I’ve decided to drink only Mexican beer this year. Because after stumbling around on the Mexican border with my two thousand dollar dog, my five hundred dollar boots, my fifty dollar jeans, my fifteen hundred dollar shotgun, and a whole bunch of other shit like a forty thousand dollar pickup truck, I feel a little bit like a pansy. Ask yourself, could you head out into strange desert country in a pair of Chuck Taylor-knock offs with a piece of black plastic for a tent-sleeping bag combo, a gallon jug of water and a few cans of food? Could you dodge God knows what, God knows who, sleep out in strange territory, go miles without water, slip into a foreign country where you don’t know a word of the language and they are gunning for you 24-7, and survive? Hell I sure as shit couldn’t. So, I’m drinking Mexican beer. Because I like the idea of supporting those kinds of people. Because bettering oneself should be toasted. Gente valiente.
It stretches out. Snow-covered. Big rigs. Waver of their slipstream. Timing the drive to avoid the rush hour of the big cities. The crazies. The frantic.
Settle into it. The wheel and the seats, the windshield.
Spitters, the plain ones. No, the salt and pepper. Have you tried sweet chili? A quick meal of nothing special just fuel for the tank and then back at it, the dogs walked at an off ramp where a gravel road leads off into the snow. The detritus of a society on the move whipping in the west wind. Diapers. A shoe. Old Milwaukee empties. A crumpled up soft-pack. A flip-flop. There’s always a flip-flop. Then the road again. Interstate four-lane.
Trade off at the wheel, lost in an audio book and then a podcast and then another podcast and four hundred miles wash away under the tires. How, we wonder, did we ever do without them? With only an eight-track? Then a cassette? Then a CD player? How did we do without cruise control? Without chargers? Without iPhones? How was the road possible? Was it longer?
In the darkness, the end of the snow is not seen but the next time the dogs and their humans need to pee, there is no snow. Only greasewood and tumbleweed and the trash of the world on the move exposed to the wide open. Burger wrappers. A flip-flop.
On through the night. Zoned at the wheel, reflector posts become hitchhikers in the darkness then become reflector posts. A funny sign: Johnson Wash. Laughter edgy, crazy sleepless. Rumble strips thrum. Trade off, buy more spitters and coffee at the next stop. Forgot water. Suffer a bit, then forget water. Spitters and coffee.
Dawn is the desert. Pastel dawn and cars and trucks with cactuses on their license plates pass. Flatbeds with lawnmowers instead of snow machines. Out there in the creosote, there are more birds flitting. A coyote on a ridge. Snow on distant peak, a frosting of it now instead of the entire canvas of the landscape whitewashed.
Up for some Mexican? Dreaming of eggs rancheros, Christmas style. No good Mexican food north of the Grand Canyon. But south the diet is all Mexican, all the time. Rellenos especially. But the first town has a Cafetería that doesn’t open until 8. There will be no waiting, no matter the measure of the gut-grumble. The breakfast burrito at the cowboy cafe is a bitter disappointment. The road again.
The road does not lead to food alone. The road leads to the quail and the last days of a long season that started up against Canada. The season will end with Mexico on the edge of it. Need a nap. But. We are here. Oak and grass and century plant skylined. We will hunt. Then sleep.
It’s a strange world when you wake up one morning and discover you’ve become an internet Meme and don’t even really know what that is. Tosh Brown took this photo of me and my old dog Sage on the Rocky Mountain Front a few years back. Sage is long gone, but still famous, I guess. This meme showed up on Facebook the other day and I can’t say I disagree with it.
No middle-aged man should scramble through the bramble on his hands and knees looking for a wayward wounded pheasant. It’s a mismatch.
Nothing runs like a pheasant. Nothing hides like a pheasant. The odds lie with the bird and briar.
Bleeding and cussing.
But then my little dog appears at my side as I slither through a tight runway in the chokecherry, roughly following the path of the departed runaway. She’s at my heels and there’s not enough room for her to pass. So I lie flat. No shit. The dog vaults, steps on my head, and passes over me in hot pursuit of a rooster I cannot see but she can smell.
Twenty yards ahead, I hear a mad scrambling and then the muffled, distinctive sound of a panting dog with her mouth full of bird. She has him and I shout praise and curses and claw my way out of the coulee. The setter emerges with the bird. Still alive.
I have to walk around to the head of the coulee and through the farmer’s cut corn to retrieve my gear and gun. Staunch the flow of a minor cut on the lip and one on the ear. Load the gun and walk on. Still bleeding.
We make birds again on the other side of the coulee, heading toward an old field that now is more weed than wheat, but the birds roost there when they aren’t running from a setter nose.
