Trouble In Paradise

Homeless mother, son ordered off federal forest


As two armed U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers and two Gila County Task Force agents prepared Aug. 9 to investigate a suspicious campsite in national forest south of Payson, they didn't know what sort of nefarious activity they might be up against.

At least one of the lawmen thought they were about to bust up a methamphetamine lab. But for all they knew, the camp which had been spotted and reported earlier that day by a helicopter pilot leaving Payson Regional Medical Center could have been a marijuana patch guarded by shady-looking characters with assault rifles. Or some secret, rabid encampment of Branch Davidians. Or just an abandoned trailer and a mass of discarded junk.

Wading through the juniper scrub, the officers were ready for anything ... except what they actually found:

A manicured garden, filled with thriving squash, tomato and pumpkin plants.

Laboriously constructed rock walls and goldfish ponds.

A covered patio reminiscent of one that might have been built by the Swiss Family Robinson in Disney's romanticized movie version of the tale.

Homeless on the range

The officers also found the camp's otherwise homeless residents Tess Johnson, 51, and her 31-year-old son, Freddie Jones who spent the past three-and-a-half years of their lives creating this mini-Eden.

Although there was no evidence of violence, drugs, alcohol or squalor, the lawmen conducted a weapons search.

It was successful. They uncovered the slingshot Freddie uses to shoo javelinas away from the vegetable patch.

As tensions eased, Tess says, one officer told her admiringly, "I love your garden." Another, she says, compared the raid with a visit to Aunt Mae's house.

Still, laws had been broken.

The squatters were informed that no one is allowed to live in the forest. They were cited for "illicitly occupying national forest for residential purposes." They were ordered to appear in court in Phoenix, and warned that they'd be fined between $500 to $5,000.

Tess and Freddie's total weekly income ranges from $30 to $50, earned by collecting aluminum cans and doing bits of yard work. The last $8 Tess earned, she says, was spent on a Hall's Honeysuckle to further spruce up her patio.

The final Forest Service order, Tess says, was that she and Freddie had to restore the small chunk of forest they'd been inhabiting to its natural state; to take down the rock work and patio, pull up their plants, restore the spot's natural branch-strewn disorder, and remove all history of themselves from the area within two weeks.

Despite her fear, Tess was sufficiently bold to ask if she and Freddie could stay long enough to harvest her pumpkins and squash for which she and her son had spent two months of summer draught hauling water, by hand, from the reservation across Highway 87, about a quarter-mile away.

"I was told, 'No way, the law is the law,'" Tess says.

The kindness of strangers

Not everyone who participated in what Tess calls "the raid" was so officious. The next day, Dan Smith of the U.S. Forest Service visited the camp with Pastor Gary Knighton of the First Southern Baptist Church.

Knighton offered Tess and Freddie financial help, but Tess refused. "It's dangerous to fall into the trap of expecting a handout for every setback that comes along," she says.

Tess and Freddie have long received spiritual guidance from Carlos Lopez, a resident of the Tonto Apache Reservation and a born-again Christian who discovered them during a hike through the forest.

Lopez has already recruited some friends to help the couple dismantle their garden and cart off their belongings. He also has initiated talks with his tribal council in hopes that it might allow Tess and Freddie to occupy a small piece of land on the reservation.

"These are wonderful people," Lopez says. "How could anyone who meets them not want to help them?"

This isn't the first time Tess has relied on Lopez for moral support. Although she has always refused his offers of money, Tess says, "Carlos sometimes sneaks up here when we're sleeping and leaves some for us."

Carlos was there, too, when she struggled to break away from an addiction to alcohol that caused her legal problems two years ago. Tess has been sober ever since and that, she says, explains the new, sturdy friendships she's recently made, as well as her renewed passions for outdoor life, fresh air and making things grow.

"We're country people," she says. "We like to dig and move rocks around. When we found this spot, we thought, 'Let's create a garden. This might be our only chance ever to create a garden.'"

