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How the West Was Lost

Michael Doyle, The American, 2013. Courtesy Somerville Manning Gallery. Via Artsy.

The Riflemaker Dreams of Africa

The American West is a myth. One Wyoming gunmaker looks anywhere else—abroad, in the past, in himself—for new wilderness.

The two twelve-gauge shotguns belonged to a soft-handed man from Louisiana. They were Berettas, break action, barreled in an over under configuration. I’d never met the man from Louisiana. I was on my way from Laramie to Jackson Hole, Wyo., for a hunter education course and when I got to town I would deliver the guns to a woman named Amy, an intermediary, whom I’d also never met.

It was September. I was a carpenter and not usually in the business of transporting guns. I was neither a hunter nor comfortable with firearms. I fished. My truck was 20 years old. No matter; an acquaintance in Laramie had signed the shotguns out to me. He made fine custom rifles and fixed more shotguns than he cared to, including these, which, by some magic of paperwork and legality, would technically belong to me until I passed them on to Amy, who was affiliated with a high-end gun store. She, in turn, would perform an equivalent stack of magic to transfer the Berettas out of my hands. I knew none of this at the time. At the time, it seemed pretty gonzo. My man in Laramie asked if my doors locked. Then he unfolded two crisp twenties for gas. He said I was faster and cheaper than FedEx. He said I had to be. Tomorrow, just over the mountains in Idaho, 400 pen-raised pheasants and partridge would be freed into the sage and scrub and then, in the classic English style, “beaten” or “flushed” or “driven” into the air. As they flew overhead, the Louisiana man and his pals would shoot them.

All of it—the wealth, the cages, the hunt, the birds—seemed to enact a nasty American allegory, a vague and dire story involving flocks of citizens who believed in the promise of liberty and upward mobility and whom were methodically “shot down” by prospering men from Louisiana. The more I thought about it, the more analogues I was able to swap in. There was the American system of mass incarceration. And the “democratic” process. And health care. And food. It was an old, old tale. There was always a cage and the supposed beneficence of the liberators and then the plummet back to Earth. I wasn’t mad. I didn’t feel betrayed or bitter at all. I was eating an apple, speeding through Rawlins, Wamsutter and Point of Rocks, at 85, 90 miles an hour, careful to keep the speedometer less than ten above the limit. I’d seen the Highway Patrol. I’d passed the flat red demise of rabbits and antelope and mule deer. There were pump jacks and compressor stations and production tanks painted a blunt sage to complement the dull chromatics of the high plains landscape. Lines of dust revealed pickups on invisible dirt roads and slow white windmills redundantly revealed the truck-shuddering headwind. The sun was up behind me. The FM came and went. I’d been on the asphalt too long when I saw a blue drill rig, a small precise geometry standing out like sea glass in the sand, flying a bright American flag, and I spontaneously burst into song, a Christmas carol, "O Come All Ye Faithful."

At Rock Springs, I exited Highway 80, passed the Outlaw Inn and headed north. I passed the broken homesteaders’ cabins and the bowing cottonwoods and the one bar in Eden and I passed under the wildlife overpass in Pinedale and then I headed over the mountains and as I descended the steep S-turns along the flashing Hoback River, a silent black Escalade powered calmly past.

The FM returned. The Dow was near 17,000 and rising. Welcome to Jackson. I passed the log-sided Walgreens, whose construction had caused a nearby mountain to slide. I passed a log-sided Orvis, a log-sided Loaf ‘N Jug, a log-sided Albertson’s. Everywhere was log-sided, except Snow King, the ski mountain with its great vertical swaths of snowless treelessness looming.

When would we idolize our own in this way, bidding on the bones of our brothers, wearing our daughters’ jaws, kissing the most virile tibias for luck?

Jackson, it occurred to me, is no longer The American West. It is now a bastion of America’s idea of The West. Discreet bits of litter swirled in the road like remnants of outlaw dust. There was a Million Dollar Cowboy Bar. The only Native Americans I saw were wooden, carved, and painted, and of a conveniently manageable size: maybe four feet tall. Everybody else seemed to be either pretty or eating.

I continued to the town square, where, welcoming one and all into the core of the core of the Western chimera, I saw four enormous arches, composed entirely of elk antlers, about 2,000 antlers in each arch, each arch weighing between ten thousand and twelve thousand pounds. I had passed the Antler Motel. There were antlers on T-shirts, on bumper stickers, on cellphones, on storefronts. The next day, at the farmers’ market, vendors would be pedaling what they called “authentic” elk antler dog chews. Earlier this year, at the 47th annual Boy Scouts Elk Antler Auction, 13,698 pounds of antler had been sold, fetching, on average, $16.50 per pound, records both. Demand was up. The West wanted more of itself, a fact even more confounding considering that wapiti spikes adorned every nook of the town, more prolific than security cameras, than flowers, than cowboy hats. When, I wondered, would we idolize our own in this way, bidding on the bones of our brothers, wearing our daughters’ jaws, kissing the most virile tibias for luck?

