to our advantage. Our slightly elevated position afforded me a 360 degree view of any encroaching parties while seated. Instead of hanging the rope, we would sleep on one tarp and cover ourselves with the other, maintaining a low profile.
Our second objective of the day was to hit the lake. I'd been washing myself out of two liter bottles for a week and could stand a good dunking, no matter how cold. I also wanted to try some fishing while we still had groceries so we didn't have any surprises later that would adversely affect our diet. Maya did excellently on the hike, frequently running ahead and doing wide circles around me as I walked, which had been her method since she was a pup. The Maya dog had always been an excellent scout.
The trees at Potato lake sit back quite a ways from the water. If you have a pole in your hand there is no hiding the fact. Fish cops can see you long before you see them. Its not a good position to be in if you are a fugitive and lack the proper permits. Understanding this, I carried fishing line and hooks in my day pack and left the poles back at camp.
I dug around a bit with my machete, looking for earthworms, but found none. Turning over rocks only produced Roly-polys, so I caught a grasshopper and put him on the hook. I tied a small piece of stick about eighteen inches up for float-able weight and heaved it about thirty feet out into the water. Maya and I played fetch for a bit while I kept an eye on the 'hopper. Nothing.
I secured the line with a rock, and we explored the circumference of the lake, turning over the occasional stone and keeping my eyes opened for crawdads. No luck there as well. There was no sign of anybody ever fishing this lake. No tangled line, empty worm buckets, errant bobbers, or any of the evidence that is usually present wherever people fish. Come to think of it, there was nothing in the many signs posted at the entrance about fish at all. Surely the government would leave some kind of prohibitive messages if this were a place folks fished.
Some days later, I asked a ranger and he told me there are no fish in Potato Lake. The minnows are there to keep down the algae. Its primarily maintained as a watering hole for the numerous elk and other wildlife in the area. In fact, there wasn't a three foot area around the banks that didn't show elk track. There were no bear prints, but there were signs of assorted small mammals and birds. No rabbit. I had yet to see a rabbit on the rim.
On the side of the lake opposite my line, I stripped down, waded in to my waist and submerged myself. When I came up, I was unable to suppress the need to yell from the icy water. Maya, who had been wading around the edge, immediately swam out to join the fun. It wasn't that much fun for me. Shivering, I climbed out and soaped myself down with bio-compatables and returned for a hasty rinse. I noticed people at the trail-head a hundred yards or so away, coming my direction, so I scrambled out and began dressing. They turned around and went back the way they came. I felt bad that my nudity, even from a distance, had such a deleterious effect on the local populace.
So far, I wasn't doing a very good job of being inconspicuous.
Exhilarated by my chilling dip, and seeing how well Maya was faring, we packed up the fishing line and did a bit of exploring on our way back to our new camp. There was a meadow we passed with a small dry stream bed running through it and we followed it for a mile or so until it disappeared entirely. There were one or two brackish puddles in low spots. The only wildlife we saw were squirrels and ravens. We were cutting back overland to avoid the rough cinders and stumbled upon a granite memorial marker, out of sight of any trail or road, saying somebody died there. There were three loose keys and twenty nine cents in change on the marker in addition to a 410 gauge shotgun shell. I added a piece of turquoise.
That marker could be just about anywhere. I went looking for it a few years back on a quad and couldn't find it. I've always wondered what that mystery guy died of. I guessed it was a heart attack, hunting mishap, or quad accident.
It was probably about three in the afternoon when we turned up off of FR147 toward home. There was a green Chevy parked at the corner of FR147 towing a travel trailer. There was one older gentleman in a lawn chair by the door of the trailer. He waved and yelled a friendly hello which I returned. He waved us over and introduced himself as Pete. He said he was retired from the telephone company and came up there every weekend “until September, when it gets too cold”. He pulled out another chair and offered me a delicious cold beer. He was alone, but had friends coming to meet him later. I learned later that people in the forest alone almost always say that, whether it's true or not. We chatted for a while and he told stories about the rim and the wildlife he'd seen there. “There's a few black bears” he told me, “but they're hard to see, they don't go anywhere near people usually.” That's kind of a bummer.
I thanked him and we continued on our way. We crested the rise just before the quad track back to camp and noticed a powder blue Ford station wagon parked at the bottom of our quad track. There was a tent pitched across our trail and a pit-bull chained to the bumper of the car. Between the car and the tent was a playpen and a woman bending over a toddler. A little wiry fella with a shaved head and no shirt was staring at us hard over the playpen.
I waved and hollered a friendly hello and turned to approach his camp. He was, after all, camped on a trail-head. It was our trail-head, and I didn't think he had the right to block it. He came quickly from around the playpen, along the way calling to his dog Sweet to do something in German. He yelled for us to keep moving and then asked our business there. I thought this was an odd, if not contradictory bit of business. He seemed to be looking for trouble, so I called out that we were just hiking through and then we continued past until we were out of sight at our original camp. We stopped there to see if he was following. He wasn't.
We continued up and over the hill to the place where I saw the bear tracks and turned left there. We continued on for a couple of hundred yards and turned left again, eventually approaching our new camp from the opposite side of the hill. He was there waiting for us, facing away. We got pretty close before he saw us and turned. He had an automatic pistol in his waistband. The dog was unleashed at his side, so I took the leash from my shoulders and hooked Maya up so she wouldn't charge. “For a guy who doesn't want anybody near his camp, you sure are making yourself at home in mine”, I said.
“What are you doing here? Where's your vehicle? I've never seen anybody camped so far back in these hills. Are you hiding from the law?” Ok, now I was getting a bit jumpy myself. “I'm BACKPACKING”, I told him. “A friend dropped me off yesterday. What business is it of yours?”
