Each time I raised my gun, it was as though I were accessing something larger than myself—something like tradition or inheritance.
The man at the counter is everything I expect: a mustache, an American flag T-shirt, revealingly snug jeans. A Glock .45 strapped to his waist, it is massive, a thing of action films. The weapons make me uneasy. It feels like they could go off with zero prompting, phantom trigger fingers rocketing bullets from their chambers.
Deciding to engage in a variety of “western” events, Bethany Maile trails rodeo queens, bids on cattle, fires .22s at the gun range, and searches out wild horses. With lively reportage and a sharp wit, she recounts her efforts to understand how the western myth is outdated yet persistent while ultimately exploring the need for story and the risks inherent to that need. Anything Will Be Easy after This traces Maile’s evolution from a girl suckered by a busted-down story to a more knowing woman who discovers a new narrative that enchants without deluding.
The walls are lined with shotguns and rifles; cabinets loaded with steely revolvers; mounted in a corner, a flintlock the color of sawdust. I am wearing a dress, pink ballet flats, eye shadow. In my purse, a postmodern novel.
“Any particular reason?” he asks again.
“Just curious.” I stare into the glass case, all those pistols shining.
On my eighth birthday my father brought my gift in from the garage.
“Open it,” he said.
I slid apart the cardboard. Mock-wood plastic and a cold metal barrel, its body the color of chestnuts, filigree etched into the bolt. I felt the gun’s balance in my palms. Tied to the barrel hung a pack of BBs, shining and silver like tiny comets. I swung it to my shoulder and closed one eye, just as I’d seen my father do. The trigger curved against my finger.
In the back yard, my father lined up empty Coke cans on our split-rail fence and pumped the lever fast. I’d seen him trailer the horses and hop in his pickup, his rifle leaning in the seat beside him. He’d be gone for weeks, hunting elk or bear in the high corners of Idaho’s Rocky Mountains. I pictured him riding a narrow ridge, his mare stiffening at a strange scent, and he would tuck the rifle to his shoulder.
He pulled the trigger. A quick ping, and the soda can flew from the fence. “Now you.” He handed me the gun, and I pumped hard, the lever more resistant each time.
“Keep that eye shut. When you’re ready, take a nice big breath and exhale slowly. Then ease back the trigger.”
I drew one breath and held it. I closed both eyes. My parents’ yard of birches and cottonwoods disappeared.
I exhaled and pulled back my finger. The can spun and collapsed, that bright round pop.
From then on I played with my gun in the same compulsive way most kids played video games or talked on the phone. Every night I rode my horse through Eagle’s farm fields, my gun strapped to my side, and I succumbed to the vivid imaginings of childhood. I became a pioneer, an outlaw, a sheriff with a heart of gold and quick draw. Annie Oakley shooting fast and far. In each iteration I was a woman whose pluck was made manifest by the rifle strung to her saddle. I packed empty cans and lined them on hay bales. When I ran out of cans, I tacked target sheets to tree trunks. I’d save the sheets, a cluster of holes at the bull’s eye, and show them to my father.
“Pretty sharp shooter,” he’d say, squeezing my arm.
Every night I rode my horse through Eagle’s farm fields, my gun strapped to my side, and I succumbed to the vivid imaginings of childhood.
The idea of the Wild West is dominated as much by the outlaw as the six-shooter on his hip, and in Idaho this has been particularly true. Wyatt Earp, of Tombstone fame, settled in northern Idaho with hopes of striking it rich in the Coeur d’Alene gold rush. A hero in Arizona, Earp’s luck shifted in Idaho. The line between white hat and outlaw blurred. Local miner A. J. Pritchard accused Earp of jumping his gold claim. Earp contested the accusation, but when Pritchard revealed that two men, armed with Earp’s revolvers, had forcibly taken possession of the land, Earp’s defense was blown.
I imagined the famed sheriff riding through the Bitterroots in early autumn, the mountain peaks just silver with snow. In the river shallows, pans glittered with gold. Earp dismounted. Pritchard, knee-deep in the quick current, drew his gun, but Earp drew faster. The flash of a pearl-handled six-shooter. The smoke of a spent cartridge. The glint of gold in Earp’s palm.
Two years later outlaw Butch Cassidy stirred dust at the other end of the state. In 1886 in Montpelier, Idaho, settlers were crowding the state. A booming farm town meant a booming bank, and Cassidy, the Sundance Kid, and the Wild Bunch set up camp on the other side of the Wyoming border and made plans.
