The Purge.

There are those that are diligent about cleaning their gear at the end of the season, putting it all away properly. Truth be told, with the exception of guns, I’m not one of those.

My bird vest usually gets tossed in the closet shortly after chukar ends around the first week of February, and doesn’t emerge again ’till…well, right about now – a few days before the next season starts.

Somewhere in Idaho

Empty purple and yellow shells clink together in the pockets as I take the vest off the hook.

A granola bar wrapper is still in there, which I ate the contents of atop Nunya Peak, as the increasing wind ushered in a black wall of storm in the distance, and the birds called each other into the safety of the cliffs below me. We proceeded to take a few stragglers from the base of that cliff; birds that didn’t heed the call to safety. It was snowing sideways on the way out, and it took a while to find the truck, even longer to regain the feeling in my hands.

There is still a smorgasbord of remnant feathers all mixed together in the back of the vest, representing a rough stratigraphic timeline from early season ruffies at the base, through the solid mid-layer of sharpies and roosters and the occasional Hun, topped off with a dusting of chuks. Dirt, dried grass and twigs hold it all together.

There is that small hole that should probably have been mended (but likely never will be), from where I took a break against a fence post that hid a rusty old square nail, somewhere in southern Montana.

A small projectile point made of chert that I almost stepped on walking the canyon country of Nevada. I stood there for a while after I picked it up, sliding the cool smoothness of it between my thumb and forefinger, taking in a view that extended far, far into the distance.

Drops of dried blood remain on the lining of the game bag, reminding me that this isn’t just a game.

In some weird way, purging my vest of all these things is almost as difficult as accepting the end of another season. I put the vest back in the closet. There are still a few more days before this really needs to be done.

Trapped

It  wasn’t a conscious decision; we had merely started moving in slightly different trajectories, and in this sort of country that means that before long we were almost a mile, and a deep gorge, away from each other. I look across the rim at the small figures, the even smaller brown and white dots that represented the dogs. Even at this distance it is obvious that they are covering ten times the amount of ground that the humans are.

I find reasonably stable footing amidst the slippery skateboards of sandstone talus piled atop each other, and look over the rim. Even in February, the creek flows assertively. Yes, people would have lived here, and probably would have done pretty well at it, considering the harshness that lay to the horizon beyond.

In the distance, the rooftops and glass reflections of a border gambling town can be seen. I am less than an hour hike from the road, but I know that no one has likely stood where I am in a long time. They come in vehicles of sealed, conditioned air, never leaving pavement, and head straight to the dim cacaphony of casinos where it could be any time of night or day. Indeed, this lack of any reference to time of day is the deliberate strategy from the casino’s point of view. And then, broke, satiated, guilty, elated, hungover or maybe even lucky, they get back in their cars and move on, their feet likely never touching real soil, their menthol-pickled lungs taking in as little fresh air as possible throughout the entire endeavor.

I drop below the band of rimrock and continue to parallel the ridge, the creek now audible below. Here and there are concentrations of tiny obsidian flakes on the ground, doubtless in the very same spot where they initially fell, as someone ages before fashioned a tool or killing instrument of some sort. I continue on, lost in various thoughts of the people who used to live here, losing recollection of the quarry I came here to find, not even sure exactly where my dog is. It feels good to be alone in this place, walking, consumed by the moment, surrounded by scatterings of human evidence, reminded that I am but one in a long chain that stretches way back. Something incongruous catches my eye and I bend down. A tiny chert arrowhead, perfectly formed.

I move on, still deep in thought, looking down as I pick my way along, only half-heartedly still in the hunt. Hank pops over the rim above to check on me and then disappears again.

And then suddenly, there it is.

I stand there stunned as everything around me slows and focuses in the middle, on what lies in front of me, blurred around the edges, like an old tintype. Despite the mid-day temps hovering around freezing, it is clear that the cat hasn’t been dead for long. It is also clear that this had not been a quick death; that nothing dies quickly this way. There would have been hours, if not days, of struggle, of life slowly ebbing, of creeping cold, until this. Wind moves the soft fur, and I can’t resist – I kneel down and run my fingers through it. There is this brief, purely sensory moment where my thinking, judgmental mind is as numb as the carcass before me. This incredibly soft coat. I want to continue running my hand through it and not think about anything, but thoughts begin to creep back. I stand up and wonder if the trapper is watching me from somewhere in the distance. This is easy country to remain undetected in.

I try to get it back, but the rest of the day is not the same. The usual burning desire to continue hunting and covering country has been dimmed to a flicker and all I want to do is put the gun and the rest of it all away and go sit somewhere with a flask of whiskey and a good view and not think about anything but the biting February wind chafing my face and the little chert arrowhead, smooth between my fingers.

