Wings of the Eagle
Thomas Calabrese – Editor and Contributing Writer – -Greg Nielsen
The Bears Ears National Monument is located in San Juan County in southeastern Utah. The area within the monument is largely undeveloped and contains a wide array of historic, cultural and natural resources. Four local Native American tribes; the Navajo Nation, Hopi, Utes and the Pueblos have ancestral ties to the region. The monument includes the area around the Bears Ears formation and adjacent land to the southeast along the Comb Ridge formation, as well as a separate section at Indian Creek Canyon to the northeast, Valley of the Gods to the south and the Dark Canyon Wilderness to the north and west. The monument is named Bears Ears for a pair of buttes that rise to elevations over 8,900 feet.
In 1848, the land was purchased from Mexico as part of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. In the 1860s, the Navajos were forced to leave their ancestral lands in what became known as the long walk to Fort Sumner. However, some Navajos were able to stay in southern Utah by hiding in canyons. The history of these Navajo “differs somewhat from other Navajo tribes, due to years of their interactions with Utes and Paiutes, as well as Mormon and non-Mormon settlers, ranchers, and traders. Bears Ears has been looted and vandalized throughout history.
The three Marines had been friends for over 15 years. They first met on deployment in Afghanistan and stayed in touch as their military commitments took them to various locations around the world. As luck or as a series of fortuitous events fell into place, Colonel Steve Montoya, Lt. Colonel Greg Whittington and Major Anthony Pace happened to be at Camp Pendleton during this time in the later stages of their careers.
Colonel Montoya was currently the Commanding Officer of the 5th Marine Regiment and this would be his last duty station before retiring after 26 years. His mother, Elena was born in San Juan de la Vega, Mexico, which made Steve eligible for dual citizenship. He completed the necessary paperwork fourteen years ago, not knowing if he would ever use it. As a well-prepared Marine, Colonel Montoya lived by the philosophy that it is always better to have something and not need it, than to need it and not have it.
A major motivation in getting Mexican citizenship was when his father, John, retired from the Mission Viejo public works department and his parents moved to San Miguel de Allende, often called the best small city in the world.
As his own retirement got closer, Steve discussed with his wife, Ava, on possible sites for their retirement. There was a time that California was on their list, but that changed. The state had high taxes, a rising homeless population and skyrocketing home prices. Politics in the Golden State were also in stark contrast to the Montoya’s’ conservative core values.
When Steve made a firm decision on what date he was going to retire, his wife made a list of places to visit. They considered Coeur D’Alene, Idaho, St. George, Utah and Gardnerville, Nevada. Each had something that they liked, but something just didn’t feel right.
Steve took two weeks leave and he and Ava traveled to Chiang Mai, Thailand. The place had everything as well as a very low cost of living. The drawback was that it was a 19 hour flight from the West Coast and it would be hard for the Montoya children, Mike and Gina, to visit them. Mike was working at Lake Tahoe for the Heavenly Valley ski resort in the winter and was a smoke jumper for the Forestry Service in the summer. Gina had just started working as a speech therapist with the Bonsall school district.
While flying back from Thailand, Ava questioned her husband, “Is there any particular reason why you are so hesitant to go to Mexico?”
Steve was surprised, “Really, I thought for sure that was off the table.”
“You never put it on the table,” Ava replied.
Steve said, “You’re telling me that all this time I’ve been thinking you didn’t want to go because I have family south of the border. I thought you wanted a fresh start. “
“And I thought the same thing about you. I know your mom and dad and they’ve never been the intrusive type. They have their ways of doing things and we have ours. I don’t think that either one of us are going to change at this point in our lives, no matter how close we live to each other. Even when they were only 50 miles away from Pendleton, we still only saw each other maybe once or twice a month, and that was only when we contacted them.”
Steve suggested, “We’ll take a trip down there and see what it has to offer. If we like it, then we’ll tell my parents.”
“Sounds like a good plan to me,” Ava agreed.
While Steve was busy on a training mission with his unit, Ava decided to take a short visit to San Miguel de Allende on her own. The military term for her excursion was a ‘scouting patrol’ but in the civilian world she just wanted to move at her own pace.
Steve asked for this promise as they drove down Interstate-5, “Good or bad, I want an objective assessment of the area. Do not be influenced or swayed by the fact that I have family in the area. You’ll be living there too…don’t forget that. ”
“Roger that, Colonel.”
