The phone rang. I looked at the ID and saw it was Wesson again.
We’d spent most of the last two hours on the phone, though it was, by necessity, a one sided conversation. He talked and I scribbled furiously. Sometimes I’d say, “Are you kidding me?” Or “I can barely believe this!” or “How is it you’re still walking around?”
But mostly I just scribbled.
Now I picked up the phone again. “What’s up Tom?”
“Yeah Stiles…after we hung up I got to thinking and realized I forgot to mention the ‘hatchet man.’”
“‘The Hatchet Man?’”
“Somehow I forgot him.”
“Okay…who was he?”
“Oh its was a long time ago. I picked him up hitchhiking in Vegas and he tried to kill me with a hatchet. We were on some dirt road in the mountains west of Loa. I was looking for a shortcut to Denver. And he tried to hack me to death. Turns out he was a murderer on the lam.”
I sat down on the couch and propped my chin on my hand. He told the story with such..such nonchalance, like someone recalling a long ago chigger bite. “Let me get this straight. A guy tried to murder you with a hatchet and you forgot to tell me? A close encounter with a hatchet killer somehow slipped your mind?”
“Yeah dude, well I’ve had so many of these, it just got by me…you know what I’m saying?”
This story is about the remarkably resilient life of my pal, Tom Wesson.
When Tom came to Moab in the late 70s to work as a seasonal boat mechanic at Canyonlands National Park, he’d already had his share of close shaves. As a ten year old, he’d once become stranded in the middle of a fast moving stream, a few hundred yards upriver from Bridal Veil Falls at Yosemite. A few years later, now old enough to drive, he lost control of his VW and ran off the Angeles Crest Highway. Tom sailed over the cliff and he and his bug landed in some sturdy trees. He walked away with scratches (after he climbed down the tree).
Then Tom joined the U.S. Coast Guard. He was stationed in Portland and cruised the waters off the Pacific coast, mainly rescuing idiotic boaters who literally got in over their heads. But one night so did Tom. The crappers on his Coast Guard cutter backed up and Tom, in need of relief, hung his ass off the taft rail. But to steal a line from George Costanza, “The sea was angry that night, my friends.” The ship was battling six to seven foot swells and one gnarly bump knocked Tom off the rail and into the Pacific. With his trousers still around his ankles and with Wesson treading water, Tom called out to his mates, but at 3am nobody heard his plaintive pleas for help.
An hour later, one of his buddies finally noticed his absence. According to Tom, what happened next was the stuff of miracles. “The quartermaster executed what’s called a Williamson Turn, where he comes back over exactly the same route he’d just followed. I’d been treading out there for a couple hours when I saw the lights. They came right up to me and cut the engines and I let out a yell. They pulled me out and I was back on the ship again.”
So…enough is enough, right? Ol’ Tom should have been able to coast from here on, knowing the odds of being tossed a potential lethal blow again, from any direction, were damn near impossible. But for Wesson, these incidents were just the prologue. Tom Wesson’s dance with Death was just warming up.
Coming to Moab seemed to be the catalyst.
Tom arrived in June 1979 and went to work for Holladay River Expeditions, running tourists in triple rigs through Cataract Canyon. On an early trip, Tom took over the oars when the “captain” got catapulted into the river. At Satan’s Gut in Big Drop 3, the boat buckled and Tom was pinned between the aluminum frame and the boat. He was completely under water and under the boat with nowhere to go but down. Nobody noticed he was missing until someone heard a gurgling noise. It was Wesson, in the process of drowning. They pulled him out and Tom was so terrified by the experience that he went back to Portland, quit the Coast Guard, and came back to Moab to run rivers full-time. Death defying Wesson was about to go on a roll…
He went to work for Tag-a-Long Expeditions in the spring of 1980 and starting piloting his own boats through Cataract and Desolation Canyons. And in March 1983, he went to work as a boat mechanic/river runner with the National Park Service at Canyonlands.
1983 was the biggest water year on the Colorado River in recorded history. Cataract Canyon, just downstream from the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, was running at 105,000 cubic feet per second (cfs) by early June. Tom was sent to the flycamp at Spanish Bottom, above Cataract, to monitor the river and to be ready for any crisis the highwater might create.
