Saturday, April 15, 2017
It's not warm yet, but after winter and a coolish early spring, the 80 degree heat lay across the prairie like a smothering blanket. The air was still and dry and dusty and it shimmered all around me, not close up but in the distance, out near the horizon. Overhead the sky was an inverted bowl of washed-out blue. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find a cloud. The sun had passed the midpoint of it’s daily sky crossing and hung there white and hot, bearing down with palpable force.
The landscape looked like early April; awash in waves of last year's grass still dressed in its drab winter coat. On closer inspection there was a lot of green coming, but it was hidden beneath dry grass for the most part.
Prairie ground is twisted and uneven compared to parks and fairways and walking paths, and it’s treacherous to the uninitiated or the unwary. Yucca and prickly pear can poke and tear with their sharp spines, scourging feet and legs. Even the seed heads of mature grasses contain barbed spikes that penetrate clothing. Hiking the shortgrass prairie requires an eye for terrain and a lightness of foot. The pavement plodder or lawn stroller will either quickly learn or be down and injured within a few hundred feet.
Lightness of foot was hard to achieve as I strode along, weighed down by rucksack and rifle. In addition to 25 lbs. of water, ammo, and bits and bobs of gear, my pack held eight steel pencil-posts, a hammer, a package of “Dirty Bird” targets, and about 20 clothespins. In addition to getting in a workout hike, I planned to build a temporary shooting range.
I pushed myself hard and chose a route with lots of verticality. A pleasant stroll is one thing, a hard hike another. Both have their place, but it was a day made for hard hiking; for burning calories and working muscle and, to borrow a famous line, to do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.
As my heart rate climbed and stabilized at about 160, the sweat began to flow from my pores and the air roared in and out of my lungs. Muscles loosened and joints relaxed and I soon found the driving, mile-eating rhythm I was seeking.
I topped a rise and started down a steep slope, heading generally for the windmill at the bottom of a deep draw. The windmill’s vanes stood motionless in the still air, and the towering contraption glinted, galvanized facets scattering bright sunlight in dazzling patterns. The tank at the base of the windmill was nearly filled with cool water, and more than a hundred cows and calves lay ruminating nearby. They watched me as I scrambled down the slope, curious as cattle always are, but content to lie in digestive repose during the warmth of the day.
Leaving the cattle behind, I bent my course southwest along a wide, shallow valley ringed by high ground. The valley was a quarter-mile wide and nearly a mile long, bisected in two places by gullies. Other than the gullies, the valley bottom was wide and grassy and remarkably flat.
I hiked to my pre-surveyed target sites; 100, 200, 300 and 600 yards from my shooting site. At each target site I quickly hammered a pair of pencil posts into the ground, then affixed targets with clothespins. At the 600 yard spot I affixed two targets, one above the other. Six-hundred yards is long range for a 5.56x45 NATO carbine, and despite the assurances of my shooting charts and the promises of the optic manufacturer, I thought I might have a hard time suitcasing bullet drop. As I finished with the last target I felt a north breeze coming up.
I hiked back to my shooting spot, pushing as hard as I could and sprinting (?) the last 100 yards. This range session was to be a test of my shooting skills, and I wanted to work around the sweat in my eyes, the labored breathing, the hammering heart.
At the shooting site I threw down my rucksack for an improvised rest and flopped down behind it, anchoring the rifle in a solid crease. I quickly chambered a round and peered through the optic as I splayed my legs, turned out my feet, and found good bone-on-bone connections. I would fire five rounds at each target; rapid fire at 100 and 200 yards, then timed fire at 300 and 600 yards.
With a solid rest and sight picture, I hammered out 10 quick shots at the 100 and 200 yard targets. I felt good about their placement and could see tight clusters appear on the targets.
On the 300 and 600 targets I flipped up the magnifier and took my time. I knew I had one flyer at the 300 yard target when I pulled rather than squeezed the trigger. I couldn’t see the hits but felt good about my mechanics.
At 600 yards I trusted the optic and held the bottom dot dead on vertically and at the right margin of the eight-inch ring to compensate for wind. The first shot went left, shattering a clothespin on the left pencil post. I shifted my windage to the right margin of the target. The wind was stiffer than I'd estimated. I loosed the final four rounds.
Then it was up, reload a fresh magazine, shoulder the rucksack, and retrace my steps to the targets. At 100 and 200 yards my groups were smaller than minute of angle, slightly less than one and two inches respectively. At 600 yards I had a vertical string of 13 inches, right down the center of the target, and of course one shot nearly off the paper to the left. Far from perfect but surprisingly good, considering the short barrel.
My joy was in the 300 yard target. I’d doped the wind correctly and with the exception of the called flyer put my string into just over two inches.
After policing up my brass and trash I struck out west, making a big loop as I headed back to my pickup. At the end of the hike my fancy fitness watch told me I’d covered 5.1 miles. My phone swore that it was 5.15 miles. I was a little tired and sore and thirsty, but it wasn’t too bad an outing for an old man.
As I close this it occurs to me that some might not understand this post. I can only refer them to the title.