Did we not love ourselves as much as we loved the elk?

Or did we not love the elk?

I parked and stepped out of the truck, carrying in each hand a small briefcase containing the disassembled pieces of a shotgun. In the window of the log-sided Sotheby’s, I saw a pretty little 72-acre place, with two “enhanced creeks.” My wife and I were in the market for a home and 7190 Bar B Bar Ranch Road seemed about right. Perfect, actually. It had “Snake River frontage, ponds, dead-on views of the Cathedral Group.” The $24,750,000 price tag seemed exceedingly reasonable, especially considering the twelve bathrooms and ten bedrooms. We could give parties.

 Around Jackson, in Teton County, affordable housing was lacking. Seasonal workers were sleeping in tents, in trucks, on couches. The median home price was 644% of the median family income, or more than twice what the federal government considered “affordable.” In 2011, the City Council had debated building fourteen new units in Jackson, but the proposal failed. Instead, the Council approved a three-story greenhouse.

“Jackson is not for everybody,” Scott Anderson, a candidate for the County Board of Commissioners, said this year at an election forum. “Not everyone can come here and buy a house. Not everyone should come here and buy a house… If [you] can’t make it in Jackson, [you] may have to go somewhere else.”

As I walked the wood-planked sidewalks, I was thinking about something an admittedly borderline friend of mine had told me about the wildlife overpasses I’d driven under outside Pinedale. He said they were too heavily reinforced. There was too much wiring. There were screw mounts of excessive size. Taken together, he concluded, the overpasses were intended for more than the migration of mule deer and pronghorn.

“Picture this,” he had said, “lights, loudspeakers, guns.”

I didn’t understand.

“For herding people,” he said. “When shit really hits the fan.”

That “really” was telling, suggestive of the fact that the spinning blade and the fecal matter were already interacting.

I spun around, looking for Amy, feeling the weight of the two shotguns I carried. I saw great flocks of birds falling from the sky and I ducked into the shade of a tremendous pair of antlers. A blond woman in a suit was walking my way, smiling.

“I believe you have something of mine,” she said.

 

It was a party. There was a curried dish and guacamole and a slow-cooked pork shoulder and there was a mule deer piñata and there were paper plates and heirloom silver and a tuba and sequins and spangles and a general hip and tooth and pink-cheek commotion appropriate for an occasionless celebration. The riflemaker, however, stood apart. He braced himself against the modern countertop in the vacant kitchen. He sipped a tumbler of Scotch. It was ten months prior to my Jackson gun delivery. It was November, and though the evening was cold enough to frost the inside of the window glass, the riflemaker wore shorts. His legs were skinny and fit. His pointed goatee, streaked with gray, served to bring his narrow features into line with those of a well-adapted predator and if there was any incongruity, it resided in his hands and arms, which were Bunyanesque.

I had never met the riflemaker before, and I introduced myself.

Nathan Heineke builds $15,000 custom rifles. He is 41 years old. He works alone. In the 10 years since he left the storied New Jersey gunsmithing shop of Griffin and Howe—where he had worked since completing college—he has, from start to finish, built more than 30 unique rifles. It is a meticulous process, interrupted by walk-ins, supply-chain delays, repairs, the whim of clientele, and some rifles take more than a year to complete. He takes a client’s measurements. He makes drawings. He scratches his head. He manufactures bolt handles, receiver frames, sights, sling studs, triggers, and screws. He shapes barrels. He shapes and checkers walnut stocks, cutting lines and patterns into the wood that not only are attractive but also help to improve grip. He welds, threads, torches, anneals, and tools. The rifles are beautiful, durable, and deadly. In every continent but Antarctica, they’ve taken trophies and meat. They’ve shot lion in Mozambique. They’ve shot leopard, elephant, and rhino, wildebeast, buffalo and eland. Sambur in Australia. Blue sheep, ibex, and burhul in Kazahkistan, Tajikistan and Turkistan. They’ve hunted Argentina, New Zealand and Scotland, Alaska and Wyoming.

Aside from his shorts, he was a character from another time, so fluent in the Teddy Roosevelt stories and the hunting tales from the early 1900s that he could have authored them. He did not like Hemingway on hunting. Hemingway framed a hunt too pugilistically. For Nate, the relationship between predator and prey was symbiotic. For Nate, this ideal was not a contradiction in terms, though he did see it as anathema to the increasing number of “fire and forget” hunters, those who took their rifle out once a year to get their animal.

