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April 24, 2020

Don’t Threaten Me or I’ll Shoot Your Lights Out … but Really, I Don’t Want to

In 1998 I had two jobs—one in the Rocky Mountain foothills town of Boulder, Colorado, the other in the mountain town, Bozeman, Montana. So, I drove back and forth. I’d stay for months at a time in one or the other town depending on my work schedule.

The distance from Boulder, Colorado to Bozeman, Montana is almost 700 miles. My ’89 Toyota van was comfortable doing 72 miles / hour—and I didn’t like to push it much beyond that. The trip—with stops for gas, bathroom and stretching / dog walking breaks—took a bit more than eleven hours. Sometimes longer, depending on the route I’d take.

Going north, I’d drive across Wyoming on highway 25 to Billings, then go west on highway 90. Past the Crazy Mountains. Oh, gorgeous Montana!

So, on a mid-April day in 1998, I drove out of my Boulder driveway, my van loaded with what I’d need for the next few months in Bozeman. My dog, Agnes, a half golden retriever, half border collie was my steady sidekick. She loved riding shotgun in the van.

Just outside Casper, Wyoming I stopped to get gas in the howling wind and let Agnes out for a pee and a romp. I noticed a man sitting on the back of his parked car. Nothing in particular to raise alarm, except that in retrospect, I did note a wary feeling flit through me.

Heading north again, I was cruising along. The highway on a Sunday afternoon was sparse of traffic. Suddenly in my side view mirror I noticed a car behind me in the passing lane. It just hung there, which I thought was weird. Why wasn’t it passing me?

Then the driver pulled up alongside me. His passenger side window was down, and he had his pants zipper open and he was whacking off and leering at me.

I was shocked and terrified. I realized immediately it was that guy from the parking lot. I stared straight ahead and kept steady. What could I do? I had no phone. Cell phones, at that time, were barely a thing in the U.S. I had no means of defense whatsoever. And my vehicle didn’t go very fast.

My heart was pounding with fear. What was he going to do? What if he tried to force me off the road? There were hardly any vehicles on the road.

Something like a minute or two passed, I don’t know … a long, horrid, creepy time.

And then the car surges forward and blasts off to where the road dipped down and I couldn’t see the car anymore. I drove along, my eyes desperately roving in quest of a cop car. Said to myself “they’re never there when you need them.” Where had the pervert gone? Was he lurking somewhere?

At the next town, Kaycee, I pulled off the exit. Mighty empty-looking environs. I spied a little roadside bar, pulled into the empty parking lot and hopped out of my van. I was trembling inside. Upon entering, I explained to the bartender, a woman—fortunately—what had happened and asked if I could use a phone to call the police. She immediately sympathized and offered me a phone to use.

I gave the officer the car’s license number. He asked if I wanted to make an official report, but I didn’t want to wait around. Something in the cop’s voice told me he’d heard this tale before. No doubt. I jumped back in my van and hightailed it to Bozeman, wanting to get there before dark.

It wasn’t but a few days later I saw a notice in the paper advertising The Ladies Pistol Club. Free shooting lessons.

OK, I am not a gun girl. Other than my experience at camp shooting rifles (you know, along with canoeing and making macramé), I’d not had a jot of experience with guns. Guns were not in my wheelhouse. However, I had now been seriously frightened for my safety (for the second time), and I wanted to do something to not feel so helpless in the face of potentially life-threatening danger.


I showed up at the range in Bozeman on the Monday evening of the first class. About eight other women were in attendance. Plus N., who announced that her mission in life was to teach women how to shoot guns.

The first evening we learned about safety. The instructor, Tony, who owned a used appliance store in town, brought an assortment of rifles and gauges of bullets. He was thorough with his show-and-tell.

The second class, N. brought a gym equipment bag just stuffed with handguns. Pistols and revolvers (which are a subclass of pistols). All kinds of guns: Glocks, various Smith & Wessons, a Beretta, a Colt 45, .22s. I honestly can’t remember all what types. You know—guns.

The women who attended the class—about nine of us—all had stories to tell. Several of them lived alone with their children. Their neighborhoods were sparsely populated. (We’re in Montana, remember.) Some were dealing with stalkers.

N. always brought a stack of gun magazines to class with names like Guns & Ammo, Shooting Times, Firearms News. She encouraged us to select a few to take home to browse.  Not my usual reading fare. But I took a couple home. Suffice it to say that I had zero way to relate to the contents of these magazines. Like, totally eek! Nope, not what fires my imagination. Certainly, far from what stirs my heart.

In total, there were about eight classes. We met once a week at the range. Not far from my house. At the fairgrounds. Everything was free. Lessons. The guns. The bullets. We were given ear protection. And we’d each select a gun—choose whichever you wish—and line up to shoot at targets ranging from 10 – 20 yards. N. advised us to try all the guns. “Find out what feels comfortable for you.”

