I figured I learned quite a bit about Carl from talking with Jason and the two of us hatched a plan that might get me meeting Carl…or might get me shot. Jason figured I had a fifty-fifty chance of meeting him. I asked him what he thought my chances were of getting shot.
“Somewhere south of fifty percent”, Jason said.
”Okay”, I said. “Just south of fifty percent isn’t that encouraging. How much south of fifty percent?
“I think you’ll be okay. I haven’t bought any ammo for him in the past 3 or so years.”
Being the inquisitive type I asked Jason what kind of ammo Carl used.
“Fifty calibre”, he replied.
I was stunned. “Fifty!!!” I repeated. What on earth does he have, an M2?”
“Maybe.” Jason offered. “They were BMG Ball rounds. He gave me 10 empties and I brought him back 10 readies.”
I pondered that for awhile. 10 individual rounds…probably not an automatic weapon. Lots of rifles…even some handguns use .50BMGs but I don’t know anyone that keeps a .50 around the house in case some strange fool steps on his lawn. And what about the hunting situation. Ten rounds in three years does not make Carl much of a hunter kinda guy. But what would he be taking with fifty cal anyway…moose at a thousand meters??
I asked Jason if there were any other odd items that Carl ordered up.”
“Like what?”, Jason asked.
“Like Claymores, detcord, sandbags, gasoline or busted cell phones.” I offered.
Jason looked at me like I had lice. “No…nothing like that.”. He said. “Look, I don’t think he’s dangerous. I may not be the world’s best judge of character and I’ve only had about ten minutes of face time with Carl but I like the guy and he seems very reasonable and not crazy at all.”
“He has a .50 calibre gun. How reasonable is that?” was all I said.
“There you go.” Jason said. “How many crazy people do you know who own a .50 calibre anything?”
We talked a little about strategy. Dangerous or not, it was clear Carl preferred not to have company. I was going to be a trespasser at best, an intruder at worst.
I like a challenge. I thought Carl would be interesting but I needed a way to coax him into talking with me and I needed to let him know that I posed no threat and that I was not from the government or peddling The Watchtower.
Jason was clearly no dummy and he had obviously been pondering Carl and his personality. He offered reasonable advice about how to approach Carl on his own property. He also offered one idea that I couldn’t make myself try. Jason thought I would look less threatening as I headed toward Carl’s place if I wore his niece’s pink Barbie daypack. I argued that I would look like a psycho and probably deserve to be shot. It was never even a remote possibility that I would head up Carl’s trail wearing a little girl’s pink daypack. The whole suggestion shook my confidence in Jason’s character assessment skills.
Before I left, Jason marked my topo at the place I should pull off the Forest Service road and look for Carl’s trail. I only had one day to make this whole thing work before I had to point Esmerelda west toward home and my office. Jason followed me out to Esmerelda, wished me good luck and held up the pink Barbie daypack. I drove away.
I spent most of that night thinking about Carl and convincing myself this was still a good idea. I keep personal armor in Esmerelda. I like to be prepared. I also have a fire blanket, waterproof matches, jumper cables, an ice axe, spare water, raisins and lots of Excedrin. None of this would provide any kind of defense against a fifty. In the end I remained convinced that I was in no danger. No one seemed to think that Carl had ever tried to shoot anyone, or even point a gun at anyone. There were no stories of hikers or hunters or fishers disappearing around there.
The next morning I headed over to the County Assessor’s office to see if Carl’s taxes were paid up. My theory was that if Carl had a beef with the government he was probably going to refuse to pay his taxes. as long as possible Paid-up assessments would indicate to me that Carl was unlikely to be a “fringe” character and therefore less likely to shoot at me or anyone else. What I discovered while there shocked me. County property records showed that Carl owned a lot more property than Jason thought. Jason seemed to think that Carls property was limited to about twenty acres where his cabin was located. Jason was wrong. Carl owned…and paid taxes on… twelve, 640 acre timbered parcels scattered along Clear Creek and most of his parcels were accessible from that same USFS road. It looked like Carl had to come up with nearly $8K in taxes every year…and he did. That’s a lot of rabbit skins. Something was beginning to seem wrong about my understanding of Carl and his subsistence way of life.
From the limestone block courthouse I walked across the street past the 50’s storefronts of the bail bondsman and the empty barbershop to the even older liquor store where I purchased the main ingredient in the plan that Jason and I hatched. Then I started the two hour drive out of town and up the Forest Service road to the place where I would park and walk onto Carl’s property.