“It’s not your elk,” Nate said. “You’re not entitled to an elk.”

Hunting—“the H-word,” he called it—was getting a bad rap. “The general public feels revulsion for this chest-pounding, no-love, no-respect, forget-fairchase mania, this macho, Billy Bob-Duck Dynasty, one-shot-at-500-yards crap that says it’s badass and cool to blast things. Anybody can blast things. For those guys, it’s not about the critter. It’s not about giving an animal a good stalk. It’s about power, drinks, and diesel smoke.” Nate wanted to go to Africa and live as the great taxidermist and collector Carl Akeley had in 1895. He wanted to track an elephant for a hundred miles. Without dreams, life would be reduced. Life was poetry; you had to embrace it. He was platitudinal and he used antiquated expressions like “Never tie your shoes in the watermelon patch,” and “A cat just gets flatter the more you run over it,” and “nuttier than squirrel shit.” He refilled our drinks without comment. It was a “microwave world,” he said. America was crazy for ammo and for assault rifles, preoccupied with “space age synthetics,” and “wowie zowie,” and “NASA approved,” none of which could compare to the elegance and functionality of classic design and as he said these things his Nikes with their orange laces lifted off the ground.

The riflemaker stood apart. He braced himself against the modern countertop in the vacant kitchen. He sipped a tumbler of Scotch.

He had subtly begun to levitate, and my mind, too, took flight. I saw the monstrous $20 million homes in Jackson and the old Cape farmhouses in Maine that I’d worked on when I first learned carpentry, 250-year-old places that smelled of moss and whose hemlock beams bellied and whose shadows and sparkling sunlit dust hid ghosts, if you were to look for them. I saw the wide pine floorboards, each originally planed by hand and all smoothed now around the harder knots and in areas well-walked. The floor was not a precious or delicate antique; it was solid, yet springy, and had character. You wanted to care for it. Meanwhile, there was a factory somewhere stamping out flooring made from a composite material that expanded and contracted uniformly. Every fifth board was a replica of itself. Without a fastener, you could snap a whole floor together and, I guessed, it looked decent enough. Plus, you could do a house lickety-split, a neighborhood in a jiff, a country in a wink, and you’d never get a splinter.

Growing up, I’d been a tactile boy, enjoying a splinter, reaching out to feel things rough and smooth, catching rain. In high school, I signed on to work summers for a local crew that, each morning, asked the Lord to guide our hands.

At the time, I silently belittled the ritual. Then I hammered the piss out of my knuckles.

In the kitchen, Nate was quoting Shakespeare and misattributing it to Yeats.

Someone cavorted by in arctic camouflage.

The flicker and twitch of a sneer showed on Nate’s face. He didn’t want to get into it—the veritable algae bloom of everyday camouflage, but, he added, “I fucking hate camo.” He hadn’t worn it himself since a snowball fight when he got badly pegged. “Holy cow,” he spoke in the epiphanic voice of his grade-school self. “The kids wearing camo—when they moved it was like a spotlight turned on.”

One boy throwing snowballs, however, was harder to see. He was wearing plain gray wool.

These days, when Nate hunts, he dons the same: wool army surplus pants, shortened to just below the knee. Knickers, he calls them. In addition, as an added precaution against visibility, Nate sets out all his gear before he hunts—boots, backpack, rifle, binoculars, mittens—and photographs it in black and white. Sore thumbs stand out in monochrome. They are discarded.

In general, Nate said, your best camouflage would be a 55-60% medium gray.

There was dancing in the other room, and bright colors.

“In Africa,” Nate said, “it is so quiet, you can hear the earth.”

The revelers were belting out some popular chorus. It was becoming difficult not to join them.

We joined them.

 

A few weeks after I met Nate, I stood like many a passerby before his Laramie storefront windows, looking in. One hundred years ago, the two-story, flat-roofed brick building at 601 Ivinson St. was the First State Bank of Laramie. Today, it houses N.L. Heineke, Inc., and though the original safes remain, rather than gold, they contain guns: Springfield, Mauser, Mannlicher, Winchester.

On the old bank tellers’ counter was a service bell, near three feet of Asiatic buffalo horn (for capping end grain on a rifle stock), a chronograph (the device to measure a bullet’s speed), an array of gun parts, a rifle, a book about hunting wild sheep, and an illustrated book about sea monsters.

We were in the showroom. A maroon chair rail divided the two shades of green on the walls. Fourteen feet above us, the ceilings were the original stamped tin. A radio played jazz. “Happy music,” Nate called it.

“A happy shop makes happy work,” he said.

It was a silly unmanly truism that upon reflection actually seemed to be the pinnacle of manly achievement. There were, of course Nate’s tool-wielding, gun-slinging, beer-keg forearms, but the supreme feat was his ability to affect zero concern with masculinity. For instance, men didn’t wear shorts; they wore pants, work pants.

