My grandfather knew good technology when he tried it-and he tried it all. When he finally got tired of horseback hunting, he bought himself a Willys pickup, the first 4WD in McCall, Idaho. Behind the seat rode his trusty Model 70, a "rifleman's rifle" that emerged from Winchester's New Haven works around the time the first Ural rigs shipped to the Soviet army.
By the time that rifle came down to me, it was field-scarred and scruffy but still shot better than I could on my best day. Even so, I felt woefully unprepared when a drinking buddy invited me to check out Boomershoot '09, a long-range shooterpalooza in north-central Idaho.
My kamerads at Irbit Motor Works had promised a lend-lease 2WD Ural Safari. When I showed up to kick-start my big adventure, factory hackmeister Sergei presented me with a seven-year-old test mule, decked out in rust-bubbled olive drab. Smacked around for 66,000 kilometers, the shop beater was a blueprint match for Grandpa's old rifle.
I asked about maintenance.
I pointed at the dipstick. Sergei just shook his head. The man is a believer. After admonishing me to shut off the gas lest hydraulic lock shear the crankshaft in two, he sent me wobbling out into eastside traffic.
The next morning at oh-gray-thirty, Pretty Wife bustled around packing double-bagged electronics, extra duds and road snacks into the capacious trunk. I wrapped boxes of match-grade ammo into a double-rubber Wehrmacht bag strapped to the outboard nerf bar.
Bundling Pretty Wife into fuzzy blankets, I tossed two cased rifles across her chest and we were off.
"Don't worry," I bellowed, "it won't rain in the mountains!"
It didn't rain. It snowed.
When my marble-white fingers quit working the Ural's manly control levers in the vicinity of Snoqualmie Summit, we stopped for breakfast. It was still 32 degrees when we finished, but at least the snowfall was harder.
Freeway speeds exceeded the car's trim and turned the throttle-balancing joy of slow curvy roads into monotonous rightward pull. My left shoulder was gunny-sacked by the time we pulled off on the dry side for gas and a cleaning kit.
Now wary of the interstate, we nosed along secondary roads halfway to Vantage before rejoining I-90 to knife into the Columbia Gorge. Burbling downhill, we effortlessly dispatched a VW Bus and two sportbike riders interviewing with the State Patrol. Across the river, we ascended back onto the high plains and followed 26 past the legendary speed trap of Washtucna and La Crosse, where once I left my totaled Kawasaki KZ1100 shaftie lying by the roadside.
With the sun setting behind us, there was no chance of catching our shadows. We plugged along, me wishing for a windshield and Pretty Wife huddled behind the car's tonneau. Wind blew bitter over the hilltop as we honored an irregular pilgrimage to Colfax Cemetery, where I'm always cold, even in summer.
At the Texaco station on South Grand in Pullman, the clerk watched Pretty Wife clamber painfully out of our sidecar after hours on the road, chilly and sore, and announced that he ran the only service station in Christendom featuring no public restrooms. Too bleary to think of shooting him on the spot, we silently resolved to dis-recommend the place to friends and decamped for our dinner stop, the Russo-philically labeled Moscow, Idaho.
Dead-set against buying college town pizza, we took a chance on the empty Old Peking joint and were promptly rewarded with spicy beef platters and delicate egg drop soup.
"We'll bivvy here," I announced, happy and warm for the first time since Seattle. We were a day up on our itinerary and I was looking forward to a scenic morning run to Orofino.
Pretty Wife had other ideas. She shook out her long brown hair, which is unfairly distracting, and pegged me with a blue-eyed look. "It's not really that far, is it? Maybe you should call. See if we can get a room tonight and just settle in."
Getting no answer at the Konkolville Motel, I left a message and smugly tucked into my chow. We were all the way to fortune cookies before my jacket rang and a cheerful voice said they'd leave our room unlocked with the heat on. Bastards!
Pretty Wife smiled prettily.
Like a condemned man, I backed out into 38-degree traffic, passed a Harley rider wearing shorts, sunglasses and a six-pack on his wrist, and set course for Lewiston in the pitch dark.
Merry as an escaped parade float, the Ural pulled us tirelessly south. Although I had kicked off the right-side manifold for the fifth time, sucking extra air didn't bother it at all. Cutting-edge technology ain't everything. Sometimes, you just need things to work.
Pulling into the Flying J Travel Plaza near the river confluence saw both ambient temperature and my mood rise by 10 degrees. Whistling to warm up my teeth, I fueled the rig, screwed the right intake boot back on and ignored the dipstick as instructed. We were due for a beautiful piece of road, our first of the trip without traffic, snow or rain.
Winding east along the Clearwater, with stars reflecting off the river and the boxer-twin droning like a bomber over the English Channel, was hypnotic. Inside my hat, I sleepily chanted the ground rules: Gas right, slow left, watch for deer...
Ten minutes before midnight we crossed the bridge into Orofino. Stumbling into the motel, we stood rifles in the corner, pulled off each other's boots and collapsed.
Morning blossomed crisp and fair to river sounds courtesy of God's Country and fresh waffles, hot coffee and fruit courtesy of proprietors Joe and Sherrie. Blotting syrup off our riding suits, we took weapons in hand and headed out.
Boomershoot's shock and awe is discreetly professional. Small white signs with neat red lettering led us off the highway at Cavendish toward the Huffman family ranch, where Friday's clinic was getting underway. Waving to the safety scout posted on the approach road, we idled up on a scene of careful organization.
Shooters moved up and down the line with actions open and muzzles reliably pointed downrange under supervision by range safety enforcers. Below a rain fly, retired Special Forces officer Eugene Econ calmly expounded on the subtleties of trajectory, mirage and quarter-minute winds to an attentive group.
