NORTH ENID, Okla. -- C.W. Quier, a boom-voiced man with thick hands, held out the freshly loaded .22-caliber semiautomatic Ruger pistol.
''Now," he told me, ''let's see you shoot the head."
I did not know five minutes before how good that cool, exact weapon would feel. I did not know how eagerly I would obey Quier, a Navy Special Forces combat veteran, gunsmith, and strong talker about all things Oklahoman.
Only that afternoon, I had walked from white-bright prairie light into the cluttered confines of a long building framed in concrete block and labeled with four black letters: ''G-U-N-S."
Soon an Australian cattle dog was lurking at my legs. Quier (pronounced KWHY-er) turned from some task, and I explained that I was a journalist from the East Coast, that quite by chance I had found myself in Enid, smack in the center of North America, and that, well, I had never fired a gun.
Quier, solid and swaggering at 71 -- ''Hell, I was only 29 inches around the waist until I was 50 years old. Picture that!" -- walked right up to my face and got to work.
''Only one thing that's important when shooting a gun is hit what you're trying to hit the first time," he said. ''I'm personally an advocate of .45-caliber. Bigger is better."
He unloaded fact and opinion about a single-action Colt .32-20 on a .45-caliber frame that had ''superbly accurate settings."
One of two other men sitting at a table covered with empty coffee cans and bullet shells bellowed, ''Have you ever come to the right . . . place."
I had ended up there, in part, because one week earlier I put some folded scraps of paper into two Styrofoam cups.
As a person paid to travel and write, I had taken notice of the recently published ''The Lonely Planet Guide to Experimental Travel." The notion of traveling in ways that take you places you would not otherwise go is older than hobos hopping on trains or friends tossing a dart at a map. While often whimsical, such travel holds a risk with potential reward: Become, through the pursuit of an unscripted journey, vulnerable to a new experience.
So I sat down with the two cups, one holding the names of four states I had never visited, the other eight even numbers, 2 through 16. From the first, I unfolded a scrap with the word ''Oklahoma." From the second, a scrap with the number 8. Moving down a list of Oklahoma cities, ordered from largest to smallest, my counting stopped at Enid.
''That's a crossword puzzle answer," my mom said, during a telephone conversation a day or two later.
Indeed: four-letter word for ''Oklahoma prairie town."
The place was founded as the seat of County ''O" soon after Sept. 16, 1893, when a gunshot signaled the start of the homesteading rush onto the ''Cherokee Strip," onetime Indian land in the northwest of what in 1907 became the state of Oklahoma.
The Cherokee are mostly gone, as are the sod houses the homesteaders built. Enid, population 47,045 at last count, now has a bumper crop of strip malls, fast-food restaurants, and gas stations, a symphony orchestra celebrating its centennial, and a stylish ballpark that is home to the Pastimers, a semipro baseball club in the Red River League.
On the September morning that I arrived for a 24-hour visit, a flock of T-1A and T-38 training jets from Vance Air Force Base swooped overhead. Shortly after noon, I flipped through the local yellow pages, and it was there I saw a listing for the Northern Oklahoma Shooting Center, 502 East Phillips Road, North Enid. A number was listed, but it seemed a better place to turn up than to telephone.
I drove to the historic center of Enid, with its Wild West sidewalks and a storefront sign for Walter L. Baker, Certified Petroleum Geologist, then continued north past grain silos that rise 10 stories above flat fields. I parked in a dirt lot at the far end of the shooting range. One door, then another led into the bullet-filled bunker.
Quier opened a small silver case containing a Smith & Wesson Model 25 in .45 Long Colt, a gunslinging-cowboy-style pistol on which he had reworked the action. He praised John Browning, who more than a century ago created, among other firearms, the Browning Auto 5 shotgun.
''One of the finest, most reliable self-loading shotguns ever designed," Quier said.
As Quier talked, the subject began to shift, at first only slightly.
''This little knife here is a redneck knife. Wear it around your neck," he said. ''Sold one of these to Dolly Parton's husband at the Pigeon
The three-inch blade was one of 68 styles of knives Quier hand-makes for sale, many for military use. He skimmed it across the back of his hand, slicing hairs along the way.
''Shave a sleeping mouse with that and never wake him up," Quier said.
Though slumped a bit with age, Quier is a big man, who, when standing or walking, looms. He talks nearly always as though he is certain, which, coupled with tales of hand-to-hand combat, intimidates.
When Quier speaks, some words, such as '''em" and ''hurtin'," are clipped short, while others, such as ''a-dyin'," hang in the air. His anecdotes and arguments, though, arrive rapid fire, well aimed.
''We fought our way out of Europe in 1655," he said, referring to his ancestors. ''Made it to the Colonies in 1687."
