This morning I woke to a community-wide e-mail blast warning about bobcats attacking the wild turkeys in the place I call home — the Rampart Range area of Pike National Forest, almost 300,000 densely forested, backcountry acres in the foothills of the Colorado Rocky Mountains. Yesterday, a similar message concerned an injured and potentially dangerous black bear. As for mountain lions, I’m the author of those recent posts, reporting encounters with our resident mountain lion while on my daily hikes. Depending on the time of year, these morning hikes are in twilight or complete darkness, when mountain lions are most active by nature, as I am.
And yet for over 24 years — taking root in an old, weather-beaten rustic house perched on the spine of a mountain (8,069 feet above sea level) and with the closest visible neighbor half-mile distant — I’ve chosen to live my life deep within mountain lion and mountain man territory as a woman alone. And without a gun.
Most would call me defenseless. Many would — and have — called me insane, crazy, stupid, foolish, and naïve. “You have to get a gun,” one acquaintance tells me, before proceeding to describe the jaw-dropping contents of his gun safe in his upscale suburban neighborhood. “You’re nuts to live in the wilderness without a gun,” says another who resides, fully-armed, in a gated patio home community populated primarily by retirees.
But still I refuse to own a gun. Not because I oppose guns, or oppose hunting, or oppose gun rights in general. I choose not to live with a gun because I refuse to believe that is the only way to exist in this environment. I refuse to believe the only way I can interact with nature is with a gun strapped to my side or wedged into the seat of my pants or any other variation I’ve been “advised” to follow.
Instead of a gun, I rely on a set of tools that have so far served me well: well-trained hiking dogs (my current companion is a super-sized German Shepherd named Mohawk), reliable high-powered head lamps, a simple handheld siren, and various other basic defensive methods. Instead of the irritating — and rumored largely ineffective — bear bells to warn wildlife of my oncoming presence, I wear around my neck an inexpensive mini speaker that pipes upbeat music from my phone into the air. In summer and fall months, when wildlife are most prevalent, I carry a lightweight but stinging whip originally designed to herd livestock. (I’ve only been forced to use it once against a neighbor’s loose, aggressive dog.) I’ve developed an educated awareness of the habits of mountain lions and black bear — I know the place by the creek where the bears reside as well as the cliff we call Rocky Point where the mountain lions dwell. I understand their patterns of behavior, and I can readily distinguish their glowing eyes in the darkness — from the small, close-set eyes of the red fox before it quickly darts away to the admittedly unnerving, absolutely unwavering round-eyed stare of the mountain lion who keeps watch as I slowly continue down the trail, holding his eyes with my headlight until I’m out of immediate range. On days when I don’t see eyes glowing within the forest, I track mountain lion activity by the rib cages, skulls or severed legs of mule deer strewn across the trail: gritty, sobering reminders of a life negotiated with resident wildlife. Over the years, I’ve also been forced to establish boundaries with self-styled mountain men who mistake my land for their open range. (Our most notorious former resident would hang rope nooses from the trees edging the trail to his house, one noose for every resident he held a grievance against.) These encounters concern me much more than encounters with bobcats, black bears, and mountain lions do, but they are still encounters I have managed, at least to date, without the aid of a gun.
When I moved to the mountain in 1992, there were 17 homes in this community spread across 1,100 acres within the greater Rampart Range area; there are now 60 homes (population about 130). As the second longest resident in this mountain community, I’m also likely the only adult who doesn’t own at least one gun. Fortunately, guns aren’t a topic of discussion, at least not openly. We do talk openly about community concerns, such as cutting down trees for firewood and fire mitigation; Tussock Moth infestation (in 2015, moth caterpillars defoliated acres of Douglas-fir trees on the mountain within a single season); and reckless driving on dirt roads (mostly due to drivers unused to navigating steep and narrow switchbacks that challenge even the most rugged four-wheel-drive vehicle). A major topic is the state of our 22-mile system of dirt roads, which are vulnerable to heavy rain and snow. These mountain roads were originally carved by the late nineteenth-century loggers foraging for wood to build their cabins on the adjacent prairie and lay track for the Denver and Rio Grande narrow gauge railroad that carried coal and minerals from Denver, Colorado, to Salt Lake City, Utah. The mountain is littered with the stumps of the trees the loggers felled using axes and two-man saws. There’s evidence of old time bootlegging as well — just follow the trail that leads to “Whiskey Gulch,” a small, hidden valley containing the remnants of an old moonshine still. This legacy and its artifacts of an earlier era help perpetuate, perhaps understandably, the “mountain machismo” image so tightly woven into the fabric of our mountain community. We see this same image projected in the larger American culture with its eternally romanticized view of the West, as recently evidenced by the popularity of reality shows set in the Alaskan wilderness and films like The Revenant. But those of us on the mountain who live this life day in and day out don’t openly discuss guns, perhaps because gun ownership is an unstated and understood requirement.
