Beauty marks

I like shotguns.
Specifically, I like old, lightweight shotguns with two barrels and well-figured walnut.
Preferably in 28 ga. or 16 ga.
Some of my hunting buddies now carry guns made of black plastic that look like they might shoot lazer beams.
Personally, I don’t own anything I won’t hunt in the rain with, but I also don’t own any guns I would put a bumper sticker on.
When I was ten, I had a Remington Nylon 66 rifle. It was black plastic with white diamonds where the checkering should have been and it had glimmering stainless barrel and action.
It was the ugliest rifle I have ever owned and it could not dependably shoot beer-can sized groups at 20 yards.
Since then, I have stuck to guns that are made of dark-blue steel and checkered walnut.
I like them to smell of boiled linseed oil and 3-in-1 and if I leave it leaned against a fence, I want to be able to imagine my grampa standing next to it.
Last year I bought a 1936 Ithaca side-by-side 16 ga. with no butt stock.
I spent most of the spring fitting and shaping, sanding and oiling until I had a new-to-me upland gun.
She still has some of her case coloring and when the light is right, the barrels shine like obsidian. I added a few inches to the trigger tang and an english style stock in place of the Prince of Wales that would have adorned the gun originally.
The maker’s marks on the barrel denote ‘modified’ and ‘full’ chokes. On the pattern board, it’s more like ‘full’ and ‘rifle.’
Still, I managed to shoot a few birds with it this year and that brand new stock already has its first ding, earned high in the Pecos Wilderness on an early grouse hunt. I don’t worry much about the scratches and scuffs that mark the passing of the years.
I think what I like least about plastic guns is their inability to show the character that comes with age and use.
My guns carry their dings and scratches proudly, like little historical records of antlers and pack frames and chukar hunts gone wrong.
It’s how I like them.

GM

The lonely life of a desert Santa

Santa Claus was more emotionally needy than I expected him to be.
TR and I had stopped to refill our water jugs at a remote BLM outpost manned by volunteers.
“You guys here to see the museum,” he asked hopefully. He was a large man, sporting a full beard and was almost surely the real Santa.
“No. We’re just here for a little water.”

“Huntin’?”

He asked the question as if we weren’t covered in a week’s worth of dust and driving pickups loaded with camping gear and dogs.

“Yep.”

His wife, AKA Mrs. Claus, comes out and brings Santa a spotless cowboy hat. Were if it covered in grime, it would be a near twin of those worn by TR and myself.

“Those are our cats,” he gestured towards two big toms.

TR and I were non-committal, but they looked like quail killers and bird-dog fodder to us.

“One has different colored eyes and the other has different colored balls,” he said casually, adding, “I can tell them apart coming or going.”

That night over beers we speculated that Mrs. Claus might have brought out a different hat, depending on what the visitors were wearing.
We imagined Santa in a beanie, sombrero or maybe a cheesehead.
Weeks later I stop by again, ostensibly to get water. I throw my hat on the floor board and don a ball cap.

“Here to see the museum?”

Mrs. Claus walked out a moment later, bringing him a barely worn baseball cap.
I guess it’s a lonely life.

King of the Big Empty: Our generation’s Heath Hen

Consider the sage chicken. Take your time at it. He is a mighty bird, his pointed tail, his black-feathered breast, his mottled and muted yet beautiful hues, his huge feet. Many writers, attempting to describe his flight have penned imagery of Air Force bombers, kites, sails. Indeed, the pet name for the big ones, the old ones, is “bomber.” Others have sneered at the big grouse as a game bird, shuddered at the thought of eating his dark breast, laughed when talking about the sporting dog aspect of hunting “chickens.”

Yet I submit that those who turn their noses up at Mr. Chicken might in fact be deeply saddened if those big beautiful birds no longer dotted our sagebrush steppe, no longer flew our wide Western skies.