The third bird proves hardest of all. A point on the edge and the wrong side chosen by hunter and the right side chosen by rooster. A nice big tree between. No shot. Another point. Hen. Another point. Hen. We work to the edge of a large pond, where a blanket of snowberry meets the tules and I lose the dog. I know she’s on point. But as an advocate of the so-called silent hunt, I do not use beeper collars. So the dog is lost. For what seems like ten minutes. I stomp past a little tuft of cattail feather for the sixth or seventh time and then I realize that the weed in fact is just the barest tip of the bird dog’s tail sticking out of the sea of cover. Trembling ever so slightly. So I stomp into the brush, guessing at what should be four feet in front of her nose. This time a big rooster goes up and then down at my shot. Head up. Running. Damnit.
When last seen, he veered in the direction of the pond and the thick tules there. The dog goes into the forest of cattails and then freezes, pointing the cripple, I’m guessing, though I only have sound to guide me. Then moving again, fast. Scrambling and panting. Then stopping again, near the base of a Russian olive pond side. This is all determined by sound alone for I see nothing but tules. It’s machete country.
When I find the dog, she’s pointing downward. Into a badger hole. There’s a flank feather at the mouth of the hole. Not good. I unload the gun. Set aside. And start to dig.
We take turns digging. She, frantic, whining. Biting at the dirt and the roots of the olive. The hole is large enough for my arm. All the way to the shoulder. Too small for the dog, though. We widen the tunnel. Dig some more. Whine some more. Both of us. This goes on, a major excavation project, a dark tunnel to god-knows-where. The bird has gone to ground. And he’s gone.
The word trudge was designed for the long walk to the truck by a beaten pheasant hunter. The “grounded” pheasant gone. The “treed” pheasant in the bag next to the only clean kill of the day. En route, the setter had made one more point. This one in the middle of a field. No trees around for hundreds of yards. Rock solid and walk in. And a rooster takes to the sky. And I miss. Twice. Trudge.
A western hunter hunting the eastern edge of his state knows the thin air that is a full bag of wild pheasants. Two is enough, I implore. Back home, miles of prairie road behind me, I place the two roosters up on top of the stand-up freezer, letting them thaw after the deep freeze of a long drive. Tomorrow, I tell myself, I will clean them and think about wild birds on a wild land.
In the night, one of the house cats gets up on the freezer and eats one of the roosters.
Coulee country. Threads of ash, chokecherry, wild plum in a tan landscape. Like the work-dirty khakis of a giant tossed in a crumpled heap. A creased land. Thick with ring-necks, tucked tight in the rumple–cattails and scraggly Russian olive in the wet, bramble in the bottoms, snowberry up on the rims at the edge of old corn.
The first bird is in there, pinned. It is thick and when his nerve folds under canine nose, he goes out straight up against a bank of chokecherry, the little setter right on his tail. Skyward. Shouldered gun and he hits the ground dead as stone.
The second bird is harder. A lot harder. Up a coulee too thick for passage except in a few open places where a path worn by the hooves of a million deer have kept the saplings in retreat. Hands and knees in some places, then crawling out to the relief of the edge where the cobs of the summer’s corn lie scattered. The dog disappears completely and I know she’s on point and then a rooster gets up. Right at the edge of range. Easy. Swing. Shoot. Miss. Catch up. Shoot. Miss. Fuck. Catch up. Shoot. Too far. Damnit.
And another. Straight away. Edge of range again. A plum thicket between muzzle and ringtail but I clip him. Drop a leg. Damnit. Shouldn’t have shot. Search in the general direction where he disappeared hundreds of yards away. Dragging that leg. Son of a bitch. It is a burning regret. Contrition perhaps not as sharp and haunting as doing the same to a good buck, dropping a front leg and tracking for miles, but still a wounded creature lost. Coyote food.
The second bird still eludes and we scramble across to the other side of the coulee we’re climbing. The apex of the circle I’ve vowed to hike since leaving the truck now a silver dot two miles in the rearview. Maybe I can pick up another bird here and then perhaps the last one on the far edge of the lake across from the pickup.
As if I have created it from scrambled thought in the heart of the hike, Mabel conjures. A solid, tail-high intense point that I will never get tired of seeing. That I will summon on my death bed. That moment when everything is quiet and the dog is not panting, just taking tiny gulps of breath after going ten million miles an hour. Her nose is full of it, quivering. All else is still. Safety ready for push, trigger. Still. Wait. Kick. Nothing. Dog steady. Rock solid. A breeze trembles through the feathered tail stuck straight into pale sky.
And up he goes. Right against a castle wall of thick ash and chokecherry but the bead is on him and the gun barks even though I don’t hear it somehow and he falls down out of the sky.
Right into the top of a tree. In the throat of the coulee.
I have no choice.
Strip down. Gun unloaded. Dog is romping into the timber looking for the bird. Remote control off and placed on the gun. Pack off. Sunglasses on. There are things that don’t like eyeballs in there. Cap scrunched down. The rooster is still in the tree. Dead as stone, but twenty feet off the ground. The beauty is the tree is a small one, perhaps six inches in diameter and if I can get to it, I can shake the shit out of it and the bird will drop. If I can get to it. In theory.
