Drone season

'Boulder Weekly' lines up to be first to shoot one down

Photos by Jefferson Dodge and Joel Dyer

For sporting types like ourselves, the alluring call of the wild drone was not something we could resist.

It was mid-morning when we headed out for Deer Trail, a tiny burg that sprouts from the empty plains with an optimistic population estimate of 598. The Google directions from Denver to Deer Trail are as simple as the landscape; go 54 miles east on I-70 and exit when you see the water tower.

For all intents and purposes, this was the first hunting-related experience for both of us, if you don’t count guilt-laden, childhood BB gun incidents involving birds as hunting. And apparently most men wearing camo don’t.

While we weren’t actually going to be shooting anything this particular day, getting to Deer Trail was an important first step, because we needed to get our names on the waiting list for a new type of hunting license the town is considering issuing. Plus, we thought we might pick up a few pointers from the locals on things like bait selection and building a proper blind. After all, one would think unmanned federal drones would qualify as pretty crafty prey. So we figured we were going to need some solid coaching from the pros if we were going to have any chance of successfully blasting one of those spy jobbers out of the sky.

We also realized that at some point we will probably need some kind of gun, but that’s a problem for another day. We wondered how “drone hunting” plays when listed as the reason for purchase on a background check form.

* * * *

The first thing you see as you’re rolling into Deer Trail is a billboard by the highway declaring that the town was the site of the world’s first rodeo in 1869. The next thing you see is a Shell station. So we started there.

The bathroom line was surprisingly, and disappointingly, long, a testament to the town’s isolation and lack of similar public facilities. But the waiting did offer the opportunity to begin our research into drone hunting with our fellow fidgeters in the queue. It went something like this: “Hey there, we want to shoot down unmanned federal drones, and we hear this is the place to do it. Where do we go to get our names on the waiting list for a drone license?”

It was instantly clear which folks in line were locals and which were merely sidelined travelers from I-70 whose bladders had forced an emergency Deer Trail detour. The locals rolled their eyes as if to say, “Oh boy, here we go again.” The visitors took a few quick steps back and stopped making eye contact. Guess if you weren’t aware that the town is actually mulling a very real initiative allowing the issuance of drone-hunting licenses, such a greeting could be a little off-putting.

But the locals get it. Deer Trail is a pretty unique place. Sure, outsiders think it’s odd that the residents of this hole-in-the-wall are embroiled in a debate over whether to sell hunting licenses that would make it legal to shoot down a $16.9 million unmanned federal aircraft, as long as it’s with a shotgun, but it’s in their blood to be different. After all, according to the rodeo sign by the highway, this is the first place in the world where somebody said, “Hey, I’ve got a good idea to pass the time. Why don’t we tie a strap around that big bull’s nuts to get him bucking, and then we’ll take turns riding him?”

One local fellow finally offered up a conversation, saying, “I can see why you newspaper people think this is funny, and it could be if it weren’t for the guy who proposed it and the people trying to push it through. They’re serious about it.” After a little back and forth regarding the drone hunting license’s potential to raise revenue for the cash-strapped town, the man offered this suggestion: “We could build a tower by the old pool that doesn’t have water, and people driving by could stop and go up there and look for drones.”

Dodge searches the sky for game.

Sound farfetched? Remember, I-70 is the highway that has birthed such roadside attractions as the world’s largest prairie dog — a 20-foot-high cement likeness of the critter with chipped paint and steel bolts for eyes —and that makes money. Why not a drone observation tower? Our new friend pointed us to Town Hall for more info on the license.

When we got to Town Hall, we were confronted by two signs. One read “Open” and the other said “Closed.” Unfortunately, the door agreed with the latter. It was a Friday morning, and the entire local government was MIA. Had the NSA gotten here first?

We headed to the only eatery in town that was open, the Brown Derby, in hopes of locating the mayor or one of his minions. It wasn’t much like its namesake in Hollywood — celebrities were in short supply. Just for grins we checked Yelp. The first review opened with, “This place was scary!”