There are those among us who have grown up hunting chickens. Here, on the broad ocean that is the sagebrush sea, are a few of us whose first shotgunning experience was sage grouse, whose family reunions were on the high prairies of states like Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nevada, Montana. I love how the names of those states sound on the tongue, and when I think of sage grouse and of those places, I think of old Willys jeeps and Ford Broncos covered in alkali dust, of big heavy Labs panting in the shade of a September wall tent, of Winchester pump guns, of windy Labor Days in the middle of nowhere, of grape soda in a tub of ice–and when I was deemed old enough–Hamm’s, Oly and Coors. I remember listening to the Wyoming Cowboys or the Colorado Buffaloes or the Denver Broncos on AM radio, and I remember those big birds taking wing and my shotgun on my shoulder and that huge, huge target, and I remember missing. They were deceptively fast and the shotgun sometimes swung as if it were twenty feet long. Sometimes, I remember hitting. Always, sage chicken season was about family and laughter and the music of loved ones.

Not too many people have family reunions around sage chicken season any more. Perhaps it is a function of a fattening society, of lard-assed kids who would rather play video games or text-message their pals. But the real reason, I think, is because we’ve failed as a society to appreciate this bird, failed as a people to treasure the wide open sagebrush flanks of our land–the very openness that defines the West–and failed, ultimately to be good stewards. Lyrical ground like Sweetwater, Oregon Buttes, Vinegar Hill, Horse Prairie, Choke-A-Man Draw . . . I can’t even think of those places without sage grouse. Without them, they are truly empty.

Six dogs and one wife ago, I was the cocky young editor of a small town western Colorado newspaper. Back then, I hunted with a beat-up Remington autoloader that  jammed often, and a mutt named after my favorite beverage at the time. JD had been born under a house in Carbondale the year I dropped out of college to spend a season ski bumming in Aspen. The bastard child of a Springer mother and a Lab father, she was black and white, just like the Jack Daniels’ label.

Eventually, I went back to college, finished up that degree, put a few years of Arizona quail hunting and Colorado pheasant hunting in front of JD’s eager nose, and then found myself in the Gunnison Basin. I was editing a newspaper with an absentee owner and given free reign over the editorial pages. The pay was light, but the benefits were fantastic. The newspaper’s owner also had claim to a few miles of the Taylor River to which I had access, and there was wild country right out the door.

JD and the chickens

And there were chickens. The high country held blue grouse, but if you were a serious bird hunter (and with JD, I thought I was a terror to the game birds of the basin), you had to be a chicken hunter. They were everywhere. You could hunt chickens on the sage-blanketed sweep of the rising mountains and have a staggering Colorado mountain view as a backdrop.

It was pretty tall cotton then and I didn’t even know it. I must have killed dozens in my time in Gunnison and I cooked their meat to medium rare over aspen coals and savored every bit of it. Cooked beyond medium rare and their flesh was as palatable as an old shoe, but medium-rare and you were in business. A friend would gather a large group of us–a banker, a professor at the local college, a PR man, a county assessor, a county manager, and the young punk newspaper editor with his mutt and clunker gun–and we’d head out to Flattop and hunt for a day behind his Brits and my Splab. We’d laugh and drink beer at the end and admire our chicken harvest. The hunts were about friendships, about sharing a passion and were an annual ritual.

No one has killed a Gunnison sage chicken in a decade. The season clamped shut in 2000 and those kinds of hunts on the sagebrush shoulders of a big mountain, that music of laughter and mutual joy is a thing of the past. Just like those family reunions. In those ten years of no hunting, the population of Gunnison chickens has not rebounded and it remains a species in trouble. Hunting was not the cause, not the problem and sadly, hunters do not have the solution.

Everywhere, in every Western state, the story is the same. South Dakota has a silly two-day season with a one bird limit. Why even have it? Eastern Oregon has a permit draw system much like we have with big game. Nevada–with its mighty, tossing ocean of sage–has a two week season and most of the state is closed to nonresidents. And Wyoming–Wyoming, the state that defines sagebrush, the state that is antelope and sage chickens and wide open–has a two-week season with a two-bird limit, four in possession. It used to run a month and you could sack up three birds a day with nine in possession. Sad times. While we have built our Pheasants Forevers and our Quail Unlimiteds, and our Ruffed Grouse Societys, the very symbol of the West for the upland gunner has dwindled, lost ground and died.

Oil and gas development, predation, range fire, intentional sagebrush eradication funded by the feds and states, the looming shadow of renewable energy and its transmission lines, livestock grazing, “wild” horses, even West Nile virus . . . the sage chicken is in trouble. It is teetering close to being put on the endangered species list and if it ends up there, we hunter-conservationists should be deeply ashamed of ourselves. Sick. And it happened in finger-snap time; unless you are younger than 8, this has happened in your lifetime.

