Thursday, June 29, 2017

Provisions for Winter, The Red Queen, and Rifle-Plates: A Report from The West

From my journal, in process of developing a magazine piece, dated 2012:

     It's not a twenty-five pound weight vest, but at eight pounds each both plates add to the workout. The sixteen pound vest of armor plates doesn't breath well, and the extra weight of a medical kit and a radio don't help. The plates under the rough Cordura fabric will stop a steel-core 30.06 round, however. It's a hot, heavy, sweaty comfort. After the climb, sitting on the rocky hillside, watching the road below, I wonder how it got to this.

     Last summer, we had a guest we never met. For months my dogs would bark, and be answered by a single dog far out in the pasture. On various nights, we saw a flashlight moving through the uninhabited range, or a campfire. Both would be extinguished as soon as headlights or another light aimed their direction. This gave no comfort. There have always been walkers who came through the country afoot. Some going north for work, or south to take their money home. Others just on the bum, or just unable to handle the urban world, but they all passed on through, and often introduced themselves on the way. They rarely meant harm, they were just going someplace. To take up residence uninvited on someones place, with never a word of contact and an effort to hide, speaks to some illness of intention or nature. The last time that had happened, the man tried to kill my father with a stolen rifle when dad rode up on his camp.
     That had been in the days before cartels, and back-country meth cooks. In the days when a man on the run could still disappear in a different city, before surveillance cameras and facial recognition in every airport. So I spent some days searching, with a rifle over my shoulder and a pistol on my hip, for this person or persons. I laid up on the hills and glassed the country with binoculars, and I scouted waters. My intent was not to solve any question of why they were here, but simply to send them on their way to somewhere else. If that meant gunfire, then it meant what it meant. Who knows what would drive someone to the backside of a place only reachable by thirty-five miles of dirt road, and really, who wants to find out?
     I never did find whoever it was. They moved on rocks, and away from places easy to track, and they laid up hard in the day where they couldn't be seen. Eventually, the far-away dog stopped barking and the light stopped burning in the night. Part of me is glad, and part of me isn't. Both parts of me would have been very happy, then, to have these chunks of bulletproof ceramic I have now.

     A man I've known all my life, one by whose measure I judge others, has begun to travel this country with a gun again. After his war in Vietnam, he parted with the routine carrying or use of firearms, for the over-familiarity. Taking a pistol for companion again was not a decision he made lightly, or one he's not regretted to some extent. But, after finding one too many trespasser on his family's ranch, one too many shake-and-bake meth cook and one too many mobile lab, he couldn't not take responsibility for his own welfare.
     On the border, they have cartels but further norte we have wannabes, with dreams of glory and money. They are less organized, and less trained, than their heroes of Sinaloa, Juarez and others, but no less dangerous to the land-owners, travelers and workers of the backcountry. Anyone who's seen an episode of Breaking Bad is probably familiar with mobile meth labs, vehicles from cars to RV's purposed to contain the workings of a methamphetamine cook. Shake-and-bake cooks, on the other hand, have been far less presented in the media. Combining gourmet ingredients that include camp fuel, lithium from batteries, and crushed allergy pills in a container and shaking it up, aspiring narcos create a one-pot meth cook. If the container doesn't explode, that is. The risk of explosion leads some of them to drive out into the country to run their cook. Sometimes they just leave the cooking mixture on the side of the road and watch from afar. Both mobile and shake-and-bake cooks are perpetrated by the kind of people who will kill you for interfering. Local elements of larger groups, and the desperate, desirous up-and-comers who have dreams of easy highs, quick money, and perhaps greater things akin to the hermanos down south.
So maybe that's how it got to this.

