Appearances

I always thought of it simply as a hat.
In the days of my youth ‘cap’ meant a ball cap, preferably with Texas A&M embroidered on the front.
‘Hat’ meant stetson.
If worn, stained felt it meant shelter from the sun on hot days and protection from the sleet and rain of winter.
Clean, with sharp corners on the brim was for dances, dominoes and Shiner beers on Saturday nights.
Now, my hats are mostly worn and stained and reserved specifically for days afield. They are still just hats. At least until Chad Love rechristened them in a blog over at Mallard of Discontent.
Now, they are dork hats.
So, to defend how cool I am, I dove into my photos archives looking for proof.
I did find this cool old photo of my dad on a pheasant hunt wearing his dork hat.

Unfortunately, I personally was not vindicated. I found stacks and stack of photos of me looking like a complete and utter tool.
Dork hat indeed.
On a positive note, I did not find any photos of myself looking sunburned, cold, wet or otherwise more than mildly miserable.
So, I declare a hat victory for all dorks, not for coolness, but for utility.
I embrace my inner and outer dork.

– GM

Batten Down the Hatches

I saw a quail last week.

Big whup, Tosh, you live in Texas.

You’re right, but it was the quail’s location within Texas that threw me into an extended ponder.

It was a single hen bobwhite, and she was standing in a little sandy patch next to the road. She looked healthy, and when she scurried into the grass I waited to see if she had chicks or a mate. It’s nesting season, you know.

Turns out she was single. A single bobwhite hen on Mustang Island, Texas. A single bobwhite hen standing next to the main beach road in Port Aransas. Sure, she had the dune grasses for cover, and I’ve seen wild coveys, before on the Texas barrier islands. But not here; not twenty yards from the surf and in the middle of town. I’ve never seen a quail mingling with the sunburned land whales, and the yowling rednecks, and the Natty cans, and the empty Funyon bags, and the cigarette butts, and the saggy-pants Latinos. A seagull can swallow a jumbo shrimp on a treble hook in one try; a quail chick wouldn’t stand a chance, for chrissakes.

Bobwhites are resolute little critters, and given a bit of fortune I suppose she could pair and mate and pull off a clutch in the midst of all that humanoid flotsam.

No fortune came her way, though. Hurricane Alex roared in the next afternoon, and the spot where I saw the little wayward hen got four feet of tide, sixty knot winds, and five inches of rain.

There’s a real estate office in Port Aransas that schlepps rusted-out condos and moldy beach houses. Their sign out front speaks that age-old axiom of real estate success.

Location. Location. Location.

– TB

Outside apps

A couple of weeks ago the guy in front of me at the grocery store was paying for his sixer in change and I was browsing the magazine rack when I came across a quarterly publication called iPhone Life.
There is a magazine ($6.99) that is dedicated to the iPhone? And it’s in its second year of publishing?
I’m sure I don’t have to mention that there were no outdoor magazines on the rack. Not even a copy of National Geographic.
Not a single periodical relating something of the human experience, or any experience. Just celebrity gossip and a magazine dedicated to a cellphone.
This news so disturbed me that when I got home, I went to said rag’s Web site.
The lead post on the Web site was titled “Why I Bought My Kids iPhones.
The post starts out, “My kids are not spoiled (well, maybe a little bit), I bought them iPhones for economic reasons. Let me explain. The cost of a new Nintendo or Sony PSP is…”
My kids aren’t old enough to want anything other than milk and attention, but it seems to me that buying kids an iPhone might be counter productive to being a kid.
A phone is a tool. Hell, I have a Blackberry and I’ll be the first to admit that it makes my job easier and me more productive. Still,

I don’t want my kids to start obsessively checking their e-mail until someone is paying them to.
Much like a shotgun, it’s nothing more than a means to an end. I love shotguns, but the reason I buy them is the high lonesome country that I visit with them in hand.
The existence of iPhone Life suggests to me that some people might think their iPhone is actually part of their life or that it somehow matters what kind of phone you have or what you can do with it.
All this tells me that there are a lot of people who don’t spend enough time outside in the company of a good dog.

Nothing

This nothing, this sheet of land, this openness, this bigness. Nothing. Stand. Then turn in a slow circle, eyes open. Nothing stretches left and right, ninety, one-eighty, two-seventy, three-sixty. Nothing.
Walk into it. Follow good bird dogs who follow their olfactors into a northward wind. Sagebrush at the feet. Greasewood. Four-winged saltbush. Sand. Sandstone. Sage again, sage always.