In my living room, mounted in a place of honor, is a big old bomber chicken. Whenever I look at him, I am back on the Big Empty. The memory of a girlfriend after the broken marriage, of a beautiful September Wyoming day, of golden aspen leaves and soft breezes scented by sage, of a talented dog on solid point, of swing and trigger pull, and retrieve to hand all come back to me. But there’s more. There’s a symbol. Of the West. Of families that got together in the outdoors and walked hallowed ground. Of simpler times? Perhaps. But we had problems back then. We just knew how to stick together, how to laugh, what family felt like, how to appreciate nature without motors and batteries and games . . . Our people seem to have lost those things.

Consider the sage chicken.                  –TR

Dirty Love

I have to be honest – I rarely ever think about you. Which, I suppose, is the ultimate testament to how good you are at what you do. At times, however, I know this may come across as ingratitude, and for that, I’m sorry. You’ve accused me of being a fickle S.O.B. and I know there is a certain amount of truth to that. I expect a lot in a lamentably short period of time, and offer little more than neglect the rest of the year. I’ve smeared you in various pastes, oils and creams, seeking to improve upon perfection. I’ve even experimented with others, and you keep taking me back without question. You continue to endure these indignities with a level of class well above my own.

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There was that time when the conditions were a lot muddier than I had expected, and I caught myself wondering out loud why I hadn’t worn a good pair of rubber boots instead. You took it silently, as is your way, and then sent me ass over tea kettle as I tried to remove you while standing balanced on one foot in the mud room when we got home. I knew I had it coming, and I can only hope the warm bath and oil rub you got that night made everything ok again.

We both know there will come a time when you’ll need help – there’s no use beating around the bush on that account. Hell, the day will come when I’ll need it too. Trust that I’ll spare no expense, and thank Dog we live in one of those places where skillful cobblers haven’t yet gone totally by the wayside. Your seams and soles will be lovingly taken care of. I imagine by that time my lustful, wandering eye will have been cured as well. We’ll settle into a comfortable, if seasonal, monogamy. Frankly, I’m looking forward to it.

– Smithhammer

In search of the empty

Damn the red lines.

They crisscross the green and yellow areas on the map like bloody cracks.
On the ground, they are uglier and more numerous.
These are not the access routes that bring us to the edges. No, these are far from the rural route roads-the gravel arteries-that deliver us from here to “out there.”
Dusty, rutted trails, crosshatch the landscape. Parallel routes that go nowhere, achieve nothing except to reduce habitat and lessen the experience.
The ungulates see them as warning signs, for the quail they are deathtraps.
The red lines often begin and end at the same places. On the ground, they simply wander as if an unmanned machine had prowled the landscape at random, leaving ruts that will last a hundred years.
On the map, I search for an area devoid of the red lines. A place I can’t walk from one road to the next in the time it takes to smoke a decent cigar.
There are few.

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

Rock Star and the Old Lady

My sons are just starting to notice my dog. They follow her with their 2-month-old eyes as she ambles past their swing or give a baby yell when she stops to lick the milk off a tiny dangling hand.

My sons are just starting to notice my dog. They follow her with their 2-month-old eyes as she ambles past their swing or give a baby yell when she stops to lick the milk off a tiny dangling hand.
Today, she’s recovering from three days of hunting after a season with precious few days afield. A dog in her prime, she is nursing sore feet and moving like an old lady.
After the days of perfection she just turned in she is entitled to a little soreness.
In rough, dry country we cut a wide swath. Her zigzagging in front, never straying out of shotgun range but occasionally breaking her pattern to check out a particularly good piece of cover. She held tight, she flushed in range and she retrieved more dependably than any season past. She was more than steady, she was a rock star.
We had company this week and she put him on his first birds.

The first afternoon, he followed her lead into a patch of tall grass and Gambel oak and stopped when I called out. She put a pair of birds in the air and after his shot she brought a beautiful male Gambels to his hand.
When he looked back, I could tell she had just created an upland hunter.
My two upland hunters are years from their first shotgun.
The realization that Roxy will not be their dog brings an air of melancholy to the day. Her exploits will live on in my journal and stories but to them she will never be a rock star, just an old lady.

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