I tried them all, I think. It was astonishing and frightening and empowering shooting those guns. The Colt 45’s ricochet nearly blew me off my feet. With my strong body, steady hand and keen eye, I turned out to be a good shot. The women dubbed me Annie Oakley. I actually enjoyed the challenge of shooting—developing my hand-eye coordination.

And then, the gun show. These events happened with some regularity in Bozeman—and many towns in Montana. (And elsewhere, of course.) N. invited our class to attend together. I’d simply never given any thought to attending such an event. But yes, now—I guess—was the time.

It was held at the county fairgrounds. I entered the building full of apprehension. Feeling entirely out of place. I wasn’t even sure why I was here. The idea was to buy a gun … but … really??

There were tables heaped with weapons. All manner of guns and other types of ferocious looking weaponry. I didn’t even know what most of those things were. What was I doing here? I couldn’t bring myself to meet the eyes of the men (and it was mostly men) at the tables. It—they— just felt ominous.

Our pack of women strolled past the tables. I nervously picked up a couple guns. One was a ladies’ “purse pistol.” Small. Designed to fit a woman’s hand. Hmm, is that what I should buy? Carry a pistol in my purse? N. urged us to find something we thought would fit our needs.

Did I need a gun? Not really. In fact, no. But also, I didn’t want to feel that awful sense of terror and helplessness again.

I ended up buying a semi-automatic Colt .22. Why did I choose this one? I can’t exactly say. It was affordable. It was light weight. The man selling it said it was a good “beginner’s gun.” It was extremely easy to purchase it. No background check. That was before Columbine. And the tragic, seemingly endless school shootings had not yet become a thing. (My god, how freakin’ awful for such a thing to have become part of our cultural history!)

I have considered how I would have handled the situation if the guy had tried to force me off the road. What if I had had a gun with me? I could have shot at his tires. Of course, wow, imagine if his car swerved into my van.

Ugh, so many possibilities for things to go wrong with a gun.

But you have to weigh things.

I was on the road by myself a lot traveling long, largely empty distances. I liked to camp out in my van, often down a dirt road in the woods. (And I’d had a frightening moment camping with a girlfriend … involving a bunch of guys pulling up near us in the dark.)

I am not the type to get easily scared. But I don’t at all like being frightened by men-who-might-harm me. I am generally savvy. I generally can maintain sangfroid; that is, I’m able to keep my wits about me. It is not my nature to view people as enemies. But, I am a woman. Enough said.

All this. My freedom. To move about as I wish. I did not want to find myself in a terrifying situation again without a means to defend myself.

But my world had never in any way included real weapons.

And then, suddenly, I owned a gun. Such a strange thing to own. There it was in its shiny case. I also bought bullets.

And now what?

The rules and regulations about carrying a gun across state borders vary from state to state. I learned that it was illegal to carry a loaded gun across most state borders. And the responsibility that accompanies gun ownership! I realized immediately that there was no way I was going to carry my gun in my van. I mean, the van could quite easily be broken into. Where would I hide the gun? And … what the hell!? I didn’t want the responsibility. I didn’t want the “vibe” of the gun, quite frankly.

It has been many years. My pistol has barely been out of its case. A friend keeps it locked up in his gun closet. I hardly think about it. And when I do, I usually just want to not think about it. I could sell it. I could go to a range and practice shooting. But, I’m not so motivated. There are so many other much more appealing things to do in life.

And what about self-defense? That was the whole idea of the gun.

What are the best ways for women to deal with the issue of self-defense? A friend of mine taught Model Mugging. There are many types of martial arts. But, how practical would such skills be in a situation like I’m talking about? For a woman who travels by car or van, there are, of course, much safer vehicles than my little Toyota van was. Today, obviously, it’s easy and essential to carry a cell phone when traveling.

And there’s the donning of an attitude of confidence. Not so easy to describe, but yes, very important.

There is also the choice to not go places alone. There is getting a big dog. (Agnes, as keen and smart as she was, was hardly scary looking.) And there is the choice of learning how to use a gun. And carrying one.

I am 100% for sensible gun control. Of course. Why is it so freaking hard for us Americans? The endless squawking about the Second Amendment. And the overblown fear of having one’s freedom and liberty taken away.

I don’t travel in a van and camp much by myself anymore. Those were fun days. Nowadays, of course, I have a cell phone. I am unlikely to have to travel this route again as I no longer have those jobs. It was a fantastic route to drive—across the astonishingly open and beautiful land of the west. It was purely marvelous to camp along a dirt road, snuggled in the back of my van with my dear dog, the back hatch open to inhale the pungent sage at night, to pop open my can of sardines and gaze at the gazillion stars and occasional meteor.

This is a tale of a conundrum: how to keep myself safe along with retaining my freedom to travel and camp out … without feeling threatened?

For me, I quickly realized, a gun was not the answer. But still, I’m glad that I learned how to shoot one.


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