     Then, there is another way to look at it. It has perhaps always been this way, and there was no “getting” involved. My grandfather carried a pistol in the backcountry, because there is often work to be done with one. Injured animals to put down, predators to stop in their depredations of livestock, more often than anything dramatic. But in carrying that pistol, he wasn't unknowing of the tools violent use. Born in 1906, leaving home in 1920 for a job behind a rifle in Arizona, he had killed men in self defense and maybe otherwise. Though his experiences elsewhere never followed him here, that's not to say it couldn't have happened. Not so long after my grandfather passed, my father had to shoot a man out here, in absolute self defense against an aimed thirty-thirty. My body-armor may tell a different story to the observer, but when the schizophrenic man with the stolen rifle raised it at my father, I wonder if dad wouldn't have been glad for some of his own?
     When I am out, either on the ranch or enjoying the wilderness in other places, I always carry a medical kit, and survival kit. Tourniquet, bandages, superglue, moleskin, oral rehydration salts, signaling tools, emergency shelter, parachute cord, a knife, and so on. I've rarely ever had to use any of it, but I still carry it because, as every philosopher worth his robes has said, shit happens. The gun is no different, nor the protection against it.
     As humanity moves forward, so do our technologies, and common tools. I've been told that I have no need for a semi-automatic rifle on the ranch, the erroneously called “assault rifle” being a military tool. My grandfather favored a Colt revolver and Winchester carbine for his ranch guns, just like popular images of the “classic” cowboy. Those tools were once at the cutting edge of military small arms, with extended capacity and much increased rate of fire. The difference? Time. My grandfather eventually switched from his Colt revolver to a war-bring-back German Luger in 9mm, that shot faster from a larger reserve of cartridges. Everything rolls on, and people adapt.
It's possible to create many questions about these things, questions of need, odds, and so on, but what do they achieve? There is a wisdom in this country, that what is, is. Questions become acts of denial, things that feel like action but are actually nothing close. Anyone who has lived out here very long, particularly anyone of second or third or more generation rural living, learns that you can talk yourself out of almost anything. Extra well-pipe costs money, so do spare leathers for the check valve, and do you really need them? Laying in extra tools, parts and supplies for a hard winter might be wasted if the snows never come and the roads never close. You might not need them, it is true, but no one knows what they really need until they need it. Out here, we try to keep as much of everything big and small on hand. More beans in the pantry, coffee can after coffee can of nails, bolts and screws, parts for trucks, and veterinary medicines most of us know how to dose for people too. Because we all know, it's harder out here than forty miles away in the land of paved roads and plenty. When the snows blow in deep, or the clay turns to bog in the monsoons, animals die for want of that extra feed or medication, and so do people. The only preventative? Have what you might need, and have it in spades.
     What is, is, and there's only to do about it what needs done. And that gets done with what is available. Fences get mended, cattle get moved, and we deal with drought, fire, and predation on whatever number of legs it comes on. Once there were no fences in this country, and the only thing that separated one man's stock from another was a brand, and a particular way of whittling an ear. Then barbed-wire got strung taught across miles of cedar fence posts, defining the edges of each man's range. Aermotor windmills started giving way to submersible pumps, and while that generator was running we strung up some electric lights too. Then those who could afford it started flying over their lands and herds in ultralights and helicopters, counting head and killing coyotes and wolves from the air. Numbered ear tags replaced ear marks, and then fencing got done with steel posts. The generators got replaced with power-line drops, or solar panels, and the kerosene lamps put away for emergencies. Now you can run your ranges with drones, and tag your stock with RFID tags that can be scanned on the go. Ranches across the west have motion activated yard lights and security cameras. Trail-cameras are placed as much to watch for people as to track stock and predators. And the bandits that gave rise to the brands and the fences in the first place? They care less about cattle now. Their interests are in the remote places, far from governing eyes, for cooking, weighing, cutting, counting money or butchering their enemies. And those who already live there? We're just in the way. So if we add body armor and AR-15's or AK-47's to the tools of our trade, we're just keeping up. Doing what needs done, with what is available. Like our fathers and grandfathers, laying in what might be needed for a winter that no one could say was going to be easy or hard.  

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