This is a three part story. If you missed the other parts:
It’s May of 2015 and I am in a sleek black Robinson helicopter cruising along at about a hundred knots following the frozen, boulder strewn creek below us on the front range of the Rocky Mountains. The sun is bright and light explodes in the air as it bounces off the green forest and pale blue stream a couple hundred feet below. We dangle from the rotor blades swaying gently as we follow the twisty curves of the picturesque mountain creek. I love traveling this way. It really saves on hiking boots. A gray granite wall appears to be closing in on us from my side of the helicopter while on the other side the trees are thinning out into a broad welcoming valley that I recognize as the home of Carl. I can see his green metal roof and the spot where we met at his picnic table just a few months ago.
Last fall, when I was finished telling Carl who I was and what I hoped to find out, he just stared at me for a few seconds and pushed his cup slowly toward me while looking straight in my eyes. I poured him another shot.
“For sipping”, he said. “I want to go get something. I’ll be right back. Stick around.” And then he turned and walked quickly back into the cabin.
I wasn’t sure if, by, “stick around” he meant don’t leave the picnic table or if he meant you’re okay you don’t have to get the heck off my land. I decided to stay where I was and scope the place out.
Was Carl living off the land and off the grid or was Carl a rich guy living back away from his source of money and away from pesky neighbors?
Who was Carl and what the heck was his story?
I was curious…propelled by the constant message that Carl was not who folks in town thought he was.
Earlier, while I was walking down the valley toward his cabin a few things struck me as potential mis-fittings for a guy living off the land. A few more as I got closer.
From about the time I was within a hundred meters of his cabin I could see clearly around it on three sides. I could see two sides of his barn. Those were the only two buildings and that didn’t seem right. Unless Carl was some sort of alien creature, he would have to pee and poop…yet I couldn’t see an outhouse. If you don’t have electricity or running water, you generally have an outhouse. Many folks who live out in the sticks for any length of time also build a sun shower so they don’t have to bathe in ice-cold water from a stream or collection system. You might start out tough enough for ice cold showers but that kind of treatment wears you down and a sun shower is easy to make. Everybody tries to make things better.
From where I was standing at the picnic table I could see the fourth side of Carl’s cabin…no outhouse…no sun shower…only two buildings. His cabin roof appeared to be green sheet metal. There were no solar panels up there. No rain water collection system that I could see and no hand dug well standing out anywhere. If there is no outhouse and no outdoor shower…there must be indoor plumbing but that requires a pump and a pump requires electricity. There were no poles to bring power in from anywhere and there were no underground services that came up around the house that I could see…of course I suppose electric service might come up under the house. But still…a person would have to be a gazaillionaire to get underground power out where Carl lived. There were no poles along the Forrest Service road that I followed getting to the trail and no signs of electric, or any other services once I got on government property..many, many miles back down that road.
From the picnic table other anomalies became noticeable. The cabin foundation looked as if it was made of large, rounded river stone…which made sense given the proximity to the stream nearby. But his foundation was beautiful…call it perfect. It was built by a mason…not a trapper/hunter/fisher who needed a shelter. Then there were the vinyl windows. They were beautiful and gleaming white, but not handmade by a rough DIY kind of guy..
I was admiring the cabin when I saw it. Right next to the porch and coming out from the river rock foundation that wrapped around the cabin on three sides, there was a nice brass hose bibb. I started scanning the area and noticed a dark green farm hydrant by his barn. Another out by his large garden. Wasn’t this evidence that there was a pump somewhere? Electric somewhere? I suppose a gravity fed tank could be nearby. I had to stop myself from jumping to conclusions.
The only roof face that escaped my vision was the far side of his barn. It clearly faced south. It was broad. A likely place for solar panels. And inside his barn, I was guessing there would be a battery farm…Welcome to the 21st century of self-sustainability?
And what about firewood? There should be several cords of firewood stacked up for the looming winter. Instead there was a small, neat pile on his porch.. about 40 sticks. Maybe the rest was in the barn too.
Home-made was beginning to pale.The logs used to construct his cabin were notched by an expert. The finish was modern, professional and showed no signs of wear or age even though the cabin itself had a brass plaque naming the place Xanadu and giving it the year 1979 as the build date. It was immaculately kept up. Not something a guy who was living off the land would likely have time to do.
