I could do this every day. Walk the roads. The tall grass. Carry the gun broken over miles of empty fields just for the heart-race that is the “snick” of the gun readied. Thumb on the safety, gawd-almighty-get-ready. Do it forever, every day of the season from infant October to bitter good bye January, the ditch parrots flushed and cackling and sometimes escaping. The gun swinging, the bird falling, the glorious dog upon it as if this is all there is in this world and for her, perhaps it is and for you that’s the case as well, if you stop and look deep enough to admit it. Engulfed. Forever, a new place, a new door knocked, a new acquaintance, an old place, a cover where you know the ambush front and back and sideways. Forever and repeat.
But what of the miles of empty road, the flat tires, the permissions refused, the hot days with water running low miles from the pickup? The down years when it’s just miles and a few carry-over birds sailing out of sight? What of the misses, the wiffs, the outright slumps? What of letting her down after all that hard work she did thrashing the deep cover that towers over her little head, you fool? A flat-footed, no-excuses miss. The blisters, the rain, the wet stench of tired foot? The field of nothing but hens, or worse, roosters running goodbye-gone-and-a-day and flushing at beyond what is even prudent rifle range? The cover cow-burnt to the dirt? What of Russian olive thorn and prickly pear dagger? What of tired leg and chaffed groin and a shower needed, badly. What of someone else beating you to it, halfway across the field before you turn up the county road? Forever? Really? I call bullshit.
National Dog Day is here and for those of us who live to see our hunting canine companions perform their magic, that means that hunting season is not far behind. In honor of our doggy family members, we at Mouthful of Feathers are announcing something truly special: the upcoming publication in Spring 2023 of Mouthful of Feathers, Upland in America.
In the spirit of the Mouthful of Feathers blog that has been the standard for upland bird hunting writing for more than a decade, the book gathers together the most gifted and honest writers in the genre all in one place, all with unique tales from the uplands (and a swamp or two).
These are fresh voices that articulate the experience as we know it – wild, elusive birds in massive country, imperfect dogs (and people), dirtbag camps, busted up field guns, trucks stuck in the mud, days spent putting miles on the boots with nothing to show for it, and yes, even a little blood now and then. We believe it is possible to both honor the tradition of our sport and still write in the unsanitized present. This is “why,” re-told in written language that honors the craft of the telling.
Boiled all the way down, Mouthful of Feathers, Upland in America will set the standard for tales of the uplands for years to come. Look for stories from these authors: Reid Bryant, Greg McReynolds, Thomas Reed, Chad Love, Ryan Busse, Dave Zoby, Shauna Stephenson, Eric Thompson, Christine Peterson, Mike Neiduski, Edgar Castillo, Chris Dombrowski, T. Edward Nickens, Jillian Lukiwski, Els Van Woert and Marissa Jensen.
There are those in the literary world to whom nostalgia and sentimentality are an anathema. There may be a point there; why look backward when forward is the thing? Why think about a time before the time we are in?
This is not my school. Mine is old. I like manual transmissions. AM radio as long as it’s tuned to mariachi or Ray Price-Marty Robbins country, no rantings of conspiracy and anger for me. Tent camping. Straight black coffee. Cast iron cookware.
And I love this old man. He turned 90 a few weeks ago. Greg and I rented a Forest Service cabin with a long view of Montana where neighbors are mountain bluebirds and barn swallows up from mariachi country. We sat on the porch of that cabin and thought about Lewis and Clark and we talked about Winchester rifles made before 1964, fly rods made by hand, canvas tents, bonafide American double guns. We watched skeins of elk and antelope work across sagebrush benches greening in a May sun. Saw a black bear galloping across cattle country and a snowshoe hare going white to gray.
“Greg, I’ve turned into a stumbling, drooling old man,” he said.
“You’re not drooling.”
He stopped himself at one gin and tonic and I said, “I understand.”
“I don’t,” he said. And then he said, “Stop me if I’ve told you this before.”
He had, but we didn’t. He has stories, nostalgia, sentiment for days gone by. So do we.
Poor is the one who does not listen to this, stealing gems from one’s own cache. Bring it on.
I don’t even know what a Godfather does. I have a vague idea and I think there may be presents involved. I could ask around, get some thoughts on what other people think it should be, but I kind of like having a blank canvas to make it up as we go along.
