Guns New Mexico

Gila National Wilderness

Tuesday, March 06, 2012S.V. CAMBRIA

Sunrise from the visitor center.

It was much warmer last night and down right hot by nine o’clock this morning as we had breakfast and broke down camp.  By ten o’clock our work was complete and we were on our way to Gila National Forest which is good because, though only 189 miles away, it took most of the day to get there. 

Gila National Monument, the site of cliff dwellings over seven hundred years-old, is forty-two miles from civilization along a road that snakes through the Mongollon Mountains and takes an hour and a half to travel.  Out of convenience we chose Upper Scorpion campground which is only a quarter of a mile from the dwellings and turned out to be a HUGE mistake.  There were three groups there: David and me; a father, his daughter and three of her friends from university; and a single man in his late-thirties or forties with a small dog.

The evening started off harmlessly enough with the single guy lighting a large fire and playing Outlaw Country music from the stereo in his truck (that should have been our first clue) but as the night wore on he began talking to himself and got louder and louder to the point of yelling as he danced around the fire.  Every now and then you could make out a word or two: “Patriot Act”, “Mexico”, “$3.49” (gas prices?), “war”.  And there were more intelligible rants:  “Fuck George Bush; piss on him”.  “I’m not yelling just for fun here”.  “No ONE is trying to help me”.  “Fucking pussies; go back to Texas” (the group camped closest to him was from Texas).  The guy was clearly crazy.  Problem was, we didn’t know what kind of crazy. 

It was still early, some time before eight, but very dark and the wind was picking up, so we put out our fire and went into the tent hoping he would eventually do the same.  I was beginning to get nervous as he grew angrier and wanted to distance myself the best that I could from the situation.

As we laid in bed he continued to rant and, without being able to see him any longer, I got confused by the location of his voice and thought he had crossed the road to the banks of the Gila River when I heard him yell something that sounded like “what the fuck” or “fuck it” before firing three shots from a large-caliber handgun.  Time slowed down, or seemed to, as the adrenaline rushed through our bodies, and it went deadly quiet except for the sound of our hearts pounding and blood pumping through our veins.  I was sure that he had just killed himself.  But he hadn’t.  The first three shots were soon followed by another two.  How long we laid there, it’s difficult to say.  It seemed like a lifetime.  I remember whispering “what should we do?” and then it was silent again, possibly to reload, when we heard footsteps approaching the tent. 

The father and his daughter from the campsite at the end of the grounds were in the toilet when the shooting began and managed to sneak over to our tent (which was closer than theirs) without him seeing them – he was still at his campsite after all.  They wanted to get help but didn’t feel comfortable leaving in their truck, neither did we.  Not happy about the fact that they came to our tent with the aid of a flashlight (or at all for that matter), we needed to leave before the guy set his sights on us; so we got dressed and snuck out the back, ducking behind trees and keeping low until we felt safe enough to leave the bush and walk along the road to the next campsite, only a half mile down the road.  As we were walking, we could hear him yell “I’m going light you up!” while firing more rounds. 

The father sent his daughter, Claire, with us to go get help and went back to the campsite to get the rest of their group and walk up toward the dwellings to safety while they waited.  There was only one couple camped at Lower Scorpion (why couldn’t it have been us?) and they drove us to the residence area.  There wasn’t a ranger on duty so we ended up at the volunteer dorm where, through a series of phone calls, two US Forest Service Deputies were dispatched.  Because we’re out in the middle of nowhere, it took over an hour for them to arrive and by the time they got to his campsite, it took five minutes to wake him from his drunken stupor. 

Meanwhile the rest of the group, who had decided to hike down the road rather than up to the dwellings, arrived and we learned that the father had talked to the guy about settling down only ten minutes before he started shooting (draw your own conclusions) and was later threatened by him.  The deputies arrived shortly after and, despite the threats, said they couldn’t arrest the man nor could they ask him to leave the site because he was drunk.  All they were able to do was confiscate his weapon, a Sig Sauer 45 caliber pistol, along with his axe and issue him seven hundred dollars in tickets – including one for littering twelve empty rounds.

We had all expected to see the guy carted off to jail and were disappointed with the outcome – it had beenan absolutely terrifying night.  There’s only been one other time in my life that I’ve been more afraid, but this experience was so much more intense and completely out of our control that it doesn’t quite compare.  Lying there in the dark not knowing where he was, what he was thinking, or if the next bullet was for me, for David or for Sally was chilling.  We didn’t know if anybody was shot or hurt.  We had no clue what this guy was doing or what he was capable of.  Was he just blowing off steam, or was he going to start hunting?  Was he suffering from post-traumatic-stress-disorder and think he was back in Iraq and we were the enemy?  Had he been there in the first place?  It was all so surreal, like a scene from a bad movie.

The deputies shuttled us back to the campground to gather our things while they stood by to make sure we weren’t harassed.  The guy was still awake and wandering around arguing with one of the officers about something or another while the other group broke down their tents and drove to the residential area where they planned to camp for the night and we picked up a few things so that we could stay in the truck at the visitor center.  It was two o’clock by the time we could sleep. 

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