In 1981 my dad ordered a Chevy truck from a small town dealer, stripped bare of any amenities to keep the cost down. Not even the truck bed was included. He welded up a simple flatbed for it so that it could easily haul hay and pull cattle trailers. Years later, when it was not engaged in those activities, it was my school truck.
On most days, reminders of the truck’s working-class roots were there beside me. A lariat rope or a pipe wrench on the seat as I parked by the school in the morning. Maybe a wad of twine on the floor if I had fed the horses before class. Not exactly the symbol of privilege or status I saw in the movies of the time, but on all days from November to February there was a shotgun behind the seat, that gun hinted at my incredible wealth.
After basketball practice, on weekends, sometimes on the way to school, that old truck was my ticket to chasing pheasants. Western Kansas was full of them.
My father was a devotee of Aldo Leopold who planted CRP grass wherever the government would allow. His way of bandaging the nation’s prairie wounds. Our ranch held birds in nearly every crook and corner because of it.
On many evenings as I drove the dirt road home, I parked in the ditch then darted into a ravine or fence row with gun in hand. Rarely did I emerge without a rooster or two. On weekends we would limit out by noon or complain about a tough day. I did not yet understand real dog work, but I would involve my dog Daisy where I could. A half lab half springer with just enough birdiness.
I hunted pheasants beginning when I was a young boy, and I became an expert. Dedicating almost all spare time to the pursuit. I knew where to go on hot days, how the birds would fly with a north wind, how they tried to escape in every scenario, knew every patch of grass, what time they finished in the grain fields.
We counted birds in the hundreds. I took it all for granted, got spoiled I suppose. For all I knew, all kids grew up with wild birds and pocket full of 20-gauge shells. Like a lot of rich kids, I was too dumb to know how rich I was.
Occasionally my father hauled my brother and me to what felt like another world. 30 miles or more to another ranch up north where there was a beautiful creek bottom covered with giant old cottonwoods. Enormous trees that were used as corral corners for the big Texas cattle drives of the last century.
These groves were on the edge of quail country. Chasing native covey birds in the trees and brush was mesmerizing. It challenged me in a new way. My dog acted differently. The birds held better. When I was lucky enough to harvest quail, I cradled them as if they were an exotic gem from a far-off land. Reverence that is still within me today.
In my sophomore year of high school I got another rich kid break. Mr. Leach, my high school football coach, needed some company on a trip to quail country many hours to the south and east. He had a fine Brittany and I said yes in an instant. That was my first experience in great quail country with a pointer.
It was 1985 and the big city rich kids were hooked on cocaine, forgettable fashion and bad music. I was addicted to hunting wild quail with a pointing dog.
By the time I was in college the habit was worsening. Living in a dorm room surrounded by great habitat and coveys galore, I knew I needed my own pointing dog. I noticed an ad in a local paper, cobbled together every bit of cash I had, drove 35 miles and bought a 10-month-old Brittany for $125.
The runt of the litter was tethered by a chain to an austere outdoor kennel. He needed rescuing and I needed a friend that could hold a point. Neither of us could afford to be picky. I named him Michener and was shooting quail over him later that afternoon. The first of hundreds of such days we shared together.
We lived in a small dorm room where canines were not welcome. Many evenings were spent evading the hall monitors not friendly enough to look the other way. Once safe, we would examine maps with the aim of discovering new quail haunts. The next day, after a classroom test or sometimes despite one, we would slip away from campus. Day after day we rolled in the quail country of central Kansas.
Like a kid with fresh $100 bill, I held the place up to the light then close to my nose. I breathed it in just to make sure it was real. That was a magic place and time, with its wild birds and farmers who granted easy permission. With coveys darting over hills in the soft fall light and stray singles holding tight for Michener to point.
