The big fire was still burning, but word was the smaller fire—started by a lightning strike—was under control. Word was the one route back up the mountain was open again, although the road I found the quickest and easiest way from civilization to my campground (although not exactly quick and easy) was still closed.
I began the slow, curvy drive up the mountain late in the afternoon.
When I got to the area where the lightning had struck and started the fire, I didn’t see any flames and very little smoke. What I did see were firefighters. The firefighters who weren’t actively fighting whatever fire was still burning were milling about on the road’s narrow shoulders, eating sandwiches, drinking water, catching a little rest. I reduced the van’s speed even further. I don’t ever want to hit anyone with my large motor vehicle, but I particularly did not want to be the asshole who hit somebody working to save the forest.
As I got through the main congestion of firefighters, I noticed a truck was behind me. At the next turnout, I pulled off the road so the truck could pass me, which it did. I noticed it was a Forest Service truck, which didn’t concern me. I’d just passed at least a dozen Forest Service vehicles and wasn’t surprised to see one on the road with me.
I hadn’t gone far when I saw the same Forest Service truck parked in another turnout.
That’s weird, I thought. What kind of game is the driver playing?
I passed the truck and it pulled out behind me.
It’s just going to have to go slow while it follows me, I thought, because I’m not pulling off for it to pass me again.
I slowly made my way through the mountain road’s curves while the truck followed behind. Just as I approached a large turnout, I saw the truck had lights on its roof, and those lights were flashing.
What the fuck? I thought, as I realized the truck was carrying at least one L-E-O.
“L-E-O” stands for “Law Enforcement Officer.” L-E-Os work for the Forest Service and carry guns. They’re tree cops and I think of them the way I think of any cops: don’t trust ‘em—don’t like ‘em.
Immediately after maneuvering the van into the turnout, I fumbled around to silence the podcast playing on my phone. I was listening to Risk, and I didn’t want a bawdy story or salty language making the upcoming interaction unnecessarily awkward. I also didn’t want to have to shout to be heard.
The second thing I did was put my hands on the steering wheel. I didn’t want to get shot because a tree cop thought I was reaching for a weapon.
There were two L-E-Os, actually. One came to my driver’s side window. He was probably in his early 30s, tall, with dark hair and beard both clipped short. He would have been handsome but for his chosen profession.
I told him through the small triangular window on my side of the van that the main window on that side doesn’t roll down. He said he’d go around to the passenger side, where the window goes down halfway.
Right off, he asked me if I were alone in the van. I told him I was.
He said, Because I can’t see in there. I don’t know if someone’s in there pointing a gun at me.
I thought, If I had a job that made me constantly worried about being shot, I’d get a new job. I succeeded in keeping the thought to myself. Instead, I repeated that I was alone in the van, and I told him I had no guns. Then I told him I was a camp host heading back to my campground.
I thought I’d probably been pulled over because there were so few people headed up the mountain. Maybe I looked suspicious by virtue of being on a road currently barely traveled. I thought when I said I was a camp host, I’d immediately be sent on my way, but no.
First, the L-E-O wanted to know what campground I was the host at. Fair enough, so I told him. Then he wanted to know the location of the campground. He was new to the area, he said, and he didn’t know his way around. Riiiiight. I know when my story’s being checked out. But I went ahead and explained the campground’s location.
I suppose he had to justify his reason for hassling me, because he told me he’d pulled me over because of the cracks in my windshield.
Those cracks have been in my windshield since I bought the van. They do not obstruct my view. No city or county or state cop in New Mexico or Arizona or Nevada or California had pulled me over because of the cracks in the windshield, but suddenly a tree cop was worried about it? Is a cracked windshield really a federal issue?
I was both annoyed and trying not to laugh at this guy. I told him I was working as a camp host so I could get the windshield replaced as soon as I returned to my home state. (I didn’t bother to tell him I’d planned to get it replaced last year but the $500 of transmission work, the four new tires, and the installation of a new fuel pump had blown my windshield budget.)
The entire time I was talking to L-E-O #1, L-E-O #2 (a young, short, bald guy) was walking around the van, looking underneath it, trying to peer into all my windows.
Then L-E-O #1 asked if he could see my driver’s license, if I had it handy. (I wonder what he would have said had I told him in fact it wasn’t handy.) It was in my bag next to my seat, so I fished it out and handed it to him. He walked off with it; I think it’s a good bet he took it to his truck to call in my name and license number. Surely L-E-O #2 had already called in the number on my license plate.
When he returned my license to me, L-E-O #1 said that while having a cracked windshield was a ticketable offense, he wasn’t going to give me a ticket since that doesn’t seem to be what you need right now.
(Does anyone jump into her or his vehicle and think, What I need right now is to get a ticket because I have a cracked windshield I haven’t been able to afford to replace?)
Then L-E-O #1 thanked me for driving carefully around all the firefighters. To me this meant he and his little tree cop buddy had to make up a reason to pull me over since they hadn’t seen me violate any traffic laws.
When I got back on the road, the L-E-Os followed me for about a quarter of a mile. I thought they might follow me all the way back to my campground, but they must have gotten bored with my slow and careful driving, because they turned around and headed back toward the firefighters.
No one else has had anything to say about the cracks in my windshield since that afternoon. Getting the windshield replaced is as the top of my list of things to do, just as soon as I get out of super expensive California.