And later: ''Somewhere along the line, I've got a little African in me."
His great-grandparents, he said, lived in a dugout in the side of a hill in Burden, Kan. One grandfather was a federal prison guard and circuit-riding Baptist minister.
''Now, I lived through the Dust Bowl," Quier said. ''All right, now then, during that period of time there was a massive exodus going out of here -- called ''The Grapes of Wrath." The people who stayed here were endowed with a terrible tenacity. You know what that means, son? Stubborn."
Quier told me about killing enemies in close combat while fighting in the Special Forces in Southeast Asia.
''We're goin' to be killin' each other until the end of time," he said.
If Quier had asked, I would have explained that I grew up in a Pennsylvania suburb, the son of a woman raised as a Quaker. During the Persian Gulf War, she counseled high school students about alternatives to the military, about choices other than carrying guns into battle. Even though there was no draft, I signed a declaration then as a conscientious objector.
Soon after I had arrived, a young couple walked into Quier's shop. Quier, who also runs C.W. Quier Personal Protection, showed them a hunting rifle. He had the man stand at the doorway and point the rifle to the east, then look through the scope and read the speed limit written on a sign a half-mile away.
Later, he continued with our conversation: ''Only mistake the Founding Fathers made with the Constitution was making Article Two Article Two instead of Article One, because as long as I've got my .45 on my hip, I've got freedom of speech, religion, assembly, all my other freedoms."
He sipped his coffee.
''What I'm saying are truisms, son."
If Quier had wanted to hear more of my flat acccent, I would have told him that I do not like guns, or, more specifically, the culture that uses guns for pleasure and personal protection. I would have said that I came to his shooting range to understand Enid, yes, but also to face something, or someone, I do not agree with.
Until I walked into Quier's world, though, I had never known someone like him.
He told me about a stillborn son, and the heart ailment that would claim a second child, at age 2. Before the little girl passed away, Quier used to hold her in the dark and waltz.
''Knowing that she was slipping away from me day by day, an inch at a time," Quier said. ''And there, knowing there was not a thing I could do about it. There's nothing you can do but love 'em while you've got 'em until the Lord calls 'em home."
He talked about working oil rigs in west Texas and about an old man he had known when he was young who, in the late 1800s, had watched as outlaws raped his mother and gunned down his family.
Quier recalled his high school civics class and the clear rules set out for taking part in society. There should not be weight rooms and law classes, let alone access to drugs and alcohol, for prison inmates, he said.
''They're not supposed to be in a country club. They're supposed to be being reconciled to the society they were taken from because of their poor judgment."
On America at war, before and now, Quier said: ''Our cause was righteous, trying to curb communism. And the reason we are in Iraq is because they came over here and took down the World Trade Center."
On life: ''There are no gray areas. There are only right and wrong. Ain't no in-between."
In that stout building lighted by electric bulbs, I envied Quier's conviction. I began to wonder whether he was, in fact, more qualified than I to judge matters of life and death, of right and wrong.
Midway through our conversation -- soon after saying, ''I could teach a rock to shoot" -- Quier fetched a pistol. He led me through an 850-pound door that he had hung so well it swung shut easily and silently. We walked along a row of unoccupied stalls and turned to face a cavernous shooting range. The floor around us was littered with spent cartridges.
Quier handed me the Ruger semiautomatic. He told me to draw a deep breath, exhale a bit, then stop. He told me to aim the holographic crosshairs in the scope at the center of the silhouette of a person on the target.
I squeezed the trigger hesitantly. After 10 shots, Quier took the gun, removed the clip and reloaded it.
I liked Quier, and I wanted him to like me. I wanted him to think I was a good shooter.
I fired the next rounds more quickly.
I could feel the world as Quier does, as a place to be protected and fought over.
I removed the clip. The next time, I loaded the clip. The next, I dropped the chamber into place and, in rapid succession while holding a single breath, fired 10 rounds.
Soon, I would walk from the concrete bunker into soft twilight and the prairie that runs, seemingly, without end. I would hear the cicadas sounding in the sweet air and remember that while a black-and-white view may make sense, may even be necessary when dug inside the bunker, it does not work, for me, in the green, gray world beyond.
But standing next to Quier in that echoing firing range, I wanted him to think I was capable, and worthy, of survival in his world.
He took the gun and placed a smooth succession of shots through the center of the silhouetted head. Then it was my turn again. I quickly emptied one clip into the target. I loaded a final clip and fired again.
Quier retrieved the target. My shots had blown a large hole in the right side of the silhouetted head. A bit off the mark, but consistent. I turned to Quier and smiled.
''Well," I said, ''he's blind in one eye, anyway."
Quier smiled, as though talking to a friend:
''There you go."
Contact Tom Haines at firstname.lastname@example.org.