If you ever decide you’ve had quite enough of civilized society, thank you very much, and would just like to live on your own for a while - with little to no contact with the outside world - Colorado has got you covered. The variety of climates, environments and inaccessible locations make the state a veritable haven for those with a reclusive persuasion. As such, it shouldn’t have surprised me as much as it did to learn that among the Western History and Genealogy Department’s many clippings files is one focused on hermits.
There are a number of interesting (sometimes tragic) stories contained within this file, and I’ve chosen two to share with you. The first involves a man reunited with family over 20 years after they believed him to be dead. The other is equal parts tragic, gross, and humorous.
THE DESERT NOMAD’S FAMILY REUNION
Donald Matheson was believed by his family to have died in France while serving in World War I. In fact, he had been discharged from the American Expeditionary Forces (A.E.F) in 1919, but upon returning to the states he opted not to return to his hometown, nor seek out his relations. He was quite tight lipped in his reasoning for this, stating only “There was nothing to go back home for.”
Matheson spent 24 years roaming the American Southwest, spending much of that time wandering the deserts of Arizona and California. In March of 1943 he was living near Aguilar, a small town north of Trinidad, Colorado. Locals provided Matheson with enough food to sustain him, and he frequently slept in abandoned shacks or under railroad trestles in the region. A cold snap led Trinidad Sheriff Ray Marty to offer him shelter in the local jail, fearing that Matheson would die of exposure if left to his own devices.
Matheson was undernourished and sporting filthy shoulder-length hair and a waist-length beard, which he initially refused to have cut. When he finally acquiesced, he reportedly stated that the results “feel first rate.” He was also reportedly surprised to learn that the U.S. was once again embroiled in a world war.
While in what was described as “protective custody,” Matheson revealed that he had been born in Beaver County, Utah, and the authorities began the task of trying to track down his family. Based on his name, and the description of scarring on his face and nose from a childhood accident, they were able to track down his sister, Mrs. Jean Hickman, and a cousin, Scott Matheson. At last report, authorities were trying to get Matheson situated in the Fort Lyon, Colorado, veteran’s hospital.
When Czechoslovakian immigrant Ramon Mechl failed to retrieve his pension check from the Cañon City post office, a group of railroad workers agreed to travel to his residence to check on his welfare. As they approached the solitary cabin situated at the end of a rocky canyon, they were set upon by a pack of “savage, half-wild dogs.” After driving off the ravenous beasts, the group finally arrived to discover the mostly devoured remains of the 70-year-old prospector.
Undersheriff Charles Canterbury was brought in to examine the scene, while the animals retreated into the nooks and crannies of the canyon and reportedly growled menacingly at anyone approaching the small home. According to Canterbury, it was impossible to determine whether Mechl had died of natural causes prior to the dogs feasting upon him, or if their collective teeth had been the cause of his demise. Either way, it’s hard not to appreciate the irony of the situation.
You see, the animals weren’t kept as pets, but rather as a source of protein. Numerous residents of the area stated that Mechl often invited them over for “dog meat banquets,” though all denied ever accepting the invitation. Given this, it’s entirely possible that Mechl wasn’t so much a hermit, as someone who just had a lot of difficulty with social situations.