Crawling now, scratching my arms, making sure I don’t leave anything I treasure hanging on a sharp stick. Shutting my eyes even though I have sunglass protection. It’s instinct. A stick draws blood. Ouch. A lip cut. Free flowing. Damn. That hurts. Crawling some more, should have worn a long-sleeve despite the heat.
Finally, the base of the tree. The rooster is still there, one broken wing lodged over a branch, hanging head down. Still. I grab the trunk. One good shake should do it. Get ready. Mabel!! Where the hell is that dog? Mabel, get ready honey. I grab the trunk. Look up at the rooster. His eyes are open. It’s surreal.
And he blinks.
Then falls out of the tree and is gone. What the? Mabel, Mabel, get over here!!! Faarckgoddamnit!! I can hear her thrashing and panting somewhere. But the rooster is flat gone. Into a coulee forest thicker than Malamute fur.
Undercarriage gravel rattle.
School of shaptails v-ing overhead
Like steelhead up ancestral river.
Setters shift to high alert
From cold dead sleep.
Antelope in fading light
Lining out for new country.
Brilliant in goodbye day.
Road leavings and dog hair
Spitter shells, dust and shotgun hulls.
Going out now and tired
Rearview plume wide and long
Day done and tap beer calling.
Last light buck stotting away.
Old friend we have seen this many times.
I saw one grouse here.
He flushed left to right, a brown phase ruff. Going like a bat out of hell. Carrying the mail, as they say.
I shot about twenty feet behind him and then my little setter burst from the chokecherries with a “did you get him?” look on her face.
Um, no. Sorry. I wanted to. Sorry. I tried.
So every year for the last ten or so years, I spend a bit of time on this old homestead, tromping over old barbwire fences wilting and rusting into nothing. September sweating up through willows, scratching through gooseberries and raspberries. It’s always a solo trip because there’s only been one grouse in all this time. There have been bears and burrs and brambles. There has been mud and blood and, after, beer. But no grouse. That setter has been buried two years now and I have new one to chase the ghost. Different boots, less hair, more aches. Still going.
Every year. Ten years in a row. Sometimes twice a year. I have never seen another grouse here, ever. But I still go.
What the fuck is wrong with me?
Each morning now, I go somewhere I haven’t been before. It’s an easy, solo routine that asks no one for permission, checks in with no authorities, goes where it wants to go. I have a hunting license and I’m American, camping on American soil owned by every damned one of us.
There are but two limitations: obey the state’s hunting laws and no camping in the same spot for more than sixteen days . . . as if I’d want to stay in one spot that long. I can live with those two rules.
The other rules are my own. Get up when I want, go when I want, shoot only a few birds out of each covey, treat my dogs well, leave enough for next time.
It has been this way for ten weeks now as I swing into the last two weeks of a three-month sabbatical from my real job. I have hunted five states, nine species of upland game birds, a dozen national forests, and thousands of acres of BLM ground. I asked no one for permission to go there and I checked with myself to see if it was okay to go. It was. No one is more free.
It’s a rare honor owned by only four percent of the world’s population, we U.S. citizens. And were I less fortunate and had less than this chunk of time, I could still have gone. Gone for a weekend camping trip or an hour-long picnic with my family. It is as free a choice as deciding what side of the bed to sleep on.
In the evenings, I sit by the sharp clean burn of a hardwood campfire, smelling that good smoke, grilling my dinner. I sip corn liquor and pat my canine companions. I listen to coyotes talking from a near ridge and far off on the skyline, I can see the lights of the city to the north. I read good books by flashlight and I stretch, take a few aspirin for middle-aged aches, and turn in. Then I do it all over again.
This is my liberty. Rise in the morning in the camper parked on American ground. Coffee, bacon, eggs. Breakfast done. Put the gun and the dogs in the truck. Load up on water and food for the day. Pull out the forest map and decide where I want to go. In a few weeks, my family will join me and we’ll celebrate Christmas here. An outdoor Christmas with a nearby scraggly alligator juniper as our tree.
I’m only a few miles north of the border. Sometimes I wonder if anyone gets to hunt those beautiful oak slopes down in Mexico. I suspect not. It is likely owned by only one person while the ridge I’m standing alone on is owned by 320 million of us. Ironic that it feels in this moment as if I’m the only owner. Therein is the beauty of it.
I follow my little setter up onto benches of Spanish dagger and live oak. I drop into arroyos of granite and mesquite. I turn toward good looking bird habitat when I see it. No one knows I’m out here. I’m free. Sometimes, I stop and rest against a boulder and I watch contrails in the sky and listen to Mabel’s panting and think how damned fortunate I am to live in this country, with all of this American public land to hunt. Mostly, I just rest and think about nothing at all, which in this day and age is a good thing for someone who loves freedom and liberty. It is a good thing to get away from the raspy blather of the greedy.