And sea monsters?

“Sea monsters are great,” he said.

It all struck me as distinctly British gentleman.

I commented on the narrow maple floors and Nate showed me where the boards were scalloped from the nine-to-five shuffle and scuff of bank tellers. An imperial desk crouched in one corner, and a dollar bill was framed above it. There was a leather couch, a coffee table, and a stack of Jeep tires. In 1905, the oak display case against the south wall had exhibited nuts and bolts in a hardware store in Dallas. Now it displayed safari hats, carved giraffes, a length of train, books, and a target with two small holes. Five bullets had passed through those two holes. The first bullet, to clean out the barrel of a .375 Nate had reworked, is remembered by the target’s one errant perforation, an inch above and to the right of the bull’s eye. Nate’s next four shots, from 100 yards, all passed through the other hole—the one in the very center of the target. Subsequently, the rifle and its owner went to Tanzania.

Beyond the showroom, eight-quarter maple made for a stout workbench. There was an arrangement of hammers: ball-, straight-, and cross-peen. Dead-blow hammers. Checkering knives. Files. Nate scampered down a hall and returned with a bulky chunk of American black walnut. It was a future rifle stock, a “stock blank,” and like all of Nate’s blanks, when he received it, he promptly weighed it. Only when the weight of the wood had ceased to change, when its moisture content had stabilized, was it ready to be worked. Nate clamped the butt of the walnut in a vise, rested the fore-end over the bench horse and gently, if intently, addressed it with a scraper.

Nathan Heineke in his shop. Credit: Megan Ewald

For a few moments, as Nate hovered effortlessly, easily, unselfconsciously, in the air over the bench, he discoursed on the advantages of a scraper over sandpaper—scrapers removed less material, they bent to match specific radii, you could make one from an old bandsaw blade. Then he told me how he had designed and built a liquid-fueled rocket. It was in the seventh grade but it wasn’t exactly his first rodeo. He laid out a garden hose. A glowplug from a remote control airplane provided ignition. Soldered brass and copper formed the rocket’s body and the fuel was compressed oxygen and gasoline. The rocket got off the ground like Nate had seen in movies. Then it blew up.

By junior high school, Nate was tinkering with rifles. He mounted a scope. He loaded his own ammunition. He blued the metal on his .275. Out back of his house in Gillette, he shot and shot and shot. Then, at the public library where he worked, he came across the The Modern Gunsmith, the definitive manual by one of Griffin and Howe’s founding partners, James Virgil Howe.

“This book is written,” Howe wrote in 1934, in the hope, not that masters will arise from these teachings, but that latent skill will be aroused and self-reliance encouraged… for the fruit of [self reliance] is the sweetest satisfaction of all. The product of one’s own hand and brain becomes, as it were, a part of one’s self.

And Howe continues,

The modern youth has entered a state of decadence that his forefathers would have looked upon with outspoken condemnation. The object of one’s desires is handed to him without the slightest effort on his part … [resulting in] a regrettable decline in knowledge of the simplest tools. This may mean more to the human race than one would care to acknowledge, for the best definition of man is that he is ‘the tool-using animal.’

The direct appeal, the grand terms, the enlightenment: Nate was hooked.

Thin ringlets of walnut curled from the blank like hair.

As I watched Nate at his bench, I watched with an eye toward self-edification. I was mostly the sand-sand-sand-away kind, bumbling to fix mistakes with a coarse grit and an orbital. How was he holding the scraper exactly? What was he doing now? What would this piece of wood become?

“Oh, I’m just playing,” he said.

When we wandered back into the showroom, the heads of eight antlered animals from three different continents observed us.

“Not all antlers,” Nate said. “Horns, too, and tusks.” There was a difference.

I gazed up and around at them, and though they all affected some of the majesty of wilderness, none looked particularly comfortable, stuck, as they appeared to be, in the midst of some miraculous passage through the wall.

Nate called them beautiful.

Displaying them, he said, was the ultimate gesture of respect.

In that context, I took note of the one human likeness on display. Major Townsend Whelen—hunter, marksman, soldier, gunsmith—stood nearby, brass and two feet tall, a statue. “There was nobody like Whelen,” Nate said. The major shot his first deer in 1892, and over the next 66 years he killed at least 110 big game animals. He wrote regular columns for gun and outdoor magazines and at least half a dozen books. One, The American Rifle: A Treatise, a Text Book, and a Book of Practical Instruction in the Use of the Rifle, aimed to “make us again what we were a century ago before commercialism and life in cities robbed our young men of most of their primitive virtues—a Nation of Riflemen… Ever since the days when our frontiersmen won their way, and settled our country with rifle and axe, the former has been the symbol of real manhood, and so it must always be.”

