Friday, October 26, 2012

Then the Internet Happened

There's a state of mind that comes about sometimes.  I'm grateful when it does, I actively seek it out, and I believe a lot of us who spend time off the pavement are seeking it as much as anything else.

When I sit in my ice fishing shanty, nothing but the hiss of the heater and the gentle glow of the flasher to keep me company, I find myself sucking into... myself, if you'll permit me the horrible turn of phrase.  The world outside that thin layer of canvas disappears and, for at least a little while, there is nothing to be found in the galaxy other than what I can touch within easy reach.  It's a cocoon, a hideaway.  It is, to me, supremely comfortable.  The catching of fish, at that point, is so remotely inconsequential, it nearly fails to enter the equation.

On the right lake, you can sometimes have the whole place to yourself

When I walk through the woods.  When I walk through the woods until that perfect state arrives in which my feet are not yet sore and barking, my legs are heavy but not yet gone to clay, I'm tired but in the midst of a slow-motion runner's high, and the quarry no longer matters.  I walk to achieve this state as much as I do to powder a grouse in the slanting morning light or put fungi on my table.  And I do it alone a lot.  Not that I dislike the company of those I hunt and fish with, but things just seem to make more sense when I'm on my own most of the time.  There's no keeping pace, subtle competition is nowhere to be found.  If you've ever tried to coordinate a deer drive or bird hunt through heavy cover and over rugged terrain with a large group, you know that it can be, at times, more hassle than it's worth.

And so I remained happily alone in the dark, so to speak, for quite some time.  I've spent time with my "Madison friends" (so delineated not only by their geographic existence, but their relative disinterest in outdoor sports) during the week, and wandered off to chase protein and sunsets alone quite often on the weekends.  It was fulfilling, and obviously interspersed with weekends I treasured with my outdoor buds. 

The difference between alone and lonely is mostly a matter of comfort with oneself, and that works for me.  Whether I ever produce anything worthwhile again or not, the fact is that this ginormous melon on my neck not only barely fits in most hats, there's also a creative mind sloshing around in there that craves quiet time to think -- sometimes deeply about the meaning of things, often about the perfect piece of pie... and redheads.

In the span of a couple years I suffered a great many painfully sickening losses.  So for a time I'd been cruising along in solo mode, adjusting to a life irrevocably wounded.  People worried about me.  They talked of me in hushed tones and "stopped by" a lot.  They used kid gloves with me during the holidays, knowing that almost everyone I'd had was gone.  Somebody gave me a canned ham once, which would've been very sweet if I were a 1970's housewife with a surplus of pineapple rings and maraschino cherries.  They marveled at my "toughness," which never really existed, and when they'd had enough cocktails, awkwardly congratulated me for not becoming a lop of weeping goo.  Insert vaguely uncomfortable man-hugging.

It was all very overwhelming and sweet, and I am forever indebted to every one of them for their love and compassion, but my one true respite throughout it all was grabbing a rod or a gun or a kayak paddle, and pointing my sniffer into the wind, alone.

Eventually we all got on, family, friends and I, with being the ones still above ground together, and things got as back to normal as they ever will be.  I continued my lone jaunts even as I began to treasure my time in deer camp or with the bird hunting boys more and more.

Then the internet happened for me.  A social media explosion, more precisely, akin to the big bang; Google Earth, GIS and all the other useful outdoor cyber-tools notwithstanding.  Before the pulverizing avalanche of heartache beset my family and I, I'd joined an ice fishing forum.  I remember the day.  People were sick and in the hospital.  I wanted to go fishing, but obligations with out-of-date waiting room magazines bound me from the ice.  So I clicked around and found the forum, which will remain nameless here because I was later ejected for being too likable and funny.  Also for toeing the line right up to profanity, quite creatively, I thought. 

While I am and was an electronics junky, far from a stranger to LEDs and touch screens, I'd never joined an internet forum before that.  I'd never used any social media.  I was content to eat my lunch quietly on a stump in the swamp, and look at my own pictures when I got home.  I only begrudgingly use Facebook now to halfheartedly promote this collection of rambling drivel, and then not very often.  My current Instagram addiction may be a different matter, but I try to convince myself that it's only related to my affection for, and envy of, quality photography.

It turns out the sweaty palms and butterflies associated with joining that first ice fishing forum were completely unfounded.  While that community could not abide my penchant for playfully twisting the language right to the edge of acceptable public use, I did meet there a group of outdoorsmen I'm still in daily contact with today.  All of us too fantastic in form and thought to mix with the great unwashed, we formed our own private outdoor forum that still thrives to this moment.  I can alt+tab over to it as I type this, and they will probably razz me for being a verbose, blathering donkey when they read it.

This is a group of men who have grown together, built cyber-camaraderie over the last half decade.  And not just over the ether of the interwebs.  I've flown halfway across the country to fish with some of them.  One guy actually had the impudence to move to Montana without taking the rest of us.  I hope to sully his home with my presence and frightening fly casting someday.

