Five years ago, way back when my now-husband and I called each other by our trail names and subsisted primarily on Snickers bars dipped in Nutella, we walked, unwittingly, into the midst of a shootout. We were somewhere close to the Pen-Mar state line, in a wooded area crisscrossed by service roads. At the bottom of a steep hill, we started to hear a loud, rapid pop-pop-popping. At first we assumed it was someone playing with firecrackers: annoying, but par for the course on a glorious fall afternoon in a stretch of easy-access woodland. As we crested the ridge, we realized the popping was way too loud, way too consistent, to be amateur pyrotechnics, and suddenly the trail in front of us was a haze of smoke. Amidst the smoke were dozens of men in uniform, fully armed, and an array of armored vehicles. Only then did we realize what was going on: these were soldiers firing blanks. We’d walked into the midst of a fully-equipped military training session, taking place on the Appalachian Trail corridor. There was no warning, no signs posted on any trees or at any of the small roads we’d crossed. The violence, even simulated, came as a complete surprise and felt completely incongruous with the surroundings. (Later, the host of a nearby hostel mentioned to us that in Maryland the trail passes very close to Camp David, and it all made a little more sense.) Instead of pausing the combat exercise to let us pass by, a soldier escorted us through the crossfire, like we were a pair of civilian stand-ins. It was surreal. I guess that’s better than terrifying. I realized, in that moment, that this is the closest to armed combat I have ever come, and just how privileged this makes me.
Fast forward four years. For most of those four years we lived mostly, I should mention, in Las Vegas. Our son was born there in 2014, the year of the CiCi’s Pizza/Walmart shootings and the Bundy Ranch standoff. We’ve since relocated, and watched Mandalay Bay unfold from afar, but it struck a deep nerve nonetheless. Anyway, fast forward to late summer 2016. We were on the last leg of our end-to-end hike on New Hampshire’s 180-mile Cohos Trail, pushing through an excruciatingly long (26 miles?), hot day of mostly road-walking. We were on our way to Pittsburgh, New Hampshire’s northernmost town, one of us lugging a massive pack, the other lugging a sweaty, tired toddler. Did I mention it was hot? Did I mention we’d spent the entire day hiking on roads, except for the portion we’d spent hiking on dusty, heavily-trafficked ATV trails? Did I mention we passed by miles and miles of beautiful lakeshore, all of it private, without a single public access where we could stop and swim? Did I mention the bullets whizzing over our head on Cedar Stream Road?
If our experience in Maryland went from scary to surreal, our experience that day on the Cohos Trail was the exact opposite: surreal to scary. We weren’t sure if the first bullet was even a bullet. We’d heard the crack of a rifle, but Coos County, the North Country, is a hunter’s paradise. Cedar Stream Road, which follows the shoreline of Lake Francis, borders the Lake Francis Wildlife Area. Many of the houses we walked past that day are hunting and fishing camps. But maybe that swift rustle in the leaves above our heads was just the wind, a broken branch, a leaping squirrel. When it happened a second time, and then a third, it was unmistakable: the sudden report, the zip of a bullet overhead, the rustling of leaves on the other side of the road.
Our dog slunk along, straining at his leash, ears pinned back against his head. Our toddler begged us to make the gunshots stop, and when it was clear to him that we couldn’t, he begged us to go faster. And we did: we moved along at a good three-mile-per-hour clip, not stopping for water, despite the midday heat. We didn’t stop until the gunshots faded in the distance and we’d left that wooded stretch of road behind us. We’ll never know who was up in the woods, or what they were shooting at. Ducks on the lake? Neighbors’ mailboxes? Us? Nothing in particular? We’ll never know if they saw us, if they knew we were there or not. What I do know is this: New Hampshire state law prohibits firing a gun across, or within 15 feet of, a road. Was the shooter willfully violating the law, or did they not realize they were shooting toward the road? Malice is malice, but I don’t have much tolerance for irresponsibility either.
I’m not interested in offering policy prescriptions, and I don’t have a knee-jerk response to the question of gun control vs gun freedom (which I do not see as mutually exclusive). This isn’t a problem that is going to be solved by speaking in absolutes, in terms of all or nothing, which seems to be all anyone can do in the wake of incomprehensible tragedy. My suggestion is merely this: let’s have an ongoing conversation about guns, rather than sporadic outpourings of heightened sentiment in the wake of crises and tragedies. Instead of treating guns as talismans, let’s address them as real objects that affect real bodies. Let’s talk about the impact of guns on our day-to-day lives. Let’s talk about how things do or do not change when you add a gun to the mix, or take one away. Let’s talk, also, about the way our culture is steeped in militarism, about how law enforcement has become a militarized presence in our lives. I can only speak for myself, from my own experience: to my knowledge, I have never been in a situation that would have been improved by the presence of guns, but I’ve been in a couple that would have been improved by their absence.