But it’s a requirement I resist. To me, carrying a gun, whether on the mountain or in town, means I live in fear, and I refuse to do so. I have lived in fear in other parts of the country; I know what it’s like to rent the small house fortified by security bars and still turn on every light and check behind every door when I arrive home at night. This fear crystallized for me many years ago, when I stood in a city alley looking up at the apartment where a young nurse had been brutally murdered the day before. It was a crime scene, but the alleyway wasn’t blocked. I stared at the window security grate with its thick, prison cell-like bars dangling from the outer wall. The killer had entered the apartment after propping a ladder against the wall, yanking loose the grate, then easily sliding open the glass window. As I watched the white curtain sweep back and forth from inside to outside, through a barrier that no longer existed, I thought of all the times I’d slept behind barred entrances and felt safe just as this young woman had. Now on the rare occasions when houseguests visit me on the mountain, they inevitably bring a similar fear for their safety, especially at night when the darkness and isolation take hold. Their fear is almost primordial. A mature adult will sheepishly ask me for a nightlight for the guest room, or she will abandon the guest room to sleep on the couch in front of the wood-burning stove, soothed by the slow flames and steady crackle. My reassurance, “You’re safer here than in the city,” never assuages their fear, but a soft glow against the wall or firelight in the wood stove does. I strongly suspect a firearm within reach would make them feel even safer.
And still I resist.
There are days without schedules when I hike even deeper into the forest than usual, leaving behind the dirt roads and logging trails and instead following the deer trails. Surrounded by towering Douglas fir, blue spruce, and quaking aspen trees against granite boulders the size of houses (and larger), I’m obviously so alone, and yet I don’t ever feel lonely, lost, displaced, fragile or afraid. During an unseasonably warm day this past October, I ventured into the forest completely solitary, without even Mohawk for company. I’d intended to hike for two or three hours, but I soon found myself simply drifting from deer trail to open space back to deer trail, stopping to weave my fingers through pine boughs, breathe in the scent of pine sap, study a lacey tuft of green moss, and collect a red tail hawk feather from a bed of pine needles before lowering myself onto those needles to rest against a sun-warmed rock. Six hours later as the sun began to set, I hiked to the top of a ridgeline, where I stood enraptured by the magnificent view of the foothills as they unfold to meet the prairie. The view and the day left me feeling both re-energized and at peace. I’m firmly convinced that entering the forest with a handgun strapped inside a leather holster at my side or stuffed into a pocket of my backpack would never allow me this convergence with nature. The power of the experience resides in the willingness to go into it unguarded, in humility and trust, not carrying a weapon of deterrence and death.
Whether we enter the city or the wilderness armed or unarmed, we always enter with a measure of risk. Even if I travel on my early morning hikes with a loaded shotgun at the ready, a mountain lion — or any other predator — can track me in stealth, ignore the headlamps and the dog at my side, and attack from a hillside or cliff. It is unlikely any method of defense, including a gun, will prevent or remedy this scenario and many like it (such as the time a resident walked out of his home to discover a mountain lion staring down at him from the roof). But that is one of the many risks I automatically assumed when I moved to the mountain all those years ago, in my youthful naiveté completely unaware of the challenges people living in extreme environments face. I was, among other things, profoundly ignorant of the wide range of natural challenges this life brings. Predators, yes, but also blizzards and snowed-in trails, flooding and falling trees, and the nearly constant threat of wildfire. Back then, I stood on the deck of my new house more overwhelmed than impressed by the view, yet I never once thought about the most basic concerns, like personal safety or even where I could buy a decent cup of coffee. I moved to the mountain for the simple and unromantic reason that it offered the privacy I wanted at the price I could afford. But I’ve stayed for the truly remarkable lessons the mountain has taught me, especially about holding fast to my convictions. Hopefully, I will continue to live this life I’ve grown to appreciate and respect for its inherent risks as well as its sublime beauty. A life unarmed, but not undefended. And certainly unafraid.
As an adventure traveler, SUSANNE SENER has hiked in or around the Colorado Rocky Mountains, Andes Mountains, Himalayan Mountains, European Alps, and the Brooks Range (Alaska). In 2012, she completed the trek to Everest Base Camp and, in 2013, the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu in Peru. Since 1998, she’s worked full-time as a corporate technical and business writer. She is a member of The Lighthouse Writers Workshop (Denver, Colorado) and Women Writing the West.