A QUICK TRIP TO MOAB 1:
1. 1. Bring a gun when you come down
“Be careful on the way,” Bill said. “The protesters down by Price are causing a lot of trouble. There are hundreds of them. They’ve pulled all the law enforcement people out. Kind of scary. Be careful, that’s all.”
“You’re exaggerating,” I said. “They’ve been peaceful, so far, haven’t they? Their beef is with the Feds, not some guy driving by.”
My friend Bill had called from Moab to tell me that the painting I had purchased from local artist Joe Cain was framed and ready to be picked up. It was perfect timing since my wife Chris’s birthday was in a couple weeks, and the painting was to be her present. I said I’d be down on Saturday to get it.
“Be sure to call me when you head out,” he said, “and call again when you leave Price. You can spend the night here. We can jam a little, or go out to Woody’s or something.”
I told him how much I appreciated his concern. I agreed to call from home, and when I was leaving Price, which is about two hours from Moab.
I’d made the four hour drive from Salt Lake City to Moab dozens of times, and knew it by heart. Years ago parts of the road were notoriously dangerous — particularly the narrow, winding mountain stretch from Provo to Price over Soldier Summit. Much of the highway was divided now, with two lanes in both directions, so the weekly reports of deadly head-on collisions had pretty much gone away. It wasn’t the road that caused concern these days, it was the people along it.
With growing anti-government sentiment in rural areas of the west, and the trouble the government has had in reining it in, a protest spiraled out of control, and a large canyon-carved region of eastern Utah has become a de-facto safe-haven for armed insurrectionists. Some of them firmly believe that the federal government is restricting their use of public lands, and that soon their guns will be confiscated, emasculating them, making them slaves of big, eastern government. They see themselves as modern-day revolutionaries in the mold of the founding fathers of this nation. They wrap themselves in American flags, and threaten federal agents with military-style weapons. And along with the idealists and politically-motivated, others with less lofty ideals are drawn in. Sociopaths, gun-worshippers, and marginal hangers-on flocked to the sites of the protests, and over a relatively short period of time, a vast lawless area developed. Local law enforcement agencies were not motivated to take the groups on, and federal agencies battled with the public relations nightmare of confronting and possibly gunning down so-called patriots — American citizens who were, so they and their attorneys argued, merely exercising their constitutional rights. Similar protests in Nevada and Southern Utah had led to confrontations and stand-offs, and support for the movement seemed to be growing.
The largest of the “take backs” was in the remote and rugged San Rafael Swell area of Utah, where the “Recapture Brigade” arose in protest when the government closed large areas to vehicular travel. Hundreds had rallied to the cause, and had generally taken control of a huge swath of brutally beautiful, terrifyingly convoluted cliffs, canyons, and crevices. And the highway from Salt Lake City to Moab runs right by it.
“Bring a gun when you come down,” Bill said. “And have it handy. You never know.”
“Really? You’re serious? Bring a gun?”
“I’m serious,” he said. “The Federal Marshalls have blocked the entire area off as unsafe. Only the highways are open. They’re afraid somebody’s going to get hurt. I just don’t want it to be you, that’s all. Those people scare me.”
“Okay, if it will make you feel better, I will. See you Saturday.”
I left mid-morning on Saturday. I drove my Toyota 4Runner sport-utility vehicle. In the back I had a cooler with some snacks and drinks, and in the back seat I had, in a canvas case, my AR-15 rifle and two loaded 30-round clips. I also threw in my 9 mm pistol. I had bought the guns as a favor from my friend Ted shortly before he moved to Canada, where they were not allowed. They’re fun to shoot and who knows, you might need them some day, he’d said. And, well, as Bill had said, you never know.
My border collie mix, Speck, gave me the sad-eyed look she always gets when I load the truck. What the heck, I thought, and threw in her leash, bowl, and some food. “You can play with Knuckles at Bill’s,” I told her, and she knew exactly what I said as she ran to the SUV.
