The Old Man
A Wilderness Encounter.
This month’s campfire tales is a story from a dear Friend—in the deepest and truest sense of the word—and Brother, Jim Taylor. I’m betting anyone who has been around at least since the Korean War will find this resonating very deeply with them. Here’s Jim’s story:
We came upon the camp quite unawares. We did not know anyone was camped back in these hills and were not expecting to meet anyone. It was a long ways from anywhere. We had been backpacking, heading into the backcountry for several days and it was just about time for us to stop for the evening when we saw his fire several ridges over. We pushed on and made sure whoever was camped there heard us coming. We were quite far from civilization at that point and did not want to run the risk of getting shot by a nervous camper. Not to worry though. He heard us coming long before we called out, “Hello the camp!” And the answer floated back in the evening winds, “Come on in.”
We made our way in the twilight and upon entering the clearing discovered a nice campsite complete with grass, a small spring in the rocks nearby and nice large trees. We said our hellos and asked permission to camp there for the night and received a welcome. The camper was an old gentleman, probably in his 80s. His camp was tidy with a small tent, a nice fire pit ringed with rocks, firewood nearby and a large horse under the trees in the heavier grass.
After getting our packs off we introduced ourselves. The camper said his name was “Smith,” first or last name we never discovered. He was just getting ready to fix a meal and invited us to join him, which we were happy to do. We added some of our ingredients to the stew he was making and all in all we ended up with a fine meal; the meat was a bit different but had very good flavor. He said it was mountain lion and gave no indication he was kidding us. We never did find out if that was true or not, but given the old man’s resume, such as he shared, I am inclined to believe he was telling the truth.
He had a big pistol in a holster on his belt, on the right side. He carried a large fixed-blade knife also and later on I saw a smaller pistol in his boot. There was a short lever-action rifle leaning up against the front of his tent. The rifle attracted my curiosity as it had a very short barrel and a large telescope mounted on the barrel, forward of where the empty cartridges flew out the top when you levered the gun. The next day I remarked on it. He said it was a “Trapper” and he had set it up in the manner of a “Scout Rifle.” When we got back to town several weeks later I looked those up on the Internet and saw he had described it correctly. He told me at was a “thirty-thirty” and at the time I had no clue as to what that meant, but assumed it was some description of the gun. From the way he spoke I figured it must be a fairly powerful gun.
As we ate we told him about our backpacking adventure and where we were heading, how long we were going to be in the mountains and when we figured we would head back. He listened intently asking questions about the trail we were planning on taking and made some suggestions of his own. He had been up that way, he told us, and there were a few spots where there was a much easier way to go.
He also suggested some camping spots we had never heard of. He told us of the canyon, nearly hidden in the trees, where there was once a mining camp. He told us some of the cabins are still sound, the water there is good and there is plenty of game. Of course, we had no firearms with us which surprised him. He was amazed that we would venture into the hills without any guns at all. Not for self-protection he had explained. That is rarely needed. But what if something happens and we would be stuck in the hills longer than planned for? Firearms are for helping gather meat as well as signaling long distances. None of us were familiar with guns and passed up his offer to let us take a shotgun he had. I never did see the shotgun but later on wished I had taken it. That’s another story for some other time though.
We sat around the flickering campfire sharing coffee and asked him how we came to be so far out in the hills. He was quiet for a long time and we began to wonder if he chose not the answer the question but then he cleared his throat and began to tell us a story. He spoke of his youth and a girl, an exciting vibrant young lady who stole his heart and changed his life. He told us of hunting adventures with her in the mountains, in the deserts and in foreign countries. He spoke of her beauty and strength and of the children they had together. And with tears in his eyes he recounted her passing after 50-some years of being together. “I am glad she went first” he said through the tears. “I would not have wanted her to face this loneliness and heartache by herself.”
After her death he said he felt lost. Useless. His reason for living was gone. And apparently he became depressed. His children were worried about him and had taken him to a doctor who prescribed pills he threw away once he got home. He said they made him “crazy.” His behavior worried his children and they decided that it would be best to have him live in an Assisted Care facility. More like a jail he said. Wardens watching your every move. So he decided to leave. Figuring out how to get out of town and where he wanted to go energized him and he found some of his old stamina returning.
With the help of some old friends he purchased a pickup and a horse trailer. A friend on a nearby ranch let him have an older gelding at a good price and all the rigging with it. It had been years since he had been on a horse but he snuck out to the ranch and spent some time getting acquainted with his horse and getting the feel of taking care of him. Over a few months he stocked in supplies and one evening he just left. He loaded up the pickup and the horse and drove off into the night, not telling anyone where he was going.
We asked when it was he did that and he told us the date. We were surprised and told him that was a year and a half ago! He was startled and said, “Really?” So we showed him on our GPS. He said he sort of lost track of time and wasn’t sure what the date was but he knew it was going on fall and winter would be coming soon. He was heading south, wanting to get into the southern part of the state before cold weather. He said the cold weather bothered him anymore and he likes staying warm and was even thinking about slipping into Mexico.
When we asked him where he’d been for all this time he just pointed north of the mountains and said, “I started in Colorado. Worked my way into Utah and then came down into Arizona. Went over into Western New Mexico for a while. Not a lot of people in the mountains there and the ones that are there leave you alone.” He paused and then added, “Except for government people.” At that point we were not sure what he was referring to.
He said sometimes he would ride into a ranch or small town and buy or trade for supplies; we didn’t ask about what he was using for money, fearing that was not our business. He said some of the ranchers let him camp out on a waterhole or let him use a line shack or even a bunkhouse for a few weeks. He told us stories of the country and the land and the mountains and the game. He did not speak of people much and we got the impression he stayed clear of most folks. He said he had some Forest Service people looking for him a couple times but was able to evade them. When we asked where that was he got quiet and simply said, “Not around here.” We didn’t push it for we all were thinking the same thing. This was the guy who had shot at a Forest Service helicopter and who had led them on a chase in Western New Mexico last year! They had sent a huge posse of men in to round him up and never found any sign of him.
The next morning before we left I spoke to him privately and asked him about that. He just looked at me and grunted something like, “There are some folks just can’t let a man be.” I asked him how he had gotten clean away from them and he laughed. He said he just stole a sheriff’s department jacket, put it on and rode into their camp and helped them hunt for himself. He said the grub was good and it was a pleasant way to spend the week.
We left his camp before the sun was very high and headed on into the hills. A bit over a week later on our way out we stopped at the same place and made camp. Firewood had been cut and stacked as if waiting for us. Other than that and the fire pit in the clearing and some horse manure under the trees there was no sign of him ever having been there.
I often wondered where his journey ended. Now that I’m getting older I have envied the man. And I am thinking of buying a horse….
By John Taffin