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?
Author Archives: Tom Reed
I saw one grouse here.
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.
Certain aspects of life are bracketed. Bookended. Beginning and end. Sometimes it is not that simple. Sometimes it is. It is the human experience. Things begin. Things end. The day you met her and the day your divorce was final. The moment a new puppy snuggles into your folded arms and the moment you put a spade into soil as you say goodbye to an old friend. The first day of college orientation and graduation day. Like that.
If this desert is the end, the beginning was all high country. Wild currants growing beneath old growth Doug fir. Ned and Jed–setters of the Llewelyn strain—led us. A landscape of ridges at the top of the world, spines sprinkled with those big firs, sides falling away to grass and forb and berry. Snow on tall and distant peak.
It was September with frost and sunshine in combat. Sunshine winning the battle, frost the war. Chilled in a light jacket, but sweating as we climbed. Jacket coming off soon. Jed, a young dog with fire and drive. Ned, a tottering old man who somehow ended up on my side of the ridge. Hunting for me, or maybe just hunting for his old stubborn self and me just being in the right dumb place. Jim carrying that Browning double. A blue Rockies sky warming and as clear as headwater.
I was young then and full of what Aldo Leopold called “trigger itch.” Impressionable. Pliable. In need, if not want, of a mentor.
Ned pointed and a big old male blue grouse clattered up and I swung on him and folded him and Ned pointed again and that one went up and then down too. The sky blued on and we went on. Stopped for an elk meatloaf sandwich. Olives. A crisp fresh red and yellow apple. Leaned against one of those old trees. Got acquainted as men do when they are new to one another. Treading somewhat carefully. Finding commonalities. He talked of pointing dogs and double guns and somehow, even at that pup stage of my life, I knew where I would be heading.
It is not long. Not long until we settle into the routine of men who have spent a lifetime in the outdoors together. A camp routine.
We have known each other long enough that he knew me when I was a punk kid in my 20s all full of bullshit and bluster. Knew my wife before she became my wife and long before she became my ex-wife. I have known him since he was the age I am at this moment. Known him when he was a bachelor two-times divorced with a couple of good horses and two fine setters. When I hunted with a mutt and a piss-poor side-by-side that I bought with ranch-work money. Before he was an old man with no horses, a sweet wife, a nice cat and one fine setter that usually hunts by herself around the farm. And now we move around each other with the ease of time and the comfort of knowing one another and each others’ quirks. Hearing each others’ stories so many times we’ve lost count. It is almost father-son, except perhaps expectations and approvals are not as clearly defined. But they are there, without denial. He is my mentor in almost all things life.
On our first hunting adventure, he handed me his .35 Whelen and I laid across a carpet of aspen leaves and felled a large buck mule deer with one shot. My own rifle was back at home, left because we were packing out a cow elk I had shot the day before. No need to carry my rifle. But then we rounded the bend and the buck was there, broadside. Elk in panniers on the horses and my own rifle at home. “Take my rifle,” he whispered. “Thumb the safety forward when you’re ready to fire.” Two hundred and twenty one paces out.
That night we ate fresh elk steak, smothered in gravy from the drippings. The next day we packed out the buck on tired horses.
Now we are in quail country. Again. We have been in quail country many times. During the highs and the lows and the mediums. On years when you had to walk four hours or even all day to see one small covey and when you found them, you felt guilty for splitting them up late in the day and for shooting even one. You didn’t hunt up the singles.
This year is a high water mark. I never walk more than a half hour to game. To a point. I never return to camp without at least a handful of quail and a pocketof spent 20s.
We’ve seen the changes to the land, changes less subtle that the ebbs and flows of annual quail populations. There was a time we didn’t worry if we accidentally dipped down into Sonora in the great follow that is a setter leading a man. When the land seemed pristine and wild and raw and never trodden by man-track. When you did not fret about camp when you were not there. That was thirty years ago.
