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Notes from the Shadows

            “Get away from that gun!”

            When you’re a reporter following two El Dorado County Sheriff’s deputies into a meth camp along a river, and one of the officers suddenly draws his .40-caliber at a suspect — shouting for him to get away from the 9-mm he’s reaching for — well, time slows down.

S.T.A. following the Amador County Sheriff's Office
in California 

            My life changed on a rainy April afternoon in Washington D.C., when I learned I’d been given a national grant to study the relationship between methamphetamine addiction and crimes against the innocent. What lay ahead was more than 18 months of dividing my time between following law enforcement officers in California and traveling to small towns across the United States. Moving. Constantly moving. Passing through the clean, bleak head-drain of little motel rooms, seeing the lifeless expressions of strangers in tight airplane rows. I visited neighborhoods from Maryland to Montana, all while sending magazine columns back about my own home county: It was writing about my region, with its vast ruggedness, its ironbound grace, the hard grizzled land flanked by windbreak trees and shadowed by sweeping, studded rises of sage and greasewood, and the dry erupting crags of granite, and the rocky twin buttes on its western skyline. These meditations on California’s foothills were penned on cocktail napkins in Irish pubs in Arlington, Virginia, or over red wine and rare steaks in the Chop House near the banks of the Yellowstone River. Exploring my feelings about the lure of the Motherlode was an antidote for the homesickness I felt in Middle America, wandering in places that have their own aura but never lifted my spirit like the long rolling ranges of the Gold Country.

            I gradually came to understand that it was conflicted love for my roots that drove the nearly two-year investigation into how methamphetamine is devastating rural places across the western and southern United States.

El Dorado County's river border.

            Which brings me back to May 27, 2011, along the river in El Dorado County, California. I was with two Sheriff’s deputies as they surveyed a newly cut footpath that led from a house that had been burglarized into a distant glen near the water. The trail opened. We were suddenly looking at five warped, windowless modular homes cocooned in webs. A collapsing house with rotted eaves and tarps for doors stood beyond them. To our left I noticed a camper surrounded by piles of garbage and stripped metal parts: Its shell had a smattering of loose, dusty trash bags along the roof. We could hear a generator buzzing, and the faint, fleeting garble of an old radio inside.

            The deputies approached the open door with me at their heels. Bryant called out, “Sheriff’s Office,” as he leaned in. “Sheriff’s Office, we just need to talk …” And then his 40.-caliber was up. His voice pressed, “Get away from that gun; get away from that gun. Back off that gun now!”

            The sergeant behind him was grabbing his sidearm.

            Two parolees were smoking crystal meth inside the rusted camper. The shock of seeing a uniformed officer, coupled with high-gassed flares in the brain, prompted the closest suspect to hunch over his loaded 9-mm on the table. The suspect’s limbic system was miss-firing, reeling through a jerky, stimulant-induced stupor. Bryant was throwing orders at the parolee, but his hand remained fluttering in the air just above his weapon.

            I felt a light breeze over the oaks.  

            Sitting alone in a bar a few days later, I sketched out how I’d capture that moment when the parolee’s thought-process had rebooted, preventing bullets from flying through the cheap camper panel. I also believed I could describe a recent day in Calaveras County when I saw two stimulant sniffers get arrested within an hour of each other: One was belching and blabbering gassy moans as he whipped his head in spasm inside the patrol car; the other was a thin little woman who’d hurried up to a deputy in her driveway as she sobbed about the people she could hear whispering inside the crawlspace above her bedroom. “They’re up there,” she panted through her tears. “I’ve been hearing them all day. They say they’re going to cut me to pieces and put my head in a box.”

            I had plans for those stories. It’s not difficult to write about a bad batch of meth circulating from San Andreas to Burson. I thought I might also try to convey the two crank-baked mountain men I’d watched searched behind Jamestown, their beehive beards dark with grease and their scabbed skull sockets vacant — both near skeletons mummified in brush strokes of dirty skin.    

            But there were other incidents I knew I couldn’t capture.

            And at that moment the example I was thinking had to do with a different afternoon I was riding with El Dorado County Sheriff’s Deputy Lance Bryant. The call came out from dispatch as a possible case of child abuse. For Bryant, the first few moments on the phone conversation with an elementary school teacher bore all numbing signs: The boy’s coming to class unwashed, underfed, visibly withdrawn; but what the teacher said next caught Bryant completely off-guard. A concerned parent from the class, whose son lived next door to the boy, had learned that the child’s meth-addicted mother had a much older, meth-obsessed boyfriend living in the house; and mom’s new man had been terrorizing the boy with several full-grown rattlesnakes. If the child said or did anything the boyfriend found annoying, the snakes came out of their aquarium and were held as fanged threats, inches from the boy’s face, or simply dropped on the floor near his shoe tips, hissing, coiling and undulating under the droning of their rattles.

A meth lab in California's central Gold Country 

            Bryant called the concerned parent, who was upfront that he himself had a criminal history. “The guy’s using needles in there,” a rough voice said through Bryant’s cell phone. “If we were talkin’ in person, officer, you’d see that I’m sleeved up and have been to jail, which means I know exactly what I’m talking about. I’ve done plenty I’m not proud of. But even in my worst moments I could never have dreamed of treating a child like that. He’s a good kid — quiet, but a real good kid.”

