Fortunate ones

Tires breaking tracks in two-day old snow, up the mountain, beyond where the last guy stopped his rig on a high slope. Stopped to glass the benches and ridges, the dark timber, the aspen.
Cutting fresh up past the old homestead with its root cellar of stones, its feral lilac and rhubarb, past the old spring and up the other coulee to the cabin. Park. The dog pirouettes and tap dances. It has been too long for me and she does everything in dog time. Can’t imagine.
We move off through the timber, cutting a loop down through the aspens in the snow. Ready.
The dog gets birdy once in a stand of Doug fir in the middle of the aspen river and we bend to the snow and see the tracks of a grouse going his grousely way. Get ready some more. Ready to swing up and pop a shot in the thick woods. Telling ourselves to swing even if there’s a tree in the way. The dog sneaks, eager, tail frantic, points once, but the tail is moving.

She’s not sure. But get ready.
Nothing. The tracks disappear and we circle and do not pick them up again. Bastard is probably watching us from a tree.
Oh, I’m sure.
More tracks. Moose. A bed. Then another. Maybe more than one. Down through the aspens and alder. Brambles. Another stand of fir and the dog birdy again and more tracks and we spend time there, but no birds. Back up the other side, the sunny side, the dog vaulting logs, running hard. Eating snow on the fly. Barely stopping for anything, the bell tinkling all the time. More tracks.
That’s a cat!
Yeah, you are right. Bigger than a bobcat. Young lion maybe?
That’s what I think.
Those tracks peel off into the sagebrush flat, past the old homestead with its feral lilac and rhubarb. Following the track of the moose.
We head over the bench and down to the next coulee.
I’ve always moved birds here.
A prophecy.
A flash of gray in the trees, the other side of the dog who had just started working scent and had no chance.
Spooky bastard.
Loop up past the flush point. Tracks. Lots of them among the skeletal stems of gooseberry and currant. Another bird out, this one out of a tree that is right at twelve o’clock. Hear the sound, don’t see the bird.
I got him.
Good, where?
Right in those trees right ahead.
We stand there like fools looking at jet contrails. Open-mouthed. Peer through thick needle and branch. Even the dog is looking up, standing on back legs, paws on bark.
Bastard is probably looking right at us.
No doubt.

I think this is one that got away.

I could shake a tree, see if he comes out.

I don’t know which tree.

Okay, he wins.

Work back to the truck, over the ridge, down another coulee with willow and gooseberry. Remember a time when another dog in another canine lifetime flushed a beautiful brown phase ruffed right out of these willows on Christmas Day. The bird flew dead into the window of the cabin. Became part of Christmas dinner.

I’ve got another spot.

Good. I’ve got a couple more hours. I’m game.

Another old homestead with its rusted hope. Another loop. A point or two this time. Huns. But they fool us, circle back then flush out of range. Put two shots after them, but they are gone. Far gone and the time is up.

God, we are lucky bastards, aren’t we?

 

 

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Durable goods–Orvis Pro LT hunting pants and shirt

There was a time of Wranglers and Chuck Taylors, even among mesquite thorns and Gambel quail. Cotton long underwear. T-shirts. But you were dumber and younger. Bullet proof and able to work your way through tequila shots on birthdays.
Along came common sense, somehow you survived. Found comfort in small things, good things.

Orvis Pro LT gear came along recently. The kind of lightweight and yet durable stuff that makes you think, Where you been all my life? First time out, the day cooked to the near nineties in the sharptail fields. Next time out, another warm day up on a blue grouse ridge far above timberline. Designed for those hot days, breathable, flexible. Then a deep cold in early October and with long underwear beneath, still a damned fine piece of equipment. Pants and shirt both.

It’s the little things, the good things. Orvis Pro LT. Remember it.

 

-30-

Cane in one hand, Superposed 20 in the other and a good setter at his side. Eighty-six years young on a blue grouse ridge somewhere.

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.

The core of discovery

There is, in the hunter’s heart, a conflict that builds as the season descends. It is a conflict fed by many things: the state of canine, the state of the freezer, the need to expand the “rolodex” of place, and even the very date and timing of the hunt itself. Go where you have gone before and know there will be birds, or go where you’ve never gone but think there should be birds?

Blue grouse and sharptail grouse combo on a Montana September morning.