2. Help us! Please help us!
The drive was routine. I stopped in Price, picked up a Gyro sandwich at the Greek Streak, gassed up, and gave Bill a call. “Be there by around three,” I told him. We had gone a few miles past Woodside when Speck whined to get out, so I pulled off the road and looked around. A small dirt road angled away from the highway, and I could see that there were no vehicles or any reason to be concerned. I drove down the road a hundred yards or so and stopped to let Speck out without fear of her running into the highway. I had stopped in this place many times. We got out of the truck, I peed on a sagebrush and Speck raced around, sniffing and checking out all the enticing odors swirling on the breeze and gracing the trees and bushes.
“A lovely day,” I thought to myself. I whistled to Speck and headed back toward the SUV, when I saw her stop, lower her frontquarters a slight bit, and alert on something in the junipers. I whistled again. “Come on Speck, let’s go.” When she didn’t move, I took a step toward her, and as I did, she barked and backed toward me. Looking closer I saw a head lean out from behind the low trunk of a tree. Shit! Who could that be?
“Speck, come,” I yelled, hurrying toward the truck. “Speck, come here.”
Speck walked a few steps toward the tree, wagged her tail, then turned, ran to me and jumped into the back seat. I opened the front door and started to get in. A person stepped from behind the tree and waved to me. I could see that it was a woman.
“Help us,” she cried out. “Please help us.”
I hesitated for a moment, not knowing what to do. My first instinct was to jump in the Toyota and race back up to the highway. I could call 911 and send help. That’s what I would do. This could be a trap. I had heard of such things. Or maybe seen them in movies. I wasn’t going to fall for some trick. I climbed up into the seat and pulled the door closed. The woman walked out from the grove of trees, and hurried toward me. She was dirty and her clothes were torn. She was crying out with her arms extended toward me.
“Please help, please. My husband’s been shot. Please, help us.”
I don’t know why I changed my mind. Here was someone who was asking, pleading me to help her. She looked like she needed help. I guess I didn’t really think. I got out of the truck and went to her.
“Thank you,” she cried, “Oh my god, thank you.”
She turned and motioned back toward the trees.
“My husband’s been shot. They shot him. He can barely walk.”
I followed her. A man was leaning up against the trunk of a juniper tree. He was struggling to rise. His shoulder and arm were covered with blood. He looked up at me and lifted himself up on one knee.
“Hijackers,” he said. “They tried to hijack us. They’re still looking for us. Please help us get out of here. I’ll pay you. My company will pay you. Please.”
He reached up with his right arm, took hold of a branch, and rose to his feet. The woman ran to him and supported him as he steadied himself.
“Come on,” I said. “Let’s get in the truck and get out of here.” I ran to the Toyota and opened the passenger side doors. The man was unable to walk on his own, and I ran to assist his wife, who was struggling to help him. We boosted him into the back seat. Speck backed away and wagged her tail. She looked at me as if to say “I’m OK with this.”
3. A rush of lucidity
The woman closed the door and got in the front passenger seat. I went around the front, got in, started the engine, and put it in gear. I turned around in a wide spot and we headed back up the hill toward the highway.
As we approached the intersection, a tan Ford pickup with a red camper shell pulled off the pavement and onto the dirt track we were on.
“God no!” the woman cried. “It’s them. It’s the hijackers. They’re the ones, the ones who shot us.” She turned and looked at me. I could see the terror in her face. “They’ve been looking for us all night.”
The truck came straight toward us, then turned slightly and skidded to a stop, blocking the road. There was no way around them. The driver’s door opened and a man got out. He was dressed in combat fatigues, and I could see that he had a sidearm strapped to his waist. He motioned to me to stop.
I glanced over at the woman. “Turn around,” she motioned with her hands. “Please. Go! They’re after us. They’ll shoot us. They’ll kill us all! Go! Go! Please go!” She looked up. The man from the truck was striding down the gravel road directly toward us. The passenger side door opened, and another man stepped out. He was holding a rifle.
