“I wouldn’t go unarmed,” warns the city manager of Colfax, California. He is at least five inches shorter than the men who flank him, but just as thick and white. He is the friendly one, if friendly can be defined as engaging in a conversation.
I smile because he’s obviously joking, and I take the way he raises his eyebrows after each sentence and tips his chin forward, creating a ripple underneath, as confirmation. I’m a youngish, active woman traveling alone, which means a lot of things, including hardly ever getting a straight answer from a man. If it comes, it’s often followed by a warning: be careful. They see danger around me. I sometimes wonder if that’s because, in some other setting, they’d present it.
By now, this has happened to me in a dozen City Halls off Historic Highway 49, but this small, modern beige building in the historic part of town, was the first one to share a room with the Sheriff’s Department and the entirely male, entirely Republican, city council. This town, with a population of 1,963, strikes me as just a bit more Wild West than most, but not in the tourist way. I haven’t seen a single person. I hardly saw anyone in Colfax.
It dawns on me: he isn’t joking.
I ask the men, addressing no one in particular, if they are serious about the need for guns. As they nod in unison, I see the towering, thick undersheriff reach down toward his belt, in a practiced sort of way, his forefinger tapping his gun holster as if it were a talisman.
Disbelieving, I emphasize that I am headed for a California State Park, and the inquiry that brought me in had nothing to do with gun control, or, as they would probably say, gun rights. I just want to know which river among the three that snakes through town has most suffered from the drought. It was there, among the American, Bear or Yuba Rivers, that I was likely to find the most dedicated, and presumably, most desperate panners, those who braved off-season conditions in hopes that the receded water line would make it easier to find gold.
In truth, I knew I’d find more than panners. The mountains of Colfax have been infamous since the ‘49ers, starting with the Gold Country’s first stagecoach robbery. The sheriff had responded by swearing in a misfit posse and lighting out for the mountains, where the short-lived Reelfoot Williams Gang, comprised of scrappy youths, were hiding. Only Reelfoot and Rattlesnake Dick, who took refuge in a deep cave, had escaped.
The region continued to be hospitable to desperadoes and outcasts, the paranoid and the infirm.
The Weimer Joint Sanatorium for tuberculosis, a hospital that operated from 1919 to 1972, had made a makeshift cemetery for deceased patients of no means or family on what is now state land. Deteriorating grave markers are covered in thick brush. It is damp and dark from the trees above, and fog dances across the ground, which covers poor, abandoned souls. Even a skeptic like me is uneasy, but for this area, that’s some tired lore. What are apparitions when local hunters like Justin Smeja claim to have killed a Bigfoot in 2013? The only evidence he’s released is a picture of the steak he made from it, but he swears he’s in possession of a DNA test he solicited from an unnamed lab for his forthcoming, self-published “tell-all” book. Locals who live along the Yuba River have long implored UFO hunters to investigate what they claim to be a constant barrage of inexplicable flashes of light in the sky and animals dead from shock. One woman swears aliens chased away all her laying hens. This region is, in short, an anything-goes zone, inhabited either by strange creatures or by creatures almost as strange and menacing: people who fiercely believe in strange creatures.
But I know what Colfax’s public servants are worried about, and it had nothing to do with Bigfoot or hunters or UFOs. As much as I, with my “San Francisco values,” hate to admit it, they have a point. I was too scared to stay overnight in Colfax after reading news reports that the ominously named Motor Lodge, one of two accommodations offered in town, was a known haven for meth traffickers. It had been the site of several murders, and some of the civil servants who now stood before me had been identified as an enablers.The men warning me might actually be in the know. This was the kind of place where wretched begets wretched, and that wouldn’t stop until it was clear which side the law was on.
In Colfax, in addition to hospitals full of pocked-faced, blood-shot patients, there are two rehabilitation centers specifically for meth heads. All of this in a city with a population smaller than most high school’s.
The state park’s mountains had become a refuge for less organized meth users, known as “shadow people.” The shadow people search for just enough gold to support their habit, and use the remote area to get high. People on meth lose all sense of reality, which is probably amplified in the hills, where delusions, paranoia, and hallucinations can run free, even in sober people. The bear spray in my day pack would do very little to deter someone propelled by a drug that induced violent, psychotic episodes.
Through a tight smile, I give them what they want—the smile, and the promise. I won’t hike alone, I say, and make various statements demonstrating that I understand the vulnerability of my sex, and how dependent I was on these generous, paternalistic moments, and sure, while I was at it, I’d consider arming myself. (Of course, the rules I had once recited for my junior ranger test specifically banned all arms in state parks, but I got it already.That didn’t matter to these men. They lived by some kind of California cowboy code.) I’m a graduate of Sarah Lawrence, and now, all of a sudden, I find myself pushed on the wrong side of one of society’s biggest social issues. I make a hasty exit before they start on immigration and President Obama.
