February would arrive as it always did in Montana. Cold and wet and miserably grey. With the sort of damp despair one feels in a Dickens novel. Two weeks after bird season, I was a Cratchit kid. A coal-smeared orphan. My dog Ruark was a stray mutt in a land with 8 months to opener and not much sun to cheer us up. The last best state my ass.
Biting nails and fighting back twitches I looked for a place to offer a late-night fix. I’d been on the wagon since the end of December. I needed a hidden bottle or secret stash. Going crazy I stopped and stared. “Arizona” “Quail” “Dos Cabezas” The words came to me in a vision born of cold shakes. I had visited the border country many times as a boy, hauling cattle to ranches tucked along the arroyos of Ed Abbey’s desert country.
Back then I’d drive with my father, trailer full of bulls from our herd purchased by ranchers in the cactus country. 22 hours strait driving. No stopping. Once there we’d take a few hours to chase the coveys of exotic quail under the scrub. Montezuma’s, Scalies, Gambles. The stuff of fairy tales for a high plains boy of 10 or 11. And then like all responsible farm kids we’d leave because of the work awaiting at home. Jump back in the Chevy and pull the trailer north. But I had tasted the place and those birds.
I remembered them now. They came back like a vision summoned up by Montezuma himself. I assembled the memories as the desperate plan took shape. I shuffled through the darkness and remembered Arizona season running through mid-February and that I had a work trip in a few days to Phoenix. This was my ticket. I called the old ranching friends. Made small talk and then blurted out “I need to hunt next week, can I do it?”. They heard the shake in my voice and mumbled approval probably afraid to say no, thinking I would take them hostage or hijack their pickup trucks like a desperate Mexican drug mule.
I lied just like all junkies do. Looking back now I see that I had a problem. Or was at least struggling with acceptance. Might have needed help. Should have been put on a couch, or shocked or lobotomized or some goddamned thing. I was hurting those around me. My wife Sara specifically. She was worn threadbare with my fishing season followed by bird season. My seasons were long, revolving and incessant. Did not leave me much time at home. I stared off into the distance and thought about the bird year. A great one with 60 days or more behind the dogs.
I resolved that this was not the time to quit anything or start any damned 12 step bullshit. Certainly not the time to give up another possible bird trip.
Sara would be away on her own short excursion the day I would leave, and I decided to subvert the truth rather than risk the backlash that talk of more bird chasing would bring. I’d tell her that our friends were watching Ruark. That I had to stay a few extra days for business. I had to do it. She was just barely looking at me again now that the Montana season was closed.
Our schedules had us arriving back the same night and we’d meet up at the airport. I gave no thought to how I would explain the obvious nature of the trip. I just cared about another point, a covey rise, some smoke rising from the barrels. Some Scalies, a bunch of Gambels, and maybe a Mearns covey or two. I was breaking into a cold sweat just thinking of it all.
The night before the trip I jammed some clothes in a bag then rushed around the garage, shoving 20-gauge shells in duffles, finding vests and collars. Dusting off the kennel. A frenetic movie scene. I showed up to the airport barely in time. Skidded to a stop unloading three times as much gear as one person needed for a short business trip. Dropping gun cases, fumbling for ID. Ruark twisting his leash around my legs as I mumbled incoherently. Families in line staring at me mouths agape. I flashed a wild-eyed smile back at them as they looked away. Mothers shielding their kids from a junkie on bird meth.
I arrived in Phoenix never having considered if the downtown hotel would allow a birddog to share my room. When they gave the emphatic “no”, I replied “no problem, where are the stairs?”. And I shuffled Ruark up the back way. Dodging staff and looking at questioning guests like I owned the place. I took him to work with me in the city the next couple days. Oblivious, I thought people would love him. And they did, at least the good ones did. Anyone who did not love a birddog did not need my attention anyway.
I slammed through the work in two days, rented a car and drove south. Stopping in Wilcox at a bar I remembered from the trips with my Dad. A low-slung dive blasting Haggard from an old juke box. I asked for the steak and a bartender pulled one from a small fridge. She handed it to me raw on a white paper plate then pointed to a grill in the back. It was up to me to cook it as I drank my beers. My tremors were starting to ease. The place had not changed a bit in 20 years.
The next morning, I knocked on the doors of our rancher friends and was chasing quail 30 minutes later. Within spitting distance of the southern border in magical sacred mountain ranges. 3 days of this big country. The needle was in my arm and I could breathe again. Quail everywhere. Tight points and beautiful birds. I was high as a kite. I could have stayed another month. I could have overdosed time and again.
No doubt I was addicted but I had just enough sense to pull myself together. I loaded Ruark back into the car and headed to the airport when we were both so tired neither of us could walk. His pads were worn raw from the rough country. I had to fold him into the kennel and shove him onto the luggage belt. He and I were on the same drug.
Sara hugged me as I trudged off the midnight flight back in Montana. We had been married less than 6 months. “Did you miss me?” she asked. “Umm, yeh, I barely thought of anything else” I started to mutter. Then Ruark’s kennel and the gun case showed up in the luggage and she looked at me. The look of a wife married to an addict. Thinking of what to do. Whether to toss me to the curb or call the authorities. Fury and sympathy both boiling within her. “You’ve been hunting, again haven’t you?” Tired and hung over from the desert wind I shot back “Nope, I have been getting high on the border and I gotta warn you. You are married to a guy that is hooked on something he can’t stop. I don’t need treatment and this ain’t ever going away.” Thank god she loves Haggard, low-slung dive bars and a guy that finds them on bird benders.