I took a breath, and somehow a rush of lucidity came over me. I moved quickly and methodically. I knew what to do without thinking about it. I gunned the engine and headed straight toward the hijacker, who dived to the side as we approached. At the last second I spun the truck around, and with tires spinning and spitting gravel we fishtailed back down the road we had just come up. I heard shots ring out. A dust cloud rose behind us and I couldn’t see anything in the rearview mirror. I hoped it would keep the hijackers from seeing us well enough to shoot accurately. After a few hundred yards, I turned to the right on a small two-track road that looked like it went nowhere, but which I knew, from somewhere deep in my memory, that it looped over the side of the hill, across a gully, and met up after a mile or so with a maintained gravel road the coal trucks used to use to get to a railroad loading facility several miles west.
I drove fast but not recklessly. I watched in my rear view mirror to see what the tan truck would do. I couldn’t see it as we went around the hill and across the gully, but as I turned on the coal road, a dust plume came up near the top of the hill. The tan truck was following us, and it was coming fast. On the better road, I floored it. I would be able to put a little space between us as our pursuer made its way down the rougher road and across the gully.
I looked over at the woman. She was in her late twenties, probably, with short, light brown hair, slim, tall, pretty, and athletic-looking. She was watching the rear view mirror, and had a frightened, intense look on her face. She looked over at me and shook her head.
“They hijacked us last night. Our semi. We were hauling a load for Family Grocers. Canned goods, shit, who knows. Grocery store stuff. We were at the rest stop, and we overslept a little. That turd,” she motioned with a nod of her head toward the mirror, “he opened up the door and yelled for us to get out, that he was ‘liberating’ our cargo. Jesus. It was like a nightmare. We should have been out of there before then, we know, but it wasn’t even really dark yet, and we thought we could make it to Green River and get on the Interstate heading east, and everything would be fine.”
She shook her head, and looked back at her husband, who appeared to be dozing.
“Craig, my husband,” she again looked back at him, “he shoved the guy away, slammed his door, and we took off. “He said ‘Hang on. To hell with these guys,’ and started going as fast as he could. They had a truck blocking the road out of the rest stop and Craig just veered to the edge of the road and caught it in the rear quarter and sent it spinning off the pavement. We hauled ass to the highway. That pickup — that tan and red one — it roared past us. That’s when they started shooting.”
She looked down and put her face in her hands. “I can’t believe it. They were shooting. At us. “Craig said to duck down, and I did. They were swerving all over and shooting at us. They hit the windshield a couple of times. Craig was trying to run them over, but we started slowing down on an uphill grade, we couldn’t catch them. They shot at the cab. At us! That’s when Craig got hit. It got him in the left shoulder, but he didn’t pay any attention. He told me to get his pistol out of the console, and I did.” She looked down at the revolver and rolled it over in her hand. “Never used it. Never had a shot.”
“How’d you get away from them? How’d they get your truck?” I asked.
“Well, when their pickup went over the hill, up ahead of us, Craig slammed on the brakes, stopped, and we jumped out and ran into the trees. We ran for a long way. A long way. Nobody followed us, but we could see that tan truck and a couple more. They got in the semi and took it away. Then they started driving up and down and back and forth on all the roads. I guess they were looking for us. All night. We didn’t have any food or water or anything, just Craig’s pistol. I’m so glad you found us. And now, shit, they’re after you too. Jesus Christ, what is going on? Who are these people?” She started to cry, then looked again in the mirror. “They might be gaining on us,” she said.
They were. I was driving fast and hard, but they were really pushing it. Maybe they’ll crash, I thought. Hoped. Hoped we wouldn’t. If we could make it to the rail loadout I could turn onto an even better road, and then it would be only a few miles back to the highway. I looked in the mirror and tried to become one with the truck and the road.
A QUICK TRIP TO MOAB will be published in Medium in short sections on a regular basis. Please recommend or share with your friends if you find it interesting or enjoyable. For a discussion of the story and related topics, and to leave comments, please visit my blog at http://ktutahjones.blogspot.com.