If I had stayed in my tent and eaten my breakfast while writing a letter to Janell, as I thought I might while getting out of bed, I would never have known what was waiting for me out there in the bushes. The morning was somewhat chilly, after all. I had explored all the surrounding hilltops and valleys. The only direction left for my morning walk was toward the highway, and that looked particularly boring – nothing but creosote bushes as far as the eye could see. However, my uneasy truce with leg cramps in the night reminded me that I needed the exercise. I mean needed.
With a full pot of “porridge” and bundled up against the chill, I set out along the grassy swale toward the north, staying to one side where the ground was clear so as to see where I was stepping. As I expected, there wasn't much variation in the landscape or the flora, only a yucca here and there to punctuate the uniformity. Oh, well. You never knew what to expect in the desert. It could be completely unremarkable, or it could be surprising.
My first intimation of the character of the morning came when I spied a single black insulated wire heading from the swale directly to the east. There was nothing connected to my end, and it appeared to be solid and stiff, like the wire that is made to be stretched. For want of anything more interesting, I followed it as it made its way straight through the creosote bushes, sometimes being covered for a few feet, but mostly just laying on the surface. As I suspected, there was nothing connected to the other end, either, which was near the road to the cell phone towers. Why would maybe 500 feet of insulated wire be laying out in the desert? Was it some sort of antenna?
I decided I didn't want to cross the road and continue to the east, since the Sun was in my eyes, so I backtracked and kept going west, across the grassy swale, which turned into a slight drainage channel cut into the loose desert dirt. Up and over the rise and into the next valley, there was another drainage, only this one much larger and cut deeper, all the way to what appeared to be limestone bedrock. Crossing that and heading up the slope to the next rise, I saw something block-shaped in the bushes to my left. Maybe it was something the rancher left out there, since the catch basin was only about a quarter of a mile to the south of me by that point.
Walking over to it, I saw that it wasn't left by the rancher, and in fact there were two block-shaped things at the base of separate creosote bushes. These were definitely not left by the rancher. It didn't take too much imagination to guess what the contents of those plastic-wrapped bundles contained. In fact, a small hole in one of them gave me the opportunity to sniff the contents, and yup! Weed, of a sort.
This was a rather large quantity of something definitely illegal. How did it get here? Was somebody going to come looking for it? Well, maybe not, by the looks of the bundles. They had been here for a while. The fabric was completely rotted off of one of the bundles, and the black plastic trash bag had decayed and shredded in the sunlight. Whoever these belonged to wasn't coming for them, or had looked for them and had given up long ago.
Being careful not to touch anything, I looked closely at each bundle. On one end was a day pack, complete with zippered pouches. What did those things contain? I didn't dare open the zippers to find out. That would be perhaps destroying evidence. About all I could do was prod one of the bundles to feel if it was still solid, or squishy. Solid, just like a compressed brick of peat moss. These were just about like those packages of peat moss, in size and shape, only a little smaller. I couldn't tell how heavy they were because I couldn't do anything more than look.
Okay, it was clear that the authorities needed to know about these things. How would I find them again? I took pictures of them from various angles, with landmarks in the background. Maybe I could line myself up on those landmarks and traverse a path that would lead me back to them when I came back with the sheriff or Border Patrol agents. Okay, start walking. Wait! There was another bundle in a bush not five feet away. How could I have missed that?
Start walking again. Trudge. Trudge. Trudge. Mind starts working. Mind starts thinking about how much those things are probably worth. Mind starts thinking about how that could allow me to retire. Mind starts thinking about how they could be stored in my watertight Pelican cases to hide the scent. Mind starts thinking about where they could be sold and converted into cash.
Stop! What is this? Who is this talking? Can he be serious? Of course not. Of course not.... Stand still for a moment. Do you really want to go down that path? No, of course not! Still, it is just right there, free for the taking....
This is crazy! Can you trust yourself to contact the authorities when you get back to camp? Will that part of your mind keep scheming and eventually come up with a “foolproof” plan? Oh, Hell. This will be agony. I can't put myself through this kind of mental torture. Best to put an end to it right now.
Turn around. Go back to the scene of the crime. Hmm. Almost missed it. Sure is easy to hide stuff out here in the bushes. Pull out the phone. Dial 911. Yes, poke the big green phone button.
“What is your emergency?”
“I am walking in the desert and have found what appears to be an illegal drug drop.”
“What is your location?”
