I’m in the back office when I hear Jake’s screams echo across the factory floor. We have no idea what’s happening, only that there’s no 911 to call—not out here.
I’ve got my everyday carry tucked into my holster—a Glock nine-millimeter semiautomatic pistol, with a bullet in the chamber and seven in the magazine. I slip extra ammo into my back pocket and yank my 12-gauge out of a bag. This isn’t your grandpa’s duck gun, either: it’s a matte black Mossberg 500 Tactical Persuader, a tough piece of metal that meets military standards. The chk-chk of the pump action is calibrated to tell all the goblins to buzz off.
I’m the last person you’d expect to see packing heat, but after the crash things have gotten freaky out here in Arena Heights, our little make-believe town in northern New Mexico. Looting, home invasions, assaults, you name it. It’s basically WROL— without rule of law. As one of my buddies at the shooting range likes to say: “The cops are five minutes away—when you need them in five seconds.”
I tell my partner to wait as I follow a pair of tire tracks to a couple of orange cones in a dusty clearing. To the west, the snowcapped Sangre de Cristo mountains seem to levitate above the horizon: a thin white mirage of tranquility. I stash my shotgun in a bush and go crashing down a fresh trail marked with neon splotches of surveyor’s paint. Around the corner, Jake is lying motion less in the dirt. He’s a meaty fellow, the size and shape of two truck tires. In fact, he is two truck tires, linked together with PVC pipe to represent an incapacitated colleague. I tug on his rubbery shoulders, dragging him back to the safe zone.
The task leaves me panting. I clutch my widow-maker, sweat burning my eyes. The four targets are lined up on the hillside. Ready. Aim. Gasp! I’m puffing so hard that I can’t hold the sight steady. I drop the muzzle. Thirty seconds pass and I raise the gun again. Pow! The first clay target explodes. Chk-chk! I send the next three back to oblivion. I’m feeling downright cocky, but those targets are only ten yards out. Next up: eight metal plates hanging from a crossbar, roughly 15 yards away. I draw my pistol and miss every one.
After racing back to the starting line and tagging my teammate, I see Jon Weiler standing on the edge of the dirt road, gazing down at the valley below like a scout watching for an ambush. He looks at me approvingly. “That was very good,” he says, Yoda-like.
WEILER DREAMED UP the scenario I just completed. It’s part of the Survival Trial, an adventure race that takes place at the National Rifle Association Whittington Center, a remote training ground outside Raton, New Mexico. The Whittington Center sort of is and sort of isn’t connected to the Fairfax, Virginia–based NRA, the lobbying group that so many people either love or love to hate. It was created in 1973, at a time when the NRA was more about a traditional blend of guns, hunting, and adventure. Back then the NRA said that the New Mexico property would serve as a “showcase of the outdoors,” featuring target ranges, campsites, wildlife areas, and a museum dedicated to firearms.
But the NRA changed dramatically during the so-called Cincinnati Revolt of 1977, when a group of Second Amendment hyperventilators overthrew the organization’s fusty leadership. They wanted the NRA to be a full-fledged political lobby, and they amputated this extra limb, spinning it off as an independent nonprofit. Today a rift still remains between the NRA’s diehard rightwing elements and the more pliable hunting types, who often get derided as “Fudds.”
“We are not funded by the NRA, and the money that comes here does not go to support the NRA,” says Wayne Armacost, the center’s executive director. Armacost says that about 75 percent of the center’s 140,000 annual visitors are NRA members but there’s a firewall between the two organizations. Look around, though, and it seems they’re more than just kissing cousins. Every cabin is stocked with NRA propaganda.
As for the Survival Trial, it conjures up a social order on the brink, which you can live through if you’ve got high pain tolerance and have studied a few episodes of Naked and Afraid. And yeah, there are guns. Lots of them. In addition to my shotgun and pistol, I’ve got an AR-15-style semiautomatic rifle and ten pounds of ammo in my Get Out of Dodge kit.
For Weiler, a firearms instructor who once led a U.S. Army sniper team in Iraq, this competition is about more than just masochism in the mountains. It’s about embracing a holistic philosophy of gun ownership and preparation that he calls “the defensive lifestyle.”
