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.

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