America’s Gun Myth

Ad for Daisy air rifle, c. 1968.

Columbine. Red Lake. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Santa Fe. The names of the schools where shootings have occurred ring out in a frightening, familiar litany. Some remain in the public consciousness for years. Other fade from memory as soon as the news cameras and microphones are put away.

Twenty years ago, my own district became the site of one such shooting. Edinboro, PA. Late April, 1998. I was a high school senior set to graduate in a few weeks’ time, and had spent the day with classmates on a field trip to Toronto. We visited the CN Tower and felt the thrill of vertigo standing on its glass floor, and cracked jokes about receiving Canadian currency in change after lunching at a nearby McDonalds. I toured the Ontario Science Centre with a group of friends and marveled at the tiny poison frogs, preternaturally bright, in the rainforest exhibition. We chattered on the four-hour bus ride back, arriving back in Edinboro shortly before midnight. And we returned to our homes and went to sleep, not knowing that our quiet college town had just become a bellwether for a horrifying trend of shootings that would only grow more nightmarish in the coming years.

I learned the news early the following morning. Four people had been shot, one fatally. The casualties included my middle school science teacher Mr. Gillette, a tall, blue-eyed former football coach. He was only in his 40s, but his balding head made him appear older, at least to my teenage eyes. He and I had a good relationship, once talking about geodes and minerals after class following my family’s trip to Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona. And now Mr. Gillette was dead.

I remember walking out to the backyard in shock.  It was a beautiful spring day, bright and warm, with white clouds drifting in the sky. I sat in a hammock and looked at robins hopping on the tree branches, wondering how the world went on, how nature could be so oblivious to the fact that my entire town had been rocked off of its axis.

As the weekend passed there were vigils and songs and candles and prayers. Come Monday, we returned to school. I walked a media gauntlet every step along the sidewalk from the parking lot to the school entrance, a gauntlet now lined with news vans and cameras and reporters from the local newspapers all the way up to national networks. I didn’t want to look at them. I didn’t feel like “news.” I felt only sad, confused, invaded. And pissed off.

We weren’t headlines. We were kids.

At home, I saw my town and the story of what became known as the “Parker Middle School shooting” surreally played out on CNN and other outlets. It quickly grew into a repeated narrative: a 14-year-old loner named Andy Wurst had taken his father’s gun, entered the venue where the off-campus dance was being held, and shot Mr. Gillette on the patio. He then opened fire on his 8th grade classmates before running out of the building into a nearby cornfield. The venue’s owner, armed with a shotgun, gave chase and Andy was taken into police custody. He remains in prison today.

Lake Edinboro. Edinboro, PA.

Eventually the reporters and their ever-present cameras went away, and I was relieved. While the media was present, they had a wildly distorting effect on everyday life. The story they told about the place I lived wasn’t one I could recognize.  I’d grown up a free range kid, riding bikes with friends across town and spending hours playing imaginary games in a nearby woods. My parents hardly ever locked their doors. Violent crimes were practically unknown. And yet, overnight, home had seemingly become a place where previously unconceivable violence could – and had – occurred.

Too many other American towns have shared in this experience. Too many other students have lost classmates, friends, teachers. Too many other children haven’t lived to see their high school graduation.

I am angry. I am angrier now than I was 20 years ago. Because we have seen this. Again and again and again. And again. We grope for ways to explain it, for ways we can assure ourselves that every time will be the last time. All too often, the answer is another gun. We create the myth of escaping death by becoming capable of inflicting it. This myth has long, insidious roots.

Because didn’t guns win the West? Didn’t the American Revolution start with “the shot heard ‘round the world”? Isn’t the “right to bear arms” as unalienable as life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness?

The fact is – for anyone who still cares for facts – guns remained exceptionally rare for America’s first decades. Gunsmiths were few and far between, as only a small number of settlers could afford firearms. Guns were expensive and time-consuming to make. Many components, including gunpowder, had to be imported from England, as colonists lacked the means to produce these materials themselves. During the War for Independence, American forces relied heavily on shipments of French muskets. After the war, American-produced guns remained modest in number; the Hawkens brothers, a well-known pair of St. Louis gunsmiths, employed a dozen men and even then they were only able to make about a hundred rifles a year.  The U.S. government itself shied away from encouraging new gun manufacture well into the mid-1800s. For years after the Civil War, Springfield was stuck using leftover parts from Civil War-era weapons in the rifles that it produced for the U.S. Army. And Army brass frowned upon weapons capable of rapid fire. Bullets cost money, and officers worried that trigger-happy soldiers would waste too much ammunition.

