“Well what are we gonna do now?” asked Nikki McCabe, the bouncy red-headed dance instructor that was currently pretending to like the music that I was playing.
“Just keep on driving. I’m sure we’ll figure something out.” I said, face buried in my phone trying to divine an Ansel Adams backdrop out of the ambiguous grey lines of Apple Maps. It was about 3 o’clock in the afternoon and the spring sun was hanging above the mountain ridge, casting a shadow over the face of the mountains. The hunt was on.
Nikki and I had headed out to Red Rock Canyon to do some photography with my new Nikon D500 and the national park was closed for the day. A police car with its lights on sat out front of the gate. A dopey little guy in a baggy beige state trooper uniform watched us slowly pass through his knock off Oakley sunglasses. We watched him too. Steadfast. We were in no mood to let this glorified hall monitor thwart our intended plans of photographic exploration.
So, we continued down the road staring out at the Red Rock mountains exploding out of the earth in jagged peaks. Las Vegas is a unique place of transcendental beauty once you manage to escape the city. The bright lights of the palaces of deception fade away in the rearview and the 5 lane highways narrow down to windy two-lane roads that meander through the unforgiving desert terrain like a rattlesnake. We stopped at a gas station at the intersection of the 159 and the 160 to get some red bull and a cable to plug my guitar into a travelling amplifier. I picked up a couple oatmeal raisin cliff bars and a 10 dollar poncho as well. This felt like the kind of place my Saint Laurent wardrobe would be unwelcome.
We took off for the west and rolled through the mountain pass.
“This side isn’t as pretty as the other side,” Nikki said.
She was right. The scenery was lackluster, lumpy desert salted by god himself. Little tufts of brush speckled here and there. However; we broke through the mountains into a great plane and we were surrounded by a vast nothingness stretching miles in every direction. I was overtaken by a feeling of arrival in this place of no destination. The snow tipped mountains peaking over the horizon looked like they might be fun to practice some photography on so after missing a few turns, we pulled onto a dirt path with a sign at the entrance that said Government Property: No Trespassing.
“I don’t want to get in trouble with the police,” Nikki said. I believed her.
“Do you have any outstanding warrants?” I asked jokingly.
“I don’t remember,” she said, looking at me with the eyes of someone who is full of surprises.
“Fuck em. We have nothing on us besides California ID’s. Hide the car behind that big pile of gravel so no one will see us from the road,” I said.
When pulled around the pile of dirt we came upon a scene that is unique to barren wastelands like rural Nevada.
“What the fuck!?” Nikki shouted in surprise.
There were two older men with big rifles in their hands. We had clearly intruded upon their peace. Knowing this Nikki quickly threw the car in reverse and for some reason felt that we would be safer parking about twenty feet away. Based on my past history of not being shot I figured that this would probably end alright, so I started getting my things together.
“Well, this just got interesting.” I said as I pulled my camera and tripod out of my bag. In the commotion of organizing I failed to notice the burly figure approaching us from behind.
“What’re you doin out here?” A big man with a noble mustache and a military vest asked us as he sized us up.
“Oh, we’re doing good man. Just came out here to shoot some photos.” I said with the shit eating grin I reserve for armed strangers.
“Well come on over if you want to shoot something with a little more fire power.” He said as he sauntered back to his set up. The silver revolver on his hip glistened in its holster.
“We are totally going to talk with them.” I said as I grabbed my notebook.
“I love the smell of gunpowder in the afternoon,” said Nikki in a very non-California kind of way.
We followed the sound of gunfire through the uneven terrain until we reached their makeshift shooting range. It was just two old guys in between the ages of 60 and 600 with rifles and ammunition perched atop rectangular foldout tables. They turned around and I held my hands in the air.
“Don’t shoot,” I said, grinning and silently praying.
The man who had originally greeted us got up and shook my hand again. It was firm. Like he was trying to tell me something.
“Oh, I see you got a Nikon there. I’m a Canon man myself.”
“You’ll just shoot anything won’t you,” I deflected.
“A man has to have his interests,” he said as he hitched up his trousers. “I’m also a writer, a pilot, an engineer and for my day job I work as an operations director. What’s your name.”
“A renaissance rifleman, huh? My name’s David,” I said. “And yours?”
“Scott and this is Ted.” Ted looked up at us and then back down through the sights of his rifle. Bang. He flicked the safety on the rifle then he got up to inspect the two of us as well.
“Pleasure to meet you, Scott.”
“What’s your name darling?” asked Ted. He awkwardly grabbed and kissed the top of Nikki’s hand. Ted did not seem like a writer or a pilot or an engineer. It was something about the way he avoided conversation and eye contact. The rest of us looked at each other and silently agreed to not acknowledge what had just happened.
“It’s Nikki,” she said with an uncomfortable chuckle.
“Well Nikki have you ever shot a gun before?” asked Scott with a patronizing grin. He held out a pair of headphones to her and some plastic earbuds to me.
“Are you kiddin’? Let me at that thing.” She said as she put the head gear on.
“Alright then. Let’s get to business.” Scott said.
Scott proceeded to educate Nikki about his rifle. Apparently, the rifle was new and this was very exciting for Scott. He showed her how to load it, cock it and aim it. I’ve never been too much of a gun person myself, but I have gotta say Nikki definitely was. Picked that thing and blasted away until she we heard a click instead of a bang.
“Did I hit anything?” Nikki said, looking up at Scott with a childish smile across her face.
“That’s what the next clip is for darling. First ones just a warm up,” Scott said with a warm smile as he handed Nikki another clip of 9mm rounds. She snapped the clip in, cocked it back and started firing again. She was a quick learner. This time she hit the targets center mass with every shot she rattled off.
“You know you remind me of my first wife,” said Scott with a genuine look of approval.
I secretly thanked Nikki for shooting our way into the good graces of these mysterious men. The customs of this world are foreign to me and I wouldn’t fair well without an ambassador like Nikki.
“I’m gonna go use the pistol,” said Ted who came to shoot not commiserate.
I followed him down to the targets and snapped couple photos of the stoic man shooting the targets from a few feet away. I wondered what he was thinking about as he pulled the hammer back. Who?
When I turned to go back to the group Nikki and Scott were having a conversation that I couldn’t hear, but it seemed to me that they were sharing one of those unique father daughter experiences that good spirited strangers have when they meet someone that reminds them of a better time. It was turning out to be an excellent adventure, but everyone had seemed to have had their fill of goodwill and gunpowder. As thanks for the shooting practice Nikki rounded up as many shells as she could for the guys to take back and reuse.
Scott and I got to talking a little bit more before we parted ways. My preconceived notions of wilderness riflemen were dashed like the little clay pigeons that lay around amongst used shotgun shells and rusty beer cans. Scott recited me a poem he had written about how making new friends is a gift that one gives and receives. It was fitting for the situation and I wish I had written it out to add to this story. I gave him my number and email address, which he accepted with a look on his face that told me this was the last time we would meet. That’s fine by me. We had all found what we had been looking for that afternoon. After we said our goodbyes Nikki and I piled back into her car and listened to her music all the way back to Las Vegas.