Each of these elements of conflict is driven by its own nuance as well. The state of canine, for instance, can be the age of the dog (old and last hunt or new and first hunt), how tightly wound the veteran who hasn’t been hunted in months is, and, sometimes, sadly, the health of said best friend. You’d like to put the new pup on her first birds, or if you’ve got an old timer, put him on his last birds. Or maybe you just want to find a new place to go because the old tried-and-true got discovered.
Idaho’s grouse season opened on August 30 and Greg and I had penciled a trip on the books months before. Pencil because with busy lives, sometimes the eraser comes out. We each did our best to erase and reschedule, but we each, separately, resisted the other’s attempts to bail. We actually pulled it off.
We’d seen “grousey” looking country on the Idaho/Montana line exactly midway between our two homes and talked often about that ground. Never been there, either of us. Knew some folks who lived in the area, but felt uncomfortable just cold-calling and asking to be put into their home cover. Kind of like calling up and saying, “Hey, mind if I take your wife out for dinner?”
So we used our decades of mountain grouse experience, a few good maps and a summer scouting trip and just went. Didn’t see shit. Well, actually did. Walked all morning long, didn’t see a bird. Saw some bird poop and had a false point and discovered enough to go back. We semi-sated our canine needs by each running pups whose age is measured in months, not years, then pivoted to the veterans. Got the dogs out is about all you can say about that. Saw some pretty country, a new place.
Saturday on Labor Day weekend, Montana’s grouse season opened up. Worst possible opening day ever.  Jason and I coyoted out Friday night at the for-sure-always-see-birds place. It has been discovered. By the time we were half way up the mountain in barely-shooting-light, the parking lot had five other vehicles and two more were bouncing in on the two-track. I already had a Hun in the game vest, and we were well ahead of them, so it didn’t really matter, but it was still a bummer to know that someone else had discovered a place we’d been hunting for years. Probably bummed them out too to see someone up the mountain while they were still pulling on their boots and maybe it was a place they had been hunting for years and just as much “theirs” as “ours.” Was running the veteran this time because it had been a long summer for her and for me without a whole lot of fun and the freezer was empty of both grouse and Huns. We filled it a bit and came down the mountain with that heavy, humbling, good weight in the back of the bird vest.
On Wednesday, my friend Tom Hanson, who is one of the crack employees for the great upland program at Orvis, and I got together for another hunt. Tom had never killed a western grouse, so getting one or two for him was my top priority. Problem is, he’s a busy guy. Just like everyone else. He had to be in Great Falls early that evening and Great Falls is a long way from my home ground and unknown territory. So I called another buddy, one that I knew I could impose upon, and asked for a general direction. He gave me one, like all good buddies would, and off Tom and I went, hunting in the cool of the morning with the Rocky Mountain Front over our shoulders. If nothing else, it was one hell of a pretty place to chase after good bird dogs. Which can be a problem if you’re looking at the scenery on the horizon instead of the canine scenery within gun range. Tom managed to kill his first-ever sharptail grouse off of one of Mabel’s points when we weren’t gaping at the skyline and then later in the morning, his first-ever blue grouse. On the same half-day. I didn’t kill a thing, but it hardly mattered. I had never seen that particular combo done before. It was pretty special.

So that’s how it has started. Completely blind on the first day, old reliable on the second day and semi-blind on the third day. Varying levels of success. But new country discovered. Let 2018 begin, at long last.

The inexorable tan

In this piece of country, the mid-section of summer comes on July 15. Mark it down on the calendar. X it out. On July 14, the grass that has not fallen to sickle mower to make hay for beefsteak is green and tall. On July 15, the unstoppable tanning of that grass begins.

There is a tendency, particularly among those whose outdoors experience is a water park or a golf course, to lament the downward slope of summer into autumn. Shrinking are the long days of summer light, the barbecues, the evening cigars against mosquito whine, the gin and tonics on the back porch, the cycles of mayfly on clear water.

Good things, all. Viewed from the lens of February’s monochrome, great things. Wonderful, highly anticipated things. Who, in the throes of high country March does not dream, at least a little bit, of a June cutthroat trout brought to hand briefly? Captured and photographed only by synapse and gray matter. Unhooked. Released. Memory captured for the next long winter’s lament.

But now it is August and upon us is the dwindle. Mourn this?