In all fairness, we’re pretty sure the Yelp reviewer was a bit out of his element. He probably didn’t understand the purpose of the massive seven-foot-wide metal gate with bars the size of your arm that adorns the Derby’s dining area, apparently for the purpose of separating the bar from the diners. Maybe the Yelp dude should have been scared of the bar, not the restaurant. The restaurant was innocent enough, sporting a giant chalkboard bearing notices about a Texas Hold ’Em game at 8 p.m. on Friday and the pies that were no longer available, but nothing about drones.

The food was good. Our only complaint was that the identical burgers we ordered arrived 20 minutes apart, nearly prompting an awkward sharing of the first. Guess the chef wasn’t much of a multi-tasker. Or they had a one-burner stovetop.

The waitress confirmed that no one from the town’s government was pres ent, so we asked her where the mayor lived. She thought for a moment and then offered, “I think he lives in Town Hall.” Hmmm.

Back on the street, pondering our next move, we noticed a woman coming our way. We tried our icebreaker once more. “What do you think about shooting down federal drones?” “I think it’s a bunch of crap. And I didn’t put a word of it in my paper.” Paper? As in, newspaper? A possible kindred spirit?

The woman was Bobbie Bell, and she turned out to be the editor of the Tri-County News. She was a fount of information about the town, the fellow who had written and proposed the drone hunting initiative, the mayor … and hair. Turns out that last one is her true passion. She told us that she works on the paper on Mondays and Tuesday mornings, but the rest of the week is spent doing hair.

She lamented that the next rodeo parade will probably be rife with drone floats.

Like the first folks we had met at the Shell station, Bell would have thought the whole drone affair more humorous if not for the fellow who had proposed it. He’s not joking, she told us. He is serious about shooting these things down, because he thinks they are watching us.

The “he” is Phillip Steel, and one look at his house tells you why hardly anyone in Deer Trail is willing to go on the record saying the drone idea is either funny or ridiculous — or both.

* * * *

The author of the drone hunting initiative lives in a windowless metal house resembling a Quonset hut that could have been designed from Popular Mechanics plans to thwart electronic surveillance. It is covered in metal sheets and surrounded by signs sporting a prominent skull and crossbones motif, informing visitors that they will be shot if they set foot on the property. But the coup de grâce is the 25-foot tower of pipe built off the back of the house, presumably to serve as a blind for blasting federal drones out of the sky.

Philip Steel is said to live in this metal building.

A sign outside Steel’s house

Seeing Steel’s homemade metal platform blind made us wonder exactly what type of blinds are actually the most effective for luring drones into shooting range. What could attract those high-flying robots close enough to nail with a 12-gauge? Our best guess is that it likely varies by region.

What pulls a drone into progressive Boulder County might not work in, say, Mississippi or Yemen. In Boulder, if you want to get the attention of a federal drone, you probably need to cover your blind in subversive, lefty, activist cardboard placards with slogans like, “Don’t Frack My Town,” “Oil and Gas Companies Suck,” “#Occupy,” “Get Money Out of Politics,” “Global Warming Requires Action Now,” or “I’m an Environmentalist, and I Vote.” You get the idea.

Such a drone blind would definitely get the attention of the National Security Agency (NSA) and all the other government acronyms in our neck of the woods, given our propensity for undermining the establishment, but what about in the South? For that region, we surmise that a blind camouflaged with Confederate flags, National Rifle Association stickers, Tea Party signs and the occasional banner with a snake spouting the words “Don’t Tread On Me” would likely do the trick. Adding the word “Secede” in big red letters would also be effective bait, not to mention sprinkling a few pocket-sized copies of the U.S. Constitution on the ground. Government drones seem to be suckers for extremists who want to return to our roots.