I hate that I had to submit to their demands in order to garner information for my research, but it’s more than that. I started dating my future ex-husband at 19, and we secretly cohabitated the next year; I went from my mom’s house to sharing one with girls I didn’t know, but the very next year, at the young age of 20, I was playing house. 13 years later, we’ve separated, and I’m on my own for the first time in my life. My life. I’m not sure what it looks like, but I’d like to bring along the things I enjoyed from the one I knew as someone’s wife—including hiking and camping where I want, when I want. To hell with someone to carry the heavier pack. As I drive to the North Fork of the American River, on the recommendation of my new friends in Colfax, I ask myself a question for which I didn’t have the answer: What are my limits?
In 2012, I was on the borderline of the Tenderloin and Nob Hill, an area known as the Tender Nob, located in the grittiest part of downtown San Francisco. I saw a man pulling a tube around his left arm with his teeth while the other hand emptied a needle full of what, I presumed, was heroin. Remembering that afternoon, I had to hand it to the meth heads for choosing such a bucolic setting, surrounded by tall, fragrant Ponderosa Pines, green foothills and rocky mountains. That is, if there was any choice involved in the matter.
On a whim, I pull over next to a small, freshly painted house along the water, halfway between city’s center and the park. The goats staring at me through a short, barbed wire fence, seem curious as well. I take a photo of them and caption it, “Say (goat) cheese.” That’s the version of this story that I’ll post on social media. It’ll say, I’m adventurous and fun, even on my own. Maybe then people will stop asking, as they give my arm a little squeeze, if I’m okay.
The goats live next to a chicken coop and a pile of stacked logs, the axe that split them still wedged into a tree stump. Flowers line a walkway leading up to what looked like a guest house or office. I thought to myself, I could live here, which is a common thought I have these days. I don’t know where I want to live anymore. If I lived here, I would spend my days writing in that little house, and I’d make my own goat cheese to eat with the eggs my hens laid on the bread I baked. Perhaps my next husband, a mountain man with soulful eyes and Keatsean tenderness, would sell our goods at the farmers’ market. I could actually see myself being happy in this great unknown before me, and as daunting as it was, the image offered me some comfort.
It shouldn’t have. When I reach the Mineral Bar Campground, as it is called, completely devoid of people, and the campsites, one after the other, pristine from months of disuse, I start thinking that I should just stay in the car. I’d already decided I’d return in the spring, when families pitched tents and teenagers went tubing. Putting myself in a risky situation without any forethought or resources or someone waiting for me to check in with them wasn’t the plan, nor should it have been.
But I wanted to be the kind of woman who got out of the car. I couldn’t let my new single status thwart me at every turn. I now enjoy unprecedented freedom. Why would I restrict myself from the very beginning? Exploration was the key, however trite that may sound, but exploration involves actually exploring. It requires risk-taking. Nothing like that was going to happen in a parked Volvo.
I get out of the car. I walk towards the river’s edge, away from the parking lot. The pebbles that should’ve been submerged in water shift underneath my hiking boots, and I bend down to pick up the small rocks. I listen to the river as I repeat the process by fistfuls, lost in thoughts of how, after years of doing research in far flung cities, always rushing to get home, guilty about whatever I wasn’t doing at home. If I ended up researching in Truckee, I could just stay there, camping along Donner Lake during the summer and snowshoeing up into the Sierras when the temperatures dropped. That would be my life now. I let my mind wander for so long that my knees began to ache from squatting. Finally, I stand up and raise my arms above my head, reaching for the sky, uncoiling my spine left and right.
That’s when I see him. Standing across the river from me is a man of indistinguishable age, but there is no mistaking his flushed, pocked-face. His chest is bare, as are his feet. The only piece of clothing he wears are acid-washed jeans, dark from mud around the knees. I’m swathed in layers of light-weight performance wear, in clothing that offers me nothing here, not even camouflaging my petite stature. How long had this man been staring right me, so still, like an animal stalking its prey? He could traverse that ever-shrinking, calm river with little effort, and then it would be just us, on the same bank, miles from anyone. We stare at each other for a few seconds or perhaps much longer, but my body feels as hot as his face looks, and it makes the decision before me. I sprint for my car, and skid feverishly away.
Shit, I think when the hyperarousal of flight subsides. There was no question about it. For the first time in my adult life, I couldn’t call on a bigger, stronger partner. There were different rules for women on their own, in this new life of mine, and if it was going to look the way I wanted it to, I’d have to follow them.
Lesson one: Don’t go unarmed.
Illustration by Tara Jacoby.
Alexis Coe is the author of Alice+Freda Forever, which was just optioned for a movie. Most recently, she lived in a remote cabin where she wrote “Dispatches From the Russian River” for Pacific Standard.
Flygirl is Jezebel’s travel blog dedicated to adventures big and small, tips and tricks for navigation, and exploring the world at large. Have a story or an idea? We’re always taking submissions; email us with “Flygirl” AND your topic in the subject line. No pitches in the comments, please.