            Bryant called dispatch and waited for a backup unit to glide up to the side of his cruiser’s window.  

            “I’m pretty sure this guy has three-to-four live rattlesnakes in his house, maybe crawling around on the floors,” Bryant told his partner. “And he’s flagged in our system as an officer-safety risk.”    

            The other deputy turned his head to spit a long, brown comet of tobacco. “Got any other good news?”  

            And so we went. And how does a reporter describe the mode of existence we found in the house? The crystal meth pipe in the bedroom is easy to chronicle. The three plump rattlesnakes caught from the yard have scales and patterns that can be conveyed. Even the little boy’s mother — with her perpetual self-loathing and unconscious yearning to be spit on —is within the realm of illustration. But that boy: How do you describe the trauma in that boy’s eyes? And how do you depict his mother’s boyfriend, this so-called “man” pumping permanent venom through the child’s thought-world? Can writing really do that? Could a reporter actually portray this snake-clutcher, bare-chested and bloated with wild weepers of ash hair and a pocked, knuckled bun of cartilage tightening down on empty, feral eyes? Could you truly do it? Maybe.

            But could you capture the boy?

             I didn’t think so anymore.

            It was a turning point in my existence as crime journalist. I finally understood there was a difference in reading police reports and hearing testimony in courtrooms and actually witnessing those realities up close. Write about methamphetamine? How do words do justice to the wretchedness or the absolute human catastrophe?

S.T.A. worked as an embedded reporter with
law enforcement in five California counties. 

            During my first year in journalism in 2006 my mentor warned me of such crossroads. He taught me that you can be the best investigator on the beat, but if you can’t channel your findings into words that touch the reader on some fundamental human level — in a way that resonates in their empathy and haunts their peace of mind — then all of that investigation will quickly be forgotten. You have to immerse yourself. You have to walk through the middle of it. You need to take heedless risks. You have to attempt to write with a pulse. I listened to my mentor during my first year solo. In August of 2007, I began working on a feature about a young bull rider from Amador County, California. I tailed him around the rodeo grounds. I watched his face when the lottery matched him up with Sugar Rapid, a four-legged juggernaut who’d been decimating cowboys from one side of the Golden State to the other. When it was time for the young rider to face the crowd, I climbed up onto the bull chute along side him, perched inches away from Sugar Rapid’s hump. The bull was huffing and kicking the steel, warning us of things to come. With every message Sugar Rapid sent, I could feel the welded bars of the chute trembling in my hands. I’d inserted myself into reality. Now I had to capture it. I had to take heedless risks to try to make this wrangler, this bull and these rodeo lights breathe on the page.

            That moment yielded my first statewide journalism award for “The Cowboy Life,” or “White Knuckle Honeymoon.” And yet even this development didn’t keep me from forgetting everything I’d been taught.         

            By the afternoon I was drinking alone in the bar, I had been a crime reporter for five years. Every week I used the codified standards and conventional wisdom of my profession to churn out the next newspaper story about links between methamphetamine and crime in California’s central Gold Country. Forged in the uninspired dimensions of mainstream journalism, these news pieces were read in the morning over coffee and bagels, allowed to elicit a momentary response like, “oh that’s awful,’ and then tossed into a recycling basket as their meaning evaporated from the community’s consciousness.

            But this was the newspaper trade’s preferred approach. This is what most journalists are asked to do, especially if they want better assignments, or to get routinely promoted. The grind of typing out banners of news copy, day after day, week after week, deadline after deadline, had accomplished exactly what the majority of my industry wants — a reflex to generic tactics, an allergy to nuance and color, a fear of trying to connect with readers through immediacy or emotional resonance.

            And, at least for me, what was the cost? During the 18 months I worked on my meth project, a number of police officers, detectives, prosecutors and victims’ advocates had gone out on a career limb to put me in a position to finally write something unflinching about the scope of a tragedy they’d dealt with everyday. But I couldn’t do it. Seeing the abused little boy’s eyes with Deputy Bryant proved that. The “thin blue line” was trusting me. A national foundation was waiting on me. It seemed my hometown largely believed my aim was true.

            Yet I was paralyzed.  

            I realized the only way to move forward was by moving back to a professional concept known by a handful of believers as Literary Journalism, the hope that dangerous factual writing and real social dynamics can collide in way that probes the soul of a person, the soul of a country or the soul of a community. It’s taking reality and then using the full force and power of the English language to thrust that truth, like a jagged spur, through the center of the reader; and do it in a way they will never forget.

            It was the only option I had left, and I knew I was sitting on the edge of that bull chute again, iron bars rattling hard in my palms, hooves and hindquarters below ready to kill —and my career, my sanity — were hanging in the balance. I had eight seconds ahead of me; and when the gate finally banged opened, snapping louder than a shotgun blast, I was either going to reel or ride.

* “Shadow People: how meth-driven crime is eating at the heart of rural America” was published in book form in April of 2012.