The wind hard in the face now, coming strong from the south, clouds forming, joining, mating, darkening. Still after the dogs, panting hard now and pivoting in growing wind, ears flopping with movement of body and earth. Still, nothing. No birds. Not even a track in sand, nor white-wash of turd on rock, nor anything.
A hawk overhead, passing on the wind, carried, pushed, surfed. Hardly a wing beat, just a kite of feather and talon and sharp beak.
Still into the wind, still after the dogs, still looking for track and scat and dusting. Still on.
An hour now. Then two. Three. Rest in steep ravines, dogs watering in natural troughs of stone. Carved deep and ancient. Crunching on through bitter small sage, over needling cactus. On, still in the wind.

Likely spots, tall grass in sagebrush stands, green-up on south slopes. Nothing.
A skeleton then, red feet. Plucked clean. Except for those feet. Those damned feet. Usually running and making tracks. Damnable, loveable little bastards.

Juniper twisted by wind, hardened and sanded and tortured.
Finally enough. Turn. The truck now ahead, not behind. How far? Three miles? Five? Six?
A wide swing. A wandering course. Following dogs. Occasionally following faded experience, judgment, upland teachings. Last year’s fountains dry. Going there, checking for this year’s generation. Informed by memory, swatted by reality. But mostly following dogs. Trusting. They know. If there is anything instead of nothing, canine instinct will prevail.
Canyons now, deep ones, scrambled. Sliding on sandstone, stopping again at a trough, hot and panting dogs lying in meltwater. Shotgun slung over one shoulder. Shells heavy in the vest, juniper berries collected. Back home, back at the woodstove, one berry on a stovetop will scent the entire house.
An antler shed. Leave it. A chipping, then a point. Leave them too.

Mind wandering, then coming back again, eyes following the dogs, whistle tucked and un-used. They are fine-tuned and all business and there is pride there, right there in the heart. Heavy too because the oldest, the alpha male, lopes with a limp and will be stiff on the front end and decommissioned in the morning. But now, onward, into nothing. Alone out here except for canine and raptor, a mule deer doe stotting over far gray ridge, hide matched to the land. Invisible without movement.

Water low now, sloshing in the bottle and stomach growling; lunch left hours ago. Sun slowly falling out of the sky and toes mashed hard by downward slides, heels feeling hot from upward slogs. Left knee complaining of high school football. Ignore it. On. Onward. Still, nothing.

Finally, the truck. Keys in the gas cap. Water from the jug for the dogs. A beer. Cold and goddamned good on dry throat and now the sun almost gone and a wash of color–orange and red and pink–across the sky. Dogs flopping down hard on the soil by the truck wheel, panting and stretching out and drooling cold water. Thirst slaked. On the tailgate now and a cigar, smoke curling, blending with sage scent. The wind down and gone. The bird vest empty. The gun still clean.

Not nothing.

Something. –TR

Color

This year there was no vibrancy to the slow fade of summer. A norther came down out of the high arctic and froze everything in early October, dropping temps down to singles, dropping a foot of snow on the backs of surprised baby partridge. The leaves on the aspens, the alders, the cottonwoods, turned black and fell off overnight.

Now deep winter.

Any hint of summer is long gone, drained from the grasses like blood from a corpse, the horizon sprawling out and the light as flat as the land. Petrified and pale. Along  the empty and benumbed ditches are the stems of red willow, but even they have no verve, no splash, no elan. A man could get despondent in such a landscape with its off-tones and nothingness. When your partner compares the coming day to the soft pastels and dim light a Russell Chatham watercolor, you realize why you’ve never found the man’s art all that appealing. Why hang “Depression” in one’s living room?

Twenty below. Weather for fools and cattle feeders. The fools carry shotguns in refrigerated fingers. The cattle feeders feed from the heated cabs of tractors because they have to. You want to. Dolt.

Out into that drab vista with the only real vibrancy at your feet, panting and wiggling and dancing and wagging. Hell’s bells. It’s 20 below.

The sun splashes a little bit of yellow across the snow carpet, but still, nothing much more colorful than a hard-water stain in a commode. You crunch on in complaining squeak-snow and blow on the plastic whistle only once. Only once because the damned thing freezes to your lips and the end of your nose hurts and the lobes of your ears remind you of the last time they were frost nipped. Skiing a January or two ago. Skiing. Activity that makes sense. Or ice fishing. In a hut. With whiskey or schnapps or hot buttered rum. Not this idiot’s plod with a shotgun so cold the receiver glues  to your glove and when you stop to get rid of some coffee, you worry about frost nipping the business end of your business. Jesus H. Jack London.

