After almost 40 years in Colorado Springs and a career in transportation with School District 11, Debi Shafer found herself at a crossroads. She was 57, retired, a widow, with no immediate family in the area.
She wasn't sure what she wanted for her next chapter, and she wasn't sure it was meant to happen in Colorado. In early August, Shafer returned to the Springs from a visit with relatives in Ohio. Seriously considering a move back to the state where she'd grown up, she set about downsizing.
Just before 2 p.m. on Monday, Aug. 5, she walked into The Gazette's lobby on South Prospect Street to place an ad for a yard sale.
* * *
Michael "Squirrel" McCann knew exactly what he wanted, with a steadfast clarity earned on the long scramble up from rock bottom: a true companion whose faith was as strong as his own. He prayed on it, asking God for signs that would lead him to that special woman. Until then, he'd wait.
McCann grew up in the Springs and returned after a stint in California riding with an outlaw motorcycle club, cultivating bad habits and a list of regrets that trailed him back to his hometown.
"Anger burns up so much of you, there's not much left," said McCann, now 51. "I fought the law and the law won, but then I gave my life to God."
By the time he strolled into The Gazette's lobby in 2010 to place an ad for his company, A Better Tree & Firewood Service, McCann had experienced a spiritual awakening and refashioned himself and his business around Christianity.
Inside his wallet, in a cellophane pouch made from an old cigarette pack wrapper, he kept a cache of hundreds of mustard seeds to remind him of the biblical passage about faith: Even the tiniest kernel holds the power to move mountains.
He knew it was true. He'd moved a mountain.
* * *
Even with the Christian patches stitched to his leather vest, at a muscular 6-foot-4, with tattoos, goatee, bandana and a ponytail halfway down his back, McCann still cut the rough-and-tumble biker image.
Classified sales executive Mary Heifner, who took McCann's ad that day in 2010, was struck by his easy smile and earnest nature. When he asked how she was doing, it wasn't a formality; he looked her in the eye and listened to her answer. He also appeared to walk the godly line he talked, eschewing alcohol and profanity. McCann became a regular at The Gazette, sometimes stopping by weekly to renew his ad with Heifner and catch up.
That's where he was at 1:43 p.m. on Aug. 5 when a pretty, soft-spoken woman with long, brown hair came in to place an ad with The Gazette. She was directed to an empty seat across from Heifner, beside a man with a long pony tail. Shafer was close enough to hear their conversation, so when an opening came, she made her move:
"Excuse me, but I have some trees I need cut down ..."
* * *
It was more than a serendipitous business transaction, Heifner sensed.
"I think there was an instant connection. He thought she was cute and it's like they both got this little sparkle in their eyes," said Heifner, who remembers the two strangers striking up a conversation that lasted 10 or 15 minutes.
McCann gave Shafer his number. After he left, Heifner assured Shafer that though Squirrel might look tough, he was one of the good guys.
"Give him a call," Heifner urged. Shafer did, and the following day McCann and his crew came to her house in Pleasant Valley. She watched them work, impressed by McCann's professionalism, his respectful crew and his knowledge.
"He made the trees happy," she said.
As Shafer stood in the driveway, one of McCann's employees complimented her necklace, a delicate gold cross. Shafer smiled and said she loved Jesus.
The comment wasn't lost on McCann.
Later, one of Shafer's neighbors stopped by to ask if McCann's crew could cut down an olive tree on his property. Olive was the wood used to make the crucifixion cross, McCann knew.
Encouraged by the signs, McCann invited Shafer to join him for Saturday services at Set Free Biker Church on Platte Avenue. He told her to consider it and then left without asking for her number.
Three days later, she called to confirm.
* * *
When she told her friend of 32 years, Connie Lupton, that she was falling for a tattooed, Christian biker, Lupton was surprised - mostly because Shafer herself was surprised. Shafer didn't think she'd fall in love again after her husband died, and she hadn't been looking for a relationship.
"I do think that changed her plans," Lupton said.
When McCann told his friend Garrick "Little Dawg" Dewey that he thought he'd found "the one" - and she was a woman he'd just met - Dewey urged him to take it slow.
"Give it three months before you even consider anything," said Dewey, a retired pastor who got to know McCann three years ago through the biker church.
After Dewey met Shafer, he understood the instant appeal.
"She just seemed to be the right fit for Squirrel," Dewey said. "He seemed calmer, happier with her. She brought the best out in him."
* * *
For their first official date, McCann showed up with three rose buds - one yellow, one white and one red.
In his mind, the symbolism was clear: yellow meant friendship, red meant passion and white meant marriage. The order in which the flowers opened would determine how he and Shafer would proceed.
"Let's let God tell us how we should pursue the relationship," he said.
The flowers began to open. First yellow, then white, then red. To McCann, it was another sign he was finally on the right path.
Over the following weeks, the couple went to the movies, to dinner and to church. Shafer rode pillion on McCann's custom chopper when the couple headed to Cripple Creek for the Salute to American Veterans Rally and Festival.
They spent quiet hours on the back patio of McCann's apartment in Old Colorado City, drinking coffee and talking about the image of Christ that some say can be discerned in the rocky shadows of Pikes Peak. If Shafer stayed over, she got the bed and McCann slept in the living room, long legs jacked up on one arm of the loveseat.
In late October, a little more than two months after they met, McCann asked Shafer to dinner at The Cliff House at Pikes Peak in Manitou Springs. McCann's mother, who works for A Ride In Luxury Inc., drove them in a limousine. McCann had restaurant employees place red, yellow and white roses around Shafer's seat at the table before they arrived.
When the time came, he dropped to one knee, took her hand and slipped on the custom-designed gold and emerald engagement band.
She was ten times what he'd asked God for, a hundred times better than every choice he'd ever made. If she would be his wife, he would love her with all he had for the rest of his life.
Through tears, Shafer immediately said yes.
* * *
The couple wed just before noon on Nov. 2 at Central Christian Church. The bride wore a pale green gown and ribbons in her hair. The groom wore leather and chewed gum. They spoke their vows, pledging devotion to one another and to Jesus. Following the reception, they rode off on McCann's chopper.
After a honeymoon at the Dream Inn in Santa Cruz, McCann moved his things into Shafer's home, sharing the space with his new wife and her 13-year-old beagle mix Angel. When people marvel to him about the speed and seeming perfection of things, he tells them it was God's timeline and plan, not his. And that's that.
Everyone calls him Squirrel, except Shafer. She calls him Michael. He does the laundry, she does the dishes.
They can't see the image of Jesus in the mountain from here, but they know it's there.
Contact Stephanie Earls: 636-0364