It has become more than an outdoor forum.  It's a community.  I know their kids' names.  We share our real life victories and defeats.  They comforted me when everyone was dying.  I stood up in one of their weddings.  All because some nerds at MIT and DARPA wanted to talk to each other back in the day.

Draw a horizontal line across Wisconsin from La Crosse to Sheboygan.  Rotate it clockwise a tick, and you're damn near connecting my house to that of my good friend Adam, but we never would have met without the internet.  Packer games, ice fishing, talk of girls, booze-soaked rowdy wedding receptions; we could have shared none of them had we not each clicked on the link to that ice fishing forum.

After years of chatting through the screen, Adam and I finally meet

I belong to many internet forums now, some related to the outdoors and others not.  I'm even starting to get the hang of this Twitter fad.  As is true for all of us, though, my closest  personal friends will always remain nearest my heart.  The Lathrop Street gang from back in the days when a house cup and a marginally clean shirt made you a celebrity, the guys I marched with, the retired crew up in deer camp who are probably hoisting one and talking about how cool they used to be right now, and Brian, who was there with Dad when I was born and still shoots woodcock faster than I do -- these are my people.

This blog is a form of social media I never imagined myself being involved with, but it has led to acquaintances all over cyberspace.  I read some of your wonderful writings, see your gorgeous pictures, and am inspired to write and cook and chase game more than I ever have been.  Thank you.  But while we're at it, what's up with all the stickers?  I may be a relative social media noob, but where are you people sticking all these things?  Seriously.

Still, I often find it most comfortable to go it alone.  If you're ever in Wisconsin and you see a lone fly fisherman casting like he's being stung in the face by invisible hornets... or a solo bird hunter miss an easy passing shot... or a solitary mushroom seeker arresting a fall in the brush with his face, stop and say hello.  It's probably me.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Highway to Everywhere

I was cruising north toward home after a successful weekend at Brian's house when it happened.  The previous days had combined early morning duck hunts with installing a new steel roof on his house in the afternoons, so I was flagging a bit.  Not grievously sore or tired, but waning just enough that things suddenly seemed to be happening a little too fast around me.  That feeling you get when it dawns on you that you need to find a place to park, and either get out and unbend the hinges a bit, or grab some z's right there behind the wheel.

I was engrossed in a favorite podcast at the time, which normally keeps me awake and alert (fellow werdnerds, please find A Way with Words on your radio dial or itunes feed), but the need for a graceful exit from the speeding masses was growing more pressing by the mile.  I paused the podcast in order to quite literally shake the fatigue from my foggy head, and the radio came on.

Then it happened, and I could've driven on over the horizon.

Miles north of  Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin, after you've been in the corn fields past the car dealerships and fireworks stands for quite a while, the highway crests the tail end of the Niagra Escarpment and looks out over a broad valley.  As I slid down into that valley, together with, and so post-modernly separated from my fellow travelers, the comforting staccato call of the Green Bay Packers play-by-play man tumbled out of the speakers, and I gazed across the sunlit valley gone amber and crimson with autumn.

This is it.  It's here.  All was suddenly right with the world.

I often think of my outdoor life laid out like a highway before me.  The tires creep out of the driveway on New Year's Day.  We drive all the way to the ball dropping on Times Square again; hunting, fishing and foraging along the way.  Annual rites and markers pass by, some like inconsequential signposts, others with all the grandeur and beauty springing forth from that golden valley under the sun.  Surprises crop up on the year's highway, detours that lead to both joy and disappointment, sidetracks that lend color to another 365 days of chasing the dream over hill and through the thickets, but there are those moments, both infinite and infinitesimal, that come along the road every season almost without fail.  I treasure them just as we do the perfect shotgun swing or topwater slash.

One of those milestones is that moment in fall when the leaf colors are approaching their climax, and I suddenly find myself driving home from another trip afield with the Packers playing on the radio.  It's an ephemeral, seemingly trifling snapshot of the fall, but that does not mean that I treasure it any less.  It's just football and receding chlorophyll, nothing more, but when it sneaks up on me like that it also functions as a reminder that I'm still here.  Still taking breath, still getting after it, hopefully with muddy boots and a few birds in the back of the truck.

It's also one of the first reminders that we are in the thick of it.  The wind is shifting around to the north, most of the hunting seasons are open, there will be football and tailgating.  Woodsmoke in the air.  It's the greatest time of year.

Some of these yearly occasions are more structured and sure-handed.  Anticipation builds, for me at least, all of November for the opening morning of gun deer season.  I know that for some of you reading this the preoccupation rears it's head long before it does for me, but I don't feel it in the air until Halloween passes.  The woocock hunting is too raucous before then.