Ava had booked a five-day travel package through the local AAA office on Vista Way in Oceanside. Her flight left Tijuana Airport on Tuesday morning for Queretaro. It was a 3-hour flight and a distance of 1350 miles. From the airport, she took a hotel shuttle to the Rosewood San Miguel de Allende. The military wife had done her research before departing the United States and she got a direct flight and the best hotel rates.
Ava fell in love with the San Miguel de Allende culture and architecture. It was colorful, bright, vibrant and was an eclectic mixture of Mexican, European and American influences, while maintaining its regional heritage. The shopping was excellent and there was a wide variety of restaurants and entertainment options.
This checked all her boxes. Steve’s tastes were more basic, he liked the wide open spaces to run and mountain bike, lakes or streams to kayak and fish and a fitness center to maintain his exercise routine. There were also over a dozen gyms including a Planet Fitness franchise in the area.
After returning to Camp Pendleton, Ava told her husband, “I like it.”
The next time Colonel Montoya had some time off, he traveled with his wife to the Mexican city and they mutually agreed that this was the place for them to retire. Steve waited until they returned to the base before notifying his father about their decision. “I’ll be retiring in 18 months. Ava and I are thinking about moving down to your area. What do you think?”
Joe Montoya quickly answered, “I think that a damn good idea. How many times have I said that this was the place?”
“It’s not that I wasn’t listening, I just had other things on my mind at the time. Now that the inevitable is on the horizon…I need to prepare for my retirement.”
“Anything you need, I’m here for you, son” Joe said.
Steve suggested, “Maybe you could keep your eyes open for a nice home. I can’t leave that often because of my commitments to the Corps, but Ava has a more flexible schedule.”
“I know some realtors and a couple of people at the bank. I’ll pass the word and see what they say. Send me a list of what you’re looking for, that way I won’t waste time on properties that you’re not interested in. How much are you looking to spend, that would help too,” Joe suggested.
“Thanks dad, I appreciate it.”
Over the next few months, Joe sent photos and descriptions of homes, to his son and daughter-in-law. Ava went down to see two of them, but decided against making offers. He eventually called his son and was noticeably excited about this particular home, “The deal we’ve been waiting for has finally arrived!”
Steve was naturally curious, “What have you got?”
About four years ago an American businessman bought a villa and renovated it. It’s got four master suites, open floor plan, five thousand square feet, two casitas and five acres of fruit orchards and vineyards.”
“How much does something like that cost?” Steve inquired.
Joe responded, “During COVID, the man went bankrupt and the bank foreclosed on it. You can get it for 500,000 dollars. It’s worth three times that much. It needs some work since it’s been vacant for several months. I looked at it and you might not like the paint and a few other things, but I know some good craftsmen that can change whatever you want. You’ll have to move fast though. My friend at the bank can’t keep it off the market for very long.”
“Send me whatever you have. I’ll show it to Ava and see what she thinks,” Steve said, “Thanks, dad.”
“Glad to do it,” Joe replied.
Joe e-mailed photos and a detailed description of the property. When Ava saw it, she immediately booked a flight and was on her way to San Miguel de Allende. The photos didn’t do it justice. It was spectacular with breathtaking views. Ava quickly contacted her husband, “We should buy this place…can you come down and see it?”
Steve sighed, “Can’t do it right now…too many things going on at the unit…it might be a few weeks before I can get away.”
“I don’t think it will stay on the market long.”
“I trust your judgment…if you say it’s a good deal, then go for it,” Steve suggested.
Ava reminded her husband, “I don’t have dual citizenship, it will be a lot harder for me to complete the transaction.”
“You’ve got a good point,” Steve thought for a second, “Both my parents are citizens of Mexico. We can transfer the money to them and they can make the purchase.”
Things went smoothly from that point, almost as if it was destined to happen. Ava and her father-in law supervised the repairs and renovations. Ava found a good deal on furniture and completely furnished the large home. Joe found a local farmer and worked out a deal where he would take a percentage of the fruit orchards, vineyard and crops, in return for maintaining the grounds. With the help of his large family, the landscaping soon became lush and plentiful.
Ava and her father-in-law stood on the veranda and gazed out over the valley. “I couldn’t have done this without you.”
“I love you and my son. If I would have needed to do ten times as much to get you down here…I would have done it gladly,” Joe admitted.
Ava embraced her father-in-law in a sign of genuine affection.
Back at Camp Pendleton, Lt. Colonel Greg Whittington and Major Anthony Pace were sitting in Colonel Joe Montoya’s office. “You’ve got less than 90 days,” Greg said.
“Getting close,” Joe answered, “When I first joined the Corps, I never thought I’d never see the day when I’d retire. Now looking back, it seems it went by in the blink of an eye. You guys aren’t far behind me…don’t forget that.”