Grieve the end of summer when one finds the thermometer at 40 on a cool dawn morning? Chill enough for a sweater, enough that morning coffee is not only a kick to the heart but a welcome heat to the palms. Bemoan the babble of young coyote pups from up on the sagebrush bench, stretching their lungs and legs in celebration of a late summer bounty that includes everything from chokecherry on the stem to barnyard chicken? One morning, up on that same bench, flush a covey of young Huns, eight or nine in all, little buggers that can barely fly yet somehow avoid coyote belly. Then flush another covey of the same size and vigor. Yes, summer is now fading and the tan on the land is coming on strong, covering the body from horizon to horizon.

One morning, the trail camera you put out on the cottonwood down by the trail from the neighbor’s willow thicket reveals a buck in full velvet, a massive buck that you’ve heard whispers of in prior seasons. Last December at the Town Haul Cafe, “Boy, I saw a huge buck cross the road down by your place yesterday morning. That sucker slipped through the season.” Now there he is on camera. In a few months, perhaps hanging in the shop ready for the knife work and freezer.

One early August day you drive the old Ford home from the post office and the corner of the eye catches movement in the borrow ditch. Pheasants. You pump the brakes, because that’s the only way to stop a 1970 F250, and there they are, three young roosters with just enough color on them to tell you their gender. Remind yourself to swing into the neighbor’s place and ask about October opener.

There are raspberries on the stem down by the northeast headgate. Lots of them now—if you can beat the birds and the coyote pups and the farmhands who come to change the water—to them.


You know that one morning, maybe soon, you’ll wake up and there will be a heavy frost on the ground. If you’re lucky, you will have listened to the weatherman and pulled all the tomatoes to vine-ripen in the barn, or at least have covered them with blue tarps every night.

Half of the shed is full of lodgepole cordwood, split, stacked. Five cords. Need ten. Just to be safe. Two woodburners will do that. The propane lady stopped by the other day. Remarked on how little propane was used last year. “Sure like your dogs,” she said, as Mabel jumped up on her for a scratch, despite the scolding and embarrassment over a four year old setter that suddenly forgets her manners. “She knows a dog lover, it’s awright,” she said.

August now and the hoppers are out there in the tall stuff that is left standing and that is now in full color. Hoppers for young pheasants and Huns and sharptail grouse.

This is no ending. This is no long slide to a dismal black winter. This is a beginning. There are four bird dogs on this place and now, as August gets rolling like an old Ford building momentum down the country road to the post office, there seems to be just a bit more zip in their zing. Sure, they still loll about in hot weather, but the mornings are cool now and there is a feel to everything that says hello. That says welcome. That says it is nearly on, let the games begin. Release us into this landscape of sky and tall grass. Release us to those young birds before gun and canine olfaction. Long walks are ahead. Perhaps on the loop back to the truck, soon, there will be the extra weight of the bounty of the land and there will be a sated, happy heart beating its old beat in the chest.

There will be no keen for a summer gone in this house.

Maiden Aunts

When I was a boy, we would occasionally make a family trip up to Greeley, Colorado, to visit a couple of my dad’s aunts, sweet old crones in their late 80s who had lived together their entire lives. They were two of something like 15 offspring. They had big litters back then, unpaid labor for the farm no doubt.
Mabel and Edna somehow managed to live their whole lives in the same house all the way to the very end. Neither one killed the other, which is saying something when you live eight decades in the same house.
They drove cool old cars, Edna a 1954 Chevrolet Belair two door, aqua-green and white. It was like riding around in a roomy suitcase. We ended up with that car and I took it on fishing trips to the South Platte when I was just learning to drive. It drove like a suitcase too.
Greeley at that time was still a farm town, a place where my grandfather had a pool hall in 1922, then a farm, where he once accidentally cut a hen pheasant in half while hand-scything hay. The hen was on a nest and the eggs joined a nest of chicken eggs in the coop where they later hatched. The hen pheasant was salvaged and went into the pot. Grandpa shot a single shot hammer 12 of some off-breed brand, but he obviously was equally deadly with the scythe.
I remember little else about Mabel and Edna other than they were kindly old gals and they lived together in relative harmony. And their names stuck with me. Mabel first, then Edna. Here’s hoping their spotted namesakes get along as well as those old ladies did and here’s hoping they last well into their dog-year eighties. The setter Mabel is actually aunt to the setter Edna and now there is a brace to follow into the western skies.

Edna meets her Aunt Mabel.

