Updated: Feb 24
Swinging each leg off the top bunk, I hopped down, my excitement a rolling boil, barely contained by the lid. Stocking feet hit the floor of the musty Little Gem camper that used to be my grandparent’s. It was cold; all-the-way-through-my-socks cold; see-my-breath-in-the-dim-yellow-propane-light cold.
I pulled the stiff, two-sizes-big camo pants over my waffled white long johns, rolled up the legs, and laced up the boots. Then the belt, being sure to slide on the leather pouch holding the folding knife meant for just for this moment.
It was a brisk Saturday in October of ‘86, the day I would get to hunt with my dad for the first time. A watershed moment in my life. The culmination of years listening to stories from the older men: uncles, folks from church, and our neighbor Bill, who flew choppers in ‘Nam. Of flipping through the vaunted pages of Field and Stream, dreaming of someday finding a buck like the ones in the pictures.
Of tucking dollar after dollar of paper-route money carefully away in a wrinkled brown envelope until I had saved enough to purchase my first bow. The one from the run-down archery shop over on the West side, just down the block from the seedy strip club. Of endless arrows punched into paper plates hung on the hay bale alongside the garage. Of the week-long hunter's safety class at the local high school; sitting on those horrible metal folding chairs before finally earning the laminated orange card that said I could purchase a license.
A week before, Dad and I had scouted along the pin-neat pine rows that joined the hardwoods and among the twisted crannies and crevices of the creek bottom. Thirty-six years later I can still muster the scent of damp leaves and pine needles warming in the late morning sun and hear the scolding of blue jays that always seemed to be in this place.
We built ground blinds near a promising game trail. Not too far apart from each other but far enough to make a young boy feel adventurous. A log to sit on (the folding camo camp chairs didn't come until that Christmas) and some brush to break up