Already an experienced and respected boatman, Tom watched the river rise with a fury he could not have even imagined. Finally, when he saw an entire house float by the flycamp, headed for Cataract Canyon and Lake Powell, Wesson acted unilaterally to stop all commercial and private trips from entering the dangerous waters.
But Wesson would never guess that his own life would soon be in peril again, not from the raging waters, but from something no larger than his outstretched hand.
Tom was still at flycamp, Cataract was closed, and he had stayed busy all day and into the night. Finally, at about 2 am, Wesson went back to his tent and crashed, totally exhausted. But he forgot to zip up the netting and a few minutes later, already drifting toward sleep, Tom felt something slapping him in the face, followed by a sharp pain, right in the middle of his nose. Wesson grabbed his flashlight and saw…a BAT! It was flying erratically into the sides of his tent and Tom frantically tried to catch it. But the bat escaped through the open netting and Tom, now bleeding, found fellow ranger Barb Warner, who was able to confirm, “Yep Tom, looks like a bat bit you on the nose.”
Wesson piloted the park’s Zodiac upstream, against the current, to Moab, where the Chief Ranger Jim Braggs met him and transported Tom to the hospital. Without the bat to examine, there was no way to know whether the bat was rabid or not, so Tom endured the anti-rabies vaccine—15 shots over a period of a few weeks.
A year later, on the first anniversary of his Bite, he was back at flycamp again. After a party to commemorate the event, Tom returned to his tent, only to find it surrounded by crucifixes, cloves of garlic, and a big wooden stake, driven right through the fabric of his tent.
Maybe the curse was over…maybe not.
Spring 1984. Fellow ranger and Cessna pilot Forrest Weldon had planned a flight to Flagstaff with a stopover at Tusayan, near the Grand Canyon’s South Rim. Tom’s girlfriend was there and he decided to come along. Ranger Pat Grediagan hopped aboard as well. But the plane was plagued with engine problems and takeoff was delayed twice. Finally they replaced the plugs, the instrumentation looked good, and Forrest prepared to take off.
But in the long delay, Weldon had failed to notice a wind shift. As Forrest pushed the throttle and the plane stubbornly clung to the ground, Wesson looked out the window and noticed something odd—the windsock was blowing in the same direction as the plane. To get sufficient lift, an airplane needs to fly in to the wind.
Tom was only able to yell, “Wind sock!”
The Cessna was traveling at 110 mph. It briefly lifted off the runway, barely missed a barbed wire fence, then plowed into a cattleguard and gravel road, a hundred yards beyond the south end of the runway. The impact ripped off both wings, the fuel tanks ruptured and fuel splattered everywhere. Tom remembers seeing his own sunglasses fly off his face and hit the plexiglass windshield and shatter. The plane finally came to a stop. The chaotic crash was followed by dead silence. Tom said shakily, “Let’s compose ourselves.” Incredibly, Pat and Forrest were unhurt. Tom broke two ribs and sustained a concussion. Still Tom kicked open the door and climbed out of the plane, caught a ride back to the airport where he retrieved Pat’s car, picked her up, and drove on to Tusayan. A few days later, when he returned, Tom was almost arrested by the San Juan County Sheriff’s office for leaving the scene of an accident, albeit his own.
Six months later, again in Cataract, Tom drank some water from a cooler that turned out to be untreated runoff from Clearwater Creek—it might have been clear but it wasn’t very clean. He was bringing a boat back to Potash and by the time he reached the takeout, near dawn, Tom was critically ill. Alone and without a radio, he emptied his bowels and passed out on the beach. Almost dead, other boaters finally spotted him and rushed him (again) to Allen Memorial Hospital where he was given anti-biotics for giardia. That winter his weight dropped from 180 to 130 pounds.