“How’s the place in Mexico?” Anthony asked.
Steve answered, “All done…thanks to Ava and my parents. There’s two guest houses on the property, I expect you to come visit…that’s an order. We’ll find some adventures to keep us busy.”
“Speaking about adventures. I’ve got orders for Lejeune and Tony is heading to Nairobi to work with a counter-terrorism unit and you’ll be in Mexico,” Greg began.
Anthony continued, “So we thought we should do something, a combination retirement and going away present.”
Steve suspected something, “What are you up to?”
Greg confessed, “There’s a former Marine, Clyde Beaumont and his girlfriend Judy Billings who operate a guide service in Utah.”
“Say no more, “Steve said.
The three Marines shared a passion for outdoor activities that tested their limits of physical endurance and mental fortitude. Two days into their excursion at Bears Ears Monument, they were trying to navigate their way through a gorge with thick brush. Clyde Beaumont was almost 15 years younger than the three Marines and seemed inexhaustible. The first day started off with a whitewater rafting trip, the second was mountain biking and now on the third day they were hiking. Despite their collective fatigue, there was never any doubt that they would continue. The more difficult the trail became, the more that the three friends teased and joked with one another.
Major Anthony Pace commented, “Who needs a five-star resort when you’ve got this place.”
“I think I’ll retire here,” Lt. Colonel Whittington responded.
“These are the days that we’ll look back on and say, what the hell was I thinking,” Steve said.
Clyde informed the men, “Five more miles to our next camp.”
The four men rested at Glenn Canyon National Recreation Area. After eating their canned rations, fatigue and a full stomach made for a potent sleeping potion. The three Marines fell asleep under a star-filled sky. Clyde rested, but never completely dozed off.
Before the morning had illuminated the panoramic landscape, the three friends were already awake. Clyde commented, “One thing about career Marines, you never have to wake them up. Tired, sore or hungry…they keep advancing.”
Anthony replied, “Could be our training and or we just don’t know any better.”
Clyde was wiry, with not an ounce of fat on his body. He had a short beard and his black hair had flecks of gray. Despite being only 29 years old, his face looked older, the sun and wind had aged him. After breaking camp, the group headed upward and the rocky trail fluctuated between 6,000 and 10,000 feet. The climbing was steep and the descents were dangerous, but the men were rewarded with spectacular views at every turn of the trail.
Once the group dropped out of the alpine zone, the landscape turned desert. The terrain was sandy roads, brittle sage, juniper trees and massive red sandstone cliffs. Rock climbers love Bear Ears, but stay to the well-known cliffs around paved State Route 211. The backcountry is full of little-explored canyons and Native American ruins.
The men made it down the trail to the dirt road where Judy Billings was waiting for them in an oversized pick-up truck, loaded with four mountain bikes, a cooler filled with beer and ice cold drinks, barbecue grill, a dozen grass-fed steaks and other items. This would be the first hot food that Steve, Greg and Anthony had eaten since they started the trek.
Judy was a five-star outdoor cook and Steve couldn’t remember tasting a better steak, “My compliments to the chef.”
Greg and Anthony quickly echoed the compliment.
Judy modestly replied, “Hungry Marines make for great customers.”
While sitting around the campfire, Clyde informed the three men of the next day’s route. He set a map on the ground and outlined a wide circular route around the Bears Ears rock foundation.
Steve questioned, “Why not go straight across?”
“Good question, Colonel. The area is filled with Navaho holy sites and a burial ground. I prefer to respect their traditions. Is that a problem?”
“We believe in traditions…besides you’re the guide…you lead and we’ll follow.”
Greg interjected, “Roger that.”
The next day started at first light once again and the four men rode on to Lavender Canyon. The descent was easy and the bikes cruised over smooth rock that could have easily passed for a paved road. The only way out however, was scaling the steep face on the other side. Lugging their bikes over large boulders and through thick brush, the three Marines needed to exert maximum effort, but in-between gasps for oxygen, the three friends found enough energy to continue their playful bantering.
Anthony asked, “Do you need me to carry your bike for you?”
“Not on your best day would I give you that privilege,” Greg answered.
There was never any doubt that the group would conquer their objective. Next on the itinerary was Newspaper Rock that had an oasis and two waterfalls. It was called that name because it was a massive slab of black and white stone. The four men relished the opportunity to sit in the cool refreshing water and remove several layers of dust from their weary bodies. Getting their second wind, they started out on the last leg of their trek with the destination of Lake Powell and the Glenwood Canyon Recreation Area in their sight on the distant horizon.