“If your dog comes near me I'll shoot it” he replied, noticing her low growl and raised hackles. “Were you in my camp earlier? I followed your bootprints. They're everywhere. You couldn't have made all those prints in one day”. (Stupid rookie mistake! Jeez, I'm an idiot!). I told him my tennis shoe tracks are probably every where too, and invited him to go over and check out the tread pattern on them.
He ignored my offer and went on to tell me he had a wife and kid and came to tell me he didn't want any trouble. Then he threatened to shoot me if I came near his wife or baby. I told him he sure didn't act like somebody who didn't want any trouble, he acted as if he were looking for trouble or he had something to hide. I asked if he had made similar threats to the guy in the green Chevy with the RV trailer camped below him.
“I have a gun!”, he said again, turned, and walked away. “Who doesn't?” I called after him. He looked back once, possibly to make sure I wasn't taking aim, and then he was out of sight. I calmed Maya, took her leash off, and sat down on the tarp. I was shook. I'd only been here a week and already somebody called me a fugitive and threatened to shoot me. I really hoped this wasn't what my trip was going to be like. I could get that kind of action in the city, and recently had. I was getting real sick of idiots with guns. I smoked a bowl to calm down.
Some people just don't do well outside their environment; their comfort zone. I reckon that was this guys problem. That or maybe he was cooking meth. I'm sure glad his dog was friendlier and better trained than he was. I was still a little scared, loose cannon and all. Since our cover was blown, I moved back to onion camp so we were in a more accessible location to the road and maybe safer that way. It would also allow me to see the top of the quad trail in case that guy sent the law up to check me out.
I fed Maya and had a can of sardines and crackers for dinner, followed by a can of peaches for dessert. Canned peaches kick ass in the woods. I got to thinking, maybe I ought to let Pete know about this guy and his threats, just in case anything happened to me. I put Maya on her lead and started in that direction, but when I got to the asshole's camp he was gone. Packed up and left. Weird. We went back home to onion camp. No need to bother Pete.
Back at camp I smoked some resin mixed with shake and ate another can of peaches. Well satisfied, I smoked a cigarette of Mullein and considered the events of the day. More than jerks with guns and chips on their shoulders, I was worried for the lack of fish. This meant I'd have to move on when the supplies got light, probably within the week.
Knowing that guy was gone, I could afford to be more angry than frightened. The whole thing reminded me of the night before I left Phoenix.
It was about midnight, and I had everything packed and ready to go in the living room. I was about to try and get some sleep. Jim and his wife were house sitting at his parents place, so I had the place to myself. I realized I was out of coffee, so I dressed and started out to walk to Walmart. I was barely out of the driveway when I noticed a stereotype walking down the street toward me.
He was a Mexican kid, with one of those pantyhose looking hairnets and a white dress shirt only buttoned at the collar. He was wearing dress slacks and cowboy boots with silver at the toe. He stared at me and I pretended not to see him. He walked right up to me with a menacing look that I pretended not to notice and I gave him a great big smiling “Hello!”
At this point he was close enough in my face to smell his breath. Looking me square in the eye, he asked me if I wanted to get smoked and pulled back his shirt to show me a pistol in his waistband. I'd never been asked a question like that out of the blue before, and was at an immediate loss for what to say. With a personality like his, simply saying “No” was probably playing right into his hand. Watching Woody Harrelson in “White Men Can't Jump” taught me that exaggerating my natural talent as a goofy rube from Indiana was a handy way to get out of sticky situations sometimes. I replied with the most transparent stall tactic ever. “What?”
Then it came to me. “Do I want to get some smoke? Hell yeah I want to get some smoke. Hang on, let me go in the house and get some money.” I thought that if he thought I was stupid enough to go in the house and get some money, I could get inside without getting shot, as he might think he could rob me instead of just shooting me. It actually worked and I made it into the house.
I was alone and didn't have a phone. I thought he might come through the door any minute and this time the gun might be out of his pants. Still needing a sack of coffee (and maybe a rhubarb pie), I loaded my .32 and went back out with the revolver in my hand. He seemed to be gone. I walked maybe three blocks before I felt comfortable enough to pocket the piece.
As luck would have it, there was a cop in the parking lot of the Taco Bell in front of the Walmart. I walked up to his window and he didn't seem to notice me. All his attention was on his bean burrito. I knocked on the window, startling him, and he rolled it down.
“Hey man, I'm glad you're here!” I blurted at him. “Some Mexican kid with the pantyhose on his head and a white dress shirt just showed me a pistol and asked if I wanted to get smoked. He went north on seventy third about five minutes ago!”
“What are you doing out this time of night?” he asked. I told him I was going to Walmart and he suggested I go do my shopping and when he was through with his lunch he'd meet me out front to take a report. “What?”
“Go do your shopping, and after I eat, I'll come talk to you.”
I couldn't believe it. I told him never mind. I thought he'd want to catch some kid walking around the neighborhood offering to smoke people. I walked away more pissed at the cop than at the kid. I memorized the patrol car number and called 911 from the Walmart. I told them the whole story and they offered to send a car out in an hour or two to take a report about the kid with the gun. “Screw the kid with the gun", I said. "He's going to be long gone. I want to report the cop.” “Okay, the dispatcher said. Give me your name and address”. Screw that.
Remembering I had the .32, I hung up the phone, bought my sack of beans and a rhubarb pie and went home, avoiding the Taco Bell. I was going to be so glad to get to the forest and leave the stinking city and people like that behind.