Your Dad came up to Montana this summer to ride and camp with me and that’s when he asked me if I’d be your Godfather. He said he and your Mom had talked it over and it seemed right. I laughed it off, but I also have got to tell you, it brought tears to my eyes. The honor of it. We were heading up into the West Pioneers on a four-day horsepacking trip, your Dad riding my old mare, Mac, me on Black Jack, and my new young filly, Sis, carrying our food and a bottle of good Irish whisky. We got rained on, caught some fish, shared that bottle, and had lots of good laughs. In the mornings, when it was quiet and we fed twigs into old coals and watched flame rise in the campfire, I thought about what it means to be a Godfather. To have someone I’m going to watch grow up and turn into a young woman.
This morning, your morning, I hiked out to my upper pasture, caught old Mac and rode her bareback to the house. I didn’t know you had been born, but already in my head, I was thinking about what I might say to you. What I might teach you. Is there something an old bachelor can teach a little girl? Some lesson? Some way of going? What do I know of raising children with no experience of my own?
It’s horseshoe time again. Hunting season is on me and there’s a wind off the Tobacco Roots pushing leaves off the cottonwoods, telling me it’s here, and so I caught Mac and let Jack and Sis run loose, bringing them down to the barn to meet the farrier. In the stirred up wind, the horses skittered. I swung up on old Mac with just a halter, and she pranced and threatened to run with the other two and I thought to myself, “I’m getting too old for this crap.” As the other two galloped off in the loose wind, I worried that I might find myself on top of my head, but pride kept me up there even though she jigged and jogged and threatened to tip me off. She defies her age and I’m at the age when I deny mine.
When I got back to the house, there was a message from your Dad that you had been born. And so you are here, Lucy Gray. A new soul in a complicated world. I’m a new Godfather in that same world. And here are my first words to you: Get outside, find the passion in your life, love someone, and throw yourself at it.
There’s a solace in nature that you’ll find just by putting yourself there. I know your parents will take you into the mountains and desert and open plains and you’ll find that peace. You will learn to ski and ride a bike and a horse. You’ll learn to row a boat down a beautiful river, cast a fly to a rising trout, eat wild raspberries right off the stem.
It’s a wonderful life, this life spent outside. When life is troubling you, go there. Learn the wildflowers, know the birds, the insects. Listen. Grow a garden. Eat farm eggs and elk steak. We live life in a world of machines, but our true nature is nature. This is where our species has evolved, in a world that is dangerous and exciting, a world beyond our inventions. Breathe in that clean air. Get outside.
There will come a time in your life when it will seem as if stress is all you are swimming in. It is at this moment when you will need to open the door and step out into it. Away from the indoor pressures into a space big enough to wash it all away. Get on a horse. Put on some hiking boots. Pick up a fly rod. Get away. Get out.
I’ve been lucky in my life, for my passion is the outdoors, and the outdoors is my work. But there are many other passions. Find yours. Most of all, have fun. We only get one of these things called life. It’s not a dress rehearsal. Find something that you love to do and do it often. Find something worth fighting for and fight for it. Stand up for people and creatures that can’t stand up for themselves. Argue for your beliefs, but be civil about it. Try to see both sides, for that way you’ll be able to understand others and your convictions will be all the more firm for that understanding. But more than anything, have fun. Enjoy it.
Your life is going to be filled with many great people, people you’ll love deeply and without condition. Good people, starting with your parents and spreading out from there. You are born into goodness, with rich souls all around you. You’ll meet many and you’ll know, by looking into their eyes, the depth of their goodness. Love them. Love animals the same way and watch how others treat their fellows and how they treat animals. You can do a lot of weeding if your own eyes are open.
Finally, go at it hard. If the road is rocky, take it. If it’s tough and hard and difficult, it’s worth doing. If it were easy, anybody could do it. No man has made a good name for himself by taking the easy way out. No matter how much it sucks, suck it up.
And so there it is. Get outside, be passionate about it, love well, and work hard.
And always remember, if you need help in this world, if you need someone to protect you and love you and help you fight the fight, he lives in Montana and runs a string of great bird dogs and rides cranky old mares bareback.
Welcome to the world, Lucy Gray.
First published in Wyoming Wildlife magazine and then in the book, Give Me Mountains For My Horses, Lucy Gray is now twelve years old, the old horse Mac has gone to the other side of the ridge and the author has children of his own.
