Category Archives: Open country
Opening day for sharpies. You escape work early. Pull the necessary gear out of the closet. Instantly the dog knows. He sits by the door, stoically, not the least bit worried about whether he’s going on this adventure or not. He’s maturing.
A half-mile long plume of dust kicks up behind you. Ryan Bingham sings of bread and water, of dessicated places. In the actively worked fields, the last cut is happening. You pull over for large equipment on a road with no shoulder, leaning into the ditch.
Warm enough to hunt in jeans, shirt sleeves rolled up. You have the place to yourself; something that still isn’t hard to find around here. You wonder if/when this will change. Will you grow old watching one cherished spot after another disappear, as those before you have?
The dog is learning to slow down at times, beginning to learn finesse. This is new. The first bird gets up not ten minutes from the rig. It’s so close you have to wait to pull the trigger, lest you sluice it. It folds and falls. Clearly a first day of the season bird, you think. In a few weeks it won’t be so easy. The second bird offers a long passing shot, just far enough out that you ponder for a second whether to take it or not. Swing through and lead it and hope a skeet choke will get it there. It plummets into the grass as feathers blow back toward you in the breeze.
And that’s it. You’ve limited, short but still sweet. You stop at the river and clean the birds. Sharpie stink on the hands for the first time of the season, and as it hits your nostrils, a flood of memories from previous years come back, reminding you that more than just fun, something about this is essential to feeding your soul.
You turn down a dirt road you’ve never been down before, just because you’re in no hurry to get home. Crumbling old homesteads intersperse with sporadic spec homes, their yards having gone wild, weathered realty signs leaning at odd angles. But there are still small pockets of errant field, hedgerows, aspen stands that might hold a few birds – just the kind of pockets best hit in a clandestine manner, alone, with one dog. Gun and run, like fishing the illicit golf ponds of your youth.
You finally hit pavement again and the pointer curls up in the back, content that he’s done what he needed to. Before long you can hear his deep breathing over the Random Canyon Growlers pining about being in the doghouse again. Soon, you’ll follow suit, the kind of tired you welcome and savor. October is always at least a month too short. This year, you aren’t going to waste a minute of it.
In the autumn, you dream of Huns bursting from the rubble that was the old milk house, and you carry your shotgun cradled ready. You follow the dogs, and they follow their noses.
But now the land is sharp green from rains that don’t seem to quit and when you go, you don’t follow the dogs, they follow you, and they don’t pick up scent, they pick up the bothersome beggars’ ticks burs from last years dried stalks of houndstongue. You go where you want and sometimes, you walk among the old buildings and think about a different time, a different era.
There’s a hand-dug well and fifteen feet down, water. It is rock-lined and covered with rotting timbers. Peering down into those depths gives a tremor in your soul. A dark, wet, fearsome cavern. You think about being down in there, digging the damned thing by hand, and placing each one of those rocks. You think about the darkness, but then you look up and above, is freedom. Above, sky. Lots of sky.
Once, you ran into the old man whose grandparents homesteaded the place. 1898. Part of the Desert Land Act of 1877 which quadrupled the Homestead Act’s woeful 160 acres to 640 if you could irrigate the place within three years. Up on the mountain, you have seen the evidence of this – old dams and a series of ditches dug by hand and a walk-behind plow. Tough men. Tough women. Tough horses. Grandpa died in 1919 and Grandma in 1932. The old place was burned down by teenagers on a lark before the Second World War.
In this early summer in this new century, before the cows come out on the land and before the grass really comes, you ride your best saddle gelding and fix fence to keep the cows in and the neighbor’s cows out. You ride and you think of homesteaders because it’s too early to think about Huns and when they start pairing up, you quit bringing the dogs because you want the Huns to marry well, be happy, and raise lots of children. Besides, you are tired of picking burs.
As spring comes, you watch it coming: pasque flowers at first, up in the timber edges and sage benches. Phlox next, then spring beauties then avalanche lilies, then marsh marigolds up on the edge of the crick where young aspen are budding and ready to burst forth like words from a pen. It is a cacophony of chlorophyll.
Each day as you ride past the old place, with its scattered rock foundations and its still-stout railroad-tie post and rail fence, you think about hard land and hard people and tough living. And then you find it. Ridden past it many times, but now, up in the saddle, it is obvious and big: a patch of homestead rhubarb, 100 years or more old, growing out there feral among the sagebrush and spike fescue. Untended and still growing, still going, still here long after the humans who planted it have left and been forgotten except only in the mind of an old man who once was a boy who remembers. Everything else, every companion plant in the garden, has been gone for decades. Save rhubarb. Still here, still growing. How long since a pie cooled on a countertop that was made from that rhubarb? How long has that plant been growing and waving its big leaves and bright red stems in the Montana summer breeze? How long since laughter of children? How long since it was watered by hand with water from a hand-dug well?
