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Dispatches From the Russian River: Locked and Loaded

After being offered a BB gun for protection, Alexis Coe explores what gun culture means out in the wild.
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(Photo: curtisperry/Flickr)

(Photo: curtisperry/Flickr)

"yave not of the text a pulled hen
That saith that hunters ben not holy men."
     —Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

There are wild pigs among us. Warm weather has begun to lure predators out of the redwood forest in search of water, and the ever-dwindling creek next to my cabin is a favorite spot. The other day, I noticed my neighbor Amy* inspecting some kind of horn—but I’m a city girl, still learning the woods. I didn’t recognize it as the tusk of a wild boar. I now step over remains of some kind every day. Flattened frogs and lizards. Buffets of fur and scales. Vertebrae and jawbones licked clean. Some are in a state beyond identification.

I assumed that was the tusk’s story too. I didn’t understand what it foretold until a BB gun was placed on my kitchen table. I’ve seen pellet rifles in my time, but this looked like a real handgun. It came with lead ammo. Hank, my jack-of-all-trades neighbor, insisted I take it. I, in turn, did the same with Amy. It now resides with her.

"Every house is locked 'n' loaded around here."

Every day, the creek people offer a new warning and some material to aid me. At first, it was small hazards here and there, like poison oak. Several concerned neighbors tested my ability to spot it around my cabin. I passed, but they had another precaution in mind. A bottle of bleach materialized. When I didn’t use it, Amy took to my front yard.

Now it seems as if that was all training for the warmer months to come. The drought has emboldened thirsty predators, and they’re coming out earlier in the evening and staying later in the morning. My neighbors tell me how to escape a feral pig; I need to go against my instincts to run, or it’ll charge. Nobody, including me, likes my odds of escaping unscathed. I’m supposed to be on the lookout for mountain lions and black bears and packs of coyotes too.

Neighbors borrow more than a cup of sugar around here. I’ve seen cars, firewood, and digging trucks sincerely offered. These are necessities, not niceties; the borrower rarely has to ask. I once forgot the key to my cabin, and the news spread quickly. By the end of the day, I was told where to find half a dozen hidden house keys, and to help myself to anything. I was only locked out for 10 minutes. That’s the amount of time it took to walk to and from Hank’s cabin, which contains the spare key.

In an unincorporated town, everything takes a lot of time and effort and planning. Municipal services are limited. One neighbor is in charge of water, another fire. People take care of each other; from the moment I moved in, I’ve been considered part of the tribe.

The creek people know I’ll take their advice and goods, but not their arms. Gun control—or gun rights, as it’s called around here—came up my second day on the creek. Bob was driving to the General Store four miles away and stopped his car in front of my porch, as he still does, to see if I needed anything. He also told me to yell if I ever needed back-up. Those instructions came with a warning too: If I scream, I better mean it.

“Every house is locked 'n' loaded around here,” Bob told me, adding, “I don’t have a gun.”

Oh, good, I thought.

I began to say how relieved I felt that we were like-minded, but Bob hadn’t actually finished his sentence. He’d only paused to take a swig of beer before adding, “But my wife does.” This wasn’t an attempt to be witty or pointed or proud. It was matter of fact, like we were talking about gardening, not guns.

A few days later, Hank told me about the night his dog died. He couldn’t afford to put her down, so he did what he could to make her comfortable at home. He spent hours petting the good girl who’d been his best friend for more than a decade, but by 2 a.m., Hank just wanted it to be over. He was going to shoot her outside but then thought better of it.

If a gun went off that late at night, there was a good chance it wouldn’t be the only one. Every house is locked 'n' loaded. The entire creek would’ve teemed with panicked neighbors fumbling in total darkness with loaded guns.

There’s been a lot of gun talk here—by far the most I’ve experienced firsthand. And it’s much more intimate here than in abstract media coverage. When I was researching my book in Tennessee, I saw quite a few rifles slung over hunters’ shoulders, but they communicated with swagger, not words. Back in San Francisco, there’s not much to discuss either, but for a very different reason; some find guns fun to shoot, but it stops there. General consensus makes for boring conversation.