And from there it was just questions and answers. No going back now. Wait for the Border Patrol to collect the stuff and get it out of my sight. Sit tight so I don't lose it and let them come to me from the directions I gave the dispatcher. Wait and trust them to show up, since my phone isn't connected to the cell phone network except for emergency calls.
So I stood there and waited. I thought I might be able to see them drive up to the catch basin, and then I could wave my sweatshirt as a signal flag. I stood there until standing became both boring and uncomfortable. Then I decided to sit. That effectively hid me from view, since the creosote bushes were a little taller than my head. Maybe I would hear them drive up. Maybe they would have sense to honk their horn.
Hey, this is a good opportunity to meditate! Focus on the breath. My back feels great. Boy the Sun is hot. Maybe it is time to take off some clothing. Sit cross legged, focus on the breath. Hmm. My back is okay, but not great. It must be my posture. Put my hands on my knees. That hunches my shoulders. Put my hands in my lap. Shoulders are better but now the small of my back is hurting.
Okay, maybe it is time to lay down. Arrange the folded up shirt and sweatshirt and cap like a beach blanket and pretend you are sunbathing. Better yet, go ahead and take off the T-shirt and work on the upper body tan. You want to look brown and healthy when you get back to Wyoming, don't you? Turn this way and wait. Turn that way and wait. Get a nice even roasting. The human hot dog on the rotisserie.
Gee, this is taking too long. I guess it is time to start walking out. Maybe the Border Patrol had other pressing business. I could call 911 again, but would I get the same dispatcher? I'll just count my paces and stay on the line between the two opposite landmarks. That will have to do, because I can't stay out here any longer.
And there the pickup is, behind the berm of the catch basin. And there are the deputies, roaming in the brush south of the basin. They see me and start back to the truck. Sheriff, not Border Patrol. Two young men dressed in black. Very trim and businesslike. They had been out here for a few hours looking for me, miles from here on the other side of the cell phone towers. Evidently my directions got garbled somewhere down the line.
So, yes, I can lead them back to the drop, but I have to get lined up on my landmarks and count my paces back. Here we go, fanned out in an advancing sweep through the brush. I walk right past them and one of the deputies cries out “Here!”. Yes, these are the ones. Three of them.
“Take some for yourself?” says one of the deputies, with a slight hint of humor in his voice.
“It's tempting, and that's why I dialed 911. I thought about it. If this was back in my 20's I might have considered it, but now I know it's not that simple. You don't get anything for free. I don't want to enter that world.”
That's not what I had planned to say. I was doing my civic duty, right? I was helping fight crime and the corrosive effects of the drug trade on our society, right? I was morally upright and pure, right? Right. Or was I just afraid of the consequences if I got caught? Was I just wanting them to take this burden off my hands so I wouldn't be tempted? Where was my moral fortitude now?
I think the deputy got my meaning. Maybe he was only half joking when he suggested I sample the stash. Neither of us pursued that line of conversation. Instead, I started asking him questions.
No, it wasn't dropped by airplane and lost due to faulty navigation. It was carried here forty miles from the border. The backpack on top probably contained socks and underwear, and maybe some food and water. The straps that were rotted away held the whole business on the smuggler's back. By the looks of it, the bundles had been here for about a year. They were abandoned because the smugglers got spooked and ran. Maybe somebody was hot on their ass.
And then I asked the question that would damn me forever.
“Well, I estimate there is about 110 pounds here, and at $800 per pound that is a little less than $100 thousand.”
Okay, that is what somebody might make from it going through the drug cartel. This stuff was probably ruined by sitting out in the rain and Sun for a year, no matter how well packed it was to begin with. And what average citizen would know how to unload 110 pounds of weed?
Worthless. Worse than worthless. Sucker bait. Put you away for the rest of your life. Slam! Try looking at the stars from a prison window. That would be a different sort of retirement. No. Pinch off that possible future at the bud.
The deputies thanked me several times. They gave me some water and a ride back to my camp. One even came back that evening with my shirt and sweatshirt that I had left in the back of the truck. He said “If there's anything you need, just give us a holler.”
That made me feel pretty good. Maybe I wasn't just freeloading off of Uncle Sam by camping on public land. Maybe I was helping this place and these people somehow. It must have changed me, because when I went to the Mercantile a few days later for wire, a new garden trowel, water, propane, and some groceries, everybody seemed to be so friendly and nice. The checkout girl was cute and wanted to make sure she wasn't overcharging me for the propane, and even said “I'll never charge anybody for water out here in the desert.”
The other sales lady even said that she and her husband owned some vacant lots in Hachitas in response to my question about buying land. Could it be that I was becoming a member of this community?