MOHAVE COMMUNITY COLLEGE, where I work in Kingman, opened in 1971. The land for the campus, the 160 acres that sit just outside town, was donated by John Leonard and Grace Neal. John Leonard Neal was a rancher, married in the 1930s. He was from a prominent local ranching family who owed their fortune and fame, in part, to the time during World War II when, according to author and Route 66 historian Jim Hinckley, “a large swath of the Neal ranch in the Hualapai Valley became one of the largest flexible gunnery schools in the nation with assistance from the Herculean efforts of construction crews pulled from the Davis Dam project on the Colorado River.” Hinckley adds, “Listed among the thousands of men trained at the Kingman Army Airfield is Clayton Moore, best known for his role as the Lone Ranger.”
Earlier generations of Neals also owned land in the area around the historic springs that were important to the history of the town, near Fort Mohave. The springs were a source for year-round water, important in this high desert region, and were named for Lieutenant Edward Beale, who surveyed the road to connect Fort Mohave with another fort in New Mexico. According to Jim Hinckley, Beale’s road expedition also was to serve a secondary purpose, “testing the viability of camel transport for military application in the desert southwest.”
I learn about the Neals and Beales straightaway, but it takes longer for anyone to talk about or explain the history of the tribe with the closest reservation, the Hualapai. According to their tribe’s website, the name comes from their words for ponderosa pines and for people, and their original territory encompassed around five million acres.
The Hualapai War started in 1865 when their leader Anasa was killed by a white man. The Hualapai retaliated and also closed a nearby trading route to white traders. Raiding and killing and more retaliation followed until the U.S. government sent the cavalry in after killing yet another Hualapai chief. After their surrender, the remaining Hualapai were forced to walk nearly two hundred miles to near Parker, Arizona, to an internment camp called La Paz. The La Paz Trail of Tears, much like the better-known Cherokee Trail of Tears or the Bosque Redondo of the Navajo, is commemorated annually by the Hualapai descendants of those who survived the long walk and the internment and then managed to escape.
Already in my earliest days in Mohave County, I know Kingman to be a place of strange facts and oddities, a place that prepares for war camels and the Lone Ranger alike. Already in my earliest days in town, I know Neal and Beale to be considered important names. Already in my earliest days, I know war and enterprise to be intrinsically linked in the mythos of the place, that my ideas of heroism involve walking those hundred miles versus riding them on horseback, that my allegiance goes, as is usually so, to those who were not armed.
IN MY FIRST SEMESTER of my first real, grown-up job, teaching English at Mohave Community College, one night, in composition class, a man—I’ll call him Greg—paces the back of the room, sits back down, and then returns to his pacing. He’s over fifty or at least looks over fifty. His eyes dart around the room, never landing on any of the rest of us. His tan, weathered skin holds a light sheen that he seems to want to scratch off the sides of his face.
I do not get close enough to smell him, so I can’t say for certain whether he’s drunk or high or some combination. He has thick-textured salt-and-pepper hair with waves that fan up and out, through which he can’t stop running his hands. He can’t keep them still.
He might be considered good-looking on a better day. My guess, if I had to say, would be that he’s high on meth. A good many people here are.
Since I grew up in a house with a violent, drunken father, I know the voice to use. I know how to say, “That’s interesting,” and “You should talk more about that once Angela’s done,” and “I can hear you better from the chair, though. It’s closer.”
The combination of soothing voice and flattery works for about thirty-five minutes, and the class is three hours long. We don’t usually break till the ninety-minute mark, but some of the women’s bodies are stiffening. Some look at their shoes; some begin to get that faraway look on their faces, the dissociated look—though I don’t know that anyone was calling it that back then.
This class, like many I teach there, is a night class geared primarily toward women aged thirty to fifty-five whose lives have changed through divorce or being fired from their jobs or worse. They’re parents or grandparents. They want jobs or better jobs. They do their homework and bring their best selves to class.
At twenty-five years old, I’m often the youngest person in my classroom. Still, they all treat me with dignity and respect. I have not one but two degrees. They’re impressed by this—something I’ve almost never encountered since.
Our classroom is in a modular building, otherwise known as a trailer. This is before cellphones are common, and there’s no wall phone either since the trailers are supposed to be temporary.
