Top News

Russell Wangersky: A landscape strewn with bullets

A Jerusalem cricket in the High Rock Canyon, Nevada.
A Jerusalem cricket in the High Rock Canyon, Nevada. - Russell Wangersky

Russell Wangersky
Russell Wangersky

There aren’t people — but there are other things.

Snakes. Hawks. Jackrabbits. The dangerous-looking – but relatively harmless – Jerusalem cricket. Acres and acres of endless sagebrush and greasewood.

The Black Rock Desert/High Rock Canyon Emigrant Trails National Conservation Area and its attached wilderness areas in northern Nevada cover 1.2 million acres. Less than a dozen people live there year-round. Do the math on how much personal space every individual has.

The warnings from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) are blunt: “The area is remote, without paved roads, cell coverage, services, or residents. If you break down or get lost it could be several days before someone finds you. Make sure someone knows where you are going and when you expect to get back.

“No natural source of water is safe for drinking without treatment. Cellphones do not work in most of the area. Satellite phones work for short conversations. Amateur radio is dependent on the proximity of repeaters and there are very few in the area.”

Fifty miles into that, and you’d think you’d be far from absolutely everything — you’re certainly far from anything like news, because there’s no radio. No information about the latest U.S. school shootings, no tweets about “Thoughts and prayers” for children shot with high-powered weapons designed for war.

But, even in the largest block of land that the U.S. has yet set aside as a conservation area, you’re not far from those weapons. Ever.

Rifle cartridges — handgun cartridges — shotgun cartridges. It’s hard not to step on them.

The travelling population is so sparse that you see hardly any trash — but what you do find is alarming. If you pull over to look at any BLM sign, you’ll see that it’s pockmarked with bullet holes, often with spent bullets caught under plexiglass, like samples of some kind of preserved insect.

Any widening in the dirt roads where you might decide to stop, you might not find footprints or even fresh tire tracks, but you will find the brass glint of spent cartridge casings — from the delicate thin tubes of .22 shorts right up to heavy-gauge casings that hold fearsomely destructive loads. Rifle cartridges — handgun cartridges — shotgun cartridges. It’s hard not to step on them.

Find a wilderness cabin at Soldier’s Marsh — first come, first served — and there are someone’s permanent initials just in front of the wood stove. But the initials aren’t carved with a knife: they are made from .22 casings, pounded down into the boards.

It’s the kind of cabin where you’re expected to leave behind supplies you don’t need — a lighter, a few rolls of toilet paper for the outhouse, a can of beans — for the next user. Among the shared supplies? Two handfuls of unfired bullets — half .22s, half bulky 9 mm bullets with flattened, ugly tips. In the distance, there’s the sound of shooting in the night.

On the other side of the conservation area, at the Stevens camp, another wilderness refuge, only this time a cinderblock bunkhouse that sleeps eight or so, there’s ammunition in a military green ammo case, and out in the yard, there’s not only a vast twinkling spread of casings, but actual spent bullets. There are flat lead splashes that you can pick off the ground near a sheet of metal that’s been used for target practice. There are fired 9 mm bullets simply lying in the dust, each one’s shape defined or altered by what it hit after it was fired.

We didn’t see anyone carrying guns, didn’t glimpse handguns or pickup-truck-racked long guns.

But they are there. Most certainly, they are there.

Gun use is normalized, gun carrying is normalized: is it any wonder that, when tempers boil over, when minds are lost, that there are weapons close at hand?

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 39 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at russell.wangersky@thetelegram.com — Twitter: @wangersky.

Recent Stories