That's the story I kept telling myself during my sweat-soaked summer job cooking green chile burgers at a snack shop outside of Los Alamos, New Mexico. It was 1996.
My good friend and college roommate Shane Ortega had invited me to come live with his family in Santa Fe, New Mexico that summer. I jumped at the chance, figuring I could experience an altogether new part of the country and, just as importantly, make some money. The offer: Selling handmade turquoise and silver jewelry at his dad's upscale Native American store, Ortega's on the Plaza.
By the time I showed up, the deal had... changed.
Mr. Ortega: "As it turns out Mike, we're overstaffed at the jewelry store this summer, but I've found a nice spot for you over at Bandelier."
Shane (belly laughing over beers later that first night): "Hah! Is that what he told you? I just figure dad got one look at your hippie haircut and concluded it'd hurt sales."
I embraced my long-haired fate. Bandelier National Monument preserved the cave dwellings of the ancestral Pueblo. The park was a 45 mile, one-hour drive from Santa Fe. A long commute for a fry cook, but the views were just incredible: Driving along the western slope of the blood-red Sangre de Cristo Mountains and then into the winding yellow switchbacks of the Jemez Mountains where I worked, I felt like I was in a car commercial.
I usually chose to drive the Ortega's Ford Explorer to work, because SUV's felt equal parts novel and macho in 1996. As a bonus, their fancy "Eddie Bauer Edition" Explorer had a CD player featuring Billboard Hits 1983 on eternal repeat. (Digression: I can still remember that aqua blue CD cover by heart, and to this day can't hear "Down Under" by Men at Work without expecting Michael Sembello's "Maniac" to follow, and "Africa" by Toto next, and...)
On the day in question, the Explorer was otherwise spoken for, so I'm stuck driving home from work in Mr. Ortega's "other" car, an unassuming powder blue Ford Taurus with, alas, no CD player. There are some Leonard Cohen cassette tapes in the console, but I opt for news radio (No disrespect to Mr. Cohen, of course).
As I head home from the snack shop, sun setting behind me, I'm concentrating on a story about a bomb going off at the Atlanta Olympics when I notice blue and red lights behind me. No worries: The police car is in the other lane and heading west, so it must be somebody... WAIT.
Now the police car is making a U-Turn, over the divided highway median, and heading my way. Rural New Mexico rush hour being a bit different than Chicago, it's clear that he's after *me* as I'm the only car around.
I look down at my speedometer: Pretty normal: Needle at "1 o'clock", so, probably, what, 75? I squint to check.
I'm doing 104.
In a 45.
Turns out that the powder-blue "backup car" was, in fact, a Ford Taurus SHO. SHO stood for "Super High Output" engines. (or as we called them back in Chicago, Cop Engines.) Top speed: 145.
I pull over.
The police officer, whose own SUV reads "DEA / Border Patrol", walks up slowly, his aviator glasses making him look disconcertingly like Robert Patrick's T-1000 from Terminator 2.
Officer: "I'm not even going to ask you if you know how fast you were going. I'm just going to ask you to come up with an excuse while I go write your reckless driving citation and tell the county jail to make some space."
He saunters back to his truck while I fight off panic. About 5 minutes pass, and he walks back.
"Let's hear it."
Me: "Officer. Honestly, as a kid from the Midwest, the natural beauty of your Southwestern sunset against this mountain skyline had me feeling like I was in a car commercial."
Officer: "That's the stupidest $%^& I've ever heard."
Officer: "New Mexico law says 20 over is reckless driving. I clocked you at about 3 times that, which means I have to charge you $2,000.00 and toss you in jail for two weeks. Minimum."
Officer: "But it's your lucky day son. You ain't in New Mexico. Heck, you ain't even technically in the U.S. right now. You're in the San Ildefonso Pueblo Nation. Indian land son. They'll see your @#$ in Tribal Court."