The path is a canal that in summer probably runs bank to bank with silt water but now is as empty as the land itself, its banks lined by brown brush and black weeds and reddish stems and here and there an acre or two of bled-out cattail. The dog charges into it and tufts of hair from the cattails drift and blend into the frost and you push on, coagulated limbs working, pulled only by the dog and his vivacity. In those thick cattails. Now quiet. Silence. A point, you think, and you pound into them, pushing through the floating cattail dust and the 20-below crystals and find him there, iced-over himself, and yet absolutely on fire at the same time and you kick about and hear a frantic beating at your feet and up she goes. Brown and black and a little white and flying. Hen! Dingy bitch.

A mile like this, along that canal, through blankness, your toes cold, your lobes slowly going from ‘nip to ‘bite, the whistle tucked away and forgotten, the dog stopping now and then to bite out chunks of ice between his pads, but bursting on, still giving it all. Would have liked to have that kind of drive and no-quit on your college football team. Who is playing probably right now while you are out here freezing your junk right the hell off. A simpleton’s trudge, yours. The farmer out there in his growling tractor, feeding faded green hay to his black cattle. Even that sounds more appealing.

You near the end of the canal where a big gray cottonwood presses into the sky and a ferruginous sits fixed on a limb, puffed out and gray and brown and black and reluctant to move. Does finally, launching silent into the freeze. The dog doesn’t see the hawk, though. Occupied and animated. When he stops again, solid again for the fifth or sixth time, you think: Probably another damned hen but you wade in anyway.

Your toes hurt from kicking the cattails and then a chaotic splashing at your feet and a cackle. A cry that is in reality probably one of fright, but you’ve imagined it a scold, an angry, cursing, pissed-off mean-ass sumbitch.

And there he is. A  flying box of Crayons: Purple! Red! Green! Russet! Rouge! White! Black! Yellow! Chartreuse!

Color!!!                                                                                                              –TR

I got da blues dis mornin’….

Dawn on the first day of deer season. The cracking reports of high caliber rifles, some of them sounding more apt for buffalo or urban warfare, can be heard in the valley below. We gratefully stand on the ridge high above as dawn light strikes the far side. We are at 8000′ in mixed blue and ruffed grouse habitat, but blues are on the brain and at the top of the priority list. Hank clearly has a bug up his ass, and I suppose I do too. He’s ranging far – too far – and I’m letting it get to me a little too much, probably symptomatic of other things in the back of my mind that I’m trying to sort out.

Eventually, I remember that he is young and in his first season, that an occasional day like this is to be expected, that it would probably be best to just call it and head home. There are days when you just know it’s just not going to come together, and it’s best to listen to that. As we make our way back down the hillside, still several hundred feet above the truck, I break the action, unload and give a whistle. Wait. Another.

Hank hasn’t been seen for several minutes, which means he could easily be in the next county. I’m getting pissed. And then getting pissed at myself for getting pissed. Eventually, he comes charging in on my right at mach speed, scaring the crap out of a random blue that happened to have been holding in the brush nearby. The bird lofts right in front of me, the easiest passing shot in the world. I raise my now unloaded gun, swing through and say, “BAM” out loud. Hank looks at up at me like I’m insane, and takes off barking like the piss and vinegar pup that he is. It will be the last blue we lay eyes on this season.

– Smithhammer

Excerpts from a Quail Quest…

From the Upland Lexicon of Essential Euphemisms (3rd Ed.):
Main Entry: 1quest
Pronunciation: \ˈkwest\
Function: noun
1) Typically used in retrospect, to summarize the unsuccessful pursuit of an elusive, small bird in a big land. 2) An attempt to put a valorous spin on failure. 3) Also used in place of such platitudes as “it’s just good to be out here.

Az. Fish & Game agent: “Yeah, the Mearns numbers seem to be really down this year. Dry spring and summer did a number on ’em. So what are you guys hunting out here?”

Us: “Mearns”

AZF&G: “Oh.”

“We scouted that road last weekend. It’s pretty rough, and **** ‘s truck wouldn’t make it, but I’m sure your rig will be fine.”

“Hmmm….where do you think those folks are going on ATV’s, in head-to-toe camo, ski masks and handguns?”

“Note to self – when you go on a road trip, bring the keys to the locking gas cap.”

“Javelina’s are basically just big cranky rodents on steroids.”

“We could always move down lower and see if we can find some Gambel’s…”

“I’m not ready to slum with Gambel’s yet.”

“That’s gotta be the weirdest Johnny Cash song ever.”

“Looks like that big pot of beef stew flipped over in the back of your truck.”

“Should he be chewing on that?

“Well, till next year.”

“Yep.”

– Smithhammer