It is the getting there that has always been the thing. Drift-blocked roads on normal years and tires spinning. Even with chains on all four.
But this is not a normal year. There has been snow cover, but thin, at best. Enough for tracking. Tracking an unbelled bird dog somewhere off in the Doug fir. A dog you haven’t heard from in a while. The woods completely silent and ears straining for the sound of pant and twig-snap. Nothing. Minutes tick by. Nothing. She’s gotta be on point. Why didn’t you bell that dog? Why don’t she write?
She’s out there somewhere in the thick of it and then you hear a far off sound like the soft roll of distant thunder. The thunder of air and wing meeting silent winter afternoon. You follow her tracks as best you can, marveling at evidence of leaps over ten feet, the vaulting of timber, the tale of a nimble athlete drinking in life. And here she is, frantic pant as if she’s been holding her breath for an hour, nose full of bird and bird pretending to hide then giving up the wait and skying for tree top. Where were you? she asks. I had ’em. You need to learn to keep up.
It’s your fault, not hers. Your fault that you forgot the bell and in the climb up the hill, forgot to manage the dog and took your eye off the game and lost her. Lost her direction and eventually lost her track, even in that new blank chalkboard of new snow. So, one for seed is off there in the timber somewhere. And that’s okay. It is December. The time of gifts. Every minute in the last days of a season is reward. Just being up at this elevation with a shotgun and a good bird dog at this time of year is enough.
You release her again and this time, you stay focused, stay on her. Keep her in range, watch her move through the aspen and fir and gooseberry. You make a big circle, drop down a draw choked with alder and willow and aspen and bramble. Over the logs of granddaddy aspen that fell a decade ago. Then you pick up tracks. Grouse tracks everywhere. The dog is hot, then she disappears behind a stand of trees. Then all is silent.
This time, she is close. This time, you were on it and just behind those trees is where she is. Hidden, but everything is in range. You are certain of it. The gun is ready, safety beneath digit. Heart pounding. Get ready. Step out.
There is no alarm because you catch it and cancel it out an hour ahead of time. Might as well just get the hell up. The night has been sleepless, or if there has been sleep it came without conscious acknowledgement and you didn’t know it happened until it was just time to get up. After lying there and stewing, turning from a pins-and-needles side to a sore side, and back to a pins-and-needles one, you just get the hell up.
The coffee is instant because you don’t want to wake the whole house with that brewing aroma. Today’s instant is a lot better than that chemical shit they used to have, those crystals crusted like brown alakali and tasting about the same. Do they still make that crap? Is it even legal? Does anyone buy it? Goddamn.
In the headlights after you crank the key to warm up the pickup, the first flakes are just coming down. But as you turn out the drive, it is a blizzard and there are four hours ahead. Four hours on a good morning let alone a bad morning.
Four hours on the road for one day of hunting. Then four hours back. Seems about right. The snow is sideways now and this fucking travel mug won’t fit in your cup holder and it spills all over the floor when you hit the brakes for a deer coming up out of the whiteness like Ebenezer’s undigested bit of meat. You miss the deer but not your carpet with lukewarm coffee and you lament it for a while, but it’s just as well, for you need both hands on the wheel.
The road is white, the world is white and all you see is blizzard. Flake and a little light on the dash that reads FOUR WHEEL DRIVE in steady, sturdy, calming amber. You see a reflector post and then nothing and then another reflector post and you ease for the centerline rumble strips which you feel through the steering wheel. Still on the road. Good. And sideline rumble strips? Yep, they are there too. Hope this shit doesn’t last all night.
An hour goes by, though, and your shoulders knot and you remember to flex your fingers, first one hand, then the other, careful to steady the wheel, careful to make no sudden moves, careful to keep one hand on there at all times. Cramped. Tense. You pull over. Have to. Can’t see shit. Send a text: Whiteout. Gotta stop for a bit.
Sometimes, there is only nothing. Nothing stretches to the horizon ahead and back over whence you came. Nothing is all there is. Left, right, ahead. Behind.
The world is encased in crust. Covered in a hard shell that makes your legs ache with each step and the dog’s feet bleed. Mostly, the dog skims the crust as if it is nothing while you post hole, breaking through, falling sometimes. And there is nothing.
A month ago, there were eight coveys of Huns on this moonscape of stubble to the sky. A month ago was a month ago. Now is now and all there is is nothing. So you plod and plod and plod and break through again. Your calves ache. Your thighs. It is a day at the Good Lord’s gymnasium. Or perhaps that of His alter ego. You break on, following the dog, whose attitude never wanes despite the nothing. She is out hunting and that is everything even when its nothing.
There will be no birds before the gun today. No points. No meat for a meal. Only nothing. You plod on because that is all there is and all you know. Nothing.
There are easier ways to spend a birthday than climbing one thousand vertical and post-holing. Better ways than spending what little air you have blowing it through a whistle. Climbing still, climbing always up into the deep snowline, breaking crust, crunching. The Douglas fir forest, snow-bound home of the West’s greatest native game bird. Sweat running down backbone, but cooling and freezing everywhere else. Frost in the beard, hard packed snow marbles in the dog’s feet. She stops every now and then to chew at those ice balls, but mostly she toughs it out. Feet starting to bleed. This is high enough, isn’t it? This ridge where blue grouse of past hunts have pitched wildly down and across in front of the gun and a big blue rooster, big as a polt turkey, gives you the most challenging shot of a lifetime of shotgunning. Down, away, dropping, swinging and dropping and when the trigger is found, the shot is long. On the edge of range. And yet big blue bird goes down and you do too, dropping, plunge-stepping like a mountaineer—because you are, shotgun instead of ice axe—down to where the rooster went in, calling the dog and there it is. The bird is in hand and feels as if it weighs ten pounds. Twenty when you gain the ridge again.