The men rode into Idaho and hitched their horses outside the bank. One of the gang stood outside the door, pointing his gun into the street. Cassidy drew his revolver and headed straight for the banker. The Sundance Kid waved his six- shooter toward the wall. The customers lined up. He kept his barrel level on the crowd. Cassidy packed saddlebags with silver coins and gold nuggets. He backed out of the bank, his gun raised and steady.
The men galloped their horses all the way back to Wyoming, their pistols hot in their holsters.
I imagined these gunslingers as I rode my mare through hayfields and horse pastures. Each time I raised my gun, it was as though I were accessing something larger than myself—something like tradition or inheritance.
Idaho is home to the last remnant of gunslingers, men who live in Earp and Cassidy’s shadows.
Each fall my father grew restless. The mountains outside his office window, lit with autumn reds, pulled him from the Treasure Valley. Home from work, he’d blast the Traveling Wilburys and rummage in the garage, stuffing Duofolds and canteens in an army bag.
“Going hunting?” I asked.
“Sure am. Want to come?”
The idea of killing an animal horrified me. I saw the limp-necked deer my father brought home, felt their hides still gritty with dirt. We played board games and watched movies on the bearskin he brought down from the mountains. I was careful to never sit near its hollowed head. My parents slept beneath a mounted elk, its rack too large to fit in any room but theirs. When I was flu-ridden and dozing in their bed, I avoided its glassy stare.
I had never aimed for an animal, wouldn’t risk a groundhog or magpie, but my father had never taken any of his children hunting, and I wanted to ride my horse up those loose- ocked cliffs and watch the elk, shaggy with new fur, wade through mountain streams.
We drove to the Frank Church Wilderness Area, south of the Bitterroots, north of the Sawtooths. We loaded our horses and a pack mule weighed down with cans of beans and a spare rifle. We rode through cathedrals of Douglas fir and lodgepole pine. We ate tins of Spam in an emerald meadow. We napped in deep grass while the horses grazed. At night my father shook Jiffy Pop over the fire and I ate it in my sleeping bag and he told me stories about a haunted barn in Upstate New York. About a bird man who lived in its rafters. I fell asleep thrilled and wasted from sun and riding.
In the morning we saddled our mares and set out for deer.
My father pulled the pack mule with one hand and clutched his rifle with the other, his reins dangling on the saddle’s horn. The forest thinned and we came to a meadow clearing, nothing but bluegrass and wildflowers. His horse sidestepped. She spun and reared up. My father, his steering hand holding his rifle, couldn’t reach the reins. She reared up again. Then she threw her head down and bucked her hind legs above her. My father flew from the saddle. I saw him hung in midair, the lead line loosening from his grip but the rifle still in his hand. He crashed onto the saddle horn. His left leg slipped through the stirrup, and when he fell to the ground, his foot stayed caught. She dragged him through dirt and grass. She ran him to the other end of the meadow. Finally, he kicked his foot free and lay in the dirt, the rifle beside him.
I rode to my father. The mule had bolted. Quincy grazed, calm now. He lay on the ground, moving only his head.
My mother says I found the mule, that I rode through the hills and caught her and loaded the horses and broke camp, but I don’t remember that. I know the mule came back to us, and the day faded into dusk, and camp was a long ride away. My father walked when he could, and when he couldn’t, he lay in the grass, like a dead man in a western.
As much as I’d loved being in the mountains with my father, I’d hated so much about that trip. Hated the idea of drawing a bead on a deer; pulling the trigger; watching it bend and collapse; tugging the liver, the lungs, the heart, from the still-warm body. And mostly I hated that had my father left the gun at camp, he would have held the reins, would have spun his horse into submission. I pictured that rifle still with him as he lay in the dirt.
After that, my Daisy went untouched. The pop of a yanked trigger, the chill of a steel barrel was no longer enchanting. Guns didn’t conjure the smoking barrels of Wild West heroes. Now they seemed hazardous, dangerous, a risk not worth taking.
Maybe living inside a tradition that says Shit can go sideways, better be prepared breeds a paranoia and defensiveness that doesn’t serve us well.
Idaho is home to the last remnant of gunslingers, men who live in Earp and Cassidy’s shadows. In the early 1980s Claude Dallas rolled into the desert, rifle level in his lap. Ohio-born, Dallas was a western dreamer. He longed to live on the prairie, and when the Vietnam War called his name, he hid in southeastern Idaho. He camped along the Owyhee River and allegedly poached bobcats. He ate their meat, wore their skins. He slept beneath the desert stars with nothing but a hide beneath his head and a rifle by his side.
