I found a pretty serious-looking bullet by the gas pumps in Saxapahaw the other day. Serious, in that hand-gun self-protection hollow-point .40 S&W kind of way, rather than the bring home fresh meat to the family sort of way. I can imagine a couple situations. It was during the cold snap last month, so perhaps the gun-toter on their way to the target range, law enforcing, or bank heist was stopping for gas, and the bullet happened to be in a pocket with some change and fell out between fingertips numb from the cold. Or, maybe the 2nd-amendmenter (regardless of their affiliation with a well regulated militia or not) was digging around in the glove compartment for the tire pressure gauge, which happens to be where the handgun, bullets, driver’s manual and aloe-coated flower-print tissues are also kept, when the bullet fell out.
I know handguns are kept in glove compartments because I learned this while on a bike tour across the U.S. I was on the TransAm trail with a group of Brits I’d met along the way, passing through a town in Missouri named after an apple variety that never took hold in the region. We were taking a break at the sole gas station/convenience store/grill and got into conversation with the owner who was also a farmer. He was friendly and loquacious, and shared many great stories. (As this location is on a major mapped cross-country bicycle thoroughfare, perhaps there are a lot of cyclists out there who have met this guy and heard his stories). I’ll save some of his stories for other posts, and stick to my guns here, so to speak. As cars and pickups, mostly pickups, drove by along the road, he motioned toward them and said, “You know, every one of these vehicles passing you on the road is carrying a gun in the glove compartment.” He seemed to take pleasure in telling us this. He said that in these rural counties where law enforcement isn’t too strong, people have to be able to take of care things themselves. I wasn’t sure whether I was supposed to be threatened that all these motorists passing us on the road had the option of pulling a gun on us if we somehow offended them by our presence, or whether I was supposed to take comfort that everyone was equipped to regulate if need be, in a peace by mutually assured destruction sort of way. Whichever, the Brits with whom I was riding were a bit incredulous, since possession of firearms isn’t allowed where they’re from.
That wasn’t our first encounter with the gun question however. Earlier along our route, as we passed through the Appalachian region of Kentucky, we happened to camp a night on the lawn of the Knot County historian. He was a gregarious and gracious host, and kept us company through the evening, regaling us with too many stories to recount here, so as before, I’ll stick with the topic at hand. He traded his typical mirthful expression, became very serious for a moment and asked us, “Are y’all carrying a firearm? I mean, ya got a gun with you?” I think this was the first time the Brits had ever been in the position of even considering the possibility of possessing a gun. They laughed. Our host remained serious. He was worried for our safety out on the roads. He didn’t seem to be worried about the threat of intimidating or delinquent motorists. Actually, he was concerned about wild animals. First, he said he was worried about packs of wild dogs, or potentially worse, guard dogs kept unleashed in these rural mountains to protect property since, as in the case above in Missouri, the arm of the law really didn’t extend here. Moreover, our host seemed to be more seriously concerned with copperhead snakes. He said these snakes liked to lie along the cool ditches by the road and would strike at our legs as we pedaled by and startled them. Our defense, he reckoned, was to pack a gun. Our Appalachain guy was swell, a decent host, and good story teller, but we had all we could do to keep from laughing. Before we tucked away to our tents for the night, he warned us not to be alarmed if we heard gun shots in the middle of the night – it would just be him trying to keep the wild dogs away from us while we slept.
While not too concerned about snakes striking from the ditch – that would have to be a million-to-one shot in which case the snake would probably deserve catching a flash of ankle or a thick calve – I do worry about those dogs. Many a time have I let my mind go there after some dog in a driveway has terrorized me, and I daydream over the next couple miles about the satisfaction I might feel if I only had a gun – a pretty atypical thought for me, to say the least. My stoker feels the same as she wrote a while back on this blog. But fantasy aside, how practicable would that be? Even if I could tug some handgun out of its holster or my rear jersey pocket while dodging a dog at my heels, the recoil from firing off a round would certainly cause me to crash – or both of us, if we’re on the tandem. Even if the stoker took the actual role of tail gunner (already she does a lot back there, like unwrap energy bars and take photos), I’m pretty sure her firing a gun would adversely affect my handling. Gun and bikes just don’t mix.
Years earlier, when I announced to my parents that I was going to ride my bike across country from Oregon to Maine, my father and I had “a talk.” We were at a local county fair in western Maine, and ducked out to the parking lot to have a beer in the old family truck. I hadn’t realized until then that my recently unveiled intention to bike across the U.S. was weighing heavily on his mind. I had my concerns for safety, sure. Sharing the road with cars is indeed a serious decision. Even in a car, it’s a responsibility to be taken with gravity – you’re hurtling along in two tons of metal with explosives combusting under the hood, and those painted lines on the road aren’t physically preventing that missile from going off anywhere. But my father was worried about something else – the evil in society. He asked me whether I was planning on carrying a gun with me for protection. Up to then, the thought had never occurred to me. Even after my loving, concerned father said that, it seemed so far outside of my perspective that I struggled to meet the sincerity with which he asked me.
Was is it about our country and guns? Just after I’d found the bullet and was inspired to write about this topic, the public radio show This American Life rebroadcast an older episode they’d entitled just that: “Guns.” Ira Glass, pithy as ever, made the observation that there really are two Americas – the part that gets guns, and the part that simply does not. And the divide is irreconcilable. I’m in that latter category. Because I’m an American, of course I understand that guns – their possession, and the vehement, emotional claim of the righteousness to their possession – are a part of my culture. But personally, I just don’t get it, and I never will. There’s no room in my pannier for a gun, and I think my tail gunner prefers to smile and wave rather than pull a trigger.