Tess and Freddie

Tess and her late husband, Michael, grew up in the Ozarks of Missouri, where they supported their early married years and young son by harvesting ginseng and goldenseal. Michael died of liver cancer not long after the family moved to Phoenix in early 1997.

"I went crazy," Tess says. "I didn't know what else to do, so I went crazy."

It was then that Tess came to Payson, desperately looking for a new start for herself and Freddie, whom she lovingly refers to as "simple."

Whatever the cause of that simplicity, Freddie's interests and body language are more suggestive of a 12-year-old boy than a 31-year-old man. Yet he's a voracious reader of novels well beyond the age his behavior suggests. His favorite authors are Tom Clancy and Stephen Coonts. Right now he's working on Del Brown's thriller, "Fatal Terrain."

And clearly, Freddie knows more about gardening, rock walls, landscaping and the great outdoors than most men his age.

"I've been very lucky," Tess says, demonstrating her unstoppable ability to find and cherish silver linings. "Most children grow up and move away. But I've got my little boy forever."

Homeless on the range

Tess marvels that so many people have been so kind during this latest "setback" including the Forest Service and police officials who make daily checks on the camp to ensure that she and her son are complying with their orders.

"They've made a very nice home for themselves out there," says Forest Service District Ranger Ed Armenta. "It's beautiful. And it's impossible not to feel sympathetic toward them. Unfortunately, you can't do what they're doing in the national forest."

Armenta says he's done all that he can for Tess and Freddie which is to extend the deadline given them to "restore" and vacate the area.

"When they were first found, they were given two weeks, which means they'd have to be out by Aug. 23. If we see that they're working to remove everything, we'll extend the deadline. But if they aren't doing anything, well, we won't have any choice. We'll have to arrest them."

"It's a sad situation, to be honest with you," says one Gila County Task Force official. "Your heart goes out to folks like that, because there's nothing in Gila County for them."

A task force officer who was first on the scene says, "If the Forest Service guys hadn't been there, we probably would have said, 'Have a good day,' and walked away from it. We didn't want any part of it."

Dismantling Eden

Tess and Freddie are now working as hard to erase their tiny, homemade paradise as they did to create it.

"I think they wish they hadn't found us," Tess says of the men who raided her garden. But she says she understands that even the kindest of those lawmen have orders to follow, too.

It's just the big picture that Tess finds hard to grasp.

"What is this forest for?" she asks. "It's not Sequoias, or even tall pines. There's no water. No one comes here, not even the Forest Service. That's why we lived here for three-and-a-half years without being found.

"Most people today only see the woods from the roads or paths someone builds. Why can't they let poor people live on little pieces of land like this? To prove they're good caretakers, like in homesteading days?"

Tess points out that she and Freddy have cleared the junipers in the area of all mistletoe, a tree-killing parasite, and that there's other positive work they could do.

"We could thin the brush, make fire breaks. Look at the millions of acres burning this summer because the forest is overgrown. We've made this place better for wildlife, not worse. There was no water out here in the draught. We hauled water the tribe gave us not only for ourselves, but for the javelinas and rabbits and birds."

Freddie has even named many of their furred and feathered land-mates. There's Spla, the giant blue jay. Boomwac, the raven. Jack, the giant jackrabbit.

"Here are millions of acres the government owns," says Tess, continuing on the subject of how things ought to be. "They say it belongs to the people, but the people can't use it and will never see most of it. It's almost like the bad old days in England when kings owned all the land and shot poor people who took game so their families wouldn't starve."

Tess then broods over a society she says is obsessed with money and possessions.

"Freddie and I have everything we need on only a few dollars a week. We know every tree, rock, cactus and animal around. We don't need a house that costs $800 a month. Lots of people can't afford that and we don't even want it. We only need a piece of ground to take care of."

And Tess dreams on, hoping that Carlos or God or someone will lead her and Freddie to a patch of ground where they can start a "magic garden" all over again.

"Surely we could be caretakers of land somewhere," she says. "We've learned to do so many things. And we're experts at taking out mistletoe."

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