It was the trash, more than anything. Discards of a people on the move. Empty plastic jugs. Fuel cans. Pop cans worded only in Spanish. A shoe. Plastic sheeting. A tattered jacket, stuffing flying everywhere. You half expected to walk up on someone sitting in the shade of an oak as you followed your dog. Your heart beat a little more frantically than it does as a mere aficionado of the hunt and the canine. It felt dangerous. Still does sometimes.
But the fresh trash stopped and dust and dirt coated the old stuff. Maybe it was the economy crapping out or maybe it was something else. The drug trade. The fences. The patrols. Those are questions for other people and for the government. Detritus washed down arroyos, got covered in sand and duff. Plastic sheeting slowly disintegrated and blew to the wind, clung to mesquite thorn. Agave grew up through the leavings. Border patrol everywhere, just sitting in fancy government vehicles at intersections. All. Day. Long. Never waving hello.
We have seen the country change and each other age and we are back here. And we move around each other in the camp trailer and we hunt separately, me for half days, whole days. Jim for an hour or two. Some days. He is not feeling well. Complains of dizziness and weakness. I cook breakfast and dinner and he washes dishes and pours Kentucky over ice. Sometimes we talk, sometimes we read without saying much. It is another hunt in the desert and somehow, for the first time, it feels like our last.
Our camp is at the base of one of those short mountain ranges that are so much a part of this part of the desert. Sky islands, they call them, where points of pine and even spruce wring snowfall from a dry Southwestern sky on a December night and a good walker can move through a quarter dozen life zones on a big day.
For the dog man, the islands offer much promise. The deep grass toe of the island—the beaches—whisper to you of scaled, or blue, quail. The catclaw-choked canyon mouths farther up the island’s flanks, speak of Gambel quail. Higher still, up in the oak savannah, that most treasured of quail—the pointing dog’s quail—Mearns, Montezuma, harlequin.
My companion on this month of adventure is a mentor, a best friend, a life-long personal legend. He’s 83 and he carries a good Belgian Browning 20 that he picked up in a Denver pawn shop more than a half century ago. Jim has one dog, a young female setter. I have three, but only the streak called Mabel is functional. The other two are old timers, males whose saddles have a lot of leather worn off the tree. They are along for the ride, and because I didn’t have the heart to leave them in wintery Montana. I pay for my softness with periodic visits to the truck in the middle of the night so they can get out to empty. I lift them down to the ground and when they are done, I lift them back up to the tailgate beneath a star-splattered sky. They groan with the miles. They have given their everything to me. A lifetime of everything and the least I can do is get up in the middle of the night to let an old dog piss.
I did all the driving and do all the driving. Often, Jim stays at camp while I climb out of the trailer, load up my water and Mabel’s, thumb shells into my vest, pack lunch, load the gun, turn on the e-collar.
Sometimes, I come down off the mountain tired, my game bag heavy with a half limit. At night, we cook quail and vegetables in a Dutch oven over mesquite coals, accompany the meal with New Mexico chilies.
In the mornings, I do it all over again. The days are as I want them to be. On some, I get in the truck and drive the two-tracks north along the island’s run, looking for new canyons and new coveys. One evening, I come back to a few fingers of good bourbon and show Jim a license plate from 1954 that I found on a rusted truck bumper out in the middle of nowhere, pinned against the thick tough trunk of a mesquite by a flash flood long dead.
It’s the same year I bought that Browning, says Jim.
We climbed, this morning, on a rising bench from camp. The dog and I. We. We is just her and I.
I followed her into the tall grass and the coming sunlight, sometimes seeing her bounce through, then gone again. Pushing past Spanish dagger and catclaw, hoping for desert quail, heading toward a distant patch of oak up the mountain. The ache of two days of hard driving, of nights spent in a cold trailer on the side of a road, of more road, and more ‘truck butt’ and a diet of spitters and Mountain Dew is not even really a memory. Or an ache. It is winter and I am wearing a t-shirt and worrying about the heat on a dog that is used to Montana late pheasants.