Along the way I was consumed with the new problem that Carl’s tax record had presented. Here, on one hand we had a guy who appeared to be living the life of a nearly self sustaining trapper/fisher in a fairly remote area of the Rocky Mountains with no need for cash, family or DirectTV. But on the other hand owned over 7,500 acres of first class, wild, in-holdings surrounding a blue ribbon native trout stream worth…what??? Six or seven million anyway…
I started out wanting to talk with Carl about his way of life and particularly explore whether or not the lifestyle of a self sustaining hunter/trapper/fisher offered something to society we didn’t take into account. Should society protect his way of life or discourage it? Certainly discouragement was what was generally offered now. These guys are often portrayed as kooks, hiding from the law, and the real hermit/kooks like Ted Kaczynski didn’t help their cause any. But only 180 years ago these rugged, freedom loving individuals were the guys that opened up the west. They, and the indians they lived along side were considered brave, independent, free and spirited…all qualities strongly identified with American values. Today, they are considered by many to be dicey, fringe sociopaths. It’s almost as if society is trying to rub them out, like red delicious apples and manual transmissions. Spread the word long enough and loud enough and we can turn good things into bad…make us afraid of them…require government help to protect us from them.
Some deserve it I guess. Just as there are white rhino poachers in Africa there are folks who kill and poach in this country way beyond sustenance. I’ve seen undercover footage of bear poachers in the east who allowed their dogs to tree a bear cub and then proceeded to torture it by shooting it in its paws and hind quarters until it fell out of the tree and then let their dogs terrify and finally tear it apart. They persecuted that bear for an hour before it was dead. That’s a lot of pain. Folks like that deserve no mercy as far as I am concerned. Their fate should rival their prey’s.
But this is not at all who I imagined Carl to be. I originally thought of him as a social misfit of the non-threatening kind. Someone who simply didn’t want to participate in the institutional “cookie-cutter” socialization that dominates North America. “Different” only seems to be acceptable if you are an entertainer or politician. I’ve told stories about folks who have successfully separated from society before. Folks who live in the middle of nowhere and exist by their own wits and back-breaking labor. Some were combat veterans who no longer wanted, or were unable to participate in a social structure. Others were self actualized “back-to-nature types who simply did not want to compete in the marketplace that has become today’s culture. Does it make a difference if the guy who want’s to be left to his own devices was independently wealthy? Wealthy enough to live any lifestyle he chooses? Maybe the question was even more interesting if you could toss wealth into the mixture. Just who is Carl anyway?
By the time I got to the place i was supposed to park, the road had turned into a single lane, packed gravel affair with turnouts. It was well maintained but clearly didn’t have traffic enough to maintain a standard 22ft, two lane road. From the map I could see that the road went up another 12 or so miles past this spot and stopped at about 9,500feet in the sub-alpine regions. It would be fun to drive to the end and walk around…but not today. The parking place was no more than a broad shoulder next to a warning sign informing log truck drivers that a tight curve and grade were ahead on the road. I pulled over, shut down Esmerelda and listened to the quiet. I wondered if Carl knew I was here. If he somehow watched this spot. It didn’t really look like a parking spot as much as a place someone might pull-over to let a ltruck full of logs, headed to a mill in town, move past.
It was chilly at about 7,500 feet. I grabbed my fleece jacket and put two foldable paper cups and a newly purchased pint of Jack Daniels in my daypack. Locked up Ezzy and walked over to the trail that I assumed led to Carl’s place. A few feet onto the trail I passed the steel, bear proof box that Carl and Jason used to transfer goods. The trail was easy to find and in decent shape and certainly not worn to within an inch of it’s life like so many well loved trails in the area. In fact, if I had not known of it’s existence I would probably have missed it.
It was a lovely woodland trail with a thick layer of duff that indicated it had not burned here in awhile. Straight, thin Lodgepole and larger fir were the dominant canopy and the trail was an uphill, meandering sort of affair, easy to walk with a few giant erratic boulders that the path curved to miss. I didn’t see any “no trespassing” signs, not one. About a half-mile in I crested a ridge and could begin to hear the sound of rushing water below. The thick woods soon gave way to a less dense aspen and grassy landscape. I was now headed down into a stunning, broad open valley dotted with greening copses of aspen and cottonwood. There was a faint drumming ahead of me. Ruffed Grouse! I hear many more of them than I ever see. This one was a male, looking for a female. They like to stand up on a log and beat their wings to make the drumming sound. I guess the females find it attractive. It always reminds me of my high school summers in Detroit when a bunch of guys would jump into someone’s car to go cruising on Friday nights. If we saw a good looking girl walking downtown we might slow down and one of us would stick his arm out the window and slap the side of the car a few times to get her to notice us and then we would yell something clever like, “Hey babe, ya wanna ride?” It never worked…not once. I have no idea why we kept trying. Hope springs eternal I guess.
The grouse was somewhere ahead of me but off the trail. In the tall grass..on a boulder perhaps. I veered away from the trace and over toward the drumming to see if I could catch sight of Mr. R. Grouse. But the moment I got close to the drumming he broke off and never started up again. I could not see him. I moved closer anyway but found no grouse. Outwitted once again, I retreated back to the trail and continued down toward the noisy creek I could see at the bottom of the basin ahead of me. It seemed like everything in view was either pale green, dark green, deep blue or pure white.The whole effect was picture perfect. Not like an explosively grand Moran landscape but more like a lovely Kodak moment. The brown trail rambled downward thru the wavy green grass to where it crossed the creek at a hidden spot concealing a quaint wooden footbridge.