But as American gun production became easier, cheaper, and faster, companies skillfully manufactured a need for guns along with the guns themselves. Advertisements presented firearms in all manner of alluring guises, from the hallmark of gentleman shooter, to a reliable form of home defense, and even as a stylish accessory for fashionable women. During the 1880s and 1890s, manufacturers targeted female buyers with illustrations of attractive, corseted ladies engaged in hunting or sport shooting with “suitable” (i.e. small caliber) rifles. These chic women frequently appeared surrounded by admiring men as well as other quarry. Simultaneously, Colt marketed revolvers toward nascent police forces in America’s larger cities. (In those days, many police officers furnished their own weapons.) The grips of Colt’s 1888 “New Police Single Action Five-Shot Revolving Pistols” are decorated with an image of a uniformed policeman. The officer is drawing a gun against an assailant. His assailant is brandishing a knife.

But what sells guns better than fear? Guns have promised protection against everything from burglars to vagrants to attacking grizzlies. Now some of us look to guns to protect us against school shootings. I believe such hopes will be disappointed. Rather, they indicate the dangers of when inherited beliefs go unquestioned.

Guns did not build America. And I’m convinced that more guns will not save it. Only courage and change will do that. Courage to question and challenge the status quo, as the students from Parkland have been doing. And change that is abysmally overdue – change in our worldview, change in our policies, change in the way we look at guns. Some myths we need to let die.

References:

Douglas C. McChristian. The U.S. Army in the West, 1870-1880: Uniforms, Weapons, and Equipment. University of Oklahoma Press. Norman, OK, 1995. p. 107

Laura Browder. Her Best Shot: Women and Guns in America. University of North Caroline Press. Chapel Hill, NC, 2006. pp. 3 -7.

Colt’s Military and Sporting Arms, 1888. Colt’s Patent Fire Arms Manufacturing Company. Autry National Center, Museum for the American West. Object ID 87.118.167.

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Why I Love Playing Tourist

Picture of the Puget Sound
View of the Puget Sound from the top of the Seattle Space Needle.

Last month I had the privilege of visiting Seattle – and incredibly, of seeing the city under consistently sunny skies.

Since moving to the Washington, DC area twelve years ago, I’ve become accustomed to seeing tourists. Rarely do I have the novelty of being a tourist myself! Seattle reminded me of what it is like to see a place for the first time, for every experience in that place to be your first, and for the wonderful mix of curiosity and bewilderment and surprise that being a “tourist” can offer.

My favorite moment in Seattle was taking the ferry to Bainbridge Island, just over the Puget Sound. While there I rented a bike from Classic Cycle and had an exhilarating afternoon pedaling around the island.

You can read more about Seattle – and its amazing food – on my guest post “Seattle: Travel and the Beginner’s Mind” at World Travelers Today.

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Thunder Road

There’s a great saying from the film Back to the Future, in which Dr. Emmett Brown says to a baffled Marty McFly, “Roads? Where we’re going, we don’t need roads!”
I traveled a lot of roads in the summer of 2010: more than 6,000 miles worth. Without Dr. Brown’s time travel capabilities, I did need the roads to take me where I wanted to go. 
But I’m convinced I did catch a few moments where the lines between the past and the present blurred: standing on the summit of the Cahokia Mounds in the heat of the late afternoon sunshine; reading letters exchanged over a century ago between two Texas lovers; walking through the long grass that covers the hills of the Little Bighorn battlefield; catching Al Swearengen’s name in documents held at the South Dakota state archives.
In the years since, I’ve covered ground in other ways – gotten married, changed “day jobs,” moved homes, and continued to write.
I never expected this blog to last more than a few weeks, let alone four years. If this is your first visit here, I encourage you to visit the entries from 2010, starting with the oldest ones first, to get a taste of the original trip. If you like those, the 2011 posts chronicle my experiences on a cattle drive in Nevada. But now, in my final post, I’ve decided its time to close shop here, and move into other projects.
I’ve had ideas germinating that haven’t had the chance to develop further, and I need to take some time to see where those paths take me.
Thanks for dropping in! It’s been a good ride.