 

Welcoming in a new scribbler

I first met Ryan Busse on a river. A fitting place, really, because it seems as if we both spend a lot of time in rivers or in the woods or out on the big empty. More likely to meet there than in a mall or something. His favorite all-time fly is the Turk’s Tarantula, which is the kind of thing you learn about a guy when you spend a day together on a river. We run in similar circles, breathe some of the same good mountain air, share an ethic and parallel paths in the outdoors and the desire to get our kids out in it as much as possible. He lives closer to Canada than I do and I live closer to Mexico. We both live in Montana. He runs Brittanys, I run setters. One of us has bad judgment. Or maybe both. Or neither. He names his Brits after crusty old outdoor authors who drank gin, I name my setters after maiden aunts who liked, well, gin. And well gin. I do know this: He loves wild places, watching good bird dogs do their thing, wild fish and wild birds. Like us here at MOF, he’s low on pretention and high on irreverence and, sometimes, reverence. So I asked him to start writing for us and sharing some tales of his own for MOF because all of us who love that should have a place to land, even if just for a moment and just metaphorically or vicariously. We’ll enjoy his stories from time to time here on MOF. Be on alert for a post from Ryan soon.

Point!

These back-end March days are so refreshing after a hard winter, that there is little thought of how damned far away September lies. March is here and so are the red-wings, sandhills, meadowlarks and the sweet multi-noted song of some bird that remains hidden along the stream. A stream now free of ice and it is this freedom that catches the heart and carries it away into thoughts of more spring and summer coming. Fall, our glorious gift, seems a long way off.

The dog, however, has other ideas. She is on point, tail-high, frozen solid, not moving. Just beneath a little pothole pond that sits on the hillside above the cottonwood bottom. A pothole of pondweed and frogs, but also the occasional mallard. I walk toward her, and she turns that eye toward me. Where is your frickin’ gun? I got ’em!

A triple gets up, two greenhead drakes and a hen, and she’s after them, breaking point at the flush because that’s how I want her to be, galloping, laughing and then they are gone and she is back, tongue out, happy as hell.

Sage doing her magic with Ike on Wyoming blue grouse.

The point is an amazing thing. Good retrieves are too, but I’ve seen border collies and dingos that were endless stick chasers, tireless to the point of great annoyance. I’ve stood by in awe as a buddy’s lab made back-to-back blinds on rooster pheasants I had pass-shot and dropped out of sight, but one dead rooster on top of the other one. Busting across the river, sitting to look at the boss, the command “Over!” and the dog finding the bird and busting across the river again. Delivered to hand. Pretty amazing.

But for my money, the point is otherworldly. An animal whose natural instinct is to run like the hounds of hell are chasing it, then just stopping and tapping into its inner feline, if there is such a thing, and freezing solid. Maybe taking one cat-step forward, but solid. Unmoving. Waiting and waiting and waiting. Outdoing anything any mountain lion would do on a mule deer stalk.

Another walk on another March day and the dog disappears while a cigar is smoked on the bench that I like to call The Contemplation Station. Looking out across the brown land slowly, very slowly, turning green. All the way south to the Madison Range and east to the Bridgers, then back west to Hollowtop and the Tobacco Roots. A cool spring breeze and nothing but the sound of birds and a pickup truck hauling hay out on the Pony Road. Good place for a smoke. Then: where the hell is the dog.

Shout her name five or six times. Probably eating horse crap or gnawing the bones of last year’s elk hauled up on the bench for the coyotes. That damned dog.

A rooster pheasant blows out from the cover, as silent as a big bird can be even when it’s scared shitless, rising up over the cottonwoods and flying all the way east to the neighbor’s place. I had the shot. Towering, then topping out and flying like a big-ass bright-as-hell woodcock on a straight line for freedom. And here’s the dog. Laughing and wondering why there was no shot. She had been on point for an entire cigar only twenty yard off in the bramble while I was contemplating on the station.

I had a couple of setters that were champion mouse pointers in the offseason. Cocking a head, then finally giving up and pouncing and digging. A few caught and eaten, two solid gulps of squeaking fur.

The dogs I’ve had have all been outstanding at their craft. The point itself. Sharing the point? Not so much. Some sucked out loud at backing. The current one does too and it’s embarrassing because there is nothing more frustrating than a dog bursting in on another dog’s point. Stealing the point, or worse yet blowing out the bird or busting the pointer off its game. Explains why I hunt alone so much.