I was told that College was supposed to prepare a kid for the larger world. Lucky for me it did. Eventually I’d put my bird-chasing degree to work, but just out of school I struggled for footing in a world that required more than just hunting experience. Michener became a ranch dog and stayed back home with my parents as I bounced around looking for a place in the world. Within a year or two I found it when I moved to Montana. And just as I had when I landed in quail country, I soon located a birddog companion. I drove back to my rental house from Missoula with a new Britany puppy on my lap. Ruark and I would roam the west together for the next 16 years.
This dog became my new wealth advisor. He pushed me to discover another part of my incredible inheritance. A 640-million-acre estate, too much of it already pot-marked and two-tracked, but some of it still wild and unspoiled. I owned this place, or at least a part of it. I was now exploring our public lands and discovering some of the finest wild bird hunting on the planet. Another lucky stroke for the spoiled rich kid.
By the 90s, the world was flooded with the cash of the internet boom. I was enjoying my own fortune. Living in Montana pulling in just barely enough to buy shotgun ammo. Taking my quail experience and multiplying it just a savvy rich kid should.
This new land afforded me the opportunity to trek nearly 20 miles in a single day. In most places I granted my own permission. Even after many long days in a row I stood on high points and saw another month’s worth of vastness.
I came to love hunting sharptail, huns, sage grouse, chukar, quail and mountain grouse in the expanse of the west. Here I could unfold maps with public land measured in dozens of sections. I camped where I wanted. Walked for days on end. Learned where sharpies lived and what they ate. Watched them travel many miles on a single flight. I’d chased hun coveys over high ridges and through skree fields. Occasionally I’d stumble into a creek bottom and find a stray pheasant or two, a reminder of my days as a youngster. It was country big enough for an army so Ruark and I recruited more dogs. Any random day might turn into an adventure suitable for the finest publications with scenery too beautiful to describe. And I owned it, right along with every other American.
I often mentioned my wealth to old bird hunting friends. One of them made a living selling fine shotguns. Through his work he had been lucky enough to hunt across the globe. He lived in the pheasant and quail country of Nebraska and gladly took me up on an offer hunt in Montana. On one cold evening after a strenuous day and lots of shooting, the dogs were curled up in our camper. He and I were out under the stars near a small campfire, bourbon in hand marveling at constellations. He grabbed my arm, looked me in the eye and earnestly proclaimed, “Don’t ever believe that it gets any better than this.” He already knew what I was figuring out. I was living the life of a king on the budget of a pauper.
Wild quail and pheasants in America’s heartland remain very special to me. I still consider bobwhite hunting to be among the finest sporting experiences available to mankind. But there is something spiritual about public lands bird hunting.
I have been fortunate enough to spend hundreds of days on our vast public estate in the west. Exploring new haunts. Climbing new mountains. Seeing dogs point 9 or 10 different bird species in a single year. Hunting days or weeks without seeing another hunter. Shooting limits some days. Loving the tough days of exploration just about as much. Wearing out boots every year. Developing a synergy with big running bird dogs that is so magical it is impossible to describe.
A monetary system will never exist that can measure this sort of wealth.
In my formative days I was like a lot of spoiled kids, never realizing the fortunate accident of my birth. I flopped from one lucky bird hunting break to another without much consideration. But as time has gone on, and attacks on our public lands have increased I have grown to see my existence in a different light.
Yeah, I’m rich. Spoiled goddamned rotten, but so are all other Americans.
We all own the same places. We all have the same permission. As I realized what I owned I went to work fighting to protect what is mine, and yours. I assessed what was important in my life. I hunt it just as hard as I ever did but I now devote my life and politics to saving an inheritance.
It’s the great leveling field, maybe the last one left in the world. This is no exclusive club. You don’t need an aristocratic last name or an old-money trust fund. Fact is that new fancy boots and shiny cars don’t mean shit out here. No one cares what color you are or where you went to school. The implications are as beautiful as a Kansas covey drifting over the little bluestem at last light. Just like the kid in front of the school in the ranch truck, any old shotgun can be the symbol of your wealth too. Truth is, we were all born rich.