We think we’re safe.
In the fenced-in enclave of our backyard, we watch life come and go in security that’s about as good as it gets. When we venture out of our backyard, as we often do, we retain a sense of safety in most places, such as when strolling through a natural area in the heart of our community.
Just down the road about a mile from our house are a couple of public areas known as Twin Lakes and the Forum Natural Area. The MKT trail, a tributary of Missouri’s Katy Trail, runs through it, and just off that is the Hinkson Woods Conservation Area, an urban reserve of grasslands and woods in the middle of housing developments. In this reserve, if you didn’t hear the sounds of distant traffic and not-so-distant lawn mowers, you would think you were out there far from the madding crowd.
Nadia, Bonita and I strolled out that way one fine afternoon, as we had many, many times before, and walked into Hinkson Woods to see what was blooming. Bonita snuffled around, Nadia searched the ground, and I idly photographed whatever presented itself. Dogs were barking in the nearby leash-free area and snatches of conversation could be heard along the adjacent trail, which was still pretty close.
I saw a rotting log covered with lichens and bent over to take a picture.
When I straightened up I saw a man walking toward me in the woods, about twenty feet away. I waved and said hi, but he didn’t respond, except to keep on advancing. Alarm bells started to go off in my head. He came within a couple of feet, not saying a word, and then lunged at my camera. Part of my brain said, “Oh no. Not again…”
My first real robbery was long ago in Nicaragua, during the late, not so lamented, regime of Anastasio Somoza. My girlfriend and I were in a restaurant with some Ecuadorian friends who were driving us down to Panama. I remember my friend flirting with the waitress as we tried to pay our bill in three different currencies—Guatemalan, Salvadoran and Nicaraguan. I remember he actually managed to get a date with her. When we came out onto the street we saw the car doors standing open. Not good. Passports and cash, gone. So was my Pentax ESII camera and lenses. Were we stupid to leave that stuff there, in a car with New York plates? Yup.
The next robbery was only a week or so later, with the same friends. We had reached Panama City, checked into a hotel and decided to go for a walk along the waterfront. At night. Remembering the recent robbery, we were scared to leave our stuff unguarded in the hotel, so we figured we’d carry it with us. There were five of us and it looked like a nice area, so what could go wrong?
Five armed young men was what. It was fast, coming out of the night, with snatches at purses and packs, knives flashed, money, travelers checks (remember those?), airline tickets and brand new passports gone.
Had we been stupid? Again? Yup.
The third time was in El Salvador, the year Nadia and I were married, walking along a beach. I had my camera over my shoulder and a belt pack with my passport and a little cash. Suddenly the beach seemed to empty of the few people who had been there, except for three young men who sauntered in our direction. At least one had a knife, a big one, which he held at my stomach, another came up behind Nadia and was presumably armed with something, and the third stood off about five feet with a “wrist rocket” slingshot and a beach pebble the size of a robin’s egg aimed at my face. I managed to salvage my passport that time, but a Nikon 8008S and lenses (sob!) began a new life in El Salvador. Neither of us got a scratch.
Nadia later said we were really dumb to have been there with our stuff with so few people around. I guess old habits die hard….
Some images remain imprinted on your mind forever. One that will remain with me is that of Nadia picking up a sizable branch from the ground and positioning herself behind the man who was trying to grab the camera. She was ready to rock and roll. I pushed him backwards, but he came at me again, still after the camera. Long story short, a confrontation ensued, which ended in a stalemate, with us walking back to the trail and our assailant stalking off back into the woods. Law enforcement was called. We didn’t want to leave him out there with families and kids around the area.
They found him right where we had left him. It turned out that he was known to the Park Ranger who first responded as a habitual substance abuser, with no history of serious crime or violence. He was drunk, thought I had been taking his picture and was outraged at having his privacy invaded. He never intended to steal the camera or hurt anybody, so we didn’t file any charges and he was told to stay away from there in the future. Again, nobody got a scratch on them.
Here’s the thing, I guess. Even in seemingly safe areas, in broad daylight, with people nearby, one’s illusion of security can be shattered in an instant. I wrote about this in an earlier post and sometimes it’s good to be reminded of the truth of it. Hiking out in nature, even in an urban setting, generally involves a certain element of solitude, which can translate into being on your own for a while when trouble happens. Even though we were apparently in no real danger, we were lucky. Again.
Trouble can happen anywhere, even in our backyard. There is no such thing as risk-free living, but one can try to live carefully, at least. This time I don’t think we did anything stupid. (Even I can learn something eventually.) This just happened.
Stuff will happen. We just need to recognize that and get out there and enjoy it all, anyway, because most of that stuff, by far, will be wonderful.
And on the rare occasion when it’s not, well, I know who I want watching my back.
NOTE: Many thanks to the Columbia Park Ranger and police officer who responded quickly to our 911 call. Considering that we were on a hiking trail away from the city streets, they responded extremely quickly and efficiently.