That was last year. This, no birds yet. But then you find the tracks. You slug water (getting low), check the dog’s feet (bleeding but a long way from the heart). Check your supplies (dwindling), check the elevation gain (one thousand fifty), check the shotgun (still loaded), check the watch (advancing rapidly) and check your ambition (see the tracks? yeah, that’s a good sign, gotta be a big one up ahead).
There are better ways to spend another year, spend the marking of a new one. Maybe. The tracks lead up. Up you go.
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.
Now in most parts of the uplands, is time. Time for moisture, but not snow. Rain, but not too much. Green grass coming. Birds pairing up. Just the right amount of everything now will mean just the right amount of birds in the sky. Pray for chick survival now and birds in hand later. Pray for life for tomorrow’s bag. Ironic.
Wanted: Dissatisfied with current relationship which for no apparent reason seems to have changed at the end of January. Previous trips to far away places have suddenly ended without notice. Walks with the gun have ceased. Riding in the pickup has halted. Long getaways are no more. I have to chase mice and songbirds and sleep on the couch with the cat for entertainment. I’m so bored. Yesterday, I shit on the floor just because. Jogging on a leash has taken the place of unfettered runs in open country. This is the winter of my discontent. Interested parties should send photo of shotgun and bird cover and operational plan for future hunts. Ask for Mabel. I can’t take six more months of this.
Everyone and their bird dog has a blog or a space in print for product so-called reviews. So we here at MOF thought it might be useful to have one too, but not your average product review. You know that kind; a company hoping to sell a product to the masses contacts a fairly reputable writer and asks him or her to take their gear into the outdoors and give it a spin. Or conversely, a so-called writer looking for some free or sharply-discounted (think pro-deal) shit contacts a manufacturer and asks for the free or sharply-discounted shit for a “review” on their blog that gets read by one point five readers. The writer/recreator maybe takes the product out into the local city park or maybe it’s their back yard, and gives the product a spin. Or maybe doesn’t use it at all. Then they generate about fifty words on it—usually glowing to justify getting the free shit or the advertising dollar from the manufacturer—and the consumer is left to make a decision to buy or not buy. The fact is, product reviews are like where-to articles that send the masses by the hundreds into your favorite cover. Call it ethically shaky. Not shady. Shaky. Maybe the user really used it, maybe the product was taken into the backcountry and used hard, maybe it wasn’t.
You will never read a where-to piece on this blog. But a real product review? That seems like something an avid uplander could use. So, relying on about one hundred collective years of chasing and yelling at bird dogs after wild birds in cool places, we’ve found a few things we like almost as much as those dogs we run after. What will make Durable Goods different? For one, we purchased the gear at full retail price for the most part and in most cases way before MOF was a glimmer in our daddys’ eyes. If we got it free or discounted, we’ll let you know. These products are things we’ve used in the field, in real time, in real cases, for years. Not just a weekend. In the field, for years. This is the shit that works. That we like. That we’ve had for a long time. We weren’t bribed to write nice things. Durable Goods will be honest. Sometimes the words will be constructive (which is psycho-speak for critical) and sometimes the words will be complimentary. Maybe our products will have been made by a company that’s been dead for years. Maybe it will be a new company. But the reviews will be reviews, not hyperbolic gush for a free product, not the work of a writer looking to whore words for goods. No. These are Durable Goods. Enjoy.
Part I. Monte
Chukar did it to me. Those bastards. If you hunt chukar you will understand. Walk in on a point. Covey gets up. Empty your double gun and curse at the sky when a single or a pair gets up after the gun is empty. I gotta have another fuckin’ shot!
So. Monte. Benelli Montefeltro. I have been called many things for carrying an autoloader into the field. Low type. But, that third shot has been awful nice.
I installed a sling. If you’re a chukar hunter, you know why. Slings are nice on cliffs. Slings make nice belay devices. And I have three shots. That sometimes means I miss three times. That sometimes means I hit three times. That sometimes means I miss twice and hit a third late riser. That makes me happy.
It functions in all weather. It has been rained on, snowed on, frozen, dipped into the mud. This gun I have is a 20 and it has killed chukar, huns, all kinds of grouse, pheasants, all kinds of quail, a few ducks and countless European doves and starlings when I have the bloodlust in the off-season. Almost all with an improved-cylinder choke.
Right out of the box it fit me and the bead was up and the bird was down. Yeah, I go through streaks, but the gun fits and it works 9 out of 10 times.
Here’s one thing. I’ve hit the carrier release a few times accidentally while in the field and partially injected a shell. The gun won’t fire when this happens. I’ve missed a fair number of birds when I haven’t noticed this has happened. Bird goes up, gun goes click. You can imagine the invective. But this is operator error if it’s anything. Wouldn’t have happened with a nice double gun, though.
Last fall, I borrowed a friend’s unbelievably beautiful L.C. for a spin. First two birds that went up, I stoned to hell. Next 10, I missed flat. I went back to Monte and missed two pointed roosters bang FUCK bang FUCK!! But I carried it the rest of the trip and killed everything else.
Don’t worry about the nicks and the dings and the sling. It’s a chukar gun. It does its and always will. I’ll save the double gun action for when I am feeling special.
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.