Sage was the best backer I’ve ever been around. She’d back salt licks. And big white chunks of quartz five hundred miles from the nearest glacier. She’d back cardboard boxes caught in briar patches and she’d back her hunting companions. Always. She had her fair share of her own points too in a too-short life of a baker’s dozen years.

Every time I see a point, it takes my breath away. The solid instinct of the thing. The special gift that is given to the hunter, who can walk, or run in. How amazing it is to be able to hunt behind a creature whose sole drive in the field is running, finding, stopping and letting you have all the fun. The flush is coming. And when it does, you know they’ve had fun too. That smile says it all.

Contemplate the point.

 

Good torts

We didn’t go south this past winter.
By all accounts, we didn’t miss anything. By quail accounts, or counts, that is. Bird numbers were down.
But quail are not the only driver for a trip south. True, it is fun to hunt when numbers are up, but I’ve always felt it a kind of penance for good years to hunt hard in bad years too. The quail deserve the effort, down or up.
We did miss a lot, though. We missed just watching the dogs float through those magical grasslands. Missed leaning a shotgun and a tired back up against the bark of a granddaddy oak tree, sipping water and listening to nothing but a panting dog and a scrub jay off somewhere.
Missed just the old-time country feel of some of the places, a feel that makes one think of Gene Autry or at least Lefty Frizzell. Old Arizona and Old New Mexico. Missed thinking about hunting in the same footsteps of my college days, missed thinking about my old college dog JD. Missed the college memories of cases of cold Coors and Coues deer and the best college buddies anyone could ever have.
Missed the food too. No good Mexican food north of the 38th, where the Chili Relleno Tour begins. Missed the Hatch chili stop, although the previous year’s frozen batch is holding out, thanks to spending a couple Benjamins in a classic store in Hatch where English is a second language and chilis are a work of culinary art, roasted and peeled and frozen. Bring a whole damn empty cooler for that stuff.
But mostly missed good tortillas. Good tortillas. Not the flour and chemical paste shit they sell in the grocery stores back home. Good torts made with lard. Good for you and your heart.
Deep in Montana winter and whining like a sad pup for agave and mesquite country, I remembered the magic of the internet. Got online, found an authentic tort maker in Tucson. Ordered seven dozen right out the gate.
I think I’m going to survive until next year. Such are modern times for a lucky bastard.

Timing

Many years ago, just months after an upland season that a flat-brimmer would describe with the cliche “epic,” my buddy died.
He was the pal who got me through a divorce and like any relationship developed when nerves and emotions are on a trigger-edge, the bond was incredibly tight. It was a time in my life when the need to be outside was fueled by what was going on in the attorneys’ offices, but also by a fire in me that wanted to feed the talent in him. The field was an escape, but also the food that sated our appetite for more. Always more. And his was a rare talent. He was my sidekick and my soul-mate. He was an orange belton English setter who saw it all, did it all and still occupies a rare, narrow peak in the mountain of dogs that I’ve had the honor of calling partner. His name was Hank.
The premature death of Hank was met by a staggering amount of grief, but it was tempered by a young pup named Ike, a tri-color who was literally in the shadow of a giant. Like whatever poor stiff stepped into John Elway’s or Peyton Manning’s shoes after they moved on. And he was just a puppy.
I lost a whole season that year, following a six-month old pup through an ocean of grass and corn stubble. There was one memorable hunt with my brother in the CRP outside of Ogallala, but whatever else happened that year is lost in the mists of time. Ike turned out to be a pretty good bird dog but he was Brian Griese to John Elway and he threw a lot of interceptions that first year. At the end of that season, I told myself that I’d never again be caught off-guard, that I’d have one coming or even two coming while another was in the throes of prime living. That vow has caused me to have as many as four setters at once and it is not something I regret. Having a ranch makes it easier, true, but there was a time when I lived in town—in defiance of ordinance—with a herd of bird dogs.

We have three setters now and a ranch dog. We also have a baby boy who gave us the best Christmas gift ever. There’s two litters on the ground as I write this, one filled with Mabel’s nieces, the other filled with Mabel’s half-sisters. And Mabel occupies the boulder right next to the summit cairn that Hank stands on. She may even nudge him off of it this coming season. Two litters on the ground and the timing sucks. But when is the timing ever just right? Just a perfect nexus of time and heart and desire all rolled into one package? If life tells us one thing it is that waiting for the perfect timing is like waiting to get to heaven to have a good time. One may never get there.