I’ve been wrestling with myself. A fierce internal battle for over three weeks now, and I’m exhausted. Should I write about “the incident” I hinted about in my last post? Or try to let it recede into my psychic background, let it die from lack of oxygen?
And if I do write about it, how? To what end?
I don’t like to rant, or whine. If I put something out into the universe, I want it to be positive, or at least have some sort of lesson, even if a warning. In this case, the take-away is a warning.
With time and emotional distance, my thoughts about the incident have changed, mellowed. I’ve gone from scared and afraid to a key insight and ultimately a sort of understanding and acceptance that I can’t change people, I can only control how I react to them.
I’m still working on that reaction. This long post is evidence of that.
On Friday October 30th, mid-morning, I took Conall, my Alaskan malamute, for a trail run. That particular Friday led into the final weekend of rifle hunting season. I purposefully started later than I prefer, just one of many precautions I take during hunting season to reduce the chances we’ll encounter hunters.
For maximum safety, I chose the local ski resort where my dogs and I run trails from about April through November, depending on snow levels. It’s one place where I feel relatively safe from hunters because access is limited and there are employees about, getting ready for ski season and making lots of noise. The base of the resort is private property but the ski slopes and trails are on Forest Service land under a lease agreement. Forest Service land is open to hunting, so even here I’m cautious. In years past I’ve encountered hunters sitting right on a resort trail – empty beer cans nearby – at least three times.
Not seeing any non-employee trucks or campers in the parking lot (typical signs of hunters), I felt confident as Conall and I headed up the service road, purposefully avoiding more remote trails on our way to the summit. The service road is gated at the bottom and top so that only resort vehicles have access.
A mile up, the road steadily rising, Conall suddenly stops several feet ahead of me. As I catch up I see two people, dressed head-to-toe in camo, kneeling on the edge of the road and looking at us. Realizing they’re hunters, I tell Conall “It’s okay” and we continue toward them. Conall goes to greet them – he loves everyone – and to a friendly dog like Conall, people low to the ground are begging for a greeting.
Neither hunter moves or says anything as Conall offers them kisses. It’s odd they don’t even stand up. Most hunters when they see me on a trail at least say hello. These two are frozen, except when the man slightly moves his rifle which is on the ground next to him, as if he’s afraid Conall will step on it.
As I pass in front of them, I say in a conversational tone of voice, “You shouldn’t be hunting from the road.” [Idaho hunting regulations: “It is Unlawful To: […] Shoot from or across the traveled portion, shoulders or embankments of any road maintained by any government entity.”] Again, they’re silent and motionless as they watch me and Conall pass by. Conall tries to go back for another hello, but I call him to me.
The encounter is so…off…that after getting about 100 feet away I decide to take their photo, just in case they do something really stupid.
Conall and I continue up the service road. Within a few minutes a resort vehicle comes up from below and passes by us. They would have passed the hunters as well.
After running a loop near the summit, an hour later Conall and I return down the service road. The two hunters are gone.
At the base of the resort, Conall greets an employee working on a building. Conall loves greeting people, and they love meeting him because he’s so gentle. And fluffy. People always remark on his fluffiness.
As Conall and I walk into the big gravel parking lot, I see a black late-model pickup parked just a few feet from my car. Conall goes right up to the truck and its people. It’s odd that he’s so eager to greet them but then, he greets everyone. I don’t recognize the guy standing at the front of the truck, talking on his cell phone. He ignores Conall. Then a really tall, big man – probably 6’4” with a big beer gut, bad complexion, and one of those scraggly gray goatees favored by a certain type of rural male – comes from the far side of the truck and starts yelling at me as he knees Conall out of his way.
“Do you know it’s a felony to interfere with a hunter? A felony! Do you even know what a felony is?” he yells, all the while approaching me with big, purposeful strides.
“Actually, I do,” I respond calmly. “I’m an attorney.”
“Oh sure, an attorney,” he snorts, dripping with sarcasm, pacing in front of me, his anger barely controlled.
I now realize he’s with the two hunters I’d passed on the service road; they had removed their camo clothing. I call Conall to me and he comes quickly; he senses these are not nice people after all. I put Conall in my car while the big man continues his pacing and ranting, trying to intimidate me. But…why? What “felony” does he think I’ve committed? He never says. Nothing about the scene makes sense.
“Are you from California?” he continues with his bombardment of vitriol. “You don’t look like you’re from here. Out there jogging with your dog. Skank!”
He starts using his phone to video the exchange, putting it right in my face as he blathers on, an attempt to up the intimidation factor. I turn away from him.