A chickadee, somewhere off in the conifers. A light breeze from the west now, and the dog out into it, working atop old snow. Last week, he was here, a flash of gray like a fleeing thought, a mirage in the timber and the gun up, swinging. The sudden wham and waves of sound from down-canyon and back, silencing the chickadees, stopping the breeze. The smell of Christmas now, a tree taking the whole wad of sevens and the odor of sap filling the air and the chickadees, only temporarily silenced, taking up their chatter again. The monochrome twinkle in conifer light gone as if it he was never there in the first place. Escaped. Just as well. This week the little setter finds nothing except the evidence that he is still here. Glad for that.
It is not the knee, tender only occasionally now. It is not the ankle and the winces it brings. It is not, even, the depth-of-darkness night awakenings when I replay the points and misses, hits and retrieves.
Instead it is the scent of sage on a setter’s coat. Perhaps only an olfactory memory. It is the flake of obsidian I find in the pocket of hunting pants about to go into the washer. It is the pink recollection of tint on far mountain beyond shooting light. It is my hunting pals at the pickup, munching chips and drinking beer, and the note-comparing that we do. It is reminding myself to stay in some semblance of physical shape because this hunt will go first, this slanted, glorious, frustrating, love-hated wonderment.
You do not notice breathing until it is difficult. Then it is all you notice. Ragged breaths that come from the stomach up into a chest that once bellowed air as easily and reflexively as one might blink.
The old dog nearly died on the bathroom floor of a Days Inn. Imagined carrying his cooling carcass out to the pickup, imagined that too-long drive eastward toward home. Imagined the cold stiff burial under a Montana cottonwood turning October yellow. Imagined a lot of things. Did not imagine revival, but he did.
He rode in the front seat thirteen hours home, too weak to piss without being lifted out onto roadside grass.
At home, snow dusted the tall-back above 12,000 and the tailwind that chased you all the way from the coast peeled leaves off the aspens, alders, cottonwoods, robbing the fall of its color. But the bellows kept going, the machinery, pumping, filling, emptying, repeat. Pumping, filling, emptying.
The old dog home on his bed in front of the crackling woodstove, an old dog who does things his own way. Doesn’t die when you think death just on the next page, never came when called and on deer track, never lost a taste for discarded socks or detritus from toddler-feeding chaos, always retrieved and hardly ever pointed–just the exact opposite of every other setter on the planet. Outdid field trial champion Labs on water retrieves for Christ’s sake, but you think he’d point for more than a tenth of a second?
He crawls off soft bed for hard tile floor, laps water, pisses himself. Meds onboarded, food offered and refused for the first time ever. Draining, slowly down the drain. But the machinery still going. In. Out. In. Out. Thump. Thump. Thump.
Later. Not wagging his tail anymore even when hugged in the tears of his 8-year-old. Even when she places a spare sock in front of his nose and says, “I love you, Scouty, you can have these socks.”
Tomorrow. It will be tomorrow. And when tomorrow comes and the pickup is brought close to the front door so the carry will be easy, he goes his own way and the machinery stops. Ironic poetry from an old dog whose idea of verse would probably have been bawdy limerick told in a dank pub somewhere in the country. Yet the poetry: the machinery stops without veterinary action. Spares himself that final ride, spares his loves their final despairing decision.
The pump stops and the wind tails westward and all is quiet except the whispered cries of those left in the slipstream.
Up north of the house, tight against the highway to Opheim, it looked good last year. Tall weeds and snowberry in the gullies stringing off a patch of uncut wheat. A stackyard of old round bales and shoulder high kochia. You’d have to go easy in there, listening for the dog, watching out for hidden barbwire. But a rooster in that weed jungle would have to climb ten feet like a timberdoodle before leveling off and heading for friendlier parts. And in all these years, we’d never hunted it. Checked the map again. Yes, it was ours to hunt.
So we hatched a plan. The old man would drop us on the highway and we’d dodge grain trucks, hold the dogs tight, just two of them, and plunge into the tangle working quietly and quickly away from the traffic. The old man would drive the old truck–your new truck–around to the other side a mile away on the dirt section road and block. He might even get some shooting but his jungle days were over. We’d walked while he blocked every day for the last three days, hobbling on arthritic heels maybe ten yards to the edge of tree rows and ditch edges, swinging that beautiful double gun and dropping the occasional rooster. That felt better, far better, than shooting them yourself, just seeing him down them as he had done for seven decades.