“Do we secretly yearn for the primal struggle that has defined so many before us?” an information packet about the Survival Trial asks. “We believe that we are capable but never really put ourselves to the test.”
When I first read those words, I realized that I did yearn for the ultimate test, but I wasn’t sure I had it in me. Though I was born in Texas, picking up a gun held roughly the same appeal as cuddling a rattlesnake. Guns were for rednecks who turned road signs into cheese graters and littered campsites with shell casings. Sure, I’ve grown to admire folks who can procure their own meat in the field, but I resent having to wear orange just so I can bike on my favorite trails during deer season.
With around 300 million civilian-owned guns in the U.S., it’s a given (to me, anyway) that firearms are too easily available, and I’d love to see stricter laws to keep them out of the hands of criminals, terrorists, and crazies. But just because you have a gun doesn’t mean you’re going to use it. At least that’s what the pro-gun people I met at Whittington told me. A gun is an insurance policy, and all the unarmed weaklings out there are going to feel pretty stupid when TEOTWAWKI (the end of the world as we know it) arrives. This is the moment when the Yellowstone super-volcano erupts, when swine flu and Ebola have a love child, when the dollar becomes as valuable as theVenezuelan Bolivar. Now imagine if one brave, noble, and responsible person with fierce Jewish blood in his veins is armed and prepared. Well, for a few days, that person is going to be me.“Do we secretly yearn for the primal struggle that has defined so many before us?” an information packet about the Survival Trial asks. “We believe that we are capable but never really put ourselves to the test.”
APART FROM A mandatory gear list that included a military map protractor, a mouth guard, and a pack capable of holding 80 pounds of stuff that I may or may not need, it was hard to find much info about the Survival Trial on its website. The Trial costs $350 per person and usually takes place twice a year, although it’s on hiatus for 2017. Solo participants and two-person squads get a chance to rack up as many points as they can during various tests and obstacles that crop up in a 24-hour race period. While competing, you hoof it—sometimes several miles at a time—between pulled-from-theheadlines defensive scenarios and survival situations, all taking place amid 100-plus square miles of rocky, windswept backcountry. The race format and challenges change every year, and Weiler keeps the details close to his chest. “I don’t give many straight answers,” he told me.
In advance of the Trial, Weiler sends enigmatic e-mails to participants, featuring quotes from Lewis Carroll and Shakespeare, along with fictionalized reports about crime surges in Arena Heights, terrorist attacks at the Arena Airport, and fluctuations in the value of the Survival Trial Dollar. One year, competitors were dropped off at an unknown location in the middle of the course. Another time their packs were stolen at the start of the competition. A week before our Trial, which took place in May of 2016, Weiler advised teams to brush up on their lockpicking skills.
As a newbie, I knew I needed a gun-savvy partner, so I drafted my sister’s husband, Jimmy, who grew up near San Diego but has always wished he was from Texas. Jimmy’s favorite color is camo. He hunts with a bow and owns a 12-gauge and a Glock. He’s an Eagle Scout who has completed the 205-mile LoToJa Classic, riding a bike from Logan, Utah, to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. But now he has three young daughters and is soft in the belly from too many IPAs. “I’m definitely out of shape, but I’m getting in shape,” he told me. “I just need to drop another ten pounds.” The training plan for him was CrossFit. My job was to learn how to shoot.
In early April, prior to the Trial, I travel to Whittington to take one of Weiler’s classes in defensive firearms. Three hours north of Albuquerque, the center sits beside the historic Santa Fe Trail and rubs against Ted Turner’s sprawling Vermejo Park Ranch. I pull in as the last smears of sunlight disappear behind the mountains. Fifty state flags wave in front of the headquarters, bathed in a pinkish glow.
After getting the keys to my cabin from a genial man peacocking a pistol on his waist, I drive past a sculpture of Charlton Heston on horseback. The basic vibe here is zoo exhibit in the middle of a war zone. Pronghorn antelope lazily graze in the meadows as intermittent blasts of gunfire emanate from a skeet-shooting center. A pair of foxes tool around outside a burrow across from the rifle range. Out toward an old mine and ghost town, the road is crisscrossed by the tracks of battle-hardened bears and cougars.