Eventually, the Idaho Department of Fish and Game learned Dallas was illegally killing the big cats. Two officers drove to Dallas’s camp. Dallas saw stirred dust, heard rubber on gravel. He shoved bullets in his .22 and snapped the barrel into place. Dallas fired twice and the men fell.
He ran. Signs were posted all over town, flashed on local news channels: “Claude Dallas: Wanted. $20,000.” One officer’s body washed to shore on the banks of the Owyhee River. Dallas kept running.
A year later Dallas was captured and then tried in Caldwell, Idaho. Crowds flooded the courtroom. Men wore dusters, black boots, cowboy hats. They slung on holsters heavy with pistols. Women dabbed perfume on their wrists and unbuttoned their pearl-snap blouses. They crashed the courthouse steps, waving signs and blowing kisses, waiting to catch a peek of the outlaw.
They called themselves the “Dallas Cheerleaders.”
As a kid a decade later, I would hear about Dallas (who is something of a Treasure Valley legend) and think of my old outlaws, the men whose law resistance I had imagined and recreated. I thought of riding my pony and pretending I was Cassidy, my pockets weighty with gold. If Dallas was just another western outlaw, hiding in the desert and living by his own rules, then drawing a gun and pulling a trigger seemed violent, vulgar. The whole scenario repulsed me.
When the judge sentenced Dallas to a 30-year prison term, locals were outraged; 30 years was too harsh for a man brave enough to buck the law. A mob snuck onto the judge’s property, shot his German shepherd, and strung it from his front yard maple.
Five years into his term, Dallas broke out of prison. Idahoans envisioned him riding into an Owyhee sunset and fanned out hard. A year later police captured Dallas in California and sent him back to the Idaho state pen. Prison officials overlooked the escape. In 2005 he was released early, 22 years into his 30-year term.
I am terrified and thrilled, and there’s something else too, something I can’t account for; call it nostalgia.
Not even a decade after Dallas shot those officers, another outlaw claimed Idaho as home. From the mid- 1970s to 2001, one of the oldest and most extreme neo-Nazi outposts camped in the low mountains of Northern Idaho (for a long time Idaho was known for the white supremacists and potato farms and little more). Randy Weaver moved his family from the Midwest and settled in that same ridge. Stricken with delusions of apocalypse, Weaver and his wife, Vicki, hoped the isolation would prove a haven when civilization ended.
Inevitably, Weaver crossed paths with the Aryan Nation. An anti-government zealot, Weaver sold illegal firearms to the white supremacists. Soon enough, an undercover officer caught Weaver sawing off shotguns and selling them to the neo-Nazis.
Weaver was subpoenaed for illegally selling firearms but never showed in court. If Weaver wouldn’t come to them, U.S. marshals would go to him.
The details of the event now famously known as the “Standoff at Ruby Ridge” are hazy. We know that in the late summer of 1992 two marshals walked onto Weaver’s land. Weaver’s hounds, sniffing a strange scent from the dirt path, howled. His son, 14-year-old Sammy, knew the dogs’ barks meant visitors or maybe game he could hunt. The boy lit down the mountain path, a .22 rifle in arm. What transpired is unclear, but someone raised a gun to his cheek and squeezed a trigger, that first shot fired. Rifles cracked. Bullets flew. Sammy was shot dead. Weaver gathered his family— two teenage daughters, his wife, and a baby— and barricaded them in the cabin. Each woman lay on the ground, keeping her head low, a gun pressed to her chest. Four-hundred marshals surrounded the property. A day passed. No one moved in the Weaver home. Three-hundred FBI flew in. Helicopters circled overhead. A war zone, a showdown.
Finally, the cabin door opened. It’s assumed Vicki Weaver was trying to gather her son’s body. When an antsy sniper fired, Vicki was killed, her baby crying in her arms. Another day passed. Another. Weaver ventured from his cabin once, to bring in Sammy’s body. The marshals shot his arm. His daughter made him a tourniquet, and he stayed locked in his home, shotgun snug at his side.
