There was a time when the pinnacle of challenge was a wind-torn butte somewhere in the middle of a western desert and a bird that laughed in your face and ran off before your dog was in sniffing range. There was a time when trial was measured in heart rates and quick-twitch muscle screaming under vertical gain and loss. When the toughest upland experience imaginable was bounded by sagebrush and cliff face, cheat grass and wide open sky. When the gun came to the shoulder and carried three shells because those Afghan partridge always rose in spurts and left a double gun man empty while a late-riser came from his feet. This is how you measured things, wild chukar on public land and twenty thousand feet of vertical gain and loss in a day.
That bar is no more.
There is a place where alders and poplar and highbush cranberry and dogwood grow as thick as canine hair. Step into this tangle with aspirations and they will evaporate like a woodcock rising before a point into a blizzard of leaves. There are no mountains here, but there sure are a lot of gawd-damned logs. Logs slick with rain, traps for ankle sprains and shin-barks. Some spattered with the leavings of a drumming grouse, others splashed with paint from the arse of the strangest little game bird God ever created. Somewhere off in the distance—two hundred yards?—there’s the chime of a bell and then all is quiet. Distance is a trickster here, for the bell is on the neck of a dog that is really only forty yards away. Might as well be a mile. Slip and stagger in that direction while the devil himself slaps you repeatedly about the face with a willow switch. Where is the dog? She could be at your feet or she could be in the next county. So Beelzebub gives you a quick poke in the eye with a sharp stick and sends you in a general direction, both hands on the gun, anticipation in your heart. You have entered Lucifer’s woodlot. The dog, a big-country lady you had fretted may not adapt to close quarters, is on point. She has adapted. You needn’t have worried.
You, on the other hand, have not adjusted a thing except your rain-soaked crotch-pinching pants. Your fabled and treasured autoloader is a hindrance but a convenient excuse for poor shooting. You punch shots at shadows, kill trees, scare leaves from stem, misfire and fumble for shells dropped into a shag-carpet of impenetrable understory. Might as well shoot that gun straight up into the sky as fast as you can. It’s like swinging a baseball bat from inside a coffin. You touch not a single feather. The timberdoodles dip and dive a spastic sky-dance and when the gun is at your shoulder it feels as erratic as a paintbrush might in the hand of Jackson Pollock. Twice, three times, four, you have rock-solid points on ruffed grouse and they are gone as quickly as one might read a Hemingway sentence. There are no windows for swinging a shotgun, just a quick up and out and gone. The burst of seven-and-a-halfs takes an alder midsection and the devil slaps you smartly on the nose with his alder quirt. Ticks crawl everywhere. On your pant legs, on the dog’s head, up under what’s left of your hairline. Your feet have been wet for three hours and most of the forest—really just an outright swamp—is a boot-top deep puddle.
It’s raining again and you have no flipping idea where the truck is and you might, in fact, be bleeding.