Between the Lines

IN THE FALL of 1990, contributing editor Bill Vaughn and his wife, Kitty Herrin, decided to purchase a slice of heaven: an 11-acre spread along Montana's Clark Fork River graced with back-porch views of the Bitterroot Mountains and an old slough that Vaughn named the Mabel, after his grandmother, and made into an ice-skating pond. (This project inspired "Skating Home Backward," Vaughn's January 2000 Outside essay, which was nominated for a National Magazine Award.) Christening his tiny principality Dark Acres, Vaughn realized that with enough canned goods and gin, he could—assuming there were no problems with the satellite dish—spend whole weeks barricaded inside his backwater fiefdom without ever having to venture beyond the front gate. It was paradise—until the warfare with his neighbors started up.

If fencing off one's own private kingdom is the American Dream, then feuding with the folks who live in the duchy next door is an equally venerable American birthright—one that, as Vaughn discovered, can result in gunplay, dead animals, and prodigious blasts of verbal buckshot. Some of this he attributes to the nature of simply owning land. "These disputes are endemic to the West," he says. "After a while, you get very possessive about your property. You can't bear to see other people set foot on it."

Another factor is the me-against-the-world animus that grips so many denizens of Ranchette, U.S.A.—including, Vaughn admits with admirable candor, himself. His article in this issue, "Won'tcha Be My Neighbor?" is, the author says, "a cautionary tale for people considering moving out here. Rednecks are bad, but just as bad are people like me: meddlers, people who try to manipulate local laws and harass you. My behavior has been just as reprehensible as theirs." Vaughn's adventures in acrimony point out an enduring truth: When it comes to relations with the neighbors, diplomacy isn't half as satisfying as open combat. "Why do we fight so much?" he asks. "It gives us something to do, a center to our lives, a reason to go on. I guess we just think it's fun."

When Burkhard Bilger embarked on his magical mystery tour of the strange foods consumed below the Mason-Dixon Line, he figured he'd have to expand his culinary comfort zone. And sure enough, he did: The project had him supping on possum, spooning soup made from turtle parts, and nibbling the legs of frogs. "I love this kind of stuff," says the Brooklyn-based writer, who divides his days between writing for The New Yorker and editing for Discover. "But now I need to get back to a more regular diet."

As a music photographer who spends a lot of time on tour with bands like the Dixie Chicks and Metallica, James Minchin has seen some gorgeous parts of America—but none matching the loveliness and poignancy of the Montana valley that serves as a backdrop to Bill Vaughn's ode to rural feuds. "It's a beautiful landscape and it would be wonderful to be a part of it," says Minchin, who lives in L.A. "But then you realize that to be a part of it you also have to be part of the madness."

Before we sent Steven Rinella to profile men who hunt the world's most voracious eating machines, the 27-year-old Montana-based writer had never gotten up close and personal with a shark. His first hands-on encounter, with a pair of dead makos on a dock in Montauk, New York, was sobering. "They are the most anatomically immaculate predator you can imagine," says Rinella. "You can't help but have this visceral reaction that they are something you might want to keep clear of. They're very menacing."

"It's always nice to get out of the house and travel down South," says New York-based photographer David Barry, whose portraits have included Mississippi blues artists and opium addicts in Thailand. Barry's assignment—photographing reptiles, marsupials, and assorted other varmints that adorn the dinner tables of Dixie—offered a refreshing return to his roots. "My parents are from New Orleans and we ate that kind of stuff all the time," he says. "It's not quite as strange as you might think."

"Part of the appeal is the beauty of racing in remote places, and part of it is pushing yourself to be in an elite group of fairly insane people," says Steve Friedman, who wrote a story about the Hardrock 100, the toughest footrace in the U.S. A prolific freelancer who wrote "Letter to My Future Brother-in-Law" in October 1999 for Outside, Friedman has no desire to enter the race himself. "If I had less aversion to puking and freezing and getting hit by lightning, I might consider it. But probably not."

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