Heard around the West

by Betsy Marston

CALIFORNIA

What a surprise for two off-roaders in the California Desert, who ventured farther off-road than was good for them. Driving a Suzuki Samurai in a restricted area managed by the Bureau of Land Management, they blasted over a ridge and plunged 30 feet straight down an abandoned mineshaft. "I can still hear that scraping as we were going down," said Gary Mertle, 62, of Sebastopol, Calif. Mertle broke his arm, reports the Yuma Sun, and his friend, Umberto Cheli, 67, of Santa Rosa, suffered a scraped head. The two spent an uncomfortable 20 hours at the bottom of the shaft before they were rescued. During the night, Cheli said that "some sort of animal" near the top of the shaft knocked rocks in on them. It took a crane to remove the vehicle, and you can see more photos of its extraction on the Bureau of Land Management’s site for California, headlined: "Stay on Designated Routes," at www.tinyurl.com/muzms

COLORADO

The carpool-lane scofflaw who got busted for hauling a doll-like companion in his car had a good time carrying out his punishment. A Westminster municipal judge ordered Greg Pringle, 54, to stand by the side of a busy highway and its HOV lane for four hours, holding aloft a huge sign that read: "HOV LANE IS NOT FOR DUMMIES." Drivers honked and waved at Pringle, reports the Denver Post, and Pringle did a lot of waving back while also chatting with reporters. Accompanying him during this roadside mission — just as she did in the passenger seat of his car — was "Tillie," the badly dressed fake passenger he chauffeured for nearly a year. "She’s hurting," Pringle said. "She wants to be free and riding in that fast lane." Tillie quickly became a collector’s item, selling on eBay recently for $15,000. Pringle donated the proceeds to a group that promotes safe driving, but he’ll no doubt miss Tillie’s company: She cut his commute time to downtown Denver by 30 minutes.

THE WORLD

A boom in the market price for steel and aluminum is sending the price of scrap metal sky-high all over the world. It’s also sparked a destructive streak in thieves, who have begun making off with light poles, manhole covers, plumbing supplies from building sites, aluminum luggage carts, and in Oregon recently, parts of a bridge. The Wall Street Journal reports that in the Willamette National Forest, two men and a woman donned orange vests to look like workers, put out traffic cones and then calmly cut away a bridge’s steel crossbeams and handrails. Before they were nabbed, the trio stripped two other bridges, says the Bureau of Land Management, trucking some 3 1/2 tons of steel to a scrap yard outside Salem, the state capital. And what’s another growing target of metals thieves? Beer kegs.

MONTANA

A couple’s dream of a home in the Flathead Valley turned into a nightmare, reports the Whitefish Pilot. It began when the contractor promised to build a 7,500 square-foot house for a total of $750,000. By the time the bills hit $4 million, the couple, from Colorado, knew something had gone badly wrong. It turns out the contractor had been spending their money on 18 vehicles, including a Hummer, plus real estate and expensive accessories for himself. The couple won a $3.1 million judgment against the contractor, reports the Pilot, but unfortunately he has fled the area.

UTAH

Booming St. George in southern Utah has an odd disconnect going when it comes to the price of new homes. The Spectrum noted recently that while median household income was a reasonable $40,000, the median price of homes featured in a 25-home public tour was a hefty $1 million, with a $955,000 home considered "affordable" and "normal." The most expensive house on the popular $10 tour cost $5.3 million and enclosed 10,723 square-feet. Its footprint on the land was unusual: Part of an ancient lava-rock field had to be blasted flat by 3,400 sticks of dynamite. The place dumbfounded one visitor, who exclaimed: "This is indescribable. It bankrupts the English language." The homeowners say they will live in their new house six months of the year, spending the rest of the time in Montana.

CALIFORNIA

Military recruiters may be more desperate than reported. In Saugus, Calif., 78-year-old Sonia Goldstein received a flattering letter from the Marine Corps, asking her to enlist because her talents were needed by the "few and the proud." Goldstein told the Associated Press that even though she uses a walker to get around, she’d do what she could for this country. "But you know, this is kind of stretching it a bit."

Betsy Marston is editor of Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado. Tips of Western oddities are always appreciated and often shared in the column, Heard around the West.

© High Country News