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Rifle Magazine
January - February 2002
Volume 34, Number 1
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 199
On the cover...
This issue is only available on CD-ROM.The Remington Model 700 EtronX with electronic ignition is tested on page 22. Ammunition photo by Stan Trzoniec. Whitetail deer photo by John R. Ford. Purchase the CD-ROM here
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Columns

Sometimes a ruffed grouse is a perfect substitute for a Cape buffalo.

 When the first jetliner hit the World Trade Center, I was in the air, en route to Salt Lake City on the first leg of a trip to Zimbabwe to hunt Cape buffalo. As we disembarked in Utah, the TV-screen monitors went blank, and a Delta employee announced over the PA system that all flights had been cancelled.

The monitors went blank because the airport authorities didn’t want airline passengers to panic at the word “hijack,” but these days information is hard to suppress. Cell phones soon instantly told us the rest of the story, and within half an hour we discovered the TVs in the airport bars still worked. So we crowded in there, a very few people ordering drinks, and looked at the images.

For several thousand people, the world ended in those terrifying instants. For the rest of us, it changed instantly. I knew right away I would not be going to Africa and felt somehow relieved. Something had not seemed right that morning when my wife had driven me to the airport. I should have been almost as excited as a kid on the eve of his first deer season, but instead felt - what? Not apprehension, but perhaps a certain doubt.

The next three days were filled with repairing the little disruption of my schedule: Eileen driving down from Montana, D’Arcy Echols and his wife Rebecca allowing me to stay with them until Eileen arrived and driving the 400 miles back home. The 13th was spent on the phone, telling people who knew I was headed to Africa that I was home, then calling other people to find out if they were safe.

On Friday morning, the morning I should have been hunting Cape buffalo with a double rifle, we drove up into the mountains. Eileen writes game cookbooks, and this year she’d been assigned one on upland birds. Supposedly we drove up high to look for forest grouse, and indeed we found one. We parked near a stand of quaking aspens at the base of a long ridge, unloaded the dog and loaded our shotguns and began meandering around the trees. Soon a ruffed grouse whirred up from the edge of the aspens, into the blue shadows beneath tall spruce, and the right barrel of my 16-gauge double brought it down. The dog ran over and brought it to us, and Eileen stroked the warm bird, its feathers colored like the muted hues of the forest: gray and black and a rich red-brown. I don’t think she even thought about anything while touching the bird. I know I did not. Instead we just felt.

Driving back down the mountain, I remembered the airport in Salt Lake City, how as everything finally sunk into our collective travellers’ consciousness an odd calm came over everybody. There were long lines to stand in, none of the car agencies would rent a one-way to anybody, and most of us were far from home or anyplace else we wanted to be. Yet no self-important businessman threw a fit, nobody tried to push his way to the head of the line, and everybody said please and thank you. While walking down to the baggage area I saw somebody hang up a pay phone. I stepped over and had just picked up the receiver when it became apparent a nearby woman had been waiting for the phone. “Sorry,” I said, and handed it to her. She smiled - quite sadly, but she smiled. It was unlike any airport I’ve been in, and I’ve been in more than a few.

I remembered another airport, the central European hub in Frankfurt, Germany. Eileen and I landed there a few years ago, on our way to a hunt in the Czech Republic, not long after Germany unified and a terrorist’s bomb had gone off in the Frankfurt airport. That airport felt vaguely like the one in Salt Lake. The fright was there, but not the caring. Instead we were cattle to be prodded and patted down and shoved from one gate to another. Soldiers with automatic     rifles at the ready stood in every concourse, in every restaurant, near every line. You did not step away from your luggage, even to pick up a salt shaker at the next table. People did not smile, even sadly. It was so different from America.

Or at least the America we knew before September 11. America has always seen itself as moving ever upward, despite the constant problems of all of humanity. This constant upward striving is so good in many ways. It’s brought us comforts and medicine and freedoms unknown to much of the rest of the world, and a generosity to the rest of that world. No other country gives so much of its material wealth to other countries or volunteers to help when disasters and wars strike beyond our borders.

But this generous America also suffers from the other side of wealth: greed and selfishness. During the past 20-odd years we’ve come to expect more and more for ourselves: bigger houses, more cars, personal computers, giant TVs.

The hunting world is not immune. During the boom of the 1990s, many of us acquired more and fancier hunting rifles and went on more expensive and high-status hunting trips. During the 90s the price of an average Dall sheep hunt in Alaska nearly doubled, to almost $10,000, and my part of Montana was invaded by yuppie refugees, whose main worry seems to be how nice an English shotgun they can afford.

I’m as guilty - or free - as anyone. My own collection of sporting arms would seem enormous to the hunting friends I’ve made in places like the Czech Republic, Namibia and even Norway, which has the second highest standard of living in Europe. And yet my own hunting guns are far fewer and much cheaper than those of some of my friends.

All this well-being eventually seemed to divide America, rather than make us grateful. We started calling each other names, started dividing up the spoils into “ours” and “theirs.” Again, hunters were not immune. Some of us started thinking ourselves superior humans because of the rifles we bought or trophies we shot.

All that seems pretty trivial now. I’ve had two separate Cape buffalo hunts fall apart in the past few years, both due to circumstances beyond my control. Would I like to hunt Cape buffalo someday? Yes. Will my life be incomplete if it never happens? No. I’ve seen enough of the rest of the planet to know that Americans are the luckiest people on earth. Even if our lives shrink somewhat because of what happened on September 11, we will still be the luckiest people on earth and perhaps a trifle more united and polite. Which is why a ruffed grouse seemed an entirely adequate substitution for a Cape buffalo. Maybe even better.

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