These weren't your father's rednecks. Boomershoot draws from every profession (attorneys and tech geeks are over-represented) and social stratum. It's a family event, too. My buddy Ry's adorable daughter wasn't the only kid on the firing line, and some wives outshot their hubbies.
Boomershooters aren't leftover Cold War survivalists. They're serious precision shooters, with gear as refined and carefully maintained as any MV Agusta. Range days are their track days. Boomershoot was race day, and I felt like Little Fauss on a dyspeptic Hodaka. It's a poor craftsman who blames his tools, but only idiots and journalists go up against a roomful of Snap-On rollaways with a rusty Boy Scout knife.
Meanwhile, up at "The Taj," volunteers happily mixed mayhem with Kitchen-Aid blenders. Taciturn Boomershoot impresario Joe Huffman supervised manufacture of enough explosives to level three or four middling Idaho townships. Fertilizer, anti-freeze and disinfectant, sweetened with sugar, stirred (not shaken!) with a twist of lime builds a lovely cocktail flambé, but we couldn't play. Everyone in the chemical kitchen held a BATF explosives license. When your recreation can kill you, it's not actually better to be lucky than good.
So we unqualified amateurs folded thousands of boxes for the cause, to be stuffed with explosives and disseminated for the participants' shooting pleasure. Boomershoot's closest targets are set on a berm at 380 yards. Most are much farther-and they're 4 inches square. You won't hit one by accident or luck.
For closer work, there is the joy of "clean-up." A slight additional fee lets Boomershooters wail on exploding targets from 30 yards out (eye protection recommended).
We left the range by a different route, the vertiginous Old Ahsaka Grade, composed of pea gravel over hard dirt wound around curves coiled tighter than an M16 buffer spring. Partway down, we pulled into an old feedlot to gambol through nearby woods on the sure-footed hack. It's colossal for a dirtbike, puny for an SUV, just right for what it is: distilled escapist pleasure. Pretty good workout, too.
For Saturday morning's ride to the range, I stuffed my ego into the trunk and tooled up the hill in relaxed fashion, rediscovering the Lost Secret of Hackdom: Slow is easy, easy is smooth, and smooth is fast.
Okay, actually I learned that on a military rifle range, but it works for sidecars too.
At the range, our Ural stood out like a kitten in a kennel. The big dogs sniffed at it gently, inquiring about hunting utility. We calculated the car would easily carry two whitetails or a shedload of geese.
Like a motorcycle training course, our clinic opened at 0800 with a safety briefing and goal definitions. I paired off with a quiet fella named David to shoot steel targets until lunch, then try for our boomers.
When I pulled the old Winnie out, instructor Gene whistled. Most of its bluing was rubbed to silver. The red rubber recoil pad was crumbling. Dad replaced Grandpa's pre-Jurassic Lyman Alaskan scope with a Leupold Vari-X, but I hadn't zeroed it since 1990. When I unscrewed its turret caps, dust snowed off the elevation screw.
David, studiously preparing his custom M1 Garand, politely said nothing.
Nothing for it but to do it. I spotted a few rounds for my partner and we got the Garand onto 8-inch steel at 400 yards, then switched up. With many misgivings, I laid a round into my Model 70, closed the bolt, wrapped its thick leather sling around my left arm and said, "Shooter ready."
We kicked dirt 8 inches left at 400 yards with a 2-minute wind from the right. My old scope had held zero through 19 years and seven household moves. Two minutes of windage adjustment got us a reliable chorus of, "Send it." BOOM! Bong.
I should have packed better excuses, but every miss was mine. Grandpa always did know his gear. I would like to have hunted with him, ridden with him, or been his wingman. I'd like to have known him past kindergarten age.
With David spotting and Grandpa whispering in my ear, we hit targets out to 680 yards in a stout quartering wind, the best I've ever shot. The day was not without glitches. I scope-cut my nose and beat my throttle arm to a livid pulp, but we got our share of boomers and 158 rounds of validation.
At the banquet on Saturday night, we purchased 25 raffle tickets to support Soldier's Angels (www. soldiersangels.org ) and collected too many prizes to pack. A friend volunteered to schlep them back in his van and we tossed in our rifles, too, Pretty Wife having previously informed me that her chest was not, in fact, a rifle "rack."
Unburdened by schedule or armory, we upped our two-lane percentage to relax the travel hours. Gamboling along at 35-55 per on a curving road with your sweetie in the sidecar is like ice cream on a sunny day.
All weekend, the Ural just worked. It gave zero trouble on-road or off and opened travel options rarely available to standard commuting apparatus, such as chugging straight through a boggy bar pit when I arbitrarily punched out of interstate traffic in favor of a calm frontage road. When curiosity finally wrestled me into pulling the dipstick, it was coated with clear golden oil right up to the Full mark.
It's a better bike than I am a mechanic; a better magic carpet than I am a pilot. The old Winchester is a better gun than I am a shooter, and it just may be that Grandpa knew better than all of us.
At a faux-retro coffee stop in North Bend, an old man stopped by our table to talk. He couldn't take his eyes off the bike out front.
"What's that, about a 1942?"
"Everywhere," she said.
I squinted at the bike, a time-traveling contrivance if ever there was one, decided the front disc brake was probably invisible, and answered on behalf of Grandpa's Winchester.
We were on the right road all along.
"Ah..." The old party smiled a little, out of one side of his mouth, and his eyes crinkled. "They don't make 'em like that anymore."
He put one hand on Pretty Wife's shoulder and one on mine, but never looked away from the bike. "And where are you two going?"
Home, I thought, back to work, back to routine.
But Pretty Wife didn't wait for my answer. She spoke right up, and if she didn't make the old man's day, she surely made mine.