“In your mind,” Nate said, “You have an idea of what a rifle is, and you see only that idea.” The rifle on the tellers’ counter was a replica of Major Whelen’s famous Wundhammer, one in a series of four that Nate would eventually make.

He presented it to me and noted the empty chamber. “It’s unloaded,” he said.

A replica of Major Whelen’s Wundhammer. Credit: Megan Ewald

The first thing I felt was weight. Then cold. Then I saw the walnut stock miniaturize and reflect our shadows. Something about the polished smoothness of the metal implied softness, like it was covered in fuzz, like it was humming, or shimmering, or out of an old black and white movie. My hands shook. I feared I’d somehow fire a nonexistent round through the window where a small curious child looked on from the sidewalk. Still, I’d been in Wyoming for five years and I’d seen the herds of elk in the mountains and I’d seen the upturned, stiff-legged beasts in the beds of pickups. It wasn’t my precise fantasy, but it was close. What I wanted was to be one of Whelen’s riflemen, to wrap myself in the skin of a buffalo and eat grizzly stew. Hunting was a craft, like carpentry, like rifle making. It was a connection to my food and the natural world and my American heritage, a harkening to the imagined time of gold pans and rawhide and torch-lit treks over mountain passes.

Great, said Nate.

But I did not own a gun.

Great, said Nate.

I was not to touch a gun until I had done my “homework,” which Nate promptly handed to me, a stack of classic shooting texts, all written before 1950.

When I told my other gun-toting buds that I was learning to shoot by reading, they said that I should instead purchase a case of beer. Then we’d drive out into the country and explode some empty glass. They had plenty of guns, and ammo. One friend had plotted this with a .30-06 over his shoulder and his girlfriend beside him. I did not know why he had the rifle. They were at my place to borrow a blender. It was, apparently, vegan brownie night, and they lacked a means to combine the crucial ingredients: avocado, black beans, and some kind of seed or nut.

As I went to fetch the appliance, my friend took his .30-06 off his shoulder and let the muzzle wander over my furniture, my cat, me. It was an unnerving experience and unsurprisingly, the blender caught fire in their care.

 

A month before my trip to Jackson, on a cool night in August, Nate and I sat on a bar’s patio with our feet up on a fire ring, watching the blue and orange flames grow from the rocks, waving like lilies, fertilized by gas. The local stout in my glass had the alcohol content of wine.

Nate was drinking Glenfidditch. He had just returned from a buffalo hunt in Uganda.

“How big is a water buffalo?” I asked

“Cape buffalo,” he corrected me.

“How big is a cape buffalo?” I asked.

Nate had shot two on this trip and the second weighed about a ton. It was an older buffalo, which was important because that meant it was no longer in its reproductive prime. Still, it fed Nate’s hunting party, some lions in The Park struggling unspecifically, and a village. The head and hide would be arriving in Laramie within the year. The rifle, a .400 that Nate made 11 years ago, is named Pearl. He only hunts with the guns he has built. His other rifle, a .338/06, is Grace.

“It was just me and the buffalo and the tall grass,” Nate said. He was 30 yards from the animal. “It was beautiful, a hunter’s dream.”

Of course, it had been hard work finding a buffalo and tracking it and he didn’t want me to think he’d done it alone. Referring to the professional hunter and the tracker who had helped bring him to this precipice, he said, “Felipe and Phillip, they deserve that credit.”

Felipe and Phillip?

“Yup,” he said.

 When they were within 100 yards of the animal, Nate was sent forward. He said that in Africa these days it was a rare thing and an honor to pull the trigger without the professional hunter whispering in your ear.

Nate fired four rounds in 10 seconds. In 10 seconds, a buffalo catches your scent, and eliminates you. Buffalo kill more hunters than any other animal in Africa. They can charge at nearly 60 kilometers an hour. Their hearts are the size of soccer balls. That’s what you aim for. Nate showed me the first bullet Pearl had hurled from her muzzle at 2,150 feet per second, a soft point, heavy still, but split and mushroomed. When it hit the animal, rotating near 200,000 times per minute, the impact deformed the lead, which expanded and created a disastrous channel through the animal’s lungs and the top of its heart. It was a mortal wound, but not instantly so.

Nate’s second shot raked the right flank of the circling buffalo. “I am in the zone,” he said, “on autopilot, aware of everything.” The third shot, as the animal turned broadside, went through the liver. The fourth passed through the near shoulder and the heart before it shattered the animal’s off shoulder. “I love to hunt,” Nate said. “I am a hunter. Hunting is my life.”

