On the Run in Arizona

Arizona vista

The gunshot froze me in my tracks, instantly changing me from fleeing runner to mannequin in tech fiber. A towering rancher in a Stetson yelled “Stop!” in Spanish and English, then, “put your hands up!” He pointed a cannon-sized pistol at me.

“It’s ok,” I called, “I’m…”

“SIT down in the fucking dirt with your hands UP!” he boomed back. I shut up and did what he said.

In every new place we explore, I try to learn the local landscape by going for a long run. On this December day, we’d awoke in southern Arizona, a vast expanse of wind-swept plateaus stretching into Mexico. It was beautiful and quiet—at least until the gunfire started.

I’d set off on a dirt trail on public land that wrapped around a small mountain. As I scampered up the mountain’s slopes I could enjoy sweeping views of open land speckled with cattle and an occasional house below. And I could see a Border Patrol balloon floating to the south.

Eventually, the terrain became tenuous and steep. The run became more of a jog-climb, with my hands hanging onto scrub brush while my legs tried to dodge cactus spikes. Cold, scratched and ready to get indoors, I decided backtracking was a bad option.

I could see a more direct path down that cut through a ranch. While trespassing is rarely a smart option, I spotted a truck kicking up dirt as it headed toward the ranch’s house. I ran toward the truck and waved both arms to try and get the driver’s attention.

He didn’t appear to notice me. Instead, the hulking rancher parked his vehicle by the house, stepped from the truck, and peed into the bushes. Great. Now I wasn’t just a trespasser; I was a peeping tom. I saw the newspaper headline in my mind: “Idiot trespassing tourist buried after being repeatedly run over by rancher.” I decided to sneak off. Staying low to the fence, I’d taken a few strides away from the driveway when—bang!—the shot rang out.

As this was my first time being held at gunpoint, I wasn’t exactly sure what to do. The rancher, who looked like late-career Marlon Brando wearing a 10-gallon hat, walked toward me, his hand-cannon trained on me with every step. Time to talk fast.

A thorny situation

A *cough* thorny situation.

“Hey, I’m Dakota from Portland and I think we’ve got a mix up here,” I said, explaining as quickly as I could that I was just a tourist out for a run.

Maybe I was very convincing, or maybe the rancher assessed that a yellow windbreaker and short-shorts were an unlikely outfit for a drug mule, but either way his eyes softened. He stuck out a giant, calloused hand, shook my shoulder out of the socket, and said, “Howdy, I’m Jim. Come on in. I’ll introduce you to the wife. And get you a clean pair of drawers.”

Over lunch and a subsequent tour of his ranching operation, Jim told me about his life. After completing several tours in Vietnam, Jim directed a pearl farm in the South Pacific and eventually became head of production at Gallo wines. He’d since retired to this ranch along the border—a beautiful place, but one where he regularly encounters wanderers carrying backpacks stuffed with cocaine, and has come face-to-face with drug runners brandishing AK-47s. He’s lost friends to the traffickers, he said.

But Jim’s outlook surprised me. Instead of cracking down, he said, “We need to legalize drugs in this country. It’s impossible to keep the stuff out.” On immigration: “When I was a kid, there was a work exchange program where people came from Mexico every year and worked for ranchers for six months, then headed back to their families. No visas, no headaches. Those guys were like family.”

I found the conversation fascinating, and Jim must’ve decided he liked me because the next night, he and his wife treated my wife and me to dinner. We talked for hours—us, the liberals from the Pacific Northwest, them, the conservative ranchers with a surprising outlook—and left false assumptions behind us.

Later, when we said goodbye to our new friends, Jim invited me to run on his ranch anytime. “But next time, call first.” And you know I will.

Arizona panorama