Road Lit

There are few better books for travelling than Gene Hill. Wieland has forgiven him for having his James Woodward fitted with choke tubes. The gun is a Purdey, circa 1880.

by Terry Wieland

Wingshooters are truly blessed in that we have at our fingertips a wealth of literature. Yea, verily, a wealth! if one may wax Shakespearean, and I believe one may when contemplating the magic of the written word.

Since Gray’s inception almost a half-century ago, the written word has sustained us. Fine art and great photographs have made a contribution, but the word has been the thing.

Not to name-drop or anything, but we’ve had some of the best writers, not just in the outdoor business, but the writing business generally. I might mention that Annie Proulx, for my money the best short-story writer in recent memory, really got her start with Gray’s, and David Mamet (Glengarry Glen Ross) contributed poetry. On the outdoor side, no one ever did it better than Charley Waterman, both fishing and shooting, and Charley was a mainstay for 25 years.

A couple of months ago, I wandered into an antique mall in Boerne, Texas, and found myself in a dusty nook devoted, not just to books, but books on hunting, shooting, fishing. Some old, some new. Among them, I found the first two years of Gray’s, bound in hardcover, looking for all the world like one of those old Victorian two-volume sets. There was also five different anthologies of Gene Hill I didn’t already own, and I just managed to stagger to the cash register with all of the above and more.

As I left the store, I was already imagining early mornings with those books, relaxing with one knee over the other in my Edwardian armchair, the reading lamp providing an oasis of light amid the darkness, the coffee dripping, and Rachmaninoff purring from the speakers. 

There is a tactile quality to books and magazines made of real paper, with the real fresh-ink smell or, alternatively, the essence of musty old library and shelves of genuine walnut.  Combined with the coffee and the music, reading becomes an all-sensory experience.

In that regard, it’s not unlike hunting, with its own sounds, and the feel of the still-warm pheasant in your hands, and the scent of gunpowder and oiled leather.

I’ve saved the Gene Hill for just this season, the week or two before setting out to hunt pheasants in South Dakota. This week, my early-morning reading has been Mr. Hill with his shotguns and bemused outlook.  Past years, I’ve re-read J.K. Stanford or Charley Waterman; last year it was Michael McIntosh, followed by three volumes of Annie Proulx’s remarkable view of life in Wyoming, reminding me that everyone sees things differently and some bring it alive in words.

Of course, there has always been Robert Ruark and Ernest Hemingway, and if it’s just the guns, Gough Thomas and Geoffrey Boothroyd.  One advantage of being a gun nut as well as a hunter is the option of just immersing — temporarily or longer — in the wonders of Victorian gunmaking.  There is so much lore between hard covers ranging back to the 1790s that there are not enough early mornings in an entire lifetime to do it justice.  Men were writing about wingshooting before Waterloo, and there is evidence that English officers embarking for Brussels in June, 1815, took with them their prized fowling pieces — just as they did a century later, in the same country, facing a different enemy in the mud of Flanders.

In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway mentions an Austrian officer who, dispatched to the war in the Alps, took his Mannlicher sporting rifle with him.  He was killed, and it was captured, and no one ever asked if he’d really expected to have time to chase chamois in between attacks, or if the rifle had been a talisman the way other men carry a locket with a photograph.

For my part, when I travel, I almost always have some sort of gun with me, not for self-defense or anything, but just to have with me.  Something old and interesting and guaranteed to fascinate a state trooper if I’m pulled over.  I also carry books and, inevitably, my coffee maker. Oh, yes, and a reading lamp.  You hardly get good reading light in a hotel these days.  They expect you to watch television and look at you strangely if you ask for a 100-watt bulb for the bedside lamp.  Best to carry your own.

Extremism in defence of literature is no vice. Remember that.


Gray’s shooting editor, Terry Wieland, really does cross the country with a car full of guns, books, coffee maker, coffee grinders (2), a portable speaker for music, a reading lamp, and spare light bulbs.  Try getting all that through airport security.