“I should call law enforcement,” big man says. “Please do,” I respond over my shoulder, having gotten Conall safely into my car. “Let’s get Randy Martinez up here,” I add. Randy is the Idaho Fish & Game enforcement officer for this area. “Oh yeah, Randy Martinez, like you know…” big man sputters. I’ve called his bluff and I can tell it makes him uncomfortable.
It’s now clear to me they’re not from here but won’t admit it. But what’s truly strange about this entire interaction is that the two I encountered on the road are taking a back-seat role. The man I saw kneeling on the service road is still talking on his phone, staying near the truck. His daughter – I know she’s his kid, a teen, only because big man yells that I interfered with a father and his daughter hunting, as if there’s no more horrible crime – picks up on the big man’s intimidation tactics and also starts videotaping with her pink phone. Both of them make sure they include my car.
I take a photo of their truck’s license plate. That’s when I confirm that indeed they’re not local. (Idaho plates are by county of residence.)
“Get her license plate,” the girl says to the big man after watching me, and he does; he hadn’t thought to do it before I photographed theirs.
“You need to leave, now,” big man says to me, getting in my space, loud, angry and intimidating.
These people have weapons. And they’re none too smart. Refusing to engage in any further conversation, I get in my car, but I worry that if I drive away, they’ll follow me. Instead, I drive closer to the resort lodge, park again, and head up the stairs to the admin offices.
“Oh year, sure, go get help…” I barely hear the big man say in the distance.
I sought and received intervention from the resort head, who with a couple employees managed to calm the hunters down. He returned to where I waited, advising he would have made them leave but they were waiting for someone so he let them stay. He was willing to make sure they didn’t follow me.
I didn’t sleep that night. The next several days were filled with anxiety, the nights with tossing and turning as my brain refused to settle, replaying the scene on endless loop. What had caused such an over-the-top reaction from them? Taking the hunter’s photo? Is that what they meant by “interfering” with their hunt?
Would they somehow find me and seek revenge? Try to harm me or my dogs? I was at least able to verify that Idaho doesn’t disclose names or addresses based on license plates.
So much ugliness. The same sort of ugliness our current president has encouraged the past four years, so I can’t say I’m surprised.
The experience leaves me feeling totally done with white males and their guns, their privilege and sense of entitlement. What I endured is Idaho’s rural version of the intimidation tactics seen across the country at demonstrations over Black Lives Matter. My experience was small; the intimidation factor is magnified when such men “patrol” demonstrations with their guns, seeking to provoke fights, or hatch plans to kidnap politicians who are only trying to keep them alive with pandemic safety measures.
I also found myself afraid to venture back into the forest, something I normally do almost daily. I realized that had the encounter happened at a remote trailhead, without others to intervene, it could have gone very differently. My past experience is that most bullies of this sort are all bluster and no action, but I don’t like testing that theory. And it may be outdated. The current administration has emboldened those who used to be all talk and no action into taking real – and stupid – action.
It was several days before I felt able to take the boys for a trail run in the forest. The entire time we were out, though, I worried that I’d return to find my vehicle disabled, no cell phone coverage to seek help. Hardly the relaxing experience I was seeking.
Slowly, after a week, I did begin to relax. Some. I couldn’t forget the incident, but my tension and anxiety lessened a little each day. Knowing that hunting season would soon be over helped.
Then, two weeks post-incident, I took my trash to the transfer station, something I do weekly. The guy in charge, Fred, is a thirty-something and someone I know because I interviewed him a couple years ago when I was publishing a local online newspaper. Nice guy, a local, born and raised. (That’s one of the quirks of this part of Idaho; you’re special if you can claim you or your family have lived here longer than others.) I tossed my bag of garbage into the container and was getting back in my car when I saw Fred exiting his tractor and approaching.
“What happened at [ski resort]?” he asked, a look of concern and compassion on his face.
It took a few seconds for me to put two-and-two together and verify he was asking about the incident with the hunters. Fred had seen a video one of them posted to their Facebook page, but only because someone else in town had seen it and mentioned it. Fred didn’t know the poster, but he recognized me in the video. Bless him, Fred said he commented to the post, something like, “I know that lady. She’s nice. This doesn’t sound right.” He added that locals know better than to hunt at the ski resort where there are hikers and mountain bikers about. He also did a little research on the poster, and discovered he’s a recent transplant from out of state.
But here’s the kicker: Fred said that the poster claimed Conall had attacked the two hunters on the service road.
