Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas on Big Cat Mountain.

      Christmas of 1993 found me living as Robert Weaver with my wife Laura in a travel trailer behind the South Forty restaurant at the base of Big Cat Mountain. We were Rob and Laura, a nod to The Dick Van Dyke Show. We had a potted barrel cactus, about three feet high, that we brought in and decorated for the holidays that year. Living there was a major coup for me. Lucky Tailor and I explored that mountain on our first trip to the Southwest. I tracked literary icon Joe Cordoba (Jose Luis Cordoba, also working under an alias) to that restaurant. I thought it quite fortuitous that we lived and worked there.
      Lagartija's mother told me about the legend of Big Cat Mountain, also known as Cerro del Gato, many years before on that first smuggling trip. I have heard different versions of the story since. The Arizona Star ran an article a few years ago and muddied the waters with a feature writer's blend of various legends purported to tell the story of El Gato. I prefer Senora Lagartija's tale, and will relate it as such.
      In the late 1800's, the Butterfield Stage passed through the gap between Big Cat Mountain and Little Cat Mountain. There was a bandit there who would hide and wait and rob the stagecoach, which frequently hauled gold from California or payroll for the mines. No matter how prepared they were for the attack, the bandito would appear suddenly and then disappear into the mountain, defying chase. They say he was like a cat the way he moved on the rocks, and called him El Gato. In Spanish they called it “The Hill of the Cat” Cerro del Gato. Eventually, El Gato (or some say El Tejano) was killed. But his stash of stolen loot was never found. It is said he hid it in a cave at Cat Mountain.
      I've spent thousands of hours exploring that mountain and found much more than I ever looked for. I only found one cave, and I am probably lucky to have survived it.
      A couple of weeks before Christmas, I was following a wash at the base of the north side of the mountain that had previously led me to water at an old stone cattle tank. I hoped to see Javelina there, and track their game trails to see where they would take me. Once in the wash, below desert level, I stopped for water and smoked a joint and ate a Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pie. I continued on, and at some point realized I wasn't in familiar territory.
      The walls of the arroyo closed in. I remembered it as being quite wide, but before long, the wash was barely ten feet across. The dirt walls were maybe ten feet high. Somehow, with the buzz, I had taken an unnoticed fork into the foothills. I am always curious about what is around the next corner, particularly when hiking washes. So regardless of knowing I was lost, I continued around the next corner, then the next.
      At one point, I had just made a ninety degree turn to the left and again about ten feet was a ninety degree turn to the right. About eye level, directly ahead in the dirt wall, was the mall entrance to a cave or dark declivity. It was about a foot and a half high in the middle and stretched to tapered ends maybe ten inches high. It was about three feet long. I approached to about two feet. That's when I saw movement in the hole.
A recent newspaper article had told me about coyote pups suffering from parvo. There was an effort from some organization, to immunize the pups by dropping meat with the parvo vaccine in the desert. I wondered if there were coyote pups in this hole.
      It was difficult to focus on the movement in the dark cave, because the sun was high above the arroyo wall. I squinted into the darkness as my eyes adjusted and the movement took shape. I was looking straight into the eyes of a mountain lion from two feet away. The puma's head filled the central opening to the cave. She squinted back at me.
      For some odd reason I wasn't scared. Continuing on didn't seem wise. I was worried I might surprise her on the return trip. I backed up to the previous turn, and slowly walked away, being careful not to act like dinner.
      But this is a story about a Christmas hike, so we will get back to that.
      Partially because of my experience with the lion, Laura and I chose to traverse the South side of the mountain to a trail head that leads to the summit, where we would celebrate the holiday in solitude far above the valley. Rather than follow the desert to the trailhead, we climbed a few hundred feet up the rock and traversed our way east. Along the way we smelled something rank, and looked around for the carcass of a dead deer. I often found skulls and antlers in the area, and that translated to tourist cash.
      We were about to search for the corpse, when my eye fell on a bush barely three feet away. There stood a young male javelina, seemingly oblivious to us. Javelina are pretty blind. They smell bad too. We edged away so's not to frighten it, and continued on our way. It was a warm day and I took off my shirt. Laura lamented that social mores did not allow her to do the same. I told her out here on Christmas day, the Javelina cared less for social mores, so she continued hiking topless. We took our pleasure then, clinging to some vertical stones (Merry Christmas), clinging for our lives somewhat frightened and high above the Sonoran floor. Such are the dangers of climbing with a topless Laura.
      Once we'd attained the apex of Big Cat, we repeated our endeavors on a long flat rock overlooking the valley, occasionally hearing a large animal moving across the gravels. We dressed hurriedly, sans T-shirts, just in time for a boy scout troop to file past along the peak. Not the large animals we expected. Two of them lingered behind a boulder for another peek. I gave them the thumbs up. They grinned and scurried away. Laura felt forced to adhere to social mores for a bit.
      We returned to our little trailer in the desert with our barrel cactus Christmas tree.She never let me nail her on a mountaintop again.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

From the Mountains to the Barrio (part 1) Fugitive Recovery

Just over a year since my exile, and I found myself living at one of my favorite places on the whole planet. Big Cat Mountain was the place I had climbed with Lucky Tailor, passing the crosses of those who did not make it along the way. It's the place where The Professor and I saw the Woolly Saber Toothed Coyote. It was also the stomping grounds of the famous bandit El Gato and his legendary treasure. On the map of places sacred to me, this one is prominent.