Clyde observed six men weighed down with heavy packs through his binoculars making their way across an open area.
Steve asked, “What do you see?”
Clyde handed the binoculars to the Colonel, “1400, six bogeys.”
When Steve picked up the men, he asked, “What am I looking at?”
“Indian artifact robbers, they vandalize and loot the area. I recognize them from when I was out here a couple weeks ago. They were armed so I couldn’t get too close so I hid out until they cleared the area. They are the scum of the earth and also have no respect for the nature. What they can’t steal, they destroy.” I was hoping that I’d get a second chance at them. It’s a shame that you guys are here,” Clyde pulled out a 9mm pistol from his pack and thought about the possibilities.
Steve thought for a second, “Who knows when you’ll get another chance to get these guys and how much damage they’ll do in the meantime. So where do you think they’re headed?”
“The best escape route is by water so they’re headed to a lake. There’s a landing that I think they’ll been using. We can get ahead of them if…”
“If what?” Steve asked.
Clyde replied, “It’s a rough trail…I don’t even like to take it.”
Steve smiled, “Extreme circumstances require extreme measures.”
“Roger that, Colonel.”
The four men left all their non–essential gear behind, carrying only their hunting knives and canteens of water. When they reached the top of the bluff, Clyde pointed down a narrow shaft between two giant boulders that descended two hundred feet. “They call it the ‘death chute’, because if you fall, you bounce off the rock walls a dozen times before you hit the ground. If we make it then there’s an easy trail to Lake Powell.”
Steve gazed down, “You were right when you said it’s a rough trail.”
Greg and Anthony both swallowed hard when they saw the task before them. Clyde reminded the three men, “If we don’t go this way…we’ve got to go completely around…that’s an extra six hours.”
“I’ve always wondered what it would be like to be a pinball,” Steve quipped.
The four men made their way down the cliff with Clyde in the lead and Steve in the rear. Colonel Montoya jumped the last ten feet and expected to hit soft sand, but felt something hard when his boots touched the ground, “What the hell was that?” and pulled out his knife and prodded the ground and noticed a thick metal plate nine inches beneath the surface.
Clyde said, “We can check this out later, right now we need to move.”
Double-timing through the soft dirt, the four men made it to Lake Powell in time to see the six looters loading their booty on a houseboat.
Greg asked, “Now what?”
“We’re still outgunned,” Anthony reminded his comrades.
Steve came up with a plan, “Whose up for a swim?” Steve took off his boots, “Clyde, we’ll need a diversion.” Greg and Anthony took off their boots and followed Steve into the water. Steve instructed Clyde, “Give us three minutes.”
The seconds ticked off and at the appropriate time, Clyde fired a shot into the air and called out, “Drop your weapons!”
Steve, Greg and Anthony took a deep breath and went under water and continued swimming to the houseboat. The looters returned fire and hastened their departure. As they pulled away, the three Marines climbed aboard the watercraft and caught the robbers by surprise. Three were thrown overboard and the others, including two men who were operating the boat were subdued. The one man who was foolish enough to try and disarm Steve died in the failed attempt.
The Coconino County Sheriff’s Office responded, arrested the men and took the statements of Steve, Greg, Anthony and Clyde. The next day, the men drove out to pick up the gear that they had left behind and while out there, check out the metal plate. After digging down two feet, they found a metal strongbox with the lettering Carson City Mint stamped on it.
Clyde commented, “There’s a legend that’s been circulating around this area for a long, long time, long before I got here. Butch Cassidy, the Sundance Kid and the Hole In The Wall Gang robbed the Overland Flyer. On board the train was a shipment of freshly minted 50 dollar ‘Wings of the Eagle’ gold pieces. They were being shipped from the Carson City, Nevada Mint to Durango, Colorado. The story goes that Butch and the Kid buried the coins and were killed in Bolivia before they could ever come back for them.”
Anthony said, “Interesting…let’s open it up and find out if the story is true.”
“Here we go,” Steve pried open the lid and the men stared at one thousand gold coins that had never been in circulation. The Wings of the Eagle gold piece was extremely rare with each one being worth 5,000 dollars because after the robbery, the Mint never made any more of them. The treasure was equally divided between the three Marines, Clyde and June Billings.
Bears Ears and Wings of the Eagle, Steve and his fellow Marines would never forget the adventure or those two names. The End
This is Thomas’s 5 year anniversary story….260 weeks in a row! Thanks for the fun reading.