Enough? Nope…there’s more:
Autumn 1986. While deadheading j-rigs back to Moab, Tom flips backwards off the front of the boat and into the surf and gets run over by the prop. He tries to dive to avoid the blade but he’s wearing a lifejacket. The buoyancy pulls him back to the surface. He feels the prop strike him. Tom comes to the surface screaming, “My fucking leg!” His friends on the boat see what appears to be a leg, floating nearby but it’s just a plastic bottle. Incredibly Tom’s leg is still attached, but black, blue and yellow, from his waist to his toes. He makes a splint, still runs Cat, then drives back to Moab and the hospital. No broken bones
Early 1988. Tom drives to St. George, Utah to take a Civil Service test for a postal carrier job. He stays with friend Brad Minor (who’d also been along for the boating incident). The test is the next day, but Tom and Brad decide to try out their skateboards at a new golf course that’s about to open. It has a new paved concrete driveway for the golf carts–perfect for a skateboard. At 1:30 am, they make their first and only descent of the concrete cartway. Tom loses control and plows into a three strand barbed wire fence that runs adjacent to it. He hits tangentially. Tom says, “The fence used my body like a cheese grater for 25 feet. He is shredded from neck to chest. His arms are torn up. The fence has nicked his carotid and he wraps his own t-shirt around it to stop the bleeding. But he’s wearing Carhartts and according to Tom, “It was those Carhartts that saved my cajones.”
Brad takes him to the hospital, where the doctors insist he must have been in a car wreck. They cannot believe anyone on a skateboard can sustain those kinds of injuries. Ultimately he receives 156 “normal” stitches and 80 “fine stitches.
And Tom notes ruefully, “I also missed my civil service test.”
Next! January 18, 1989. Martin Luther King Day. US 191 between Price and Green River near milepost 54. Tom hits some black ice and loses control of his wife Robin’s Toyota pickup. The truck rolls three times and crushes the roof. The top of the cab is touching the gearshift knob. Tom is unconscious for 45 minutes. When he wakes up, he realizes battery acid is dripping on him, but he’s grateful for the acid because, “I figure that’s what woke me up.” He ends up in the Price hospital–concussion, stitches, cerebral hematoma, temporary loss of sight and hearing…..ho hum. Tom thinks, “I wonder what the wife will say about the truck?”
Winter, 1989. Tom’s working at Telluride. It’s a night job maintaining and grooming the ski slopes. Coming down in the dark, he hits another snowmobile parked in the middle of the slope and flies 50 yards through the air, hitting yet another snowmobile. Tom goes through the windshield, across the slope and into a tree. He limps down the hill but with only minor injuries. If only Sonny Bono had Tom’s “luck.”
Tom gets a break for a couple of years.
Then, 1991. Tom is working at a toxic waste incinerator, run by the Department of Defense. He is cleaning and adjusting the rods on an electro-static precipitator when somebody accidentally turns on the power. 70,000 volts go through Tom. He gets burns on his knees and his shoes are melt to his feet. Otherwise, he’s okay.
Summer 1999. Ridgway, Colorado. Wesson is living, believe it or not, in a shipping container (“until something better comes along.”). He feels an excruciating pain in his back. An ambulance is called and he is hauled away on a stretcher and rushed to Montrose. The doctors determine he has a Black Widow bite, and the bite is directly on his spine. A CHP officer races to Delta in his cruiser to get anti-venom. According to Tom, it’s his most painful mishap yet. “They gave me three shots of painkiller and it didn’t even touch it.” Tom says that on the ride to the hospital his grip on the EMT’s arm was so tight, it left an imprint on his arm that stayed for days.
Summer 2003. Tom’s walking along 400 North in Moab. A car comes from nowhere and clips Wesson as he scrambles to get out of the way. The side mirror hits him in the back and Wesson crashes into a huge pile of garbage. He brushes himself off and goes on.
“Okay…so tell me again Tom, how you can forget to mention the “Hatchet Man?”
“Like I said, dude, I’ve had a lot of mishaps.”
Finally he tells me the story of the Hatchet Man, of where it all began really.
Tom was driving from Los Angeles to Denver in the spring of 1972 and was just coming into Las Vegas when he stopped to pick up two hitchhikers. One hops out in Vegas but the other rides with Tom to St. George where he gets a room for the night. When Wesson wakes up the next morning the guy is still in the car.