– Smithhammer

Begin Anew

It begins with hearing the creak of the stove door opening, with someone throwing a few sticks on the coals from last night. Before long, you hear a little crackling and periscope one eye toward the still tightly drawn opening of your sleeping bag to find a greyish hint of daylight. No one really moves much, but a gradual, collective realization that morning has arrived seems to pervade. Before long, it’s almost too warm in the wall tent to stay inside the bag, and a restlessness follows and people start to emerge. A dog stretches before curling up and laying down again, a little closer to the heat source.

Photo by Ty Traxler

Muscles are stiff, and there’s the faint remnant of retribution from last night’s whiskey, preventing much conversation. Or coordination, for that matter. An empty bottle or two get knocked over in an effort to get the coffee pot on the stove. Someone throws on boots and trips over the tent door, cursing, on a relief mission.

Presently, frying garlic and onions awake what is left of dormant senses and the mental fog begins to lift. Sausage and peppers get added to the mix and take it to a new level. Something which probably wouldn’t be funny in an otherwise full state of consciousness cracks all of you up. Soon glorious caffeine is infusing the body with fresh fire. Yesterday’s beatdown, traversing steep cliffs, slipping and falling on greasy rock, and the ensuing aches, forgotten. Tails start to wag and a cup of coffee goes over. So the day begins anew and nothing else really matters in high, windswept country where humans and dogs and chukar sometimes cross paths.

– Smithhammer

MOF Luxury Tours Now Accepting Reservations!

The team at Mouthful of Feathers is proud and excited to announce our new “Luxury Tours” division!

Deluxe transportation and 5-star meals are included:

Our experienced guides uphold the highest standard of professional behavior at all times:

You can count on your unique accommodations having been prepared in advance of your arrival by expert local craftsmen:

Evenings are typically spent sipping rare single malt and recalling days afield around a roaring fire in our turn-of-the-century fireplace, located in the grand lodge:

Previous client testimonial:

“I really didn’t know what to expect when I booked my first trip with MOF Luxury Tours. I had done classic driven shooting at castles in England, amassed thousands of doves per day in Argentina, and even hunted elusive guinea fowl driven by natives on the plains of South Africa. My standards and expectations were high, but I was ready for something different. That’s when I came across the full page ad for MOF Luxury Tours in Gray’s Sporting Journal. I was intrigued, and decided to give it a try. After that first life-changing experience, I immediately booked for next year and can’t wait!”

– Frank Lee Schwetty III

We’re confident that you’ll find MOF Luxury Tours tours to be the most exclusive, lavish and unique wingshooting experiences currently being offered by anyone, anywhere.

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The Borderline

Pour me a drink from the bottle
And one for you
’cause we’re empty as the desert
As we drift from west to east
On the borderline everything is empty, even you and I…”

– “Borderline,” by Camper van Beethoven

We hunt the fringes, the transitions, the anomalies. We gravitate to this without much conscious thought; pulled to these points at the extremity of an amorphous compass by the lodestone of experience. You could say we’re merely following the dog, but there is more to it than that. The dog is pulled to these places as the birds are pulled as we are pulled – the collision of impulse and instinct between three separate species.

Why will we repeatedly cross an otherwise featureless field, drawn to a small rise that hosts a few sage, dragged along primarily by hope? There are the obvious reasons, of course – the fact that this negligible bump on the landscape gives a vantage point for the birds and possibly a slightly greater variety of feed, would be sound reasoning, but doesn’t account for all of it. Then there are the old hedgerows, the messy perimeter of the errant orchard, the sweeping line of scrub oak, the rocky edge of the bluff; all of them places that hold birds, all of them liminal zones of portent, possessed with a deeper significance if we care to stop and think about it.

These peripheries have an irresistible, innate pull, something hardwired into the collective limbic network we tap into when we take a shotgun and a dog in the field. It is something that gets at our soul and provides a glimpse of insight into this odd thing we love. Our pursuit, after all, doesn’t really stand up to much logic. From a simple, meat-gathering point of view, it is a net loss – we expend a great deal more energy than we ever hope to take in at the end of the day. But we do it anyway, and we have all sorts of other reasons that we tell ourselves; to simply get out in the great outdoors, to watch the dogs work, to keep one foot in the door of what it means to kill and procure your own food; all of them undeniably true.

Yet we’re fooling ourselves if we aren’t also aware that as an upland clan, we are a fringe unto ourselves, occupying but a small sub-group of an already minor segment in our society, comprised of those that still hunt. And thus, as much as we are drawn to these fringe places for the obvious, we also go there for reasons that reflect who we ultimately are. We are of the peripheral, stalking the transitional, drifting west to east along the borderline…

– Smithhammer