ON OUR FIRST DAY of class, we meet in a conference room with a panoramic view of the high desert and framed reproductions of the Constitution and Bill of Rights on the wall. A dozen students are seated around a long table, sinking into plush leather chairs. Weiler, 37, stands up front in a gray Columbia button-down and khaki cargo pants. A fit man with a neatly trimmed salt-andpepper beard, he runs his classes with military precision and the calibrated language of a PR executive.
After confirming that all the students had unloaded their guns, he opens with a vocabulary lesson. “Is this a weapon?” he asks, pointing his pistol to the ceiling. “This is our tool of defense,” he says. “We have a strong belief in our fundamental rights.” Those rights, he says, are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. “What falls under the right to live?” he says, pausing for effect. “The right to defend life.”
The students talk about their motivations. There’s Jeff Flagg, an Army vet who says guns saved him from a life spent downing six-packs of Coors Lite. We’ve got a woman from Cimarron, New Mexico, who once had a grandson point a gun at her. “A child can bea threat,” she says. David Furrow, an osteopath from Colorado Springs, says a good guy with a gun is the only thing stopping a bad guy with a gun. His office is a mile from the site of the 2015 Planned Parenthood shooting. “I’ve taken a life before when I’ve gone hunting, and you recognize you’re separating a spirit from a vessel,” he says.
The discussion grows lively as the students complain about restrictions on carrying guns to sporting events and movie theaters. Weiler reins things in when necessary. “Can you stop fear?” he asks. “That’s really what we’re talking about. That feeling you get right down here in your gut when something is wrong, something is going to happen that we don’t want to happen.” In the afternoon, we meet at a 360-degree shooting range, a dirt parking lot with berms on all sides. I’m late to the line because I tried to insert my bullets backwards. “Where is your finger? Where is your muzzle? Are you safe?” Weiler shouts. I extend my pistol, aim at a blue square, and squeeze the trigger. Pow!
I fire again and again. I keep missing. (Weiler gently suggests I try opening both eyes.) When we take a break to look at our targets, though, mine isn’t nearly as bad as I expected. I didn’t quite make “big holes out of little holes,” as they say, but the holes are clustered in a tight vertical line. Over the next two days we run drills, racing from one piece of cover to the next and leaning out to ping metal targets while Weiler barks orders. “Ready! Move!”
Furrow is awe-inspiring. He’s a compact guy in his late forties whose right leg is nearly an inch shorter than his left. His buff-andgreen Filson vest makes him look like a cross between Bilbo Baggins and Rambo. Later he tells me he has climbed El Capitan three times and broken his back snowboarding. He calls shooting a “Zen endeavor.” Naturally, Weiler recruits him for the Survival Trial.
During a break, Furrow and Flagg talk about readiness. “I always have a single- sling tactical bag with a tourniquet, combat gauze, extra rounds, a flashlight, and water,” Flagg says. “People don’t realize that if you get into an engagement where you have to run, you’re going toget thirsty and dry mouth.”
“I trained myself to go 24 hours without water,” Furrow says.
“I’m a prepper,” Flagg replies. “I have property up in the mountains, and our rule of thumb is 30 days of food and six months of water, a gallon per person per day. Everybody in the family has three weapons platforms: rifle, pistol, and shotgun.”
As the conversation goes on, Weiler butts in to remind Flagg that he should stick to self-defense. “A lot of things can go wrong,” he says sternly. “It’s a little different story than helping somebody on the road.”
WEILER LIVES WITH his wife and three children in Colome, a podunk South Dakota town where he grew up, just to the east of the Rosebud Indian Reservation. After he puts his kids to bed each night, he places a handgun on his nightstand and leans a shotgun in the corner of his bedroom.
