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  Issue Date: 5 / 2018  

Where the Old West Still Lives

Norman Sklarewitz

Image Credit: Ron Mesaros Click image to enlarge.

       With all the attractions New Mexico offers holiday visitors, it’s not unusual to see plenty of motor homes, house trailers and other RVs on the roads this time of year. But on Route 217 heading east about 40 miles from Albuquerque in late June, there is certain to be something strange-looking going on.
        In addition to normal holiday supplies in each vehicle, there will also be a small arsenal of weapons – rifles, shotguns and revolvers plus cartons of ammunition. Sinister as this all may seem, there’s no need to call Homeland Security or anyone else. These folks are heading for a gathering of more than 800 members of the Single Action Shooting Society. The event is called End of Trail and it will take place for the public June 14-24 at the 480-acre Founder’s Ranch, outside the tiny town of Edgewood, N.M.
        Based in Edgewood, SASS is an international organization with a total membership of some 70,000. These men and women belong to clubs in every state in the U.S. and all over Europe, in Australia and New Zealand, among other countries. Along with non-stop competitions involving Cowboy Action Shooting, the organization has as a major goal the preservation of the history of the Old West.
       . Toward that end, all members at the event are required to dress in outfits authentic to the mid 1800s on the western frontier. In addition, each assumes an alias that befits the persona each assumes. As a result, for the few days they will be at the End of Trail gathering, SASS members become cowboys, gun slingers, lawmen, dance hall girls, gold prospectors, Civil War soldiers, gamblers, frontier business people and just about every other personality, real or fictional, from that colorful but often violent era in American history.

Image Credit: Ron Mesaros Click image to enlarge.

        For the participants, the event is a curious mixture of make-believe in a real-life setting. Explains Misty Moonshine, Chief Executive Officer of SASS, “Here we provide a Western fantasy that has real relationship to American history and culture. You wear boots, a broad-brimmed hat and old-style frontier trousers and shirt. You’re holding real six guns in your hands and your leather gun belt and holster are exactly the same as those used in the 1880s,” she says. There’s no question that many of those striding down the dirt main street of these simulated western town affect a distinctive gait, almost a swagger, as they walk along, hands resting on the butts of their twin .44 revolvers at their hips.
        Clothes worn by its members are often as not custom made, cut and fitted to replicate authentic attire worn by the actual person whose name and personality have been adopted by a 21st century SASS member. It’s the same with the weapons. Pistols worn on leather gun belts are often costly replicas of frontier six shooters while lever action rifles and shotguns are authentic to the mid-1800s. It’s clearly not an inexpensive hobby. “By the time I step up to do my shooting, I’m out about $15,000,” admits one member.
        Once within the gates of the Founder’s Ranch, it’s true that you can be whoever you’d like to be. At one past event, Rob Holloway strolled along in the dress uniform of a captain in the Confederate Army during the Civil War. At home in Las Vegas he’s a paramedic student. Manuel Austin from Los Angeles was on leave from his job as a contractor in Iraq. At the ranch he and his son Garrett, 10, wore matching fancy Western dress outfits. Dr. Bill Plummer is a professor of animal science at Cal Poly State University in San Luis Obispo, Calif. But here he’s a plain working cowboy. Sharon Guli of Bellevue, Colorado, is Miss Tabatha, a seamstress who makes bustle dresses, hoop skirts and other finery for ladies of the make-believe 19th century town where she for a time lives and works. For her part, Gina White of Boise, Idaho, is, while at the ranch, Sweet Violet, a demure maiden complete with lacy parasol.
        Greg Kitchens from southern California is a Spanish American War Marine. He proudly points out the original Marine Corps emblem on his uniform, the exact leggings wore by Marines in that conflict and the replica military model .44 Colt revolver on his hip. Michael Veitch from Las Vegas, is a retired law enforcement officer, but at the ranch he is an 1888 Arizona Ranger.
        While most those at the ranch assume only the name of 19th century characters and the clothes of his or her persona, Mike Thompson of San Angelo, Texas, has the look, too. He’s Teddy Roosevelt as he was as a young cowboy in North Dakota, down to the distinctive, toothy grin.
        While a bit of satorical showing off is very much part of the End of Trail experience, it’s at the shooting bays where things get serious. “Cowboy action shooting” is like no other type of competitive marksmanship. Here there’s no standing up and firing at fixed targets. That’s not how it was in the real Wild West and so it’s not that way at End of Trail. Instead, over a period of days, each competitor moves from firing bay to bay where a different action scenario is presented. At the timer’s start, the shooter must run from position to position, draw one revolver, first firing at metal targets, then grabbing his shotgun and engaging other targets in a specified order before picking up his rifle and firing at five other targets and finally drawing his second revolver and blazing away at the remaining targets.
        That’s 10 rounds of revolver ammunition, 10 rounds with the rifle and at least 4 shotgun shells. Average time for all this noisy action is around 30 seconds. During the course of the End of Trail, shooters will be required to fire on 12 different such “stages,” each with a different story. Expected back this year to defend his 2017 title as Top Gun Male shooter will be Dylan Hosley, aka Matt Black from Texas and Jessica Kirkham aka SASS Kicker from Arizona as Top Gun Female.. However, it’s a point of pride with SASS is that there are no monetary prizes for these top shooters. Just trophies and “bragging rights.”

Norman Sklarewitz brings to his travel articles for The World & I a long and solid background in hard-news reporting. This includes being Far East Correspondent for The Wall Street Journal based in Tokyo and L.A. Bureau Chief with U.S. News & World Report. He's reported on major international events, including the Vietnam War, and during World War II, he was a military correspondent. As a freelancer, he has traveled extensively and has published thousands of articles on a wide range of topics for a variety of publications.
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