I heard smatters of drivel coming from someone who has eyes on taking our American soil and turning it over to outside interests, claiming, incredulously, a constitutional right to such a theft from our people. “What price liberty?” asked the man with city-soft hands and never-seen-the-sun skin.
Try and take mine and you’ll find out, I think, and I pick up my shotgun and follow my bird dog into another covey.
There will come a time. I know this to be true, but I cannot acknowledge the truth. The truth is gossamer, whispy, a fog that shifts, thickens, then blows away. Elders speak these truths—the days go faster the older you get, enjoy it while you can because it won’t last, someday you won’t be able to climb those hills—and yet the depth of those words cannot be realized by the synapses of youth. Or even middle age. We deny that ache in the lower back in the morning after a day of work on the ranch, we ignore that tightness in the knee on the climb to laughing chukar, and that blood pounding in lung and temple is merely the price of exercise and not the product of a slowing physicality. We hear those words of things to come, but we don’t listen. They don’t sink. There is no overt repudiation of them. It is more of a “yeah, right, okay.”
Even when I see it right before me. We are driving to the airport in Tucson and it is early morning and my friend’s hunt has come to an end. I’m not sure if he has had a good time. I’m not sure I would were the roles reversed. A lame dog, a mysterious weakness and lack of energy that no amount of rest can cork, a dizziness that makes shotgun shooting tricky at best. Dangerous at worst. Meanwhile, your companion has climbed hills, dropped into deep oak, followed a racing young setter to shotgunning glory, brought home bounty and tale. No, I would not enjoy that swap.
So I drive and there is a quiet in the pickup. I’m keeping Pat, who is no longer lame and both his shotguns and his travel trailer and he’s flying home to Montana and a warm fireplace and a good wife who will take care of him. I wonder, as I steer through the rising dawn, what his thoughts are. I wonder if he knows how much I admire him for trying, how much I think of him as a stud horse who is ten-times the equivalent-aged man anywhere in the country. There are damned few middle eighties out there who can walk five miles in rough terrain, shotgun in hand. Who can camp for two weeks foregoing genuine indoor plumbing and a hot shower. Who can stay up at night talking Trueblood and Harrison and Leopold and the sad state of wildlife conservation, then rise early in the morning to do it all over again. Day after day after day. Pushing that wretched time tide back. And again.
And I wonder about his thoughts. About being here on a high mark for desert quail, about having a good dog and a fine old shotgun and a younger companion who happily does most of the work and all the driving. About being set up for success like that. And then not being able.
They wave us through the border check station, nodding at our cowboy hats, seeing the dogs in the back, making a quip about hunting. It’s getting lighter outside and there are no other trucks on the road yet. So I drive, pushing the pickup up past seventy, pushing north toward civilization, an airport and the end of my friend’s hunt.
Still south of the interstate. But if I hurry, I should probably have enough daylight left for an afternoon hunt.
Less than a week into the trip, Pat pulls up lame. Favoring the left hind.
We are nearer true Mearns country now. In the vicinity, anyway. But on the first evening in the new camp, the dogs out for a piss put up a covey of Gambel quail, maybe fifteen birds. We are both in beer mode though, two into the evening, and we just laugh and watch them fly off. Call the dogs back in. We’ll be after them in the morning. I can see oak up on the rims on the north slope, within reach for a good walker.
In the morning, Jim heads out with Pat, chasing last night’s covey, but it proves as ephemeral as a phone number given without enthusiasm to a stranger on Friday night. And in the process, she comes in limping, her passion for birds slowed to a three-legged hop. I spend the day on the mountain, find one covey of Mearns, drop a male on a long swing, miss another and see no other birds. The pup works great, though, and I am happy. She is not running over birds now. Instead, it feels as if she’s starting to get it down. We stop for water a lot. It’s too hot, really, for good hunting.
We talk for a bit about what to do. The injury is athletic in nature, but there is nothing obvious. We’re miles from a vet and I have a field kit with various meds. We’ll give it some rest, see how it goes. In a way, I wonder if perhaps this is some kind of a sign, a reason for my old pal to stay back at camp, catch up on reading, soak in the desert sun. He has not been feeling well and while we used to hunt side-by-side, this hunt instead means I go my own way and we get together in the evenings. Sometimes he hunts, sometimes he stays back. And that’s okay. Life-long friends adapt to individual changes . . . . It is the being here.
I can see in my old friend the disappointment, though. This is his only dog. I have three. True, two are at an age where they are stop-gap, half-day companions on old legs, but I have reserves nevertheless. Like Matt Hasslebeck coming off the bench for Andy Luck.
We will take the days as they come to us.