Self-reliance has always been a theme with him. When Weiler was eight, his father died of a brain aneurysm. When he was 16, breast cancer took his mother. Five days after his high school graduation, in 1997, he was on a flight to the U.S. Army base at Fort Benning, Georgia. “That was my first time on an airplane,” he says. “The second time I flew, I jumped out of it.”
Weiler learned land navigation and survival skills, and later went to sniper school. His intense focus made him an ideal spotter, planning missions, tracking targets, and estimating distances the old-fashioned way. Weiler reenlisted after 9/11 and, in February 2003, deployed to Iraq, where he led airborne sniper teams as part of a scout platoon.
On one of his first mornings in Iraq, Weiler and his partner were lying on a pile of horse manure, watching a hospital that a Fedayeen Saddam paramilitary unit was using as a post to direct mortar fire. The hospital was about a mile away, and Weiler caught sight of two men in a window on the eighth floor. His shooter fired a round, but the shot hit two floors too low, and the targets vanished. Four hours later, at noon, Weiler saw movement again and pulled the trigger himself, striking both men with a single bullet. “Everything had slowed down as that happened,” he says. “It was surreal.” This amazing shot opened a 2011 History Channel documentary called Sniper: Bulletproof.Five days after his high school graduation, in 1997, he was on a flight to the U.S. Army base at Fort Benning, Georgia. “That was my first time on an airplane. The second time I flew, I jumped out of it.”
When Weiler’s tour of duty ended in December 2004, he had completed more than 100 sniper missions but had soured on the war. Back in the U.S., he worked a few years for Barrett Firearms, running training courses for military buyers, including the Israeli Defense Forces, the Greek military, and the U.S. Army, before starting his own firearms-instruction company, Professional Marksmen.
Weiler had been holding courses at the Whittington Center for a few years, and indeed, when Wayne Armacost became the executive director, Armacost was eager to launch new programs to boost the center’s profile. Six years ago, they started Whittington U to teach defensive firearms and precision shooting. Around the same time, Weiler was preparing to launch the Survival Trial. Fitness had always been important to him, and in 2011 he traveled to Pittsfield, Vermont, for the Death Race, a competition that involved mind-numbing tasks like lifting a rock for hours on end. Weiler wanted to runthe Survival Trial differently: as a chooseyour- own-adventure with a clear connection to the defensive lifestyle.
“The reality is there are threats everywhere,” he said during my training. “The human animal is the same everywhere. The human animal will not change.”
IT’S A LITTLE past 4 A.M. on May 21, opening day of the Survival Trial, and David Furrow is strapping his AK-47 to his Osprey Atmos pack. “Honestly, I wouldn’t take an AK if I was gonna bug out,” he says. “I’d take an AR and a shotgun.”
“Rockin’ an AK, that’s badass!” says Thomas Gomez, who works in a hospital and writes for a firearms blog. He and his teammate, Tom Rader, who has a black beard and a big belly and calls himself a Warrior Hippie, have weighed every item they’re carrying down to one-tenth of an ounce.
There are five teams and two solo competitors, ranging in age from 26 to 55. The number of competitors isn’t that large, but Jimmy and I (team name: the Outside Men) are clearly the least prepared people here. Our packs feel like they weigh 50 pounds, heavier than anything we trained with.
While I’m hoping to survive the upheavals caused by TEOTWAWKI on rations of salami, cheddar cheese, and peanut M&M’s, Team Terra Victor— two hard-asses from Texas named John Trout and Gene Locke who have competed in three previous Survival Trials— are carrying jugs of gray powder: Hammer Nutrition’s Perpetuem endurance fuel, which they will drink on the hour. When I shake Locke’s hand, he crushes mine like it’s a stack of Kit Kats.
At dawn, Weiler passes us a topo map of the area that, we’ll learn, hasn’t been updated since the 1970s. We’re supposed to plot 18 pairs of coordinates and figure out the route we want to take between stations, which have mysterious names like Mass Effect and Fire in the Hole! Along the way, we can collect bonus points for finding scavenger-hunt items, such as animal bones, and taking photos of designated objects, like an airplane flying overhead. There will be no phones, no GPS units. If it develops that we need to be rescued, Weiler says, we should drag our asses to the nearest intersection and pull out glow sticks.