Carl’s lifestyle wasn’t anything like Joe Meek’s or any of the trappers who stomped these parts a hundred-fifty years ago. Carl, in spite of his “self-sustaining” reputation was very much connected to the home building contractors well outside his perfect and remote valley. This was not an owner-built homestead.
There were some other curious elements around Carl’s place too. His barn had a large flagstone covered area out in front of the main doors. Usually a barn has a worn area out in front from the constant traipsing. But Carl’s was clean and beautiful and covered in these giant multicolored slate slabs as if it were a parking area for a fleet of luxury cars. What was that for?
A trapper/hunter/fisher/skinner/butcher would need tools to make things work. The barn would be a workshop, not a cute accent building. A guy who had to make hay while the sun shines at seven thousand feet where there are barely four months of growing season would not find time to make his place look like a prize winning hobby farm.
And I couldn’t help wondering how he got all this material up here? It must have taken years. Everything was beautiful and perfect and wonderfully maintained. None of it looked hand-made or patched together or thought out by someone who had a lot to get done before a cold, hard winter came roaring in. This place looked like it could be one of Martha Stewart’s half dozen homes. Big purple hydrangeas circled the cabin. The whole place was expertly landscaped and manicured. He even had a broad green lawn surrounding the barn.
And what role did Jason play in all this? If Carl could build an idyllic mountain homestead like this he surely didn’t need Jason to bring him a few bucks and sell rabbit skins for him. Curiouser and curiouser.
Carl himself was clean and neat. He seemed to be about my age. He was however, all-together, much better taken care of than I am. A recent haircut decorated his tanned, bald head and his teeth were sparkling white and even. Either good dentistry or good dentures. One way or the other, money was involved. Carl looked lean and healthy and when he shook my hand I could tell his hands were not the toughened paws of someone who worked with callus forming tools. No jewelry. No watch. No visible scars…and he was wearing cologne of some sort. Smelled like cedar…but stronger. I couldn’t name the brand of his clothing but it was clean, neat and fit him well. His boots I did recognize as Danner mountain boots. When I was in my lean 20’s I wanted a pair of those. His were worn but well greased and plenty of walking left in their Vibram soles.
Evidence was building up that Carl was not the guy either Jason or I assumed he was. Which was curious only because he apparently wanted to be thought of as just a guy living off the grid, 50 miles from the nearest cell tower and making things work the old fashioned way…beating civilization and progress at their own game. But it all appeared to be a rouse and not one he was trying very hard to hide. Why?
He was gone a couple of minutes when the frightening thought hit me that maybe he was loading up that fifty caliber. I made myself calm down and then I chuckled, quietly, carefully while I eyeballed the cabin door and windows.
When Carl walked out his hands were loaded. In his left he was carrying two chilled beer bottles and his right was carrying a framed photo. He put everything down on the table, reached into his pants pocket and pulled out an opener and popped off the bottle caps…took a long pull off the one closest to him. “Pretty good beer.” he said as he pushed the other bottle toward me. I examined the label. Sweetgrass Pale American Ale from the Grand Teton Brewing Company. “Bunch of good brewers over there.” he said as he took his seat. The chilled bottle felt good in my hand. I took a sip and realized I know nothing about beers because it tasted just like any other beer I ever swilled, bitter and sour with a dose of alcohol. “Best I’ve had all day.”, I said while pretending to read the label. “Damn right.” said Carl. “Look at this picture.” as he turned the photo around on the table and inched it toward me. I moved my eyes from the beer bottle to the large photo. I was shocked. It was a like a time-warp. It was clearly a photo of Carl. Looked exactly like him but it was also clearly taken a hundred years ago. Not one of those modern day touristy tintype look alikes. This was the real deal. An old photo, hand colored in an oval frame of…Carl!!
