Reading an old Time report (in a waiting room, they need to update their reading material!) that Mexican drug traffickers are using American national parks and forests for marijuana plantations. Reading the piece shed light on a mystery that has intrigued me since 1994.

On November 2 of that year, my wife, Cathy, and I drove from Montgomery, Alabama to the Sipsey Wilderness, a part of Bankhead National Forest in northwestern Alabama. Sipsey being large (25,000 plus acres), in the middle of nowhere, and it being a Wednesday, we didn’t expect to see anyone.

That night, lying in our tent listening to the peaceful gurgling of the Sipsey River, three miles from the nearest road, I was surprised to hear a voice echoing in the hollow. It was that of a man, speaking Mexican Spanish. He couldn’t have been more than a hundred meters from us. Later, I heard thumping music, which quickly died down.

I couldn’t imagine what Mexicans would be doing in the middle of that wilderness. My first impression was that they were illegal migrant workers. But what had drawn them to that poor corner of Alabama, much less those deep woods? After a while, I started to doubt I’d heard anything at all. “It was De Soto’s ghost,” I joked to Cathy, nervously.

The next day, brilliant and crisp, we saw no trace of anyone as we explored the hollow. Sipsey is a beautiful piece of wilderness. Freshwater mollusks thrive in the clean waters of the river, and the valley is so rugged that large patches of it were never logged. We admired huge chestnut oaks and beeches over a century old. Everywhere, color: the blue sky; the golden, red and orange leaves; the copper river, dappled with sun and shade. (Photo above shows the river as it looked that day.)

That night, camped on the plateau in the middle of the forest, I noted in my diary: “I just heard a big animal breathing in the distance. It could have been a man. I woke Cathy up, but the wind blew and when it died down you couldn’t hear the breathing anymore.”

Was it a man? Were we in danger? Time notes:

In the fall, when scores of Mexican workers arrive to harvest and process the pot, shoot-outs occur between law-enforcement agents and camouflage-clad growers toting AK-47s. Sometimes the pot pirates mistake innocent tourists for thieves or cops. … “If you are a hunter, a fisherman or a backpacker, it can be dangerous,” says Michael Delaney, who oversees marijuana cases for the Drug Enforcement Administration in Northern California.

Did Cathy and I nearly cross paths with pot growers? The world may never know. But after reading the article in Time, I think we probably did.

The Forest Service needs to look into Bankhead. If pot pirates were there nine years ago, there’s every reason to think they’re still there today.