Drone blinds for Boulder, left, and the South

Another, albeit more controversial, technique used to draw in drones while hunting is to use decoys consisting of mannequins dressed up to look like traditional Arab families having a picnic (lots of women and children figures is said to work best).

We agreed that any decoy or blind could increase its chances of being noticed by its controller by distributing copies of Playboy — or, given the increasing prevalence of women in the military, Playgirl — in the general vicinity. Copies of Soldier of Fortune’s swimsuit issue might suffice as well. And bags of fertilizer.

If one had an extra laptop, it could be irresistible bait if its Internet browser were tuned into an Aryan Nation website, or Al Jazeera, for that matter.

We also figured that certain sounds could be effectively used as drone calls. Initially, we thought a low buzzing sound might attract aircraft emitting the same frequency. But then, being from Boulder, we thought that using bull horns to chant anti-government slogans like “What do we want?!” (Insert any word associated with social justice here, shouted loudly.) “When do we want it?! Now!” Or maybe, “The people! United! Shall never be defeated!” Such sounds of grassroots activism have been shown to somehow trigger the release of certain hormones within military and police personnel that sparks the need for physical confrontation. Since soldiers are controlling the drones, it only figures that such sounds will cause a drone to show itself with a low-flying maneuver designed to show who’s in charge. We’ve heard that drone hunters refer to this phenomenon as the “Kent State” reaction.

But there are still some questions that need answering. What if, for instance, one encounters a parked drone? What is the sporting etiquette? Would beating it over the head with a bat be like shooting a doe? If you winged one, and its electronics were still functioning, its camera still filming, what is the best method of finishing it off humanely? A bullet to the back of the camera? What if a drone roamed Mapleton Hill in Boulder? Could a cop take it down for its useable components? How does one field-dress a drone and haul out the parts if one is 14 miles into the woods? When exactly is drone-hunting season? Is there a bag limit?

Steel’s seven-page drone-hunting initiative (see ‘The drone-shooting rules’) also raised other questions such as, why does it require license-holders to be able to speak and read English? It seems obvious this caveat was designed to rule out undocumented immigrants from the hunt? But why? Wouldn’t they be an alluring target for government drones? They certainly are along the border. Surely Steel and the others who are serious about pushing through this initiative would want them to be in on the action, if for no other reason to attract more drones. And we could even pay them less than the initiative’s stated drone bounty of $100. Maybe 25 bucks per drone, under the table. This would kill drones while saving the Deer Trail government money.

So many questions, so little time.

* * * *

We parked in front of Steel’s house for a while, debating whether he would actually fulfill his posted threats to shoot us if we walked across his property to have a conversation. We eventually decided that our black car, dark G-man sunglasses and camera with a long lens might make the wrong impression, one that invited bullets, so we continued our quest to track down the mayor.

While still skeptical of our Brown Derby waitress’s tip, we returned to the small white-washed Town Hall building to see if the mayor actually “lived there.” Shocker. He didn’t. But when asked about the mayor’s likely whereabouts, a nearby kid bouncing a basketball sent us off in a new direction, north of town, where the mayor was said to live in a house by a ravine. We found the road to the north, but the house by a ravine proved more elusive. We did find another weird Quonset hut structure, however. In this case, it was a church that had curvy aluminum foil completely covering the roof and front door. Perhaps its congregation wanted a deterrent to drone-sensor infiltration as well. In most places, this shiny feature would have seemed a bit odd, but it was becoming the norm in Deer Trail. No one was home at the hut church, so we headed back to town for better directions to the mayor’s house. We pulled up at the first place we came to, an auto repair shop called Awful A’s.

Yes, we thought it was a pretty poor choice for a business name as well, but later on we discovered that it was simply run by a descendant of Awful John’s, a local institution that had since faded. When we found another place called Asshole’s Garage, Awful’s didn’t seem so bad. Two garages in town, Awful’s and Asshole’s. We wondered what the neighbors must think. Then we got an answer to that question. The house next door to Asshole’s garage proudly displays a sign in its picture window facing the street that reads, “Asshole’s neighbor.” You really can’t make this stuff up.