While we’re still bent over our protractors, the Terra Victor guys slip out and disappear down the road, heading west at a mad clip. Our path looks like it’s going to take us straight into a place called Van Houten Canyon. When we tell Weiler this, he stares blankly into space. “Uh-huh,” he says, giving nothing away. We end up walking with Furrow for the first couple of hours, but he pulls ahead after we reach a gate with the Survival Trial emblem on it: a skull, a hatchet, and two assault rifles. “You must pay a toll to enter,” the sign reads. “Money is not worth anything here.”
We scour the ground for bolts and other artifacts from an abandoned railroad line, which we can use to “pay” the toll. By noon we’ve walked eight miles and completed the “workplace threat” scenario. Next we filter a coffee cup of water from a murky pond and carry it up a hill without spilling. Then we have to drink it. At the top, we see Team Terra Victor again, covered in sweat. “We lost an hour and two miles of hiking around,” Gene Locke says. They didn’t realize that they had to hit their starting coordinate before they could collect points from stations. “We make several of those boneheaded mistakes each race.”
JIMMY AND I CHUCKLE as we head back into the canyon a second time and zigzag up some switchbacks to the ridge on the other side of the valley. The only person ahead of us at this point is Furrow, and he’s solo. This means that by some miracle we’re the leading team. It’s a fine day, indeed.We reach a gate with the Survival Trial emblem on it: a skull, a hatchet, and two assault rifles. “You must pay a toll to enter,” the sign reads. “Money is not worth anything here.”
“I’m just going to sit on that rock for a minute to get the weight off my feet,” Jimmy says. He mentions something about cramps, but I’m not paying attention. Our next task— according to a piece of paper posted on a tree—is to write down exactly what we’re thinking in 100 words.
Furrow trots up, his trekking poles going clickety-clack. “You missed a station,” he says. “You were supposed to keep going back up that hill.”
My heart sinks. We missed the Snares station, where you build a makeshift trap that theoretically could catch a small animal. When I pull out my map, I can see the road he’s talking about: a faded string of dashes nearly invisible amid a jumble of contour lines. If we want to hit it now, we’ll have to hike two miles uphill and then turn around and come back to where we started. Meanwhile, Jimmy is working on his essay. “The climb to this point was brutal,” he writes. “My legs are cramping up a lot.”
It takes only a couple of minutes on the road before Jimmy is dropping behind me. When I glance back, he’s got the look of a man passing kidney stones. I offer him food but he refuses, choosing to subsist on chocolate-cherry Clif Shots. I’m starting to doubt we’re going the right way when Terra Victor appears around the bend. “Did you just come from Snares?” I ask. The two men look at each other. “I don’t know,” Gene says with a smirk.
We make it to Snares, where there’s a fly-fishing guide volunteering as an evaluator. He tells us we’d be lucky to catch a vole with our pathetic contraption. I’m too tired to take it personally. We retrace our route under the powerful afternoon sun. I’m lumbering along with each painful step, my pack bruising my hips. I duck into a bush and rub Neosporin on my butt cheeks to stop the chafing.
Jimmy is worse off, and the next three hours will take a heavy toll on him. He plops down on a crusty embankment; the muzzle of his shotgun digs into the dirt. It’s almost dusk. If we want to hit the finish line in the next 11 hours, we’ll have to skip two stations, and we won’t be able to put our sledgehammers or lockpicking tools to work. “I feel like I can’t control my body,” Jimmy says. “I really want to eat, and I want to change my socks, but I can’t move.”
“You don’t have the strength?” I ask.
“I’ll be fine in five minutes,” he says, emitting a long, low moan. It’s the sound of a spirit separating from its vessel.
I DON’T KNOW how I missed the man. He apparently had been next to me for a while, and then there he was, materialized in the way Jason does in Friday the 13th movies. He’s big—about 250 pounds—and he’s wearing a green sweatshirt, a black mask, and black boxing gloves. He glares at me silently.
