At an archery tournament in Thimphu, capital of the Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, two teams take turns firing at targets at opposite ends of a long field. The next contestant takes aim, surrounded by a bunch of men dressed, like him, in traditional Bhutanese robes and Nike sneakers. They shout at him. It isn’t encouragement.
“They are his opponents,” my guide explains. “They are trying to put him off.”
“What are they saying?”
“The usual things: ‘Can we move the target closer for you?’ ‘Can you see past your big nose?’ ‘Your aim is always bad; your wife told me last night.’ That kind of stuff.”
Archery is a Bhutanese national obsession. The previous day I had experienced that obsession for the first time, almost fatally. Walking a mountain trail, I noticed a wooden target positioned innocuously beside the path. With a shrill whisper, an arrow streaked in front of me and thudded into it. I looked across the valley where a young local waved his bow apologetically.
Humans have been shooting arrows from bows for at least 10,000 years, and probably much longer. Archery was an effective means of hunting (and still is, in parts of Africa, the Amazon and the United States), and for centuries it was also the preferred method of frontline warfare.
With the invention of firearms, the humble bow faded from use. A few purists in America have kept the hunting tradition alive. By chance in a motel parking lot I met Ed, a West Virginian who had been stalking deer with a crossbow. He proudly showed me his most recent prey, slung over the table inside his RV, a bolt still embedded in its flank.
At Olympic level, archery is formalized and highly technical. The competitors take aim in studious silence. They employ a recurve bow, a variation of the old longbow favored by medieval European armies. Founded in 1879, the sport’s governing body in the United States is USA Archery (http://www.usarchery.com).
Ed owned a recurve bow too, though he only used it for recreation. The crossbow was his serious weapon. “I’ll teach ya the recurve,” he said, and proceeded to set up a target at the base of the motel sign. And so, in this unlikely setting, with this unlikely teacher, I had my first lesson in archery.
After firing a couple of duds, I managed to shoot an arrow straight and true. It thwacked into the center of the target. The elation I felt was as addictively satisfying as hitting a great golf shot. I couldn’t wait to try again.
And so I understood why the Bhutanese get so worked up about archery; a team sport, it puts the focus on the skill and nerve of each individual. The surrounding pantomime makes for one of the world’s great sporting spectacles.
In the motel parking lot there was no spectacle; just two guys drinking beer and firing off a few arrows. But this was not the beginning of a new passion for me. It ended ignominiously.
A cop passing on the highway spotted us and turned back. He knew we were probably breaking some law, but couldn’t decide precisely which, so he let us off with a warning and told us to pack up our gear. That’s when the trouble really began. Ed ambled over to retrieve his target and discovered that our arrows had nailed it to the motel signpost.
Together we labored to extract the firmly embedded arrows. The cop leaned against his vehicle and offered his commentary. It wasn’t encouragement.
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