Flag Man's Last Stand

There are many versions of the American Dream, but few are as unusual as Steve J. Bedigian’s. For Steve, “The American Dream is what the pilgrims did.” But living like the pilgrims is no idle fantasy for Steve. For the past few years he has lived in an American-flag-adorned hole in the ground a few feet off of Highway 24. Just like the pilgrims.

Steve has created his masterpiece on a five-acre plot of land that sits 12 miles east of the unincorporated town of Hartsel in central Colorado. He calls it “Sergeant Mike’s Sculptured Gardens, Fountains and Fabled Abodes.” If you’ve ever driven into the mountains on Highway 24, you’ve probably seen it—it’s hard to miss, with its various piles of scrap wood and flag-draped coffin that bordering the road. 

The locals want him gone. The county government says he is breaking laws. The high winds that dominate the landscape try to tear him from his home every day.

“You are depriving me of my life, liberty and pursuit of happiness because it’s different from yours!” Steve shouts, to no one in particular. He is standing above me in the subterranean shelter that he has spent a number of years building. The shelter is part tent, part art project, part political statement. It is a hodgepodge of logs, lumber scraps, tarps and old window panes. It is suprisingly roomy for a hole in the ground. The ceiling is 16-feet high and the bed sits lofted above a cracked wood stove. The smell inside is an even mix of campfire, cigarette and marijuana smoke and, of course, the ever-present dirt.

The decorations are the source of the Steve’s nickname. The walls are all knotted messes of American flags. The floor is carpeted with even more piles of the Stars and Stripes, which, ironically, forces anyone who enters to disrespect the flag by walking on it. The clutter of the shelter is composed of a strange menagerie: one propane grill, two hatchets, one pile of wood, three strands of Christmas lights, one painted cross, one computer playing looped recordings of Bible verses, one bed (just the springs), two coolers, three chairs and two dogs.

Steve is a short, sinewy, 62-year-old man. His face is weathered and leathery, and he has a scruffy white beard and pale blue eyes. While I talk to him, his arms are outstretched in the red light coming from the lantern in the center of his room. He looks like a preacher addressing his congregation.

His sermon is simple: this is his land, and he is going to do whatever he pleases on it. 

You may be wondering how I got in touch with a man who, according to a 9News article, “lives in a hole in the ground and subsists solely off potatoes.” Steve isn’t some hermit who is completely disconnected from society. In the summer he travels to Colorado Springs about once a week to get supplies. During the winter, however, he spends about four days a week in the Springs. He has a cell phone and he’s active on Facebook (PhonyBook, as he calls it). When I was trying to find a way to get in touch with Steve, I noticed that he had commented on the very article that said he lived in a hole in the ground. The comment brought me to his Facebook, and I decided to message him. Steve responded and invited me to spend the night at Sgt. Mike’s. My friends were worried that I was going to get murdered, and my parents warned me not to do it. Since this was already so outside my comfort zone, the others’ misgivings didn’t help my nervousness. But with a little bit of blind faith and a “Screw it what’s the worst that could happen?” attitude, I accepted the invitation.

Steve was born in 1955 in Clifton, a small working-class town in northern New Jersey. His father was a Vietnam veteran and his mother was a stay-at-home mom. When he was 15 his family was torn apart by conflict and, ultimately, divorce. He always stayed close with his father, Mike, but he grew apart from his brothers, sisters and mother. When he was 18, Steve hitchhiked all over the lower 48. While thumbing his way down I-70, he fell in love with the high peaks of Colorado.

Upon returning to New Jersey, his father found an ad for land plots in central Colorado. Steve decided to buy two five-acre plots without having seen them in person. He claims he bought the land at the age of 19, in 1981 (though he would have been 26 then if he’s as old as he says he is). One of these plots is where he now resides. Steve claims that the other five-acre plot was, “taken [from him] by greedy neighbors.”

After being evicted (“wrongfully,” according to Steve) he and his on-and-off girlfriend of 23 years, Janelle, moved into a small, low-rent apartment in Colorado Springs, CO. He decided to move onto the land that he had purchased in 1981. He wanted to do something that made him happy because, as he explains, the last couple of decades had been anything but pleasant.

Steve calls his neighbors “the vile vocal locals,” and from his description they sound like a band of dumb, gun-obsessed, inbred crazies. They are the permanent residents of Hartsel and they see Sgt. Mike’s as both an eyesore and an affrontto America. Steve often hears drivers yelling obscenities when he is working on his flag-draped coffin by the road. To my knowledge, there is no one in it. “Short beeps mean they’re friendlies. Long beeps are the enemies,” Steve says when I tell him about the Range Rover that honked while I took pictures of Sgt. Mike’s. 