Over the course of the trial, we’ve felt beaten and bruised and sweaty and tired, but what we haven’t experienced yet is fear. I do now. It’s after midnight, we’re 19 hours into the Trial, and we’ve hiked at least 20 miles. We’re at a makeshift campsite, where a small circle of onlookers stand around while a spooky fire flickers behind me. We had just thrown tomahawks at tree stumps, competed in archery, and fired our rifles into the night sky. Weiler showed up a few minutes ago; now he’s pulled me aside as the thug in the mask waits.
“This gentleman here is the ’Sault Shaker,” he says. “You have a choice to engage the ’Sault Shaker or not to engage the ’Sault Shaker.” I had mentally prepared for this and promised myself I’d do it. I had to.
“I’m going to engage,” I say.
Weiler tells me to put on my mouth guard and headgear. I have 30 seconds to subdue the ’Sault Shaker with a bear hug. I raise my fists. Adrenaline extinguishes my exhaustion. We’re circling each other, and I try to fake him out with a dog-paddle motion. He’s staring at me like I’m a fool. Fair enough.
My stomach gurgles, and I let out the ultimate fear fart. I rush him and throw my left arm around him, then my right, hoping to overwhelm him with speed. But he slips out before I can clasp my hands together. He gets me in a loose headlock. My bowels are threatening to erupt again. I’m grunting and struggling to escape.
“Time!” Weiler says. “‘All right, ’Sault Shaker, go back to your home!” He disappears into the night, and I’m feeling disappointed. Still, I get 300 points for accepting the challenge.
Our next task is to dig a fire hole, start a fire with flint and magnesium, and boil a couple of eggs. The magnesium goes up in a flash, but the pine needles we’ve gathered only sizzle and smoke. Thirty minutes pass and we still can’t get our fire going. A ten-year-old boy named Gannon, whose father is running the station, informs us that Furrow had his blazing in 30 seconds.
“Of course he did,” I say. Gannon feels sorry for us and slips some dry grass by our side. “I’m not giving this to you,” he says. “I’m just putting it here.”
IT’S TWO IN the morning. Jimmy is not going back over those mountains unless I carry him myself. If we skirt around them, though, it looks like we’ve got an easy ten-mile jaunt back. We start off down a wide dirt road and the valley opens up, revealing the lights of Raton. Victory is near. Roll credits, please. We cross the river and come to a sign. “You have reached the boundary of the Survival Trial Arena,” it says. “Turn around and find another way.”
The map shows an alternate route, a doubletrack road that hugs the base of the mountains. We follow this for a half-hour until we hit a fence line and another sign. Next we follow some tire tracks into a meadow, where my flashlight catches a dozen glowing deer eyes looking back at me. The route peters out. The only way back now is Happy Canyon, and it doesn’t look so happy. It looks vertical.
Jimmy and I trudge back to our last station, where we find Team Terra Victor reclining on their packs in the grass. They’d already racked up enough points to get first place, and they break the news to us that the end point isn’t mandatory. It’s just a bonus. At 6 A.M. someone will pick us up, and we’ll find out that Jimmy and I have earned enough points to merit third place. Not bad for a gunshy blue-state journalist and a cramp-ridden father of three.
I wanted to be a person who was better prepared, who was more self-sufficient, who could hold his own in a pinch. I was surprised, and disturbed, by how much I liked the feeling of a rifle in my hands. In a few hours, I’ll be a little disappointed when I return my weapons—er, tools. There was something about walking around with an armory on my back that made me feel like I had my act together. I’m not sure what to do with this feeling.
I’ll also be surprised to feel a little safer knowing that responsible, fit, intelligent people like Jon Weiler and David Furrow are armed. But I know that everybody isn’t a Weiler or Furrow—far from it. Weiler says he would like to see gun owners take steps to learn as much as they can about responsible handling, but he shares the NRA’s opposition to mandatory firearms training.
“We can’t force people to do that,” he’ll tell me. But of course you can.
Meanwhile, I’m unprepared for the cold of the New Mexico mountains at night. I curl up in a fetal position and wait for the sun to rise and the soreness to settle in. When I wake to the sound of a truck idling, someone has draped a Mylar space blanket over me.