My wife and I had traced the travels of Casteneda to this desert, and believed we had found the restaurant where he and Gorda worked, losing their personal importance. Losing one's personal importance isn't very good for a marriage. We were thinking about doing something different. She had already had to spend a few months in Key West to escape my folly. Then I had an encounter that brought me on board to her desire to move into town and leave my beautiful desert.

We lived in a trailer behind the restaurant, along with about four other trailers, all housing employees of the restaurant and other associated businesses like the general store and video rental. There was one wealthy retiree in the very back. I was Robert then, and the trailer behind us housed a guy named Robert as well and his wife. He washed dishes at a steakhouse down the road. His wife was a waitress with my wife at the Greek place where I cooked breakfast.

I was working stone on the side back then, as a lapidary, and incorporating the stone in sculpture and jewelry. On Tuesdays, I would hike through the lower Tucson Mountains along an old stage coach route into Tucson, where I would ply my wares. I had a route through the downtown where I left things on consignment and picked up money and custom orders each week. On my way home, I would cut through the town of South Tucson and purchase my grass for the week. I would return by hitch hiking the old Ajo Highway, rather than cross the remote mountain trails, populated by all manner of rattlesnake and large cat, at night. I would have my sales cases with me, and occasionally drummed up additional business from the people who gave me rides.

One of my best accounts in town was a new age shop. I had a place near the Mexican border where I was mining Selenite crystals with muddy inclusions. I worked these into wands and stone blades with cactus wood handles and leather trim.

On a fateful Monday, My wife was working, and I took Robert for a hike up Big Cat Mountain and told him about my history there and about El Gato. To my surprise, although he had lived behind the restaurant for over a year, he had not explored the area or hiked the desert at all. He had a banner day, and expressed that to me before he went to work that night. I went in to my house and smoked a joint and watched a couple of episodes of Doug on Nick at Night.

After resting from the morning's climb, and having lunch with the wife, I strapped my machete on and headed out to find some Cholla Cactus wood for the order I had to fill for the new age shop this week. I was maybe five steps from my front door when a white pickup came thundering into the lot and stopped nearest my trailer.

At first I assumed it was somebody I had hitched a ride with, coming to check out my stock. Maybe I was going to make a sale. Neither the wife or I socialized of even had any contact with people outside of the restaurant and the five trailers behind it. Then the door opened and had an insignia on it and the words “Fugitive Recovery”. Before I could even think a dude rolled out in a crazy movie sideways somersault and came up with a big freaking gun pointed at me. “Drop the weapon!” he shouted. He was maybe fifty feet away.

This was the early days of my fugitivity, when I never went to sleep without an escape plan. I was hyper paranoid anyway, and expecting something like this. Subsequently, I never carried weapons, for fear of going down in a hail of gunfire from some overzealous bounty hunter. I was confused. I said “I don't have any weapons!”.

He told me to lose the machete. I told him it was a tool, not a weapon, as I lowered it carefully to the ground. He charged me, and with his gun to my head he rushed me the twenty feet or so to my trailer and sandwiched my head between his pistol and the front door. He said “Robert Mortimer, you are under arrest for evading prosecution (so far so good, but Mortimer? I was Robert Weaver) in Kansas on a charge of burglarizing a pharmacy.”

Well shit, I have only just passed through Kansas. I delivered a few pounds of grass and mushrooms to a motel in Topeka, but certainly had not burglarized a pharmacy. I told him this, with his gun in my temple, leaving out the part about Topeka. “And who the hell is Mortimer? I am Robert Weaver!” “You better have ID”, he replied.

I yelled in to my wife to find my ID. She, of course, told me to get it myself. Still with a gun to my temple, I explained the situation. She soon appeared with my fake swap meet ID claiming I was Robert Weaver. The officer called in my fake social security number and it came up clean. Then he noticed my trailer number was one and he was looking for trailer two. He said “I need to use your house”, and lowered his gun and hastily entered my living room.

I followed. I had left a half ounce of pot in a baggie on the coffee table. As he walked past it to the opposing window, I reached down and batted it onto the floor. Without even turning around he said “I'm not even worried about that”. Then he noticed the number two on the door of the neighboring trailer and rushed off to terrorize the other Robert's wife. She took him to Robert's job where he was arrested for the pharmacy job in Kansas.

The next day she knocked on my door and told me Robert was on the phone and wanted to talk to me. I went to her trailer and he told me the story of how he was paid to lower himself from the skylight at a Kansas pharmacy and steal Dilautids, and he left fingerprints. He said our hike was the best thing that happened to him since he fled and that ultimately it was his wife who turned him in. “It's always a woman that gets you caught” he warned me (although he didn't know how close to his situation I was). He gave me his reclining heated massage chair. I loved that chair. His wife immediately moved in with a wealthy retiree she had been cleaning house for.

I couldn't live there anymore, of course. The wife would have her way and we would eventually move back to the city.