Up here, guns aren’t about an arms race, and they aren’t anti-social. On the contrary, they’re about a small community, about a collective sense of purpose.

I can only recall one heated argument about them. It happened a decade ago, with someone’s girlfriend whose name I can’t even remember. She kept a handgun in her coat closet, despite living in one of San Francisco’s safest neighborhoods and having never experienced any circumstance that called for it. She also lived a block away from a police station. I made her walk me through whatever home intrusion or apocalyptic event she imagined coming to pass. In her mind, there would be plenty of time to get to the entry hall closet to retrieve the gun, no matter where she was in the apartment when disaster struck. Once armed, she’d keep possession of the weapon, no matter what struggle ensued. She’s long gone, but the deep skepticism I expressed about her reasoning has remained the same. Over time, it became axiomatic. Guns bad. Alarm systems good.

But I’m no longer in a city. There’s no animal control or police force in a town with a population of 355. The Sonoma County Sheriff’s Office does a drive-through once a week, and that’s it.

Thoreau, who has become my self-sufficiency guide, was a birder; his ornithological interest prevented him from hunting. Thoreau sold his gun before he took to the woods, and yet, he encouraged friends—he was a childless, lifelong bachelor—to let their sons hunt. In Walden, he wrote:

We cannot but pity the boy who has never fired a gun; he is no more humane, while his education has been sadly neglected. This was my answer with respect to those youths who were bent on this pursuit, trusting that they would soon outgrow it. No humane being, past the thoughtless age of boyhood, will wantonly murder any creature which holds its life by the same tenure that he does. The hare in its extremity cries like a child.

With time, Thoreau believed these young men, should they have “the seeds of a better life” in them, wouldn’t take up a gun or a fishing pole. I’ve lived on the Russian River for more than a month now, and despite the prominence of guns in the area, I’ve only heard a single shot. It came from the Boy Scout Camp across the creek.

I put down Walden and sought some contemporary criticism, which led me to Christopher Ketchum. Last summer, Rolling Stone published his essay, “Confessions of a Liberal Gun Lover.” I don’t share much of his enthusiasm for the Second Amendment, but the geographic realities he cites hit home. Ketchum lives just south of the Colorado River in Moab, Utah, population 5,046.

In the article, he names a “radical environmentalist just about as far left as one can be” and “a cartoonist and writer” as just two of many of his friends who pack. The environmentalist, he writes, is reacting in kind to fears of an armed state. The cartoonist was convinced by a female friend who had been kidnapped. She kept a .38 revolver in her pocket, and shot her attacker as he was unbuckling his pants.

“When I hike into the wilderness I carry the .40 pistol or the .357 Magnum, a smart answer to grizzly bears,” Ketchum writes. “When I travel around the American West on assignment, I keep a handgun in my car.”

Until recently, I wouldn’t have understood Ketchum’s argument, but now I do. I’m increasingly doing my research outside of the archives, and I’ve since experienced plenty of backwoods. At times, I would have felt more secure if there was a gun in my glove compartment. I still think that the San Francisco girlfriend’s argument was flawed, to say the least, but I’m oddly at ease with the customs I’ve seen up here.

This isn’t cabin fever talking. I’m not taking up arms anytime soon, but I get it. Up here, guns aren’t about an arms race, and they aren’t anti-social. On the contrary, they’re about a small community, about a collective sense of purpose. On the creek, we have a social contract that is very real. For a neighbor to hand me a pellet gun, knowing I’d outright reject a handgun, is actually a thoughtful act. He’s concerned. He cares about my safety. Responsibility for one another’s lives is implicit. In a wilderness where guns are a tool of survival, like a hammer or a hatchet, my neighbors are trying to furnish me with a means to live. That lesson, but not the guns themselves, is something I will carry with me back into the city.

Filed from a creekside cabin outside an unincorporated hamlet, Alexis Coe's Dispatches From the Russian River is a personal and historical exploration of leaving home and pursuing dreams.

*The names of locals have been changed.