In the newspaper industry back before journalists were pecking on computers, the insertion of -30- at the bottom of every story was common practice. It meant the end.
Thirty is also the number of years, almost to the day, that we’ve hunted together. Thirty years. How can it be? We greet this realization with incredulity sprinkled with gratitude. Peppered with memory. All of this swirls as I drop the old boy off at the top of the ridge on the high road, a celebration hunt of sorts for mentor and protege, for 30 years of hunting and the outdoors together.
Blue grouse live in the slide rock and currants of the northwest slope of this ridge we’ve hunted together for years. Doug fir twisted by hard living shoulder the sky. It is not an easy walk, but it is doable and simple.
“Work down the ridge and I’ll meet you at the truck by the cattle-guard.”
It is a move we’ve repeated many times, and an easy plan for 50-something legs. Not for 80-something cane-assisted legs.
This thought comes to me only hours later, hours after there is no sign of him, hours where mild concern has roiled up into near-panic, like some evil brew atop a witch’s stove.
It is a hunt that for me would be less than an hour, dropping down the ridge, following Mabel and Edna, moving quickly on birdy dogs, swinging on big rooster blues peeling down between the big fir trees. Down, down. Gravity as friend, not foe. Quick, easy. Rendezvous. Move on the next spot.
I have an image of him in my mind, the last glimpse. An old man and a bird dog hobbling down a logging road, cane in one hand, Superposed 20 in the other. When he doesn’t show up at the truck after an hour, then two, then three, it becomes the image that haunts me. Concern becomes oxygen to embers and a flame leaps in the brain, inventing thoughts Did I have a premonition? Is this the last time I’ll ever see him? Is this the last sight picture of him?
When you go into the woods with men of middle age, you don’t think about such things. But octogenarians, enough rawhide ones, make one take stock of things like medical certifications and emergency kits.
The first hour, I climb the ridge, expecting to run into him half way down. Too many years of shooting pistols and rifles and shotguns has left him deaf. “I can’t hear thunder,” he tells people as he leans in, cupping. So I do not yell for him because I have to climb the ridge. Twice, then three times. Need my breath. Three hours goes to four, and concern darkens to thick anxiousness. There is just no way that he came down this mountain without me seeing him, or at least his all-white dog.
I drive back to where I left him, then ease the diesel down the road, hoping that maybe he will hear the truck despite his auditory challenges. I stop at places in the two-track where the dust lies an inch thick like talc and look for tracks. None. Drive back down. Climb the ridge again. Six hours. It is September, but it is high country and it is cool and there were rumors of a storm moving in. As always, he is out there with no water, no matches, no food. No need to carry supplies on such a short trip—the epic oft-repeated words of the hypothermed and exhausted. All he had to do was climb off the ridge and meet me at the truck, but everything is seen through my eyes, not his.
At seven hours, I’m thinking about what I’m going to do when I find his body, about the poetry of an old man dying on his last hunt. It is not an easy feeling, not a romantic visage for my addled soul. I don’t want this to be the way we say good bye because we didn’t say good bye. Goodbye is for the living, I guess because he might want to go this way, up on a ridge with a good gun and a good bird dog. Maybe a blue grouse in the pouch. But it sure isn’t how I want it. Is this the end? Surely, this can’t be the end? This isn’t -30-.
I start thinking about how I’m going to get a cell signal to get some help up here, how many hours I have to drive in the wrong direction to get that signal, leaving him on the mountain. Start to think logistics about something that may not have a good ending.
I waft the concern away from these flames for a minute, then decide to hop in the truck again. Leaving water and a cooler full of beer and food where the truck was. Drive up the ridge again, thinking about first aid training, about what I’m going to tell his son, wondering if there is such a thing as sudden-onset dementia.
And there, at long last, he is, walking down a random off-shot road, cane in hand, tired, sore, with his dog and his gun, coming toward me. Thirty will click toward 31 after all. Not the end.