In the moment, it seemed a banal, if bumptious thing to say, a thing said under the influence. Later though, it occurred to me that it was neither. It was noteworthy not just because it was honest and not just because I could not imagine making an equivalent statement, of any kind, but also because I had thought that making rifles was Nate’s life.

I had thought he was the riflemaker.

“Nothing exists in a vacuum,” Nate often said. Hunting was as much a day in the mountains as it was a way of life. It required knowledge, skill, commitment, passion. It embodied a moral code, even if that code was known only to you. There was also, of course, the adrenaline resulting from killing an animal, but “that alone is a shallow reason to hunt.” Hunting was occupying and understanding your place in a larger order. It was a complete immersion in and merging with the world.

Nate could talk about hunting unremittingly for hours, for days, months perhaps. At another fire ring, two women shared an e-cigarette. The tip glowed a starry blue. Vanilla was in the air. Their desperate puckering over the device brought to mind a life-saving straw for the submerged. I ordered another dark, syrupy beer.

Nate was wearing a black fleece North Face hat and a hoodie. A rising cascade of flames showed in his small rectangular glasses. Recently, a man calling himself an “outfitter” had approached Nate about replacing the stock on a rifle. The outfitter owned a ranch in Wyoming and guests paid to hunt there. His rifle was factory-made, had a stainless steel fluted barrel, an “enormous” muzzle brake, and a “moon” scope. I did not know the significance of any of this, but Nate told me. The stainless steel required little maintenance; the fluting reduced the gun’s weight; the brake minimized the recoil; the scope meant he couldn’t miss.

It was a “grotesque monstrosity.”

There was no way Nate would sacrifice any of his stock blanks to that cause and if, he said, if he had done the work, he would never have put his name on it. In addition, he also had reservations about the man’s approach to hunting.

The man, from beside his pickup, regularly killed elk 450 yards distant.

“This guy didn’t need me,” Nate said. “He needed an Accuracy International AWM with the laser range finder”: basically, a military sniper rifle.

“I’ve made some pears,” Nate said, but he wouldn’t make this one.

When the young waitress delivered the next round, Nate had risen with the warm air just above the fire. He took his Scotch and thanked her. She was wearing shorts. He gazed long after her long legs, bare and glowing in the firelight.

He said he loved the animals he hunted and after a short pause, he told me a story intended, it seemed, to embody both the spirituality of the hunt and that nebulous hunter’s code. It was his junior year of high school. “The sun was going down,” Nate began, “catching the bottoms of the clouds and I was belly crawling through the sage after a herd of mule deer. I had it all planned out. I’d crawl up on this little shelf and get a hole through the sage and take my shot. Well, I lose my visual behind this enormous anthill. I can’t see anything. I don’t know how to move so as not to show myself to the deer. I lie there and then I see this deer head right next to my face, chewing. The whole herd is feeding around me. I can reach out and grab a leg, but I don’t dare.”

 

On the flat-screen TV at the front of the room, a flaming vehicle appeared to have been napalmed. I think it was a Prius. We were upstairs at the Jackson Fire Department. The Berrettas had been out of my hands for 24 hours. Our Hunter Education instructor was a young police officer named Mark. Beneath a T-shirt, his torso resembled a wheel of solid cheese—the hard kind of cheese, the kind that would pancake you if it happened to get loose. He stood before the flaming car on the TV, surveying us, eating a doughnut.

“I love doughnuts,” he said, his mouth full, his eyes bulging, happy as caricature.

Then he asked us who we were and what we wanted to kill.

There were 20 of us, mostly 30-year-old white dudes. An eight-year-old boy sat to my right, and also among us were four women.

“I’m a Wyoming girl,” one woman said. She wanted to kill everything.

“Good,” said Mark.

Elk, most of the men said definitively. Most had moved to Jackson from elsewhere, the east coast, the south, Texas. Most had never hunted. In their minds, they would take this mandatory course, buy the license, a gun, some ammunition, and then shoot an ungulate that weighed three times as much as they did.

It was a cursory approach to hunting and shooting distinctly at odds with Nate’s. A few weeks earlier, Nate had said that before I ever went to the rifle range, and in conjunction with my reading, I was to become fluid in the mechanics of the rifle, sighting down the barrel, squeezing the trigger, cycling the bolt. I was to do this with plastic snapcaps, both to preserve the firing pin in the gun and to avoid producing a “flinch,” the jerk and squeeze that comes from anticipating the rifle shot’s noise and recoil. It would take five or ten minutes a day. I would first learn to shoot prone, lying on the living room floor, then sitting, then kneeling, then standing.

“I’m a Wyoming girl,” one woman said. She wanted to kill everything.

“After about 10,000 dry-fires,” Nate said, “anyone can be ready for Africa.”