In a couple of minutes I was at the footbridge and then past it and turning into the wide valley. The trail was picking it’s way along the small creek. I wondered if elk browsed here. If I were an elk I certainly would. The creek was slowing and meandering as the valley widened and flattened. A mile or more down the valley I could see granite spires raising, but before that was a cabin and barn about a thousand feet ahead of me. Anyone in that cabin would have a clear view of my approach and with a .50 calibre and a scope would have no trouble at all picking me off.
I kept walking. No shot rang out. I continued on.
The cabin was neat. Brownish pine logs squared up and saddle notched into each other with precision. There was a large garden fenced off to one side and a small barn behind and to the left. It was very charming and the setting could have been an illustration in the children’s book about Heidi and her grandfather. It would not have surprised me if I had met a goatherd named Peter.
As I approached the cabin I could see the picnic table in front as Jason promised. I looked at the large front window of the cabin, smiled my most disarming smile and waved a friendly wave, removed my non-pink daypack, took out the two folding cups, set them on the table, one in front of me and the other across the table. I was reaching into my pack for the pint when the cabin door pushed open and a clean cut fellow practically ran down the steps saying, “Your early, but that’s okay!”. Suddenly the children’s book changed from Heidi to Alice in Wonderland and I was Alice and this must be the Mad Hatter, but he wasn’t wearing a hat.
I had no idea what to say to him. How was I early? Was he expecting me? How could he possibly have known I was coming? Was this Carl? He fit the description, looked older than Jason’s “fifty” guess, maybe 65, under six feet.
He hurried around to my side of the table stuck out his hand and said, “I’m Carl.”
I pumped his hand and said, “Nice to meet you. I’m Dal.”
“Dal?” He stopped pumping my hand. “What happened to Craig?”
“I don’t know.” I said
Carl looked at me suspiciously. “Are you from the Nature Conservancy?”
“No.” I said. “I’m not.”
Carl just looked at me for a moment as if he might be able to conjure up my reason for appearing in front of his cabin if he stared hard enough. I didn’t have a chance to say anything because his next question came right on top of his last one.
“Well, you know you’re on private property right?”
“Yes.” I said. “But I came for a purpose.”
“Well if you’re not from the Conservancy you certainly are not invited and probably not welcome. What’s your purpose? I’m expecting company.”
Carl did not appear agitated. He was clean shaven. He looked lean and fit. Broad-shouldered. He was bald on the top but had short cropped white hair in back and on the sides. The top of his head was smooth and well tanned. His hands were large and strong and also sun darkened. From his handshake I knew they were calloused and his grip was firm. If he got hold of me I’d be in trouble. I kept a few feet between us.
Carl pointed at the table and sat down on the same side straddling the bench. He reached over and grabbed one of the cups.
“What’s this for?” he said.
I reached into my pack, pulled out the pint and held it up to him.
That’ll do.” he said. “Just a short one I’ve got someone coming here in an hour.”
I sat down, poured a shot into his cup and the same into mine.
This was Jason’s idea..the Jack Daniels on the picnic table. Jason said he typically got a couple pints a year for Carl. It was the only liquor Carl ever requested and at two pints a year Jason didn’t figure Carl had an alcohol problem. So Carl and I sat there in the sunshine at 7,500 feet in a spectacular meadow surrounded by high peaks and sparkling glaciers at the tail end of spring. In no time at all a snoopy Clark’s Nutcracker was on the table with us hopping around and investigating my cup for snacks. A few moments later a blue and black Stellar’s Jay landed at the other end of the table near Carl. Without stopping our conversation Carl reached into his breast pocket and pulled out a few dark black, pumpkin shaped seeds and fed them to the Jay, one at a time. I tried not to be impressed. The Nutcracker made a bee-line for the other end of the table next to the Jay and waited for his/her share of the handout. When the seeds were gone the Jay marched up Carls arm to his shoulder and started pulling at his earlobe. Carl calmly reached into his breast pocket again and pulled out a few more seeds. The Jay walked back down Carl’s arm and waited for the feeding to restart along with the Nutcracker. I felt like I was in that deliriously sweet old Disney film, “Song of the South”. I thought maybe I should start singing “Zip-ee-do-dah” but I maintained my self control. In fact, it was clear to me that this was an often repeated ritual between Carl and the Jay. They were old friends.
I explained to Carl why I was there and what I was hoping to learn. He watched me carefully. He maintained meticulous eye contact …maybe he was searching my soul. I did not reveal what I had discovered at the county courthouse earlier. But when I mentioned that I understood him to be a fellow who survived without any help from Wallmart or Martha Stewart I could see his eyes twinkle a bit. Something about that made him smile inside. But it would be awhile before I learned why.