The nice folks at Awful A’s pointed a mile or so down the road, instructing us to turn left when we could.

Finally, we found Deer Trail Mayor Frank Field’s house. Above the front door was a large advertising sign for a business that was apparently being operated out of the mayor’s home. The sign read, “Fields Balloon and Party Supplies.” Seemed appropriate somehow.

Once again, no one was home. The NSA theory was gaining steam. Where was everyone? A few feet from the mayor’s front door stood an oddly adorned mannequin, wielding a “Slow” sign.

Had he been using it to bait a drone? Had something gone wrong? We searched the sky above. It was at this point that we realized that we really weren’t all that sure what a drone actually looked like. More research was needed.

We had previously seen a sign touting the presence of a town library, so we headed that way. We entered, momentarily considering the idea that we should be whispering, but quickly realized that — shocker — we were the only patrons. We asked the librarians if we could see all of their books that had pictures of unmanned federal drones. Another surprise! They didn’t have any. Not one. How could this be? How could a town about to pass an initiative that would allow the hunting of drones within city limits not have a book in its library with a picture of a drone?

This is a major safety issue.

Think about it. What if some poor fool pulled off the highway in one of those stainless-steel DeLoreans and popped up those gull-wing doors? It would likely cause a hail of gunfire to rain down from the blinds of poorly informed, overzealous drone hunters who had no clue what a real drone looks like.

You’ve got to ask yourself, without books with pictures of drones for people to study before getting their drone-hunting license, is hunting these things in the middle of town really a good idea? Will everybody and their dogs, literally, be forced to wear ugly orange hats and vests just to go outside in Deer Trail?

One librarian joked that residents with flying dogs should keep them indoors when drones are in season.

Despite grasping the humor of Deer Trail’s situation, she also lamented that her town, which is in desperate need of positive publicity because it was decimated by a massive flood in 1965 that wiped out the business district, leaving it economically crippled ever since, has been reduced to trying to issue drone hunting licenses as a means to drive badly needed tax revenue.

Just as we were preparing to leave, an older lady wandered into the library. When asked about the drone proposal, she responded, “I think it’s asinine. You don’t know what else it could bring in. It could bring in crazies. It could endanger our children.”

When asked if she felt threatened by the prospect of being shot by a drone, she replied, “No, but I might be in danger of someone shooting me with a shotgun.”

* * * *

Undeterred, we returned a final time to Town Hall, which still proclaimed that it was open and closed. The door was still locked, so in utter desperation, we finally wrote our names on a piece of paper, requesting that we be placed at the top of the waiting list for a drone-hunting license.

Then we pushed it through the mail slot that was normally reserved for paying municipal utility bills, onto the Town Hall floor.

Whether or not we will ever get to flop down our $25 for a drone hunting license is now in the hands of the good people of Deer Trail and, to some degree, the feds.

And if the local government doesn’t adopt the initiative, Steel only needs 25 signatures to put it on the November ballot for a vote of the entire town. He claims to already have 28 signatures, making the vote a given.

Since our return from Deer Trail, the Federal Aviation Administration has made a formal statement regarding Deer Trail’s drone-hunting escapades. In a news report issued by the Associated Press that ran in major newspapers across the country (think about that for a moment), the federal agency stated that a drone “hit by gunfire could crash, causing damage to persons or property on the ground, or it could collide with other objects in the air. Shooting at an unmanned aircraft could result in criminal or civil liability, just as would firing at a manned airplane.”

According to the report, Steel’s response to the FAA warning was to say, “I don’t want to live in a surveillance society. I don’t feel like being in a virtual prison. … This is a pre-emptive strike. … The FAA doesn’t have the power to make a law.”

We don’t like the idea of living in a “surveillance society” either. Keep our names at the top of that waiting list.

Respond: letters@boulderweekly.com