Originally published April 23, 2010, in The Washington Post

BUCKINGHAM COUNTY, Va. — He emerges from the woods, a vision in wool. His walking stick leads and his black boots follow. Underneath a tricorn hat, his white hair flows into a powder bag and rests on the shoulders of his frock coat. His waistcoat is navy, his britches yellow, his nose Roman, his bearing presidential. From their sagging camp chairs next to scuffed coolers — somewhere off Route 610, down a dirt road that coils into the sticks, past the sign that reads "END STATE MAINTENANCE" — his constituents watch him approach. Here, on a hot stretch of acreage converted into a 500-yard firing range, the father of our country meets his flock.

A hawk tilts on a thermal overhead. The people drink grape juice and eat granola bars as George Washington orates. He recalls mustering a militia for the struggle against England. A disarmed people is a helpless people, he says. He extols the vast natural resources of the American land, the courage of its citizens and the liberties for which his countrymen started fighting at Lexington and Concord 235 years ago.

"If you cannot make from all this a great and happy and prosperous nation," Washington intones, sweeping his arm past the trees, the grass, the sky and the shooting targets staple-gunned to plywood, "you only have yourselves to blame."

* * *

Sometimes it's useful to forget about polls, rallies and cable news and just drive — past the Beltway, past the suburbs, the exurbs, the rururbs, until traffic evaporates, until that nag on the GPS goes quiet. Drive until you idle onto a private shooting range in the dead center of Virginia, in a nest of back roads lined with historical markers for things that are no longer there. Drive and listen. Listen for what's at stake, for why people think the republic has gone astray, for how daylong stretches of shooting guns are a step on the path to national redemption.

It's 10 a.m. Saturday. The people are here, on their bellies on the ground, and the shell casings are flying. Bullets snip through plywood and disappear into a loamy berm. A breeze carries the stink of scorched lead and copper toward a fluttering clothesline of colorful revolutionary flags.

The youngest shooters are 10-year-old twins with shaggy black hair and the oldest is a 71-year-old with a gold earring. There are two doctors, retirees with bad backs and teenagers with acne, lone wolves in denim and wives in mom jeans, three friendly guys from the Virginia Citizen Militia, active and former military men, lifelong shooters and recent converts, all white and conservative but diverse in skill and class. They have given up their weekend to become better shots and, therefore, they think, better Americans.

This is the Appleseed Project, an educational program started in 2006 by a man named Fred Dailey, who runs a military surplus store in Ramseur, N.C., and is treasurer of the Revolutionary War Veterans Association, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the tradition of marksmanship via the country's origin story. Appleseed is "a solution for the American crisis," "a plan to save America." Its Web site is introspective, worried, resolute:

What kind of people were we, on April 19th, 1775? What kind of people are we, today? Do we still care about that first day? . . . Most Americans don't, and that may be why this country, without its anchor to the founders, has lost its way, and is now adrift, in danger of grounding against the rocks. . . . And who's gonna stop the drift?

The answer, apparently, is the several dozen folks in this field, plus the hundreds at the 99 other Appleseed shoots held across the country last weekend. There were 17 shoots in 2006, 48 in 2007, 150 in 2008 and 450 last year, according to organizers. More than 50 shoots are planned for next month, from Racine, Wis., to Fresno, Calif., to Biloxi, Miss., to Proctor, Vt. The goal is to grow until the whole country a) remembers where it came from, and b) is qualified to safely handle a rifle and shoot a human-head-sized target at 500 yards.

A freckled tower of a man named Eddie Wood asks everyone to circle up as the sun burns away the morning cloud cover.

"We'll learn how to shoot, we'll learn some history and we'll all go home uninjured," says Wood, a career firefighter and the state representative for Appleseed. In his big, soft Virginian voice, he reviews safety rules, says he expects to have a bunch of shooters attain a rifleman's score on an Army qualifying test tomorrow, and he hints at a special guest who will arrive at 2 p.m.

He points me out, so everyone knows there is a reporter present from the mainstream media, and emphasizes that the project is apolitical, that personal ideology has nothing to do with history or marksmanship. He finishes his remarks by mentioning a raffle. Prizes include a shooting jacket and a copy of "Glenn Beck's Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine."