One evening as the sun tilts west and it is still daylight at nine, you decide to take a drive out there, out west of your place and you walk among the sage with a plastic sack in your hand and a doe antelope with twin fawns barks at you from the ridgetop and you bend to the plant and pull a few stems, enough for one pie. You don’t want to pull it all. It needs to survive, as it has for more than a century. You will tell the old man about that rhubarb and he will smile and remember. A survivor.
The road there sings anticipation. Dogs grumble from the shell, butts and junk sniffed, dominance decided but as tentative and thin as September ice. In the cab, laughs and Dew and miles to go. This year a new place relayed by another with “don’t tell any-damn-one caution,” a place of memories yet made and you push it, this road. It stands in your way, between you and the reason, between the dogs and the birds, in the way of the canvas that awaits your paint and your brush. So you grasp steering wheel, cradle caffeinated drink in your crotch and shovel mini mart popcorn. At the end of the road, you will work it off on canyon rim and shale.
Once in a while you find a safe and lone ranch road–”no service”–and you pull down it and stand spraddle-legged and piss on cracked gumbo and tumble-weed scrap and let the pack out to piss on each other and sniff ass and walk stiff-legged around the stranger and grouch at him. Goddamnitttttttt, c’mon, Ike. Sonafabitch. And back onto the road, slab concrete beating radial in three-quarter time. When finally you hit dirt, ten hours of truck seat imprinted on your butt, BLM map folded out in your lap, camp circled in pencil, ridges marked with “CKR,” you crack the first beer and crescendo down gravel-clay. The dogs up on all four, nose to the crack-wind coming through. Wagging, whining. The blank sheet awaits your notes, maestro.
A week later the road home. Carrying one hundred pounds of Nevada gumbo in the undercarriage. One spare flat. Rock break. Cab stale cigar and jounced beer. Feet hot and damp in two-day socks. Legs tired and complaining of the hop from gas pump to steering wheel. Dogs flat and dead out, not moving for ten hours and then only to stiff-sore piss and back to bed. No whine no grumble. Founder on Winnemucca Basque, sleep in Motel Six between pipeline workers grilling Sunday dinner on homemade grills in pickup beds. Up at 3 into a gray dawn as overcast as your mood. Heading out, heading home and the road slapping on rubber . It went too quickly, this road, and a year is a long time.
It wasn’t a conscious decision; we had merely started moving in slightly different trajectories, and in this sort of country that means that before long we were almost a mile, and a deep gorge, away from each other. I look across the rim at the small figures, the even smaller brown and white dots that represented the dogs. Even at this distance it is obvious that they are covering ten times the amount of ground that the humans are.
I find reasonably stable footing amidst the slippery skateboards of sandstone talus piled atop each other, and look over the rim. Even in February, the creek flows assertively. Yes, people would have lived here, and probably would have done pretty well at it, considering the harshness that lay to the horizon beyond.
In the distance, the rooftops and glass reflections of a border gambling town can be seen. I am less than an hour hike from the road, but I know that no one has likely stood where I am in a long time. They come in vehicles of sealed, conditioned air, never leaving pavement, and head straight to the dim cacaphony of casinos where it could be any time of night or day. Indeed, this lack of any reference to time of day is the deliberate strategy from the casino’s point of view. And then, broke, satiated, guilty, elated, hungover or maybe even lucky, they get back in their cars and move on, their feet likely never touching real soil, their menthol-pickled lungs taking in as little fresh air as possible throughout the entire endeavor.
I drop below the band of rimrock and continue to parallel the ridge, the creek now audible below. Here and there are concentrations of tiny obsidian flakes on the ground, doubtless in the very same spot where they initially fell, as someone ages before fashioned a tool or killing instrument of some sort. I continue on, lost in various thoughts of the people who used to live here, losing recollection of the quarry I came here to find, not even sure exactly where my dog is. It feels good to be alone in this place, walking, consumed by the moment, surrounded by scatterings of human evidence, reminded that I am but one in a long chain that stretches way back. Something incongruous catches my eye and I bend down. A tiny chert arrowhead, perfectly formed.
I move on, still deep in thought, looking down as I pick my way along, only half-heartedly still in the hunt. Hank pops over the rim above to check on me and then disappears again.
And then suddenly, there it is.
I stand there stunned as everything around me slows and focuses in the middle, on what lies in front of me, blurred around the edges, like an old tintype. Despite the mid-day temps hovering around freezing, it is clear that the cat hasn’t been dead for long. It is also clear that this had not been a quick death; that nothing dies quickly this way. There would have been hours, if not days, of struggle, of life slowly ebbing, of creeping cold, until this. Wind moves the soft fur, and I can’t resist – I kneel down and run my fingers through it. There is this brief, purely sensory moment where my thinking, judgmental mind is as numb as the carcass before me. This incredibly soft coat. I want to continue running my hand through it and not think about anything, but thoughts begin to creep back. I stand up and wonder if the trapper is watching me from somewhere in the distance. This is easy country to remain undetected in.