My family watched the FBI storm the forest on television. Neighbors sat on our couch, jaw-dropped at the footage. “Damn government,” they would say. “Man’s just trying to live”— that familiar disdain. “Can’t kill a man for protecting his family,” they would say. And this I understood. His son was dead, his wife too. Certainly it was sloppy police work. But I got stuck on where we’d started: a radical fundamentalist selling illegal firearms to neo-Nazis. Failing to show in court. Refusing to come out. I got stuck on the guns balanced across his daughters’ chests.
Ten days passed. With half his family dead and his wound infecting, he stumbled from his cabin, his gun raised above his head.
It is Ladies’ Night at the Marksman Pistol Range. Of course it is. Westerners are fixated with chicks and pistols.
To the rest of America, Idaho was a land full of anti-government zealots and lunatic bobcat poachers, an anarchy ruled by gun-toting crazy men.
I became a Democrat and preached about government intervention and gun control at the dinner table. I hid my Daisy in the garage behind shovels and fishing poles.
The year I left for college, my father purchased a handgun for my sister. “For when you’re on campus at night,” he said, referring to her night classes at Boise State University, which is as crime-free as Boise itself, a city with 60 percent fewer instances of violent crime than the national average. She packed her gun to work, to dinner, on dates; on her lunch break she went to a shooting range and practiced. I came home from Boston for Christmas break, and he offered to buy me a pistol too.
“You can never be too safe,” he said.
“No thanks,” I told him.
“But what if I get you one anyway?” he asked.
“I’ll return it.”
Like Weaver, my father wanted daughters who knew how to protect themselves. The intention was not a bad one. But I could not glide past what compelled them. Weaver had that apocalyptic delusion; my father feared for our safety in a sleepy, low-crime city. Maybe living inside a tradition that says Shit can go sideways, better be prepared breeds a paranoia and defensiveness that doesn’t serve us well.
I stare at the gun. I feel woozy. The granny next to me fires.
The shooting range is nearly empty. In the front of the store it is just the salesman and me.
“Lots of people come in curious,” he says. “I usually let them shoot something like this.” He taps the mammoth pistol at his waist. “They don’t come back after that.” He lets out a startlingly high-pitched laugh.
In the 15 years since I opened that Daisy, I have become increasingly concerned about our collective attachment to the gun. Americans own more guns, per capita, than residents in any other country. The U.S. is home to less than 5 percent of the world’s population, but we experience over 30 percent of global mass shootings. Just three years after I got my air rifle, the Columbine Massacre obliterated the security and safety children assumed in a classroom. My niece, when she goes to kindergarten, will be asked to imagine a person firing a gun at her, shooting to kill. She will be told to hide behind her desk or run serpentine for the door or jump out a window. Americans shoot up synagogues and mosques and black churches and movie theaters. In my lifetime America has seen over 110 gun massacres. This is nothing short of very fucked up.
I want to tell the man at the counter that I am not curious about buying a gun. I am not curious if I will feel safer with it riding heavy in my purse. I am curious, I should say, about what it will feel like now to pick one up and lay heavy on the trigger. I am curious if I can pull it back at all.
I think of the dangers of a story that so deeply reveres lawlessness, a story that tells us we can shoot up whomever we like whenever because this is America and we’re tough sons-of-guns. I think of the romanticism, turned vulgar, that keeps us charmed by lawlessness, that drives us to cheer on killers. I get all that, and I don’t like it one bit.
But beneath all my objections and nerves, a current of adrenaline pulses. I am terrified and thrilled, and there’s something else too, something I can’t account for; call it nostalgia. I recall my Daisy, its chintzy plastic body and thin barrel and wheezing fire; I see my father tucking the gun to my shoulder for the first time; I hear the pop of my first target hit. In this moment, with the salesman waiting for me to name my game, that impulse to flatly reject this narrative dies down. To blatantly refuse the gun—to say I cannot rent a .22 to shoot for sport in a range— feels as unreasonable as unquestionably loving it, and I wonder if I should quit these binaries, the harsh extremes of acceptance versus rejection, and instead strive for some sort of in-between, to balance the beauty and the disgust, the magnificence and the rats, as Emerson says.
It is Ladies’ Night at the Marksman Pistol Range. Of course it is. Westerners are fixated with chicks and pistols. Annie Oakley, my sister, the Weaver girls. All those women proudly packing, and here a whole night devoted to gals and Glocks. In this collision I see another iteration of our infatuation with toughness, even (especially) in women. But with the exception of one woman, a stooped 70-year-old firing a colossal handgun, I am the only lady in sight.