It was a good plan except the truck was as arthritic as the old man. The synchros were going out in first and second, and you had gotten to where you could move forward without grinding, but it took some practice.
“You haven’t forgotten how to drive a stick, have you?” half joshing, half serious, laid out more sarcastically than intended.
Away we went from the traffic, quickly, worried just a bit about the dogs, both veterans, but there is no figuring a canine hot on a rooster and big rigs don’t stop for bird dogs.
We’d made it twenty yards when the grinding and revving started. More grinding. Black smoke. Grinding. Forgetting the vow to go quietly, all you can think about is a transmission ground to powder and a mechanic’s bill bigger than two house payments.
“Damnit!!!” you yell. Although over the revving and grinding and with two hearing aides that whistle fitfully and aid not much at all, there’s not a chance he can hear you. So you yell louder. And louder.
He gets out. “I can’t get it into gear.”
No shit. You do not say this aloud. You walk back, holding the shotgun in one hand, stooping to hold the collar of the eager dog next to the highway.
“Okay, shut it off, put it in gear, then start it with the clutch in.”
You walk out twenty yards, following the dog.
More revving engine and now the smell, the sickening odor like shit-covered hair burning in a burn barrel full of garbage. A clutch burning. “Goddamnit!!!!! The brake is on!!!! The brake!!!”
There is no chance of him hearing you over the diesel engine and the squalling clutch but somehow he makes it off the little pull-out and onto the highway, brake still on, engine hitting maybe 5000, smoke everywhere, the stink of brake and clutch and the truck barely going 10 miles an hour. You yell louder and wave your shotgun over your head, still clutching the confused bird dog so she won’t rush out into the traffic. And louder still, cussing vehemently.
To make matters worse your hunting partner is giggling his ass off and so you scream at him too. “It’s not funny asshole, he’s destroying my truck!”
This just makes him laugh harder and makes you angrier and the F-bombs just add to the fury and hysteria.
Finally, the old man figures out the brake is on, just as an 18 wheeler is bearing down. You can hear its compression brakes, see it lumbering up on the pickup and then all is well as the brake comes off and the old man accelerates in a cloud of black smoke en route to the rendezvous point.
Oddly enough, there are very few pheasants in the field. Your partner speculates that maybe this one little spot, a spot we’ve never hunted in a decade of hunting this place, has been hit hard by neighbor kids.
To which you respond, chastened: “It might have been all the yelling and gear-grinding.”
One of life’s maxims is that poop is always worth a laugh. My 8-year-old stepdaughter wrote this to me on a card: “Remember Buddy, poop is always funny.”
Consider Philip Seymour Hoffman’s character in Along Came Polly: “I just sharted.” Evidence of the claim. Funny at 8. Funny at 58.
We have a dog that regularly eats socks. His name is Scout and somehow he has avoided any kind of gastro-surgery in 12 years of eating socks. It took us about 10 years to figure out that he should be locked up in his crate whenever he is in the laundry room where he sleeps. Because if he’s not, he’ll steal socks out of the dirty laundry and eats them. Kids’ socks especially but sometimes adult socks. If he can’t get to the socks, he’ll eat dryer lint out of the trash. And somehow he keeps on ticking.
You’ll see him out in the yard duck-walking around like a two-year-old with bad diaper chafe and then—horror!—something slowly emerges that looks like a child’s socked foot birthing from the nether region. More grunting and the whole ankle, the shin! Scout duck-walks and a leg starts to emerge. More duck-walking. And the birth has passed.
The last big trip is done. The take–a pile of roosters hatched and nurtured on Kansas mixed prairie–is aging in cool storage. There’s plucking to be done, but not for a few days, maybe a week. The strength of walking 12, 13, 14 miles in a day has not faded. The dogs have recovered and are twitchy. Old snow, not post-hole stuff, but crusty and hard, covers the ground like a heavily frosted cake that sat out overnight. There might be a covey of huns up on the old Rex place, and in the summer, you saw a ruffed grouse cross the road where you parked the horse trailer for the coulee-to-cabin ride. So you grab the pup because she put it together somewhat on the loess of the heartland and you’d like to build on that. You park at the coulee, shoulder into the vest that is still littered with rooster feathers, and step out into it, the pup bounding over the snow-scabbed land. Sip from the water bladder that carries the last of the delicious water pulled from a deep well strawed into the fading, famed Ogallala and follow her to hope. One more time. Maybe a few more, yet, but this one for sure, if only for an hour or two.