Steve’s ill will towards the Park County locals is not entirely unwarranted. He has received threats from locals everywhere from on Facebook to a nearby Walmart.  Twice he’s been threatened by people who had weapons. Two days before I arrived to spend the night, Steve’s shelter was vandalized by a local whom Steve had had issues with before, a young man that Steve described as, “A real low-IQ type.”  One time, a local father and son came to Sgt. Mike’s armed with a knife to cut Steve’s flags. Luckily, one of Steve’s dogs, Froggy, heard them approach in the night and began barking. Steve grabbed a club that he had fashioned from an old table leg, his only defensive weapon. Upon exiting his tent, he spotted the two men and told them to leave his property. Rather than backing down, one of the men pointed the knife at Steve and told him that he should leave the land. At this time, Froggy bit the man’s hand, sending the knife tumbling to the dirt. The assailants, Steve said proudly, fled into the night. Steve added that he would have had “No problem killing these people.” 

Steve also has bad blood with the local authorities. They are trying to enforce new code laws that don’t allow camping for more than 14 days, which would make Steve’s semi-permanent shelter definitively illegal. Steve also has a deep distrust of the Park County Sheriff’s Office. He has called them on multiple occasions when he has been threatened or his property has been vandalized. According to Steve, they were not willing to help. On one occasion, a Park County Deputy came to Sgt. Mike’s and compared Steve to Robert Dear, the man who entered a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood in November 2015 and shot 12 people, killing three.

The area around Hartsel has come under scrutiny in recent years due in large part to Robert Dear. He lived in a small cabin that he built, where he plotted to shoot civilians in a Planned Parenthood. Understandably, the media jumped on the “hermit in the woods” story. Dear’s cabin was just five miles from Sgt. Mike’s, which has led multiple people to tell me that Robert Dear actually lived with Steve. This is a false rumor, though the Dear situation has caused problems for those who were drawn to Hartsel Flatts by cheap land and the so-called “Green Rush” after Colorado became the first state to legalize marijuana in 2014. 

The county enacted new zoning laws in May 2016 to combat the influx of semi-permanent residents (campers, in other words) in the area. Mike received one of the county’s 160 letters sent to these “campers” informing them that they needed to abide by the new zoning laws or risk being evicted from their property. Steve told me that these laws were made with him in mind specifically and that he believes they are unconstitutional. He also told me that there are many more than 160 campers in the area. The county officials estimate that there are 50 permanent year-round residents living in homes in the area. Meanwhile, there are 836 registered voters in the same area.

It was around this time in Steve’s monologue that my eyes began to burn from all of the smoke accumulating in the tent. I had smelled smoke earlier and had asked Steve about it, but we couldn’t find the source. Eventually, just as it became unbearable, we discovered that the recent break-in (according to Steve) had dislodged the insulation protecting the tarp walls of the shelter from the heat of the wood stove. Sure enough, the wall was on fire. Steve grabbed a jug of water and began drenching the small patch of flames as I ran outside to find fresh air and rub my eyes. Steve remarked that if his shelter burned down, his doubters would have felt validated, and it would have been their fault in the first place. I was now more concerned about sleeping in the hole without being burned alive than about writing an article. My “bed” was only about a foot from the wood stove. I would later spend half the night awake with an eye on the scorched wall.

After hitchhiking his way from coast to coast and back again, Steve moved to Hollywood to become a writer and director. He did manual labor for the film industry for the next four years. He claimed that he “could have done big things,” but had grown to loathe the “Hollywood People.” It was after his time in Hollywood that Steve began his life abroad.

The first place he moved was the Pacific island of Tahiti, where he survived a hurricane that was so strong it killed his neighbor. After the storm he worked as a carpenter rebuilding houses. During that time, he was living with a group of artists from France and Italy. He told me about a Frenchman getting angry upon seeing that a broken plate that had been glued back together was thrown out. Steve had thrown it away since it was broken. The Frenchman told him that Europeans do not throw things away just because they are not perfect. This sentiment stuck with Steve so thoroughly that it remains at the core of Sgt. Mike’s, where everything is made from other people’s “junk.” Steve tells me he is “a conscientious objector to the disposability of today’s society.”

The Italians who he was living with inspired him to move to Italy. There, he met the woman who would become his wife, and eventually his ex-wife. Steve said that she was a good woman and that they were happy together. The two of them didn’t want kids and they capitalized on the freedom that childlessness brought. They traveled the world. While living in Paraguay, his wife said she wanted to settle in America. Steve had his misgivings, but he moved to Florida for her. This is when his life took a turn for the worse.

Steve has little fondness for America in its current state, despite the fact that he’s aiming to set the world record for most American flags flying. I’ll let you guess which presidential candidate he voted for. He tells me solemnly, “America ruined me. Moving back here was the worst decision of my life.”

He fell into a deep depression while living in Florida. He didn’t like the society around him, so he turned to the bottle. He even thought of killing himself. Not surprisingly, Steve’s marriage didn’t fare well. He told me “the American women corrupted [his wife] with their feminist bullshit.” He did not learn that his wife had divorced him until six months after the fact.