“Experience level?” the salesman asks.
“None.” And this feels true.
“What you want to shoot?”
I look into the case. A million black pistols spoon each other. Bigger and smaller variations of the same thing. I do not know their names. I can tell a revolver from an automatic, a pistol from a rifle, and beyond that, I am lost. The walls are draped with shotguns and rifles. Boxes of bullets are stacked in cabinets. The aisles are cluttered with trash bins full of discarded shells, gold and shining, empty husks. In every corner a gun case glows, pistols on display. It smells like dirt and grease.
“Nothing big,” I say.
He hands me a .22 semiautomatic. “Magazine here. Safety there. Don’t shoot me.” That is all the training he will give. Just like that, he extends the gun to me. It is black, dull, ugly. My chest tightens. The building is one big room; a glass wall divides it into two halves. The front half is the store, guns for sale, a cash register, a place to buy a target. On the other side of the glass sits the range: ten booths lined up, like a bowling alley; partitions separating cubbies; a little counter to rest the gun.
“Will you carry it in?” I ask. He rolls his eyes and walks me to the other side of the glass wall. My cubby is next to the granny’s. He clips on my target. “Better start at nine feet.” He flicks a switch, and the target scoots down the lane.
“Before I forget, you turn around with that gun in your hand, you’re gonna have my rifle pointing back. And my aim is good.”
I nod in agreement, and he leaves me alone with the pistol. I roll my shoulders, try to steady my breathing. I stare at the gun. I feel woozy. The granny next to me fires. Even through my earmuffs the blast is huge. I jump. She fires again, a quick succession. Her target waves on impact. The blasts erupt in my chest.
I pick up the gun. It is cold in my hands. I drop the bullets into the magazine, click it into place. I raise the pistol. Maybe I will feel eight years old again, leveling my sights in my BB gun, my father commanding, “Squint that eye. Breathe deep. Ease into the trigger.” Maybe I will squint and breathe and ease and the gun will kick in my hand. The jolt will be gentler than the shotguns, but I will still be surprised at the great charge through my wrist, up my arm. I will bring in my target. One dark bead in the forehead. Pretty sharp shooter. The woman beside me will fire again, her gun booming into rhythm, her shells flying. I will move the target out another ten feet, will aim, squint, breathe, ease. A hole to the chest. At 30 feet I’ll fire again. For a split second those outlaws I have grown ashamed of will be a world away, Dallas and Weaver forgotten in their gross and mythic fame. I will not think of the lawmen falling dead. I will not think of the rifle barrels pointing from cabin windows. They will be there but, for a moment, forgotten. I will hear the granny’s gun, the basso rhythm bang, my gun’s higher, quicker ping. They will fire and boom. A rhythm, an orchestra. My pulse will pound with their beat. I will send the target down the lane, 75 feet, as far as the range permits. I will riddle the target’s chest, its head. Shells will fire fast, one after the other. They will fly from the gun like sparks, like confetti, like hail. I will be Annie Oakley on a stallion, blowing apples to bits. I will be the White Hat busting my pistol from my hip. I will be alone in a hayfield, my finger heavy on the trigger, the high pop of a soda can blasted. My horse will shift at the rifle’s fire, and I’ll raise the gun again.
But this does not happen.
I lift the gun. I pull the trigger. My arm jumps. The hot shell bursts from the pistol and rolls down my shirt. How quickly the skin blisters into a crescent welt. There is my father flung from his horse, there is Sammy Weaver dropped dead. There is my target, in the shape of a man, with a hole in its chest. My palms beat hot and wet. Whatever balance I had hoped to strike—to love this in the right way—I realize is impossible. The repulsion outweighs the affection. No beauty, all disgust. Any attachment I might have harbored feels trivial and self-indulgent. A frivolity demanded in exchange for very real violence. The granny reloads and fires on.
I put the gun down.
I still have to pay the man.
“That was fast,” he says, dismantling the .22.
“Just close me out,” I say.
“Want your target?”
But before I can answer, I am already gone.
Bethany Maile is the author of the memoir-in-essays Anything Will Be Easy After This. Excerpts from that book have been included as Notable Selections in The Best American Essays 2012, The Best American NonRequired Reading 2012, and The Best American Essays 2015. She earned a M.F.A. in nonfiction writing from University of Arizona and teaches writing at Boise State University. For more on her and her work, visit bethanymaile.com.
Header photo by W. Scott McGill, courtesy Shutterstock.