Today I made it from Butte, MT to Rapid City, SD, about 600 miles. I travelled under glorious skies and temperatures in the 70’s, interrupted for but 45 minutes of Wyoming monsoon that had traffic crawling along at 55.

Smell of fresh damp earth, windows open as I roll along hour upon hour. Lots of time for all manner of relevant and irrelevant thoughts.

Given this infinite parameter, and seeing that several people had commented about Burns, OR and about my having been judge for the Burns Paiute Tribe, along the way today something from long ago randomly popped into my head.

The Burns Paiute Indian Tribe had recruited me to come out once month to hear their court’s caseload. I agreed to do so, but only for a few months. The experience would prove to be a fascinating, career-changing move, and a real eye-opener for me as a young judge. And I do believe I did some good. I enjoyed it so much that I would continue as their judge for three-plus years.

This was during 1984 – 1987. My family and I were then living some 160 miles from Burns, in Sisters, OR. Our good friends, Dan Fouts and his family, lived near us during the NFL football off-season. Dan was quarterback for the San Diego Chargers and at that time one of the league’s biggest stars. A handsome guy, he was easily recognizable for his large stature and thick black beard.

My first docket at Burns Paiute was in March 1984. I knew it would be a busy day, with cases having piled up following the previous judge’s departure six months earlier. I was to drive to Burns on a Friday morning for the scheduled 1:00 PM beginning of the court session.

As it happened, Dan’s wife’s two sisters and their husbands were visiting that week. Thursday evening Dan called me and asked if I would like the three of them to drive me over to Burns for my first day of Paiute Tribal Court. Sure, I said.

So at 8:00 AM Friday they picked me up in one brother-in-law’s Cadillac. Off the four of us raced across Oregon’s high desert.

We arrived at court at 12:15. I retired to my tiny office to go through the tall stack of case files, while Dan and the other guys milled around outside, breathed the crisp springtime air, and tried to look inconspicuous.

The courtroom was in a double-wide mobile home. There was a jury box for six, the judge’s bench, a witness chair, a seat for the court clerk, and additional seating for about a dozen.

From my office I could hear the noise of many people gathering in the courtroom. The clerk called me into court, said “all rise”, and I came in to see about 70 people standing crammed elbow-to-elbow, 55 of whom had no place to sit when I said “please be seated”!

Sure, some had come to see the new judge, and others were there for the 1:00 arraignments. But most were there to gawk at the football star!

And there he was, pressed against back wall, flanked by his brothers-in-law, the three of them making faces at me as I got to work!

I went through the arraignments and into the non-jury trials. More people crowded noisily outside as things progressed into the late afternoon.

At about 3:00 my entourage gave me a high sign to let me know they would be driving into town for a beer and something to eat. At around 6:00 PM my clerk and I finally took a break for some pizza my guys had sent up from town.

After we finally wrapped things up, at 8:00 PM the prosecutor drove me into Burns and dropped me off at the Central Pastime, where I knew my boys were holed up.

I walked in to a scene I’ll never forget: there stood Dan Fouts with the largest imaginable Cheshire cat grin, behind him about 100 men, all smiling at me and hollering “here come de judge; here come de judge!”

When word had gotten around that Dan Fouts was in town, men poured in from all corners of that little burg to have a chance to play pool and drink beer with a bona fide football star.

Fouts was leaning on a pool table piled high with baseball hats. He collected hats and had made the same deal with each man: give me your hat and I’ll buy your beer, pizza and broasted chicken until the judge shows up!

By the time I arrived, Dan and his family, and 100 other guys, were well tanked. Guess who drove us home across the night-time desert? De judge.

Is any of this relevant to rowing across America, you might ask?

The month after that first day as Paiute judge, I took delivery on my brand-new Ron Owen single cedar racing shell, the one that now sits on my trailer, right down there in the parking lot below my hotel window. I still have the boat – and the career.

2 thoughts on “Travelling East and Thinking West

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