"This is Steve Reed with the DEA," said the man on the phone.
“You called the DEA several months ago about a possible irrigation line you found in Cuyamaca State Park,” he continued. “I have a Post-it note on my bulletin board with your phone number.”
“Ah, yeah, I did call that in,” I hesitantly confirmed.
“What do you think it is?” pressed Agent Reed.
“Well, it was an irrigation tube about one inch in diameter, buried in the pine straw and way off the main trail.”
I thought about the spring day my two hiking buddies and I were off-trail, crashing through dense thickets of tangled brush. It was growing dark, and the three of us had gotten separated. I stopped to rest and happened to look down and I saw a plastic pipe. I wondered why an irrigation tube would be way out there.
To the agent I said, “I followed the black pipe for about 20 feet before it disappeared into a thicket. At first I thought the park rangers were watering trees or something, but I wised up when I saw how well hidden it was. I hooked up with my buddies, and we returned to check out the hose before we headed back out to the main trail.”
“Can you tell me how to get there?” Agent Reed asked. “We recently had a bust at Cuyamaca, and I’m trying to find out if it’s the same location.”
I’d read about that bust in the Union-Tribune, one of the top five drug busts in San Diego County, a marijuana field with a street value of $300 million.
“No, it was too remote, real thick brush,” I said, “and it was getting dark when we left. But I think I could find it again.”
“That would be great.”
“When do you want me to look for it?”
“Tomorrow?” My brain whirled with the logistics of a deep-brush penetration on such short notice. “Would it be all right if I brought my buddies along?”
“Sure,” said Steve. “Call me if you find anything.”
I sat in my oversized La-Z-Boy, trying to sort out what had just transpired, and what was expected. I was going to assist the DEA with looking for pot in the bowels of Cuyamaca park. What, exactly, had I volunteered to do?
My hiking pals and I have nicknames we use when embarking on deep-woods diving. One friend is Bull, the other Shark. I’m Goat. I gave my friends a call.
Bull said, “I’ll have my gear packed tonight.”
Shark said, “Hell, yeah, bro, frickin’ frickin’ bro bro bro! I’ll be packin’, bro! I’ll bring MREs [meals ready to eat] for all of us.” Shark was the only one of us with military service.
When the Princess got home, I switched gears from, “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” to a more nuanced, “This is a civic duty, honey.”
Before the sun had risen above the mountains east of Santa Ysabel, Shark, Bull, and I were packed into my Dodge Ram pickup, our full packs bouncing in the open bed as we drove to Cuyamaca Rancho State Park. Arriving before the park kiosk opened, we self-registered and geared up.
Shark handed out the military MREs encased in brown plastic. “Bro, these are great! Twenty-five-hundred calories each. This is what the SEALs eat on special ops.”
Bull pulled a megaphone from his pack to insert the MRE.
Shark asked, “What’s that for, bro?”
“In case we run into any dopers,” Bull said.
We stepped off onto a well-groomed trail. Our boots crunching dirt made a muffled sound. High-pitched bird calls emanated from the dead pine treetops, announcing us as intruders. After a half mile, the trail gently dropped to a creek bed. Clear water gurgled between white-barked mountain lilac saplings and tall weeds choked with poison oak.
“This is it,” I said hesitantly, not quite trusting my recollection.
“You sure?” said Bull.
“It must be. I remember this creek.”
“Let’s go,” whispered Shark, not wanting to be seen out on the groomed trail.
We headed uphill into heavy brush, looking for a deer skull we’d found on the previous trip; we hoped to use it as a location marker. Inevitably, we parted ways, as each man chose his own brush-choked maze.
For the next half hour, we tried in vain to penetrate the green wall, finding no passage short of a belly crawl into the labyrinth. We retreated back to the trail. We were breathing deeply from our failed efforts, our camouflage outfits embedded with twigs and leaves.
I apologized for the energy and time lost. “I could have sworn we came out just before a creek last time.”
“We’ll never get through that mess,” Bull said. “Let’s keep going on the trail.”
A few minutes later, we felt the cooler, moist air of another brook ahead. We crossed the water and ascended the left bank. The brush here was patchy, with gaps between clumps. Shark motioned with military-style hand signals that he’d found the deer skull; we knew it was the same one by a puncture wound below its right eye, probably a cougar kill.
With renewed resolve, we now became human pinballs, bouncing off impassable bumpers of brush into narrow passes that ejected us finally onto a grassy hillside. The buckwheat-covered slope ran along the same creek we’d crossed earlier. The creek was choked with thickets and blackened trunks of oak and white fir, the dead titans mutely testifying to the devastating Cedar Creek fire.
“Man, I smell a skunk,” I whispered to Shark.
“I smell it, too. Frick, it has to be close, bro.”
It dawned on us simultaneously — it might not be a skunk. Shark halted. He pulled out his camo binoculars, glassing the wall of emerald foliage below. “Goat, take a look there, bro.” He handed me the binoculars. I swung the glasses in the general direction of the creek. “Do you frickin’ see it?” Shark said. “Between the two trees, 30 yards into the brush, bro.”