I call break early. I say I’m hungry and can use a candy bar. I smile at the aggressive student. I make prolonged eye contact with all the women in the class who are paying attention, and together we head straight for the main building, the commons building.
All the women in the class know what to do—they read my eye contact correctly. They get up and head out to break, walking fast and efficient. No one gawks at Greg or speaks with him; no one acts like our early break is in any way irregular.
Mary is working at the front desk at the commons. She’s middle-aged and both competent and kind. I like her very much and am grateful to see her.
“Call security,” I say, and she does not hesitate. I buy a Snickers and go out in the hall to check for Greg, to check on the other students.
Greg does not return to class when we return from break. The security guard patrols around more than usual and close to our trailer. We continue our class, each of us positioned to keep one eye on the door, but Greg doesn’t return that night.
The next day, I learn Greg had enrolled in the class under a false name. A few years back, he’d brought a gun onto campus—he’d made threats. He was not supposed to be there in my class, or in any other class, having been permanently barred from the college.
After, from the administrators to the staff to the students, everyone is kind. Everyone praises my handling of the situation in a quiet way, using humor or their own stories. Everyone is competent. We all go about our business.
If he had come back into our classroom that night, I suppose it would have been considered or labeled a school shooting, but it also would have been for me a workplace shooting. It’s my first real workplace, and I feel protective over it, over the people who share the space with me.
I know, though, if Greg had come back with his gun, what likely would have happened also would have been a shooting in a place with connections to one of the worst acts of domestic terrorism, the Oklahoma City bombing. Michael Fortier had taken classes here in the years before, as his friends planned the bombing. And just like with Greg’s return to campus, no one had any idea what Fortier knew; no one had any idea what was being planned at his trailer outside town.
Already, I love the people here and the landscape, especially at night when the stars come out on campus and the coyotes call to each other through the desert. Already, I’m learning to be wary of giving away too much of this love, this good feeling, to a place that seems to embrace or, at least, to not wholly shun all these men whose lives partake in both everyday and extraordinary violence.
WE’RE HIKING with the dogs, a friend and I, just outside Kingman, on a sunny weekend day. The landscape still is novel to me—the land so flat and wide, broken only by tall rocks and cliff faces, the twisting spines of cholla or long-limbed cottonwood, the bright blue sky the stuff of picture books.
Our path curves left, and we walk along a tall row of rock facing before we curve further and come upon the men. The rocks till that moment had obscured them from us, us from them.
It’s clear they’ve just finished setting up their targets, have just finished jerking off. One zips his fly, and the other rips a picture from a magazine, a woman with enormous breasts, her legs positioned into a sharp V.
Jack, the bigger and newer of the two dogs, snarls and yanks his leash, and I nod to the man nearest me—the one who’s just tucked himself in—making eye contact, before I pull the dogs past.
There isn’t another way to exit, except back the way we came, so we keep walking. We talk low to each other, my friend more unnerved than I am, but neither of us surprised. As we walk, our view consists mainly of cholla and prickly pear, the sky shifting from its brightest blue to blue streaked with pink. My friend points out interesting cactus, lizards, and what she says is the tail feather of a roadrunner. We walk also accompanied by the distant sound of the men shooting their guns.
We walk until we’re tired, until the gunshots stop. We sit and drink water on a rock, and when we make our way back, Lucy, the smarter dog, the quiet one, has her hackles raised as we near their campsite. But even their camp chairs are gone.
They’ve left behind only the spent shell casings and bits of target magazine girls.
I come into the desert that day with only the most rudimentary knowledge of its plants and insects, its snakes and storms. I leave having acquired so much knowledge of the flora and fauna. I leave having confirmed so much unwanted knowledge about men.
My time in Kingman, all three years, is spent like this, on deciding. How does a person live a life filled with these sorts of interactions with men like these—in the world, in the wild, in the classroom. I write “men like these,” but Kingman also will be the place where I learn to trust wholly my instincts about when “men like these” can be abbreviated to “men.” O
Excerpted from Carry by Toni Jensen. Copyright © 2020 by Toni Jensen. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, an imprint of Random House Group, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.