As much as I’d like to wax effusive about the delights of the Frito pie, a shamefully delightful flavor bomb that pleases in equal measure to its feeling in the hand like a steaming dog turd, I suspect what people are going to talk about when they see our New Mexico episode is the sight of me—socialist sympathizer, leftie, liberal New Yorker—gleefully hammering away with an AR-15, an instrument of mayhem and loathing that also has the distinction of being America’s favorite weapon.
I like guns.
I like shooting them. I like holding their sleek, heavy, deadly weight in my hands. I like shooting at targets: cans, paper cutouts, and—even though I’m not a hunter—the occasional animal. Though I do not own a gun—I would if I lived in a rural area like, say, Montana—I consider owning one. Whatever my feelings about gun regulation—and my worries, as a father, about what kind of world my daughter will have to live in—I think I should have as many guns as I like. Even Ted Nugent should have guns. He likes them a lot. They make him happy—and as offensive, as I may find a lot of what comes out of his mouth, I’m pretty sure, based on firsthand experience, that he’s a responsible gun owner.
You, however, I’m not so sure about. And my next-door neighbor. I’m not so sure about him, either.
The upcoming New Mexico show is not about guns—though there are, as in much of America between the coasts, many guns there. This show is about the American cowboy ideal, about the romantic promise of the American West, about individuality, the freedom to be weird. New Mexico: where Spanish, Mexican, Pueblo, Navajo, and European cultures mix and have mixed—at times painfully, lately more easily. New Mexico: where artists, hippies, cowboys, poets, misfits, refugees, and tourists and every political stripe have interpreted the promise of its gorgeous wide-open spaces and the freedom they offer in their own very different ways. New Mexico is an enchanted land where people are largely free to create their own world.
Americans are traditionally suspicious—and even hostile—to government. Whether we admit it or not, we are, most of us, suckled on the idea that a “man” should solve his own problems—that there are simple answers to complex questions—and that if all else fails, taking the situation into his own hands—violently—is somehow “cleansing” and heroic. Whether playing cowboys and Indians as a child or watching films—we take these guys for our heroes, our icons: the lone gunman, the outlaw, the gangster, the ordinary man pushed too far. That’s a uniquely American pathology. And even for the ex-flower children who’ve escaped the cities of the East to put Indian feathers in their hair and turquoise around their neck—[putting on] a battered pair of cowboy boots is, on some level, buying into that ethos of a mythical West.
In New York, where I live, the appearance of a gun—anywhere—is cause for immediate and extreme alarm. Yet in much of America, I have come to find, it’s perfectly normal. I’ve walked many times into bars in Missouri, Nevada, Texas where absolutely everyone is packing. I’ve sat down to dinner many times in perfectly nice family homes where—at the end of dinner—Mom swings open the gun locker and invites us all to step into the backyard and pot some beer cans. That may not be Piers Morgan’s idea of normal. It may not be yours. But that’s a facet of American life that’s unlikely to change.
The conversation so far has illuminated, instead of any substantial issues, mostly the huge cultural divide between those like me who live in coastal cities with restrictive gun laws and the vast swath of Americans who live very differently. We don’t understand how they live. And they don’t understand how we could POSSIBLY live the way we live. A little respect for that difference might be a good thing. The contempt, mockery, and total lack of understanding for all those people “out there” by deep thinkers and pundits who’ve never sat down for a cold beer in a bar full of camo-wearing duck hunters are both despicable and counterproductive. We are too busy expressing disbelief at the ways others have chosen to live to ever really talk about the nuts and bolts of making America safer and less violent.
No middle ground is possible when even the notion of a sane, reasonable person who likes to shoot lots of bullets at stuff is seen as so foreign—so “other.” Maybe we would be better off—safer, kinder to one another—if we were Denmark or Sweden.
But we are not.
And riding across the incredible landscape of Ghost Ranch outside Santa Fe, seeing the canyons and arroyos that inspired Georgia O’Keeffe and the generations of artists, writers, and seekers who followed, one is especially glad we are not.
There are a lot of nice people in this country. A whole helluva lot of them, like it or not, own AR-15s. If we can’t have at least a conversation with them—sit down, break bread—about where we are going and how we are going to get there, there is no hope at all.
As far as the much more important question of where I stand on the question of red chile or green?
I’m green all the way. And New Mexico’s got the best.
This field note was previously published on Bourdain’s Tumblr on Sept. 27, 2013.