When I brought a borrowed .22 Marlin rifle to Nate’s shop for a few pointers, he handled it quickly and lightly, like a flyswatter. In an instant, he had pulled himself erect, planted his feet, aimed and squeezed the trigger.

It was an amazing thing to watch and he did it several more times.

“Your body is leaning away from the gun,” he said, correcting my posture, aligning my feet. “You’re falling away from it, which forces you to hunch forward. Don’t go to the gun,” he repeated. “Bring the gun to you. Bring it to your eye.”

In the fire department, Mark had picked up a “safe” orange handled shotgun. “AHHH!” He yelled, shucking the pump. “Let’s go get us some zombies!”

Some of us laughed at his joke, but mostly the folded arms and outstretched legs and heavy lids suggested a failure of ironic understanding, a failure to align ourselves with the target of Mark’s imagined rampage. Whatever. We were well versed in the protocol of certification acquisition and we knew that our energy was best served by conserving it.

We were never to handle a gun the way Mark just had.

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, Mark wrote on the board. “Guns kill people,” he was saying. “They kill kids, parents, loved ones. People die. Oops, sorry, is not going to cut it. If you shoot me, and paralyze me, I’m going to sue you. I’m going to own your house. I’m going to own your car and your boat and I’m going to take half of every paycheck you ever get, for the rest of your life.”

“Imagine,” Mark said, “That your gun has a two mile long light saber coming out of it.”

The eight-year-old beside me made Jedi knight sounds.

“Oops,” Mark said, “I just cut you in half.”

And then we were learning about how there were so many elk in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that they had to be fed in the wintertime. They had to be kept alive so that hunters could shoot them. This was the North American model of conservation.

“Yes, but,” I whispered to the eight-year-old, “who manages us?”

“My dad,” he said.

It was rush and cram and gruel, and even as Mark expressed dismay at this reality, he persisted. Flint lock. Rim fire. Vitals. Lunch. After 16 hours, the course culminated with a brief exercise in laser work. We lined up 15 feet from a poster that displayed deer in various positions. Then, one at a time, with a light plastic rifle, we aimed for the imaginary vitals on the poster deer. If the laser’s red dot missed, we held down the trigger and wiggled the gun so that the laser sliced up the vitals and, inadvertently I guess, sliced up the surrounding deer. There was blood and hair and broken antler everywhere. Everybody could see it. I saw it.

 

A couple months after the hunter education course, in early November, almost a year after I’d first met Nate, we were in his 1984 Jeep Scrambler, heading north out of Laramie, the wind forcing the windows despite the cardboard coffee insulators wedged in the glass. It was three o’clock in the afternoon and just above freezing. Nate had his shorts on. Grace was in her case behind us. We had planned to go hunting today, but we were not going hunting. There was no time. We were going to engage in what Nate called reconnaissance in force, scouting for antelope and, I guessed, it was because of our endeavor’s lack of consequence that we had allowed ourselves café mochas from Starbucks.

Recently, the riflemaker had been spreading himself thin. Late into each night, his shoptime was being “chewed up by little bullshit.” Shotgun owners, by in large, he said, were “a different breed.” They absolutely needed to shoot the following weekend. Then, on top of that, they wanted to know if the work Nate did, an hour at a time, at $75 an hour, would be reflected in the gun’s resale value.

“If you want to make an investment,” he said, “go to Wall Street. My shop is where you go to get your shit fixed.”

Gone was the appearance of refreshment and enthusiasm he’d worn just a few months ago, after his return from Africa. Recently, in addition to olives in his martini, he’d asked a waitress to “put a smile in it.”

An ice cube bobbed in the drink when it arrived.

At first, Nate had seemed distraught, but then he brightened.

“This means I can have two,” he said, the optimism flat and forced.

“What it boils down to,” he said in the Jeep, “is that many of the visible problems are merely symptoms of a larger problem and when I discover those, then what?”

Outside, the dry grass on the flat prairie didn’t so much bend in the wind as quiver. It was paler than tan, and shining. We passed a stand of stunted, leafless aspen. A trailer home. A bunch of Black Angus, tails to the wind. Over a cattle guard in the dirt road, an iron arch ornamented with iron antlers announced: Greaser Ranch.

We turned onto two-track and bucked up a hill. Nate shifted into four-wheel drive, but didn’t lock in the hubs, increasing the engine’s torque, without engaging the front wheels. There were horses out to pasture and we saw antelope playing, little ones and bucks and does. We kept right on, but the antelope paused. They bunched and then they spread, running across and up the hillside away from us. We counted 27. I thought of birds moving in the air.

At the top of the hill, we got out and walked around in the wind for a while. Grace stayed in the Jeep. Then it was time to go.

The setting sun was to our right. Stray gravel rapped the undercarriage. At one point, Nate apologized again for not taking me hunting. He looked sad.

“Where’d you get this elephant?” I asked.

A small colored animal dangled from the rearview.

“Rhino,” he corrected me.

We laughed. I had mistaken two pieces of cloth on the rhino’s back for ears.

“Those are wings,” he said. “She’s Maggie The Flying Rhino.”

Nate pointed to the four-wire barbwire gridding the land into sections. There were electrical lines beside and above us.

“You don’t see any of that in Africa,” he said.

 

For some time, Nate and I had been discussing a trip to Africa. I wanted to see Nate build a client’s ideal rifle and then I wanted to see the rifle fulfill its purpose, in Africa. Nate would be there, and his client, and me. I intended to write a book about it.

One night, over fistfuls of scotch, Nate brought up the dangers of hunting “the edge.”

The edge was any place that for reasons of kidnapping, militia activity, and war was on the U.S. State Department’s “Do Not Travel List.” Hypothetically, if Nate were to hunt Barbary Sheep on the Ennedi Plateau of northeastern Chad—on the edge, that is—he would negotiate for weapons upon arrival.

“Seriously,” he said. “When I get there, I’m going to be buying some guns.”

I had thought that he only hunted with the rifles he built and I asked him to clarify.

He laughed. No, he said, he wouldn’t be in the market for hunting rifles. He said it with bravado and he let it hang there, without specifying.

“So, you mean, people-shooting guns?” I asked.

“Yup,” he said. He said that in Africa, “you live by your gut.” He said he was “comfortable with danger.” He quoted Roald Amundson, the leader of the first expedition to the South Pole. “Adventure,” he said, “is lack of planning.”

I expressed doubt. I thought he was going for the adventure.

“No, no, no…” Nate trailed off. Our voices were thick and stupid and full of ourselves. I knew Nate didn’t want to shoot people, but it was clear that the risks of the edge thrilled him. In that context it occurred to me that the American West was no longer The West. For the most part, the dust had been paved, the six-shooters holstered, and the gold turned into bullion. Cowboys drove tractor-trailers laden with cows to be “finished” in Nebraska. The native people and their cultures? It was too horrible to even contemplate. For an American to go West today, meant something other than shopping for turquoise in Jackson and putting a J-hole bumper sticker on the Escalade. Those seeking the old thrills of conquest and the illusion of wilderness had to go further, to Alaska, or Africa.

Inside me, I felt my heart and its nefarious nature patiently squeezing.

“I mean, I’m not into it,” I said, “but I guess I’m kind of into it.”

They were words spoken under the influence, and it wasn’t until the next day that I regretted them. November’s light is a melancholy light. I was sitting outside using a square of sandpaper like a nail file on my fingers. The grit was 220, a fine, finish paper. I watched my neighbor across the lawn, raking leaves into a pile while her two boys kicked the pile into the air. The .22 Marlin rifle I’d borrowed had turned out to be much too small for me, and I had returned it to its owner.

“The problem of ‘fit,’” Howe writes in The Modern Gunsmith, “is of paramount importance, especially when we realize that most of the process of aiming must be done subconsciously…. Select some object… close your eyes, and bring the gun quickly and naturally to your shoulder, aiming blindly at the mark on which your eyes were fixed. Then open them and see where your gun points.”

It wasn’t that I’d given up on the fantasy; it was just that reality had intruded. I was in over my head making a set of tables for a bar downtown. The first half of the week had been spent sanding out blemishes in the tabletops and then the second half of the week had been spent sanding out the pigtails left by my initial, impatient sanding. In my mind, I saw that the only way to be rid of imperfections was to sand the whole project down to dust.

I though of Nate, who had told me that, “There is seldom a time when I cannot execute what I have in mind.” The only rifle he couldn’t build was the one that was ugly or unsafe. If his hands couldn’t create his mind’s ideal, the problem wasn’t manual. It was the result of a “conceptually immature idea.”

In the nearby sky, a few free crows spoke.

I was facing west. Jackson was a long way from here. I had friends who loved it and friends who hated it. Those who hated it—like Nate encountering the algae bloom of everyday camouflage—saw Jackson everywhere, while those who loved it saw Jackson as a sanctuary from everywhere. I saw the weather vane on the neighbor’s roof, a running rooster pegged firmly to the ridge of asphalt shingles and I imagined that the bird could see all the way to the mountains from that vantage. Cockadoodledoo, I said as I stood up to return to work. The legs of the bird spun furiously. Cockadoodledamndoo, I said. No one was watching. The coast was clear. I brought an imaginary rifle to my eye and I sighted down the barrel and then I squeezed the trigger. Pow! I whispered. Pow! Whereas the invisible influence propelling the rooster was the wind, the intoxicant churning my system, imbibed both willingly and inadvertently, was America.