“That’s my great grandfather, Fredrick”, said Carl. “He came from Wisconsin with the Northern Pacific….not on it…with it. He was a senior engineer and was basically the architect of every bridge and trestle they built between Duluth and Seattle. That’s over a thousand bridges. Most of them are still in service today. He was a smart man. He decided to defer most of his salary into land. So he ended up with thousands of acres of land in Montana, Idaho and Oregon. This piece we’re on right now was one. He held this valley in high regard. Right around the turn of the century he built a mill in town and started cutting timber on his land. Before he died he had built a logging empire with 35 mills and vast forest holdings in five states. His son Arthur took over. We call him Mad Arthur. He had no respect for the land. It was all just money to him. He wanted to cut it all down before it burned or rotted. And much of it he did cut down. By 1960 about half our millions and millions of trees were gone and not a single new tree had ever been planted. My dad took over in 1950 and for the first 15 years he followed in his dad’s footsteps…Cut and Run Tommy they called him. By 1990, We barely had enough trees left to keep three mills running. I moved out to this valley in 1975, right after I got out of the Army. I didn’t want anything to do with the family business. I was living out here. I was hunting and fishing and doing a little trapping. I was a fishing guide in the summers for extra money. It was hard here in the winter but I really enjoyed it. My dad gave up trying to talk sense into me. When he died my sister and I inherited the whole thing…or what was left of it. Shelly and I have tried to manage the land back into shape. We still log but we do it intelligently. We know we are caretakers of this land. I guarantee you that when I die our lands will be some of the finest places to hike and enjoy in this country.”
When Carl was finished talking he took another pull from his beer bottle and followed up with the shot of bourbon that was left in his cup. He looked me in the eyes and said..”So what about that?” and smiled and squinted into the afternoon sun.
“How does Jason fit into all this?” I asked.
“Jason is a good kid. I’ve been using him for years to perpetuate a myth that grew up about me starting in the 70s when I came here. My great grandfather’s rundown shack was all that was here. He came out here to hunt in the 1890s. Hadn’t been used in a hundred years and …well you can imagine. I moved in. I was tired of people and needed a place to do some healing. I eeked out a living back here hunting, trapping and doing some guiding. When my dad died in 1977 everything changed. Mom was out of the picture. Remarried and living far away. He left everything to my sister and me. Shelly was much closer to the business than I was. She had shadowed my dad for years. She knew the board and knew the assets. She was in a much better position than I was to step in and run the operation…so she did. One of the first things she did was come out here and start a conversation about what should happen to the land…the beat-up and ruined land as well as the remainder of the untouched land. We’re talking about thousands and thousands of acres. Neither she nor I had any interest in building back up a mega-timber industry. She had a good plan but because of the way dad left things to both of us she needed my okay to put her plan in action. I wanted to hide from it. I just wanted the valley here and the rest could go to hell as far as I was concerned. Bless her soul, she insisted we do it together. She convinced me that since neither of us were going to have kids, we were the end of the line and we needed to fix things together.
Her plan has been in operation for forty years now. We have one modern mill that we feed with sustainably cut timber. We have planted a few million trees on the old timber lands. We’ve traded much away to the Forest Service and have been turning over the good stuff to land trusts, a couple of Indian tribes, the Park Service and the Conservancy. A fellow from there is supposed to be bringing in papers for me to sign today. That’s who I thought you were. Jason helps me keep the world away. Very few people know who I am or what’s back here. I don’t know if anyone has ever bothered to figure out what my holdings are…you might be the first…other than the IRS. But everything is changing…quickly now…as Shelly and I are in the last stages of putting all the land holdings in order. Shelly lives up north a bit. I live here and both of us want to just live out our remaining years in the knowledge that we did the right thing with the land.
So, to answer your question, Jason is a guy I use to perpetuate a myth to keep folks away from my valley and my family. He’s done a good job for me and he doesn’t know it but he’ll be rewarded for the effort.”
In the few minutes that we had left before his invited company showed up Carl led me to his barn so I could see his solar farm installed on the south roof, the power plant inside his barn and most important of all..the reason for the curious flagstone area out in front of the barn. Resting on a dolly, just inside the barn doors was a gleaming, black Robinson R66 helicopter. The flagstone paving and the dolly allowed it to be pushed in and out of the barn/hanger/solar power plant for maintenance and protection. As soon as I saw it, I realized how all this stuff got back here.
This spring I met up with Carl in Choteau, MT for a ride back to his valley where I saw his “hot spring heating system”. The first I’ve seen. He’s the only person I know who inherited an empire and spent the better part of his life giving it back to the people who didn’t even know they’d lost it.
I promised Carl that no identifying photos of his valley would be shared with this story.
I asked Carl what he did in the Army. He was a Crew Chief/Door Gunner on a Huey.
The quotes are pretty much exactly, more or less, what Carl said…nothing more.