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Vote Early, Vote Often


 On Tuesday night, I spent a good 45 minutes waiting in line to vote. Since cell phones are prohibited in polling places, it was a good time to get some thinking done and mull over the electoral process.
It struck me that while more and more of our daily lives can be conducted online (shopping for gifts, paying bills, buying groceries, renting movies…even renewing library books), voting is one of the few activities in American culture that still must be done in person. That was why, on that dark and chilly evening, I put on a pair of sneakers, bundled up in my winter coat and hat, and walked 10 minutes up the street to a local elementary school to cast my vote.
Walking to the polling place felt a bit old-fashioned, yet somehow fitting. Voting is a communal activity, and I didn’t want to hide behind my car or my cell phone. When I arrived, I saw more of my neighbors than I had ever had before. Old, young, black, white, Asian. Men and women, union members and office workers, young twentysomethings in sweats and families bringing their kids. It was a melting pot in microcosm, it was Ellis Island on the local level.
Of course, voting hasn’t always been like this, and as a woman, I am very aware that it took decades of dedicated and pioneering effort to extend suffrage to both genders.
In fact, many of the first states to allow women to vote were Western states, where women were “pioneers” on many levels! The territory of Wyoming gave women voting rights in 1869 (I read somewhere that this was done to create better public order and curb the effects of too many rough and tumble men participating in the political process). In fact, when Wyoming became a state in 1890, it insisted on retaining suffrage for women.
Utah’s move to support women’s suffrage in 1870 is said to have been part of a PR campaign to counter perceptions of Mormonism as anti-female. Women’s voting rights there were later repealed under the Edmunds–Tucker Act, but by the time Utah became a state in 1896, women had won back their right to vote.
Montana was also an early adopter of female suffrage, giving women the right to vote in 1914.  Montana then became the first state to elect a woman to Congress. Jeanette Rankin won a seat in the House of Representatives in 1917, at the age of 36. That’s a pretty amazing accomplishment, considering that the United States did not amend its Constitution to give women the right to vote until 1920. It really makes you wonder what her first day on the job was like when she got to Washington.

Note: New Jersey is actually the first state where women had full voting rights. After the Revolutionary War, eligibility to vote was determined by property ownership, not gender. In 1790, state law was amended to specifically state that women had the right to suffrage. In 1807, these privileges were revoked by the New Jersey state legislature.

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Where I’ve Been: A Writing Roundup

Photo by Penny Shaut. http://pennyshaut.com/

 Howdy folks! Quite a lot has happened since last summer’s cattle drive. I’ve moved, gotten married, adopted a cat (and a dog), and yes, I’ve been writing. Here is a quick rundown of links to recent articles and blog posts.

Roadtripping With the King James Bible

During my famous road trip of 2010, which was the instigation for this blog, I carried along a Victorian-era copy of the King James Bible. I wanted a book that had actually existed during the heyday of the American West, and after a lot of searching, I finally found one. I wrote about my “heirloom” for Manifold Greatness, a blog that correlates to an NEH-sponsored exhibition on the history and cultural impact of the King James Bible.

Buck Taylor, the Original Cowboy Hero 

The figure of Buck Taylor, one of the stars of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, continues to intrigue me long after I returned from the West. I did a quick post on Buck for my friend Ken Ackerman’s blog, Viral History.

The Reno Rodeo Cattle Drive

This piece originally appeared in the print edition of American Cowboy magazine. I spent five days driving cattle through the Nevada desert, listening to coyotes howl at night and keeping an eye out for rattlesnakes during the day. It was fantastic!

Food from the Age of Shakespeare

I like cooking and eating just as much as I enjoy history and pop culture. When I got a chance to blend the two in an article for Smithsonian, I couldn’t wait! This article chronicles my experiences preparing 17th-century recipes, which have no measurements, cooking times, or temperatures. Amazingly, they were edible.

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Dust and Saddle Leather

I returned yesterday from my stint as a modern-day cowpuncher. With 65 other aspirational cowboys, I spent 5 days moving a herd of steers through the High Sierra outside of Reno, NV.

Even with creature comforts like coldwater showers and hot meals, cowboying is tough. And despite the impression that cowboys are individualistic do-it-yourselfers, getting cows from Point A to Point B is a lesson in teamwork. On a cattle drive, each person has an assigned position and in order to keep the herd from devolving into chaos, everyone has to be in the right place at the right time. And since cows and horses tend to move–and cows are constantly on the lookout for opportunities to bolt out of the herd–constant adjustments are necessary. Brad, our trail boss, called this the “dynamic principle.” If there’s a gap in front of you, move up. If there’s a gap behind you, fall back. If the cows are moving too slowly, coordinate with the other riders to get behind them and use a combination of yells and your horse’s momentum to push ’em up. And if a cow gets loose, ride it down, get your horse between it and the open range, and drive it back into the herd.