“He’s a rough looking, scary dude,” Tom recalls, but he figured, what the hell. Tom explained that he was going to Denver but the guy told Tom he needed to get to St. Louis. “Look,” Tom explained, you can ride with me to Denver but that’s as far as I’m going.”
The Hatchet Man said nothing.
Somewhere north of St. George, Tom decided to take a “shortcut” on a dirt road, though it was only May and the roads were still muddy. They were making their way up a long grade when Tom’s traveling companion yelled, “Stop the car.” Tom kept moving. The man yelled again, “Stop the fucking car!” Tom was more mystified than scared at first. “What is this guy yelling about?” Tom wondered.
Suddenly the guy pulled a hatchet from his backpack and said, “You have to the count of three to get out. I’m stealing this fucking car!.”
According to Wesson, “He began to count. He said, ‘One…Two…’ I had three seconds to think. The next thing I knew we were going at it in the front seat. He was ripping my hair out and we were punching away. We somehow knocked out the windshield but I didn’t even notice until later. I finally grabbed the hatchet out of his hand and was able to shove him out of the car. As I started to drive away, I threw the hatchet over a cliff, which was really stupid because that was all the protection I had.
“I could see the guy running after me and screaming at me!. As I looked back I noticed his backpack and a sleeping bag were still in the back of my VW. I tossed the backpack out the window for him and kept going. I wasn’t worried until I started sliding in the mud. The Hatchet Man was gaining on me. I was scared shitless. Then I heard a loud thump. I didn’t know what the hell it was . I just kept going. I reached back and saw his sleeping bag and so I threw it out the window, but the damn bag went over the cliff. I finally made it to the top of the ridge and I could see him way back there, still screaming and yelling.
“Slowly I pulled away and when I thought I’d gone a safe distance I got out to see what the ‘thump’ was I’d heard. I saw that he’d actually thrown his backpack at me and it had hooked on my rear fender. I took it off and kept going.”
Tom went about a mile when he came upon some campers, Mormon families probably, and warned them of the Hatchet man. “I was all bloody and pretty freaked out so I may have scared them but I just kept telling them there was a mad man up the road and they better get ready for him.” Tom was relieved when he saw several of the campers retrieve high-powered rifles from their trailers and trucks.
When he got to Loa, Tom reported the incident to the US Forest Service, “but I don’t think they believed me. So, you know, I just kept on driving. Drove non-stop til I got to Denver.”
That would be the end of the story if it weren’t for a strange footnote, delivered 20 years after the fact. Tom was working with his old friend Brad Minor again, in 1993, and met a friend of his from Richfield, Utah, who had worked for years with Search and Rescue. Somehow Tom’s story of the Hatchet Man comes up.
The guy from Richfield turns white. “Wait a minute. Was this about 20 years ago?”
The Search and Rescue guy shakes his head. “You know, a few years ago, somebody found a skeleton out there, not far from where you said this happened. They somehow ID’d him and found out he’d been wanted for two murders in Haight-Ashbury, about 20 years ago. I think they said he was from St. Louis.”
Tom shuddered. “That’s where this guy said he was headed when I picked him up.”
Epilogue for a close call.
So what does it all mean? According to Wesson:
“It doesn’t mean anything! It just happened. That’s how Life is. What’s happened to me is nothing compared to what other people have gone through, you know? Look at the men in World War II and how they suffered, trying to do the right thing and what they went through….On the other hand, I’ve just been out there being crazy. I mean, look at some of this stuff I’ve done…what would you expect from a guy who once skateboarded the entire length of the Zion Tunnel? And I didn’t get a scratch from that little ride. I believe in weird coincidences and that’s it.”
But I can’t help but remember what Tom’s mom told him, a long time ago. She said, “Raising you Tom…I don’t think I could do it twice.”
Maybe not, but Tom Wesson seems to be living his life as many times as possible, while still keeping a smile on his face and sense of humility in his heart.
May our old pal Wesson live 19 more lives.
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.