It was during this time that his father’s health began to falter. Unbeknownst to Steve, his siblings and his father’s current wife put his father in hospice care. When he found out, he was outraged. He offered to take care of his father in his own home, but his extended family refused. They didn’t want Steve to see his ailing father and even attempted to file a restraining order. Steve claimed that his “father’s wife would make [his father] pay when [Steve] visited.” Steve didn’t elaborate on how she made him pay. Steve stopped visiting his father so that his stepmother would stop causing trouble for his dying father. This all explains (kind of) why Steve often says his extended family “murdered” his father.

Those years of family turmoil set the stage for some of the strangest years of Steve’s life, a time he calls “our own personal hell.”

During his travels, Steve met a man from Sri Lanka and they became friends. Steve refers to himself as a giving man, so it’s no surprise that he lent his friend $40,000. A while after he had returned home, Steve realized that the man had conned him out of the money. He and his girlfriend traveled to Sri Lanka to retrieve the money. By a series of mishaps, they ended up running out of money and were forced to live there in destitute poverty for 32 months. Steve had nothing particularly nice, or politically correct, to tell me about the country of Sri Lanka and its people. Apparently, the man who owed him money put a bounty on Steve’s head. In Steve’s words, “Those motherfuckers were trying to kill me.” To protect himself, Steve began telling his enemies that the U.S. Embassy would come after them if anything happened to him. Steve claims that that is the reason he is still alive.

Upon returning to the U.S. four years ago, Steve’s life didn’t improve much. He struggled to find work because, according to him, “White men over fifty who are unemployed in this country will never be employed again.” In April2015, Steve and Janelle were evicted from their apartment. He was sick of the landlords and having to pay rent. So in May2015, Steve moved onto his long-owned land and began living in a tent, which he stayed in for the first summer and the beginning of his first winter. He was forced to move when his tent froze over in late December. When spring came and the tent thawed, he spent the summer winterizing his camp and he continued building his art installations. Steve told me that the underlying ethic for Sgt. Mike’s is “From coal to diamonds,” a slogan that Steve feels symbolizes his whole life.

At this point in our conversation, it was getting late, and dinner seemed to be nowhere on the horizon. Steve “learned to eat at midnight in Spain,” and “learned to go hungry in Sri Lanka.” I, on the other hand, have learned neither of those things from the buffet-style cornucopia that is a college cafeteria. I was hungry, bordering on hangry. The food cooking in the pot didn’t offer much salvation. In went two whole garlic bundles (not cloves—the whole garlic), two cans of diced tomatoes, one box of spaghetti, a dash of water and a half-pound of once-frozen, ground venison that someone had given Steve. The sharp aroma of garlic mixed with the cigarette smoke. I noticed that Steve bites off the filters before smoking his cigarettes. It was also around this time that he made an off-hand comment about having colon cancer. I didn’t delve deeper into the subject, but Steve seemed to be really healthy for someone with such a serious ailment.

While tending to the venison spaghetti, Steve embarked on what would become a two-hour monologue. My only contribution were some “uh huhs” and “wows” and “reallys.”

The first, and longest, section involved the corruption of the local government. Steve denounced so many town officials that I couldn’t write notes fast enough to keep up. He brought up accusations of cronyism, harassment and general incompetence. Steve’s biggest gripe, however, was with the local justice system. “If justice is dependent on anything but the facts then it’s not justice,” he declared. He believes that the Park County courts are being used to advance vindictive personal agendas. He claims that one local official enacted new zoning laws specifically aimed at removing Steve from his property. Steve was now waving a knife in my direction while directing his rant at an ambiguous “you.” I was extremely uncomfortable, to say the least. 

He then proceeded to calmly turn back to the grill like nothing happened. His next order of business was to tell me everything that is wrong with America because it “isn’t the freedom-loving America” that he grew up in. He sees America as a sinking ship full of spineless, mindless people. He blames the family-breakdown, hippies, feminism, greed, television, socialism and, of course, immigrants. He shows disdain for people’s unwillingness to hear opposing points. But the core of Steve’s philosophy is his vehement opposition to the “disposability” of today’s society. Materialism is what he hates most, and, in his perspective, it is an affliction that plagues the rich and poor alike.

It’s easy to see that Steve will never leave his land. He has become too disenchanted with a so-called normal life. He’s too proud, too stubborn and too ready to “make his stand” to leave now. Nevertheless, the fate of Sgt. Mike’s has yet to be decided. He told me that he fears, after his hearing, the county will send a SWAT team to evict him—an operation that he worries would end with him being wrongfully shot by police. As you read this article, the court battle is happening, and Steve, as you might have guessed, is representing himself.  Steve said that in court he aims to “use words to destroy their case…and then bring up a harassment suit against the county.” But for the time being, Steve J. Bedigian remains on his land, living out his version of the American Dream. He is the Flag Man and he wouldn’t want it any other way. 


Part of the Ritual Issue