Several dozen people attended an Appleseed Project shoot in Buckingham County, Va., o n Saturday, April 17, 2010.  This was one of 100 Appleseed shoots held around the country last weekend.  Photo by Michael S. Williamson (The Washington Post)

Several dozen people attended an Appleseed Project shoot in Buckingham County, Va., on Saturday, April 17, 2010. This was one of 100 Appleseed shoots held around the country last weekend. Photo by Michael S. Williamson (The Washington Post)

We shoot on our bellies, then our butts. Hot shell casings singe necks, waists, ankles. We learn how to use a rifle sling. We learn to trust our "natural point of aim." We learn about minutes and clicks and how to align our scopes, all under the cautious eyes of Wood and five other Appleseed instructors, who refer to a binder labeled "Turning America Back into a Nation of Riflemen."

Aims improve. Each time the line walks to retrieve targets, the bullet-hole groupings are tighter and more centered. It's addictive, this collective pursuit of precision.

Around 1 p.m. we break for lunch, which means a history lesson. A 33-year-old instructor named Matt Maynard relates the story of how the revolution began, using David Hackett Fischer's 1995 book "Paul Revere's Ride" as a guide and throwing in emotional flourish.

Minutemen Capt. Isaac Davis "gets his gun off the mantel, kisses his wife goodbye," Maynard says, then stops, his eyes watering. "It's very difficult for me because I don't have children, and I can't imagine doing that" — he swallows his emotion — "but he did."

The instructors get into the gritty details of what it was like to live and fight during the revolution, how men and women banded together -- reliant on self yet devoted to their neighbor. The special guest, George Washington, arrives at 2, gives his speech, then takes questions. It's like Disneyland meets civics class.

Washington is Richmond resident Kevin Grantz, who runs Virginia Patriots, a historical interpreter troupe. He tailors his speech to his audience. If it's executives, he'll get into banking. If it's Appleseed, he'll touch on the Second Amendment. If he's stumping for a shopping mall, he'll herald the "revolutionary expansion" of a retail concourse. He'll give the same speech to another Appleseed shoot in Virginia Beach the next day.

Just after 5 p.m., everyone is sore, dirty and sunburned from more than six hours of shooting. People pack up and head back to the main road. Wood and others drive to nearby New Canton and have dinner on the back deck of a restaurant.

So from what exactly is Appleseed saving America?

"Apathy," Wood says. "We just want the citizens of our country to be involved so they have a say in what's going on."

On a TV over the cash register, former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate Mike Huckabee talks about motivating kids to learn about the Constitution, which he says is under attack. The guys at the table talk about guns: caliber, size, kick, feel. Wood's wife and 2-year-old daughter Reagan (named after Ronald) join the table. The James River, the first American river to be named by European settlers, is visible through a grove of trees, cascading as the light fades.

* * *

A sliver of moon rises in the dusk. A whippoorwill sings. Shaun Klebold and his 16-year-old son, Collin, eat tacos by a campfire near the range. They drove from Winchester at 4:45 a.m. for their first Appleseed shoot. This is all new to them, they say, having grown up in urban areas on the West Coast. They recently moved to Virginia, found Appleseed online and wound up here, in the middle of nowhere, to explore their heritage through the scope of a rifle.

"The nation was built by marksmen, and people had to shoot to live," says Shaun, a Navy veteran and pilot for a major airline. "Now we don't have to." They think something was lost because of that — something that connects neighbor to neighbor, something that safeguards personal liberty.

Carl McCadams, a clockmaker from Keysville, walks up to the campfire and sits down. He has done two Appleseed shoots and recently became an instructor. He practices rifle positioning at home. Dry-firing at TV news is a good stress reliever, he says.

"I have a saying," McCadams says. "We can pray, we can vote and we can shoot. And I don't know if voting works anymore. We elect people and they don't listen. And it's not a race thing. It's not a party thing."

Only the whippoorwill responds, so McCadams monologues.

"The country I was born into doesn't exist anymore," he says. "People could walk around and they were much safer. People had morals and values. . . . If it wasn't for the skill of riflemen, we'd still be speaking the King's English. Appleseed just teaches us, and you take from it what you want. . . . What happens when Israel bombs Iran? Gas will be $50 a gallon. What's that gonna do? People will be breaking into your house. . . . I'm a clockmaker and I look at a clock and understand how it works. I want to know why all these welfare programs could work for us. . . . And then the governor gets hell for Confederate History Month. My daughter learns about Rosa Parks in February. They can be proud of their history. Let me be proud of mine."