I laughing out loud. I couldn’t help it; the allegation was so absurd. I assured Fred that all Conall did that day was try to give them kisses, that he’s the sweetest, friendliest dog on the planet.
Driving home, thinking about what Fred disclosed, everything started to make sense.
I wasn’t surprised that a video of the encounter was posted. That’s what angry, mean people do these days. I assumed it would happen as soon as the big guy shoved his phone in my face. Somehow, being publicly mean makes such people feel good, validated, strong.
But the claim that Conall attacked them?
That really pisses me off. It’s like putting a huge target on a dog that’s already a target in this forest just because he resembles a wolf.
Moving here in 2005, with my two female Alaskan malamutes, I was quickly tutored in Idaho’s bizarre hate relationship with wolves and dogs that look like wolves. It was a shock, coming from a place where most people exclaimed how gorgeous my dogs were and asked could they please meet them. The girls loved greeting people of all ages and were always gentle, especially with babies, as malamutes generally are. (Conall is the same.) In Idaho, though, I watched in disbelief as people literally cross the road to avoid us. The bravest of them might stop beside us on a road, roll down their pickup truck window and ask me with a straight (and fearful) face if they were wolves.
Contractors building my house in 2005 swore that wolves would come into town and steal children off the school playground.
“They kill for sport, you know,” I was told.
Classic projection, that. Only man kills for sport.
It was challenging, wrapping my head around the idea that people were so afraid of wolves, a creature they’d never encountered because they’d been exterminated from the Idaho landscape decades earlier. I was stunned that they believed such nonsense and rumors.
I’ve come to realize that myths are powerful and enduring things. Especially myths about wolves. It’s so much easier to believe a myth than learn true facts.
In 2005, wolves were on the endangered species list, and hunting them was prohibited. They had just started establishing themselves in Idaho, having moved out from Yellowstone National Park where they were famously reintroduced in 1995. The level of fear of wolves in Idaho was palpable, and to me, bizarre. When people learned I ran in the woods by myself (with my two malamutes), they asked if I had a gun to protect myself from wolf attacks. If I responded at all, it was to say that no, I didn’t carry a gun, that I was only afraid of two-legged animals.
By 2008, wolves were de-listed from protection in Idaho and other nearby states and the newly-sanctioned slaughter (“management” by each state) started. In Idaho, hunters could purchase a wolf tag for $5 and kill as many as they wanted. Even before then, I made sure my two malamutes always wore bright yellow or orange vests when we went into the forest. Today, Conall and Finn always wear vests because most here are still utterly afraid of wolves and shoot first. I’m aware of several dogs – in one case, a black lab – being shot, the perpetrator saying, “I thought it was a wolf.” Such tragedies end with maybe a slap on the hand for the shooter.
The key to me finally understanding the root cause of what transpired at the ski resort was grasping that the hunters were…afraid. Of Conall! A father, apparently terrified of dogs and, I assume, wolves, froze, his teenage daughter beside him. Like so many, he probably initially feared Conall was a wolf because, well, you know, there’s a wolf hiding behind every tree in Idaho just waiting to attack humans. That fear left the hunter emasculated in front of his daughter. And that made him angry. He shared his anger with big guy in the parking lot, who then took it upon himself to lash out at me in an attempt to cover and excuse the underlying fear.
They never claimed to me that Conall attacked them. Maybe they hadn’t yet fully formed that lie in their minds.
But their actions in the parking lot – the anger and attempts to intimidate me – were, sadly and in hindsight, predictable given our current social and political climate.
While I have no way of knowing, my gut tells me that they are likely white nationalists or at least sympathizers. Maybe even members of a militia, or some wingnut second amendment group. Idaho is seeing an influx of such people because it’s known as a haven for conservatives and guns. It’s also home to low taxes and one of the worst K-12 education systems in the country. Idaho’s Lt. Governor openly embraces right-wing conspiracy theories, and our Governor works to entice gun manufacturers to move here because the state is so “gun friendly.” (I’m specifically not using the names of hate or conspiracy groups because I don’t want my blog post to appear in any online searches for them. Yeah, I’m being that cautious and wary, and that sucks, but that’s my new reality.)
This western states version of white male entitlement – toxic masculinity – has been playing out in Idaho for a few decades now. Since the 2016 election the sense of entitlement among ranchers, loggers, drillers, and right-wing conspiracy types has only increased, making them bolder and more willing to intimidate to get their way, pistols on their hips as they push their way – maskless – into local health board meetings, proclaiming the coronavirus a hoax, that mask mandates are an infringement on their freedom. Confederate flags fly from some houses, and lately, the “thin blue line” flags are increasing in number. For such people, intimidation and threats are the go-to tools to get their way, in person or via social media. Sadly, it often works.