On this drive, Part 1 of success relied on paying attention and using teamwork. Part 2 came from the horses. A horse can make or break its rider’s efficiency. We used trail horses, not trained cow ponies. And yes, there is a difference.

Trail horses tend to do what they are used to, i.e. walk behind each other as if on a leisurely pleasure ride. Cow ponies, on the other hand, are the offensive tacklers of cattle drives.

They’re fast. They know how to block. They’ll even use their teeth to nip at ornery steers and hustle them along.

I rode three horses over the course of the drive. Chino, whose habit of kicking whatever horse happened to be behind us meant I spent most of my time correcting his behavior, much like the mother of a screaming toddler. There was Gunsmoke, tall and comfortable to ride but so slow that if a cow got past us, it would likely be in the next county before he could be urged into more than a trot. And Cookie. Dark and fast, Cookie was no professional cow pony, but he wasn’t afraid to run and the best moments of the drive occurred while we were moving a breakaway steer back into the herd and then galloping to catch up. He made me look good, and for that I am grateful.

This is the hierarchy of cattle drives. The cows first, your horse second, and yourself last. Horses got water even when we didn’t. And our pace was set not by any schedule of human devising, but by the speed of the slowest-walking cow.

As far as the rest of it–falling asleep in my tent, hearing coyotes howling, waking up before the sun when the moon was bright enough to cast shadows–that was just like the movies. I’m not a cowboy. But I played one, once.

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P.S.: The Playlist

Driving out West this summer I had many hours in the car to listen to music. I found myself thinking about which songs I’d pair up with the people and places on my journey. This is the playlist I came up with. Some choices are pretty obvious; others have an explanatory note.

1. Where’s a Sunset (When You Need One) – Lane Turner
For Jack Bailey
Reading Jack’s c. 1868 trail log at the Library of Congress was one of the catalysts for getting me started on this trek. At the end of the diary there is a poem Jack wrote to his wife, and this song seems fitting. Plus, both Jack and Lane are from Texas, and Texans stick together.

2. Cowboys – Counting Crows
For Dodge City, KS
“Cowboys on the road tonight, crying in their sleep. If I was a hungry man with a gun in my hand there’s some promises to keep…”

3. Truly, Madly, Deeply – Savage Garden
For Clitus Jones and Lily Sutton
Letters exchanged between these two are preserved at Baylor University’s Texas Collection. Sweet, lovely, and romantic.

4. Only Living Boy in New York – Simon and Garfunkel
For Teddy Roosevelt
After his wife Alice died, I can imagine TR walking around Manhattan feeling like this.

5. Lose Yourself – Eminem
For Buck Taylor
The star cowboy of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show might have been able to appreciate Eminem’s sentiments.

6. One – Metallica
For Custer’s 7th Calvary
One YouTube viewer wrote, “If this song was already written in 1944 and iPods were invented, this is what I would listen to while invading Normandy.”

7. Amazing – Kanye West
For George Armstrong Custer

8. Professional Widow – Tori Amos
For Elizabeth Custer
There’s a story that Elizabeth once met Abraham Lincoln and in the course of their conversation, told the president that she supported her husband’s aggressive military campaigns. The president replied, “So you want to be a widow?”

9. Happiness is a Warm Gun – The Beatles
For Wild Bill Hickok

10. Please Don’t Leave Me – Pink
For Calamity Jane
This song about bad behaviors and sour relationships struck a few chords with me as I thought about one of the West’s most notorious women.

11. Time to Pretend – MGMT
For Buffalo Bill
Did anyone package and sell the Western experience more effectively than Buffalo Bill? I think not! There’s even a line about Paris, where the show stopped multiple times.

12. Pokerface – Lady Gaga
For Deadwood, SD

13. Highwayman – The Highwaymen (Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson)
For the drive home.

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The Odyssey

Sunset near Bozeman, MT.

Although I never left America, I feel a hint of culture shock coming back to the East. Yesterday I reached the fields and rolling hills of Pennsylvania, and am spending the day in my hometown before heading back to Washington, DC tomorrow. It feels fitting to be back here in the original frontier west of the Appalachians. Time for some reckoning up.