I try to get it back, but the rest of the day is not the same. The usual burning desire to continue hunting and covering country has been dimmed to a flicker and all I want to do is put the gun and the rest of it all away and go sit somewhere with a flask of whiskey and a good view and not think about anything but the biting February wind chafing my face and the little chert arrowhead, smooth between my fingers.
It begins with hearing the creak of the stove door opening, with someone throwing a few sticks on the coals from last night. Before long, you hear a little crackling and periscope one eye toward the still tightly drawn opening of your sleeping bag to find a greyish hint of daylight. No one really moves much, but a gradual, collective realization that morning has arrived seems to pervade. Before long, it’s almost too warm in the wall tent to stay inside the bag, and a restlessness follows and people start to emerge. A dog stretches before curling up and laying down again, a little closer to the heat source.
Muscles are stiff, and there’s the faint remnant of retribution from last night’s whiskey, preventing much conversation. Or coordination, for that matter. An empty bottle or two get knocked over in an effort to get the coffee pot on the stove. Someone throws on boots and trips over the tent door, cursing, on a relief mission.
Presently, frying garlic and onions awake what is left of dormant senses and the mental fog begins to lift. Sausage and peppers get added to the mix and take it to a new level. Something which probably wouldn’t be funny in an otherwise full state of consciousness cracks all of you up. Soon glorious caffeine is infusing the body with fresh fire. Yesterday’s beatdown, traversing steep cliffs, slipping and falling on greasy rock, and the ensuing aches, forgotten. Tails start to wag and a cup of coffee goes over. So the day begins anew and nothing else really matters in high, windswept country where humans and dogs and chukar sometimes cross paths.
There were long hours behind the wheel. There was more snow than we’d expected. There were roads that could have stuck our vehicle for days. Roads we turned back from. There were blown shots on what should have been easy covey flushes. There was a jaw-dropping running point by a setter that has taken her craft to the level of artistry. There was cold, biting, open country wind that leaves you feeling ragged and still slightly on edge when you finally get out of it. There were practical jokes, which some found funnier than others. There was setting up camp in the dark, in the snow. There were deep discussions about the relative virtues of one cheap beer over another. There was forgotten dog food (yours truly…). There were, at the end of 3 days with the combined effort of 3 guns and 6 dogs, half a dozen chukar in the cooler.
But then, there were also moments like this:
I can smell creosote bush and prickly pear and somewhere in the western mountains, a fire is burning.
Under it all lies the smell of dust.
It’s 10,000 years of grass, fires from an eon, elk sheds and mule deer scat, feathers and foot prints, all ground and desicated into the gritty essence of this place, rising in small clouds at every step.
We are near the ridgetop, past the two benches that from below seemed the summit.
Ahead, the dog bares her teeth and nips at her foot. I whistle her in and stop for moment to pull the cholla from her foreleg.
I fish the pliers out, grab it and pull, check her mouth, pour a splash of water for us both and then we’re moving again.
The dust that is this place has settled into my sweat-soaked hair and across her muzzle. We are coated in fine, pottery-like clay.
Looking west I can see the the river and just this side, the alluvial fan stretches out before us like a crimson peacock tail. The arroyo we came up looks minor now, it’s 10-foot rock walls insignificant. There were birds in that place, but they’re here now, seeking refuge.
Rounded live oak trees dot the grassy mesa and there are junipers and cholla intermixed. A few century plants tower above us, their seed pods showering flat brown seeds when the wind gusts.
The thermometer said 16 degrees when we parked the truck, but it’s damn hot now. We stop again, a little water for me and a little for her. We brought a gallon, and if I stay out of it, we’ll cover most of this big expanse of grass before we are forced to drop off the edge and back to the truck at dark.
This place asks much, and we will give it.
Not to give all that is asked is to remain in the truck. To stay low in the sandy bottom, to perpetuate disbelief at coveys on the mesa.
We give what is asked and in return, we get more than dust.
There is just this. Windswept cheatgrass and sage, gradually ascending, wrinkled and folded in places like a well-used blanket. In the distance, steep rock and dark forest and blue grouse and elk and cougar all move under cover, but out here it is only the sheer vastness that aides concealment.
The steady gait of a horse, covering time and distance you’re unaccustomed to on foot; a horse that exudes the sort of disposition you want to take to the horizon. The rhythmic creak of saddle leather mixing with the wind and gurgle of ravens, trading precedence with your thoughts.
Dogs, possessed of incomprehensible drive, vacuuming the arid ground for scent before you. A sudden point – the kind of full speed to a stop that makes you think the dog is going to flip ass over tea kettle with the abruptness of it. Men, horses and dogs all stop in honor. A quick dismount, a few steps forward, a release command. A bird gets up and then tumbles over the knoll.
You can make more of it, if you’re so inclined, but really, sometimes, it is far better when it is just this.