What toxic masculinity attempts to cover is fear and cowardice. Fear of losing something they believe is theirs – white privilege or entitlement, guns, jobs, the “right” to live and act however they please without the infringement of government rules or regulations, community welfare be damned. Our Homeland Security Department recently declared that violent white supremacy is “the most persistent and lethal threat in the homeland.” The FBI arrived at the same conclusion. In a recent opinion piece in the Washington Post, Greg Sargent and Paul Waldman quoted Mary McCord, a former acting assistant attorney general: “I see fear as motivating some of the white supremacist organizations and movements — fear of a loss of white privilege, economic and educational privilege.”
A recent study found that fear makes one angry, and anger makes one more willing to accept misinformation that confirms their anger, making one more likely to act upon that anger. In simpler terms, fear and anger make people behave stupidly.
As Seneca once wrote to Nero, “I tell you that anger is a kind of madness.”
I certainly don’t want to be anything like the angry men who bullied me at the ski resort. I don’t like being angry; what a waste of time and energy. As Michelle Obama famously said, “When they go low, we go high.” So, going high, I won’t share the photo I took of the two hunters kneeling on the road. (When I later cropped that photo, then zoomed in even more, I saw pure hatred and evil on the man’s face as he stared at me. His teen daughter turned her head away. So troubling.) I won’t share their license plate. I don’t know their names, don’t want to know them, but even if I did, I wouldn’t share them (except perhaps with law enforcement).
But dammit, I don’t like dealing with the damage to my sense of safety and well-being their intimidation has caused. I won’t tolerate bullies. I do, and will, stand up for myself when they try to intimidate me.
Living in the suburbs of Seattle I learned to deal with the random crimes that go with city life. My home was broken into twice. I frequently had to call the police about domestic violence next door or nearby. I never went out alone after dark and regularly checked the locks on my doors. I sometimes had to ask the courthouse marshal to escort me to my car after a family law hearing in which a litigant became angry and threatening. I moved to Idaho to escape all that. And I succeeded, at least it seems I did for the past 15 years.
But now? I didn’t anticipate that in Idaho I would have to endure the fear of personal vendettas, of intentional harm to me and/or my dogs because toxic males blame me for their irrational fears.
I’m no martyr. Nor am I a politician willing to take on these battles in the public arena, making myself a more visible target. As an introvert and highly sensitive person, I hate conflict, verbal or physical. I prefer to live quietly and peacefully, left alone, perhaps influencing others one-on-one or through my writing. I surely don’t want to endure the threats of online bullies, safe behind their computer screens. I completely relate to this woman’s experience and decision, quitting her job as a public health care worker in Missouri after she and her family were threatened over mask mandates.
Today, virtually anyone in the public eye becomes the target of online bullying at a minimum and often outright threats of physical harm. How have we become a society where such behaviors and threats are okay?
Folks, Homeland Security and the FBI are correct. This threat is real. And growing.
My fervent hope is that the incoming administration will take such threats seriously and use the legal system to deal with them. This can’t continue unabated.
Time to Move On?
As a fan of Stoic philosophy, I know it’s useless to try to control others. All I can hope to do is control my reaction to events. After this incident, I’ve been thinking hard about what is within my control.
It’s not as quiet in my bit of rural Idaho as it used to be. In the past five years, the number of people (mostly men) on all-terrain vehicles heading into the forest has increased exponentially. They wear camo and have weapons, even outside of hunting season. This year, because of the pandemic and extensive wildfires in neighboring states, there were far more out-of-state vehicles in the forest during hunting season than in the previous ten years. In October the Facebook page for the local forest was filled with posts about small wildfires started by unattended “warming fires” made by hunters. Conflicts are occurring and increasing, yet the Forest Service seems unwilling to confront hot heads. Can’t say that I blame them, because dealing with such idiots can get really ugly really fast, but unfortunately that only puts more wind in their sails (or maybe a more apropos phrase, more ammo in their weapons).
These are trends that make me depressed, anxious and weary. I don’t see them reversing anytime soon. I have no power to change them. At my age (sixty-four soon), I don’t have time or patience to wait and see if things improve. I don’t like living with such negative feelings.