Regardless of when the impatience and expectancy set in, opening morning brings with it a magic that cannot be diminished by the knowledge we have of it's coming.  Regardless of all the preparation, all the stories remembered around the fires leading up to the day, the back clapping affection that we men sometimes find ourselves only comfortable with when everyone is finally in camp; when night fades into opening morning on the stand, it never fails to evoke chills.  Hope mingles with prayer in that moment, and I feel like I want to get down and chase them, but there is nothing to do but sit quietly and wait, a constraint that does nothing but add to the thrill.

One of my small annual milestones, the impetus behind this very writing, happened just this morning.  I arose, and after the normal amount of dreary-eyed shuffling around the house, stepped out onto the front deck.  Immediately upon doing so, a shiver overtook me right up from the toes.  No shiver of anticipation or excitement, this was your standard Holy-Mother-it's-cold-out-here shiver.

But that first true shiver of fall brings with it an avalanche of thoughts and sense memories.  My mind immediately turns to thoughts of burning wood and hearty stews and good dark beers.  No longer are we panting under the searing glare of July's unrepentant blast furnace sun.  There is frost on the grass, and fallen leaves.  Squirrels make their tireless runs to oak and hickory while the whitetail's rack slips through the willow bottoms.  Woodcock fly low and unseen in the night, only to flush where there were none mere days before.  Coyotes sing in their new winter coats over the muskies and pike as they put on their feeding run before it all goes cold and dark.  It's all in that one tingling shiver on the deck, and so much more.

Opening morning of gun deer season being the glaring exception, most of these small yearly instants in time cannot be forced.  The act of searching for them changes them from the outset.  We aren't quite to Uncertainty Principle here, but you can't chase Schrödinger's cat.  Like so many other things outside and in life, they must be observed as they come and in their own time.  They punctuate life rather than filling it, and come to fruition only through their own being.

Less grand than sweeping vistas as we travel the yearly road, overlooked by many who never have the need to seek it out, hardly ever mentioned among men who hunt in pounding rain and through impenetrable briars; we find the cherished, even venerated, comfortable place to sit.

It is an exceedingly rare gift to find a truly agreeable place to park oneself while out in the wilds.  Maybe once a season, God willing and the creek don't rise, I will find myself sitting truly comfortably while engaged in the otherwise lumpy, muddy, bug-infested business of chasing fur, feather, and shrooms 'round and 'round.

I often hunt squirrels with a stop and stalk approach, as many of us do.  We walk as quietly as we can for a while, eyes glued to the canopy (which is nearly guaranteed to produce at least one stupendous tumble from a hunting partner once a year), until we find a likely looking place to stop and watch things.  I hunt this way with a vest that includes a stadium seat for just this purpose.  It felt so thick and luxurious in the store that I figured I might no longer need a bed, opting to simply sleep on my hunting vest.  That turned out to be not often the case where big oak roots and sharp rocks are in play.  The forest floor is miles from the sales floor in more ways than one.  But I recall one fluffy-tail hunt a few years ago where everything came together in the seating department, and that piece of foam was the most comfortable perch I'd ever encountered.  So I reacted accordingly.  I sat right there all afternoon.  I took a nap.  I didn't see a single squirrel and I didn't care, the holy grail of outdoor seating having finally been found.

These signposts throughout the year's highway often act as talismans.  They give us the power to carry on by reassuring us that things are going along as they should.  Once happened upon, we can continue down the road of our seasons knowing that we are not lost.

Among the most powerful of these guideposts is the first fire.  Campfires are always alluring, and there is nothing better than staring into the wood stove as a lifeline while the snow drifts ever deeper, but the greatest fire of the year is always the first one that is truly needed.  You've daydreamed about it while toiling with maul and hydraulic splitter.  The cant hook brought blisters fighting the big ash trunk now broken down and burning.  Muscles burned and sweat ran, and now it all amounts to the mesmerizing flame we've all been worshiping since nearly the beginning of time.

Backyard campfire in the rain last week

It would be a glaring omission to not return, from a previous post, to one of my favorite stops along the annual highway.   Gun deer season is the High Holiday of the year among my ragged clan of hunting friends.  Not all partake, some prefer to continue fishing or hunting birds, but all of us know that no treasure can compare, no light can shine so brightly, as that shimmering out into the night from the deer camp window.

While the deer hunting may not be spectacular in our corner of the state, the camaraderie certainly is.  And the pinnacle of that coming together every year is Bloody Mary Tuesday.  The tradition began long before I was invited to join the camp, but it is burned into me as the single greatest gathering day of my year.  The guns are put away as people drive in from all over the county to share in drink, food and storytelling.  I force myself to sit back and listen to my elders, as much for their comedy as their wisdom.  I can safely say that I look forward to Bloody Mary Tuesday and that collection of men as much as I do anything else in my sporting life.

The fellas, Bloody Mary Tuesday

I hope to be heading down the annual outdoor highway for years to come.  The milestones continue to grow in number over the years, but in their magic they hold the power to remain undiluted by one another.  I don't believe any of us can accrue too many.  Please feel free to share your annual treasured milestones in the comments below.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...