A devout Catholic, Mr. Ortega received my detailed confession that evening. Shaken, I asked him if he knew anything about Tribal Court. He leaned back in his leather chair, striking a reflective pose. "Well, some of the other tribes would probably scalp you for something like this, but the San I are a pretty reasonable bunch." He smiled, "I suggest you plead 'No Contendo Tonto'".
Two weeks had gone by since the incident without my hearing anything from anyone. I'd honestly thought/hoped the policeman was pulling my leg, but the phone finally rang early on a Saturday morning. "Mr. Bechtel? This is Irene from San I. The Judge will see you today at 10:00am." Crap.
I showered and shaved very quickly, and then drove very slowly (45 mph, naturally) to the reservation. Irene escorted me to the courtroom, where I sat alone in the front center seat for what felt like an eternity.
The Judge walked in at 10:30. I figure he was about 5'7, and somewhere between 60 and 75 years old. He had very long white braided hair and wore a denim suit with a bolo tie. He reviewed some paperwork for a moment, and then looked up at me. He looked peeved.
"Your people have been murdering my people for 4 centuries."
(Oh boy, this is going to be a disaster.)
"First with your weapons, then with your disease."
(Yep. Full-on Guns, Germs, and Steel catastrophe.)
"Today, you continue to kill my brothers and sisters with your white man's water and your mechanical steeds."
(Alcohol & automobiles, respectively.)
"You've hurt my people with your carelessness. Tell me. What would it take for me to hurt you?"
My face must've given away my escalating dread, as The Judge's eyes finally softened a hair:
"How much money should I take from you today?"
(Oh Thank Goodness...)
Though I was dumb enough to find myself in this courtroom in the first place, I was smart enough to know that this was a delicate question. Answer too low, and I offend him. Answer too high, and a summer's worth of green chile burger flipping has been for naught.
"I made a big stupid mistake disrespecting your people, and I apologize deeply for it. I don't have very much money, but I realize that my crime carries a $2,000 fine in America, so I'd understand if you took that from me."
The Judge: "But... Today you will drive from one end of my nation to the other, and then back again. You will stop every time you see a white cross at the side of the road, and you will write down the name of the brother or sister who died because of your careless driving."
I was blown away.
The Judge: "If you miss any of these markers, I will double your fine and send you out again to repeat your task. And no, I will not tell you how many you are to be looking for. I expect your homework turned in by 5 pm today."
Needless to say, the next 4 hours were the most depressing, soul-crushing, headache-inducing and effective punishment I've ever had in my life.
I honestly don't remember any of their names, but I do remember breaking down at a group of 3 crosses together: A mother and 2 young children killed by a drunk driver.
26 miles later (13 west, 13 east) I turned in my list of 14 names to Irene at the front desk. She brought it back to The Judge. He put on his reading glasses, skimmed/counted the names, and said:
"You found them all, and you've learned your lesson. Because you're an adult in our culture, I will not be notifying your family about this (I was 20). Because we do not believe in your banks and whatnot, I will not be telling your insurance about this either. Please write Irene a check for $250 and never come back."
To this day, I acknowledge that this is probably the most meaningful thing to have ever happened to me. (Not counting my bride and brood, of course.)
The Judge taught me something bigger than "Don't Drive Like A Jerk". (Though he certainly did that in spades).
I'm grateful that The Judge taught me, first hand, about the power of conscientious reflection. About mindfulness. He could've taken ten times as much of my money, but he decided to take away a little of my ignorance instead. As a result, he helped create a better driver, citizen, and person.
I'm grateful that I didn't end up in the Los Alamos County Jail for 2 weeks, $2,000 lighter, with a lifetime of sky-high insurance rates to boot. Not just because that would all "suck royally" (to use 1996 language), but because I suspect I would've been hardened, rather than heightened, by that experience.
"Intelligence is the ability to learn from your mistakes. Wisdom is the ability to learn from the mistakes of others."
Stay wise my friends.