It creeped us out. We were walking under a shady canopy in the canyon bottom, getting some exercise in the middle of a pandemic and the summer’s unrelenting heat wave, when we spotted a flash of white along the creek below the trail.
As we approached, we noticed sawdust spread on a wide space along the bank, with small logs spaced like stools. And a target with a human silhouette hanging from an oak tree. Attached to the tree, a metal strip dimpled with bullet sized bumps gently rocked with the breeze.
It looked like a shooting range. And it got our attention.
The flash of white turned out to be a whiffle ball someone had tied to a skeletal tree branch. Odd, but not surprising. Hikers sometimes leave random and not so random detritus along the trail…usually just a pile of rocks or “cairns” as trail markers. But sometimes it morphs into art, when the rocks are used to sculpt a peace symbol or a miniature fort, or sometimes just an elaborate cairn.
But the human target was disturbing. Should we climb down from the trail and try to take it down? Not a good idea if this was truly a shooting range…who knows if they were finished shooting. I certainly did not want to confront anyone with a gun, even if it turned out to be a pellet gun.
But was this really a shooting range? Was it reality or was it a representation? Were people really shooting off guns so close to a hiking trail? Neighbors have told us of loud, percussive noises that seemed to come from the canyon. This was a reason to climb down and search for bullet casings or spent bullets or even pellets or beebees to report to the county sheriff’s department. We found none. But there was more that was creepy.
A hand drawn target and a second blue target waved at us and empty boxes were scattered on rocks and on the ground. More metal objects with bullet sized dimples lay on the ground.
It was unsettling to contemplate our peaceful forest used to demonstrate the use of guns on human targets. Should we have insisted that county law enforcement take it all down? I’m not sure. We usually associate walks in the woods as peaceful, healing activities, bringing us back to nature, soothing our hyperactive urban souls. It was disturbing to think of the woods as places where people with guns, usually hunters, but sometimes teenagers with pellet guns, can come and hide in the green forest. We know that homeless folk sometimes park along the trail, spending the night in an isolated spot, we hope peacefully. So we know that urban problems do follow us into the woods.
Maybe we needed the reminder that a walk in the woods is not the same as a walk in the park. Every year, people underestimate the wilderness and need to be rescued by the search and rescue teams that specialize in finding and helping lost or injured hikers. Every winter, seasoned hikers lose their lives on solo ventures on snowy Mount Baldy. But these are wilderness dangers and the blue targets felt more like urban problems, an unwelcome reminder that we bring our anxieties and frailties with us wherever we go.
After several weeks, the target range was gone. The log-stools were tipped over, the blue human target taken down, boxes and metal objects disappeared. Left was the one hand-drawn target of that human face with its googly eyes staring back at whoever approached.
It was still creepy.