It was mid-morning when we started our ascent up Kerby Peak. We were alone — or at least there were no other cars parked at the trailhead. It had rained quite a bit the day before, and even though it was a weekend, I was thankful that the wet weather would likely keep other hikers away. I wanted us to have the mountain to ourselves, so that I could concentrate both on my body — on carefully and confidently putting one foot in front of the other on a long, hard climb — and on my emotion, on holding Isaiah's memory close, on thinking about his journey up that mountain and beyond.
We were barely thirty minutes into the trek when I heard the first gunshots.
A week-and-a-half earlier, a young man had walked into an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas and skilled nineteen students and two teachers. The stories about the utter malfeasance of the police were slowly spilling out, as this country — once again — was forced to briefly admit that it would do more to perpetuate and protect its culture of violence than it did would the lives of its children. Losing a child is an unfathomable personal tragedy; but it's often also part of a larger systemic brutality.
Gun violence has risen dramatically in Oakland, California, where Kin and I now live. 2021 was the city's deadliest year in over a decade, and the shootings so far this year suggest that the surge wasn't an anomaly. There have been multiple murders on a cul-de-sac Kin and I walk by each morning. I don't believe the (nakedly racist) narrative that Oakland is "unsafe"; I am largely protected by my socio-economic status, by my skin color. But it's America; there are more guns than there are people here. None of us are safe.
I have never felt safe in rural America, where white folks proudly exclaim that all these guns keep them safe. The gunshots we could hear as we climbed up Kerby Peak felt as threatening as any I've heard outside my apartment window. Those shots, I will say, are rare; the gunfire, when it happens, quick, sporadic. The gunfire we heard as we climbed lasted all afternoon long.
We hiked for over five hours that day — about 7.3 miles, with a 2800 foot elevation climb. It was beautiful — the moisture gathering on the leaves; the wildflowers beginning to bud; the mushrooms peeking up through the forest floor. It was incredibly moving, knowing I was retreading a path that Isaiah had struggled with six years before — a path that for him opened to a gorgeous blue sky and a view for miles and miles and that for me stayed shrouded in clouds as I was rocked by the strong winds at the top.
But turn after turn — "I think this is the last switchback," Kin repeatedly joked — there was that gunfire. I don't know how near or how far the shooters were — the sound ricocheted on the rocks above and below us; I have no idea where their bullets were striking. I wondered at first if they were hunting, and I worried that Poppy would stray and be shot. But there was nothing stealth in their actions; if there was a purpose at all, it was just to embrace the feeling of power of pulling the trigger again and again. I'd find myself deep in thought — concentrating on where my feet were landing or thinking about my beautiful son — only to be jarred by the reverberating sounds of a gun. Or several guns, I don't know. Over and over and over. For hours and hours and hours, they fired their guns at something — a target, some tin cans, I imagined (I hoped) — pausing to reload. Pausing for lunch or a beer or a smoke; pausing to pray — it was a Sunday, after all.
Isaiah would bristle, I'm sure, that the gunfire upset me. He loved guns, something we'd often argue about. We'd debate their constitutionality, their necessity, their allure. When the police entered his apartment after he died, they confiscated the guns that he owned — or I guess they did. They never said they'd taken them; there was no police report to that effect, although the coroner informed me that there was a loaded gun near his body, assuring me — I suppose that's the right verb — it was heroin, not any sort of gunshot wound, that had ended his life.
The hike up Kerby Peak was a solemn Sunday pilgrimage. But somewhere in the valley below us, someone else was engaged in what was their joyous Sunday ritual of blowing through boxes and boxes and boxes of ammunition. Both were celebrations of the echoes of death.