Now, with two Mearns in the bag, we are above the bench and several miles from camp. The morning produced no desert quail and no points. Two quail shot off wild flushes, two “training birds.”
We sit for a time, me to slow pulse, her just because I make her. She waits. Doesn’t want to. She leaps to her feet every time I shift. And I make her sit down again. And finally I rise for good, and we work down off the mountain, trying for new country, new cover.
At the base, down from the oak savannah, we hit the century plants and mesquite of a different life zone, and work past the remnants of an old mine. The shell of a Model A Ford rusts away in a dry climate, intact save being shot full of number eights from what no doubt was a frustrated quail hunter.
I whistle her in again, calling her close as we head toward a water hole where I’m hoping she can cool off. The heat is rising now, full sun and pushing up into the 60s, maybe even the 70s. Coming up.
She has only a moment to lap muddy water when a covey of Gambel quail burst from the other side of the arroyo and fly one hundred or so yards. I mark them down, call the dog in, keep her close, and move in, knowing they probably won’t be there when we get there. Nevertheless.
We drop into the leavings of the most recent flash flood, then scramble out, moving closer to the place the covey went down. Thirty birds, maybe? I talk to her softly now, keeping her close, trying to walk light on soil that is more granite crumble than dirt.
She flanks left, then slams to a stop, tail up. Point. Point! By God.
Three birds burst from the cover.
The first bird up is a harlequin male, whirring a bit behind, left to right and going fast. The gun is up, swinging, leading, barking. The bird is down. Just because. Just because this is what we are after. Not a tweety. Not a meadowlark. Not a kangaroo rat. Quail. Mearns.
She is on it now, picking it up, spitting it out. Setter-style. This is what we are after.
The “making of birds” had been a furious tail wag, but the human translation of canine language saw it little different than mousing or tweety-birding. No offer of pointing. Making birds, yes. But hunting birds? Not even. But the male Mearns is down and dead and I’m squeaking happy noises and she’s grinning and jumping up on my belt and I’m good-girling in an excited voice. Oh, this is what we are after.
The next bird is the same, frantic wagging, but the bird out wild before she can point. Shooting this one too and she is sprinting and sniffing at it again.
There have been Huns and roosters and grouse and chukar.
These are the first quail.
In this life of dogs and birds and the march of boots across the uplands, we are often struck by the unfortunate irony of losing a good dog after only a dozen years. It is unfair, we dog lovers think, that we humans are awarded with such long lives and such a wonderful animal as the canine is cheated with a short one. This past April, I put another good dog into the soil after a baker’s dozen years on this blue marble and I thought to myself, “that was the dog.” One good dog, one good woman, one good horse, one man once said.
Twenty years ago, on a hot June day, I put a good dog into the sand at the base of a chukar cliff in the middle of nowhere and as the sweat ran into my eyes and the tears ran out, I thought to myself, “that was the dog.”
And while it is true there will never be another Hank or another Sage, that old maxim of “one good and that’s all you get” is as false as the twinkle of pyrite in a prospector’s pan. The truth of this comes home to me this season as I try to rein in another amazing soul that has come into my life. She is fire and charge and zip and zing. She is faster than I can remember any of the others before her. She is smarter than them too. Or at least as I remember them. And therein is the secret: memory is a trickster. And another truth: there will be another one; it won’t be the same, but it will be different in some ways, better in some ways, and a gift. A true gift.
From the dog’s perspective, perhaps a dozen years is a cheat. But on this day in deep autumn in the full throat of another season of following the perfume of the uplands, I vow to myself to make her years varied and spectacular. I promise to grind the tires off my pickup and the soles from my boots in pursuit of her ultimate joy. And mine. There will be more moments of spectacular glory and pure puppy chaos and I will walk on, shotgun in hand, thinking about what a fortunate man I am, have been, and will be.