Silence, then the whippoorwill.

"Whatcha all think about that health-care thing?" McCadams asks.

Silence, then the whippoorwill.

"I don't like it at all," Shaun says.

Shaun Klebold and his 16-year-old son, Collin, camped overnight for the two-day Appleseed Project shoot, their first. They recently moved to Winchester, Va.  Photo by Michael S. Williamson (The Washington Post)

Shaun Klebold and his 16-year-old son, Collin, camped overnight for the two-day Appleseed Project shoot, their first. They recently moved to Winchester, Va. Photo by Michael S. Williamson (The Washington Post)

A toe-tingling frost covers the ground at dawn Sunday. The cars start rolling in around 8. Richie and Stephanie Taylor plop camp chairs, a cooler and a toolbox of ammo at the left end of the shooting line. They're hooked on improving their shot, they say. Each round boosts confidence. The Taylors were lifelong Long Islanders who moved to Scottsville for open space and lower taxes. This is their second shoot. Richie now hands out Appleseed fliers at sporting shops and Wal-Marts to spread the word.

"It's freedom, it's liberty, it's community-minded," says Richie, a retired auto mechanic, soaking up the friendly chatter as participants unpack their weapons.

But can't people be liberty-loving, community-minded individuals without owning a gun?

"How's things in D.C.?" asks Stephanie, who wears a flag brooch on her denim lapel and has recently been fascinated by the documentary "Food, Inc.," which exposes the ugliness of industrial food production. "You worried about anything?"

Within 1,500 feet of my house off U Street NW, total crime is down over the past year but armed robbery is up 40 percent. Two friends were mugged five blocks from my house this month. The Taylors smile sympathetically. A man in a cowboy hat overhears the conversation and jumps in.

"It's something we've lost," says Troy Hayes, 64, a 32-year veteran of the CIA who lives in Warrenton. "We're buffeted by Saran Wrap. We've lost our connection to nature."

But why guns?

"It's more than just guns," he says. "People have forgotten where our country came from, just like they've forgotten where their meat comes from. Shooting your own deer, feeling its warm blood — it makes you reflect on where things come from."

By 9:30 a.m., we're firing round after round as yellow butterflies dance in the line of fire. Instructors shout advice in our ears. The crack of Ruger 10/22 long rifles and the boom of .30-caliber M1s echo against the trees.

One thing clashes with the colonial-bucolic tableau. Just beyond the tree line, dozens of rusted barrels poke through brambly undergrowth. Someone asks instructor David "Woody" Woodring about it.

"This was a petroleum disposal site in the '60s," says Woodring, a sawmill operator from Gold Hill. "You can't develop the land. You can't farm it. It's perfect for a range."

* * *

Some people at Appleseed just like to shoot. It's fun. Simple as that.

Some volunteer to explain why pulling a trigger makes them feel better. We're borrowing money from China and giving it to Haiti, they say. The health-care bill controls citizens who've worked to build their own lives, they say. The Second Amendment should probably be the First Amendment, they say, because if you can't defend yourself from tyranny, you can't open your mouth. Someone or something will be coming for us once "the bottom falls out" or the "poop hits the fan." Regardless of its form, the threat will be met by citizens who are confident in their firing skills, who are buoyed by collective memory of heritage, who know what we were and what we've become. You need only look down the barrel of a gun to see the difference, they say.

Whatever's going on out here, it's a shadowy target, tough to draw a bead on.

"Circle up," says Eddie Wood, easing into a closing speech. He congratulates those who attained "rifleman" status and reminds us that the colonists "were not fighting a war for themselves — they were fighting a war for us. In their honor we'd like to ask you to pass the word around, to wake people up. I could care less how you vote. Just vote. I have my own opinions but I'm not gonna tell you what they are."

"And if you don't agree with him, you're wrong," somebody says, and everyone laughs, then packs up and drives off, past the rusted barrels, past the historical markers and over the James River, on their way to wake people up.