Editor’s Note: This year commemorates the Morgan boys’ historic trek along the John Muir Trail in California. The adventure was well documented in Beachcomber, and the following article—the third of three—appeared in our September 17, 2009 issue.
We left camp by the light of the moon, undetected by our increasingly disturbed fellow hikers. Chatham had a map and, with the help of a GPS, we made our way to the nearest highway, seven miles to the west.
By mid-morning, we were hiking alongside Highway 49, a rural road that would eventually take us back to Fresno. We were a rugged-looking trio, to be sure. Two weeks without a bath and covered in dust, we looked more like homeless vagrants than upscale hikers.
The highway we were on passed through thousands of acres of some sort of orchards. We could see smoke rising from the coastal mountain range to our west. During the day, the smoke intensified and firefighting vehicles kept passing us, heading for the mountains.
“Boys,” I said. “We are looking at what appears to be the smoke from a raging California wildfire.”
As a child, I had considered a career as a fireman. I have always been fascinated with fire, and consequently have studied a variety of firefighting techniques. Also, I had seen the movie Backdraft.
“Someone needs to set a ‘back fire’,” I said. “These fire trucks and helicopters are too busy heading towards the Pacific.”
“Wow, Dad,” Eddie said. “Don’t you think we’re in enough trouble already? We’ve basically killed a man and buried him without telling anybody. We’ve left our hiking party without notice, and then there’s that horrible stuff that happened with Mongol the mule.”
“There’s still an opportunity for us to be heroes, boys,” I said. “And these opportunities don’t come along everyday.”
I gave each of the boys a handful of Ready Wipes, and we stretched along a mile of the highway.
“Just start lighting these things, and toss them over there in the brush,” I told them.
In minutes, a solid wall of flame shot up from the dry grasses lining Highway 49.
“That should help protect this area from the forest fire,” I said confidently.
Almost immediately, there was a wind shift. And not just a light breeze.
“Jeez,” Chatham said. “That wind just shifted directions, and it feels like it’s blowing 30 knots.”
“That might present a little problem,” I mumbled to myself.
Within minutes, the orchards that appeared to stretch for miles became engulfed in a sizzling hot blaze.
“I studied dendrology in college,” I said. “But I’ll be danged if I can identify what kind of trees those are.”
Across the highway, from a barn-like structure, men in turbans began running toward us.
“Those guys look like Iranians,” Eddie said. “And they don’t look happy.”
“Iranians never look happy,” I said. “Can you understand what they’re saying?”
“I don’t know what they’re saying,” said Chatham. “And I don’t know if it’s a good sign or a bad sign, but there are a lot of cop cars heading this way.”
Behind me, I heard a car door slam. Over a loudspeaker, we heard the chilling words: “Stop…don’t move!”
A burly California Highway Patrolman charged toward us. “What are you idiots doing?” he asked.
“We were setting a back fire to take some of the heat out of that approaching wildfire, sir,” I said.
“Well, what you’ve done is set about 10,000 acres of pistachio, almond, pomegranate and apricot orchards afire,” he said. “These Iranians here are a rough bunch on a good day, and this doesn’t look like a good day.
“All of you, get in that patrol car!” he shouted over the bizarre noise of the roaring fire and the chanting Iranians.
“Either you guys are total idiots or are some sort of reverse-terrorist vigilante group,” the cop said over his shoulder as we sped off, sirens blaring.
It has been almost a month now, and we are still awaiting a hearing and arraignment on charges ranging from simple arson to manslaughter and the commission of a hate crime.
The boys and I left almost two months ago on an innocent hike in the Sierras and today we are incarcerated in San Quentin Prison. I am in cellblock D, section 3. The boys are in the same building, but are below me in section 2.
If there is a God in heaven, would someone please contact Ret. Col. Jim Tucker and Lt. Col. (Ret.) Anthony Herbert? They are good men, and they know all about freedom.
Alert them to our current situation. Also, let them know that the guards change shifts at 11 PM.