I’ve been forced to admit some truths to myself: **I’m tired of living in constant fear that Conall will be mistaken for a wolf and shot when we’re in the forest. It’s draining. **I’m sick of the constant sound of gunshots nearby – target shooting in the national forest any time of day, all year, and more so during hunting season. **I’m appalled by all of the sport killing of wildlife and its glorification as “heritage,” whether by bow, firearm or trapping (a most cruel practice that was enshrined in Idaho’s constitution a few years ago, a preemptive move against any future legislative restrictions). **And I certainly don’t want to live surrounded by violent, right-wing, misogynistic nutjobs forming militias, displaying and shooting their myriad weapons as signs of their manliness.
And then, ultimately, I had this insight: much of my “writers block” regarding my next book is a subconscious realization that if I write honestly about my experiences and beliefs regarding certain things – wolves, hunting, trapping – I would fear for my safety after publication if I stayed in Idaho.
What to do?
I began imagining living in a rural setting where there weren’t any wolves so that no one would mistake my dog for one. Despite missing the idea of having wolves nearby, I imagined how much more relaxed I would feel when out on trails, not worrying that Conall could be shot, not thinking about all of the wolves slaughtered by hunters. I envisioned myself writing and publishing a book about my time in Idaho without fear of reprisals from neighbors or members of my community.
Where is that safe place, a place where my dogs and I could be happy? Does it even exist?
I contacted friends living in Vermont. They’re every bit as into running, hiking, biking and skiing on trails as I am, year-round, regardless of conditions. For years I’ve viewed their photos on Facebook and marveled at the beautiful terrain they have near their home and its rural setting. We spent nearly an hour talking on the phone as they answered many of my questions about life in rural Vermont.
I like that roughly two-thirds of Vermont’s electorate voted for Biden. In Idaho, two-thirds voted for Trump, which was actually a small victory because in years past, more like 80-to-90-percent of voters voted Republican. Idaho isn’t going to turn blue, or even purple, anytime soon.
Vermont doesn’t have any known hate groups, according to the Southern Poverty Law Center. Idaho has several, and a long, bloody history of conflicts between them and local and federal law enforcement agencies.
Vermont, though, does have hunting laws as awful as Idaho’s, including allowing the use of hounds to hunt and kill coyotes. But, so far at least, there are no wolves in Vermont, so presumably Conall wouldn’t be instantly feared or vilified, or shot.
I would certainly miss my cozy little house I worked so hard to create. The thought of selling it makes me truly sad. I remember when the 2008 recession hit and I was faced with potentially having to do just that. “Don’t sell it,” my father admonished. “You’ve worked too hard for it and love it too much.” He was right. I took a job in my home state that paid enough to allow me to keep my Idaho home until I could return to it full-time in 2014.
But circumstances around me are making living here less attractive, less safe. This afternoon while out in my yard with my dogs I heard the incredibly loud and fast tat-tat-tat of an assault rifle, someone “target shooting” in the Forest Service parking area just a quarter mile from my house. Both dogs were spooked; they know it’s a bad thing.
In the months leading up to the 2020 election, sales of guns and ammunition skyrocketed. I bet Idahoans were high on the list of purchasers by state. A few days ago, the feds arrested four men with ties to white supremacy groups – two of them active Marines – for trafficking in unlicensed guns and holding live-fire training in the deserts of Idaho. I wasn’t surprised. (Actually, I was surprised that the feds, under the current administration, arrested them.) I worry that the increased target shooting in the forest nearby is related to formation or expansion of militia groups that so far have congregated primarily in the northern part of the state.
Yet I ask myself: Is the devil I know better than the devil I don’t? I could sell my beloved home and move to another state, a huge sacrifice, only to find myself in similar or different but equally offensive surroundings. And honestly, the list of locations I find attractive is short. I need trees/forest; access to off-leash trails; a rural setting with space (like, a few acres) and quiet around me; seasons (I really do love winter’s snow); and no wolf hunting or trapping.
I want to be part of a progressive community. Since moving to Idaho I’ve told puzzled friends back in my home state that I love the climate but not the culture. I miss my progressive friends. I’m sick of regressive attitudes and policies. Parts of rural Vermont could be a good fit for me, both in terms of climate and culture. Or maybe some other “blue” northern-latitude state.
I have all winter and the rest of the pandemic to think about this, do some research. That’s within my control. Who knows whether I will sell and move, but just considering that option empowers me, a little, and helps me sleep better.
If you’ve read this far, thank you. Here’s the warning I promised at the top of the long post: White supremacist groups are growing, nationally and internationally. Be aware and wary of them. Call them out for what they are: terrorists. Good people can’t afford to be complacent or tolerant. We can’t be silent.
Feature image: Conall on the ski resort service road on October 30th, not far from where we encountered the hunters, larch trees in their fall glory.