I didn’t expect to see a pair of cowboy boots made for a child in the 1860s, or George Armstrong Custer’s toothbrush, or the letter James Butler “Wild Bill” Hickok wrote to his wife Agnes just three weeks before his death in Deadwood (“We will have A home yet then we will be so happy I am all most shure I will do well here.”] The chair that he died in is still on display at the second iteration of the No. 10 Saloon.

I didn’t think my dad would get pumped when I dropped in Janis Joplins’ greatest hits and that he’d turn it up so we’d both be singing along to “Bobby McGee.” I laughed when I saw how the grasshoppers really do plague South Dakota (just like in the Little House On the Prairie books), and not even incessent Mexican ranchera music at 2am at a campground outside of Dodge City was enough to make me forget how scattered and beautiful the stars were that night.

Coming soon will be a photo montage or some sort of denoument. For now, it’s doing laundry, folding maps, and wondering how often I can get away with wearing my own boots in DC.

PS Photo is not the rosy-fingered dawn of Homer’s Odyssey. This is what the sky looked like the first night I got to Bozeman.

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Soul Food

I embarrassed myself plenty taking food pictures, and felt like I was on some kind of diet plan that required recording everything I ate. One of the best things about traveling is the chance to eat a lot of funky (and hopefully delicious) food. These are a few of the highlight meals. There were plenty of un-highlights as well – way too many fast food burgers, an immoderate amount of trail mix, and even one of those Backpacker’s Pantry meals that you cook in pouch with boiling water and of course never really progresses beyond the lukewarm stage of rehydration.

A Dang Quesadilla


From Foundation Grounds Coffeehouse, St. Louis, MO. Yum! That’s my sister on the other side of the table.

Texas Pit BBQ


Schoepf’s Old Time Pit BBQ serves it up old-style off of I-35 in Belton, TX. Chop beef, pork, sausages, and more, plus plenty of sides and a back porch that seems to cover at least a couple of acres. You can bet that’s sweet tea in the glass.

Cherry-Bourbon French Toast


This French toast and the accompanying coffee did much to restore body and soul after a late night on 6th Street. I asked for extra cherries and got them, and the bourbon-cream sauce was out of this world. From The Old Pecan Street Cafe in Austin, TX.

West 019

I also had “The Best Indian Taco in the West” outside the Little Bighorn battlefield and quite possibly the best coffee ever from Beta Coffee in Cody, WY (no picture or website, but I got a sweatshirt.) It was a robust blend of flavor and caffeine that was the perfect way to start the day. Maybe I could have spent more time analyzing the subtlety of the flavors, but I was too busy enjoying it.

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Elevation

Lava lake in the Spanish Peaks mountain range outside of Bozeman, MT.

If America is a land of contradictions, then the West is even more so. There is a concurrent existence of beauty and ugliness, newness and age, growth and rot, and these things do not exist in simple opposition, but come together in infinite and emerging patterns that change and rearrange themselves through time and distance. I see shuttered towns, ripening fields of grain, poverty, mountain peaks, traditionalism, “progress.”

One of the things I really wanted to do was put my feet on the ground. I didn’t want to see the West from an airplane window, and I certainly didn’t want to drive through it catching only glimpses. I wanted to walk it. So we stopped the car outside of Loveland, CO to hike along a trail called the Devil’s Backbone as storm clouds kicked up over the Rockies. I hiked a piece of Yellowstone through a grassy valley partway up to a place called Observation Peak, and the stillness of the air and the warmth of the ground were something to be felt as we looked out over mountains and forests as far as we could see. It was backcountry. Thank God.

Inside, though, I was hankering for a longer hike, something to really sink my teeth into. My dad and I settled on a trail called Lava Lake outside of Bozeman that led up through the Spanish Peaks (in the Gallatin Range of the Rockies). When I say picturesque, I mean hiking out of a fairy tale – Cascade Creek that runs alongside the trail almost the entire three miles it climbs the mountain. Birds singing. Flowers blooming along the path, and the scent of pine trees and recent rain in the air.

At the lake, the trees opened up and the water spread out quiet and blue, with an occasional ripple as a fish surfaced. We heard the hiss of line as two fly fisherman cast. More peaks behind the lake, a little pica scrambling on the rocks below us. An eagle swooped in over the water and came up with its talons empty, its shadow gray over the lake.

There were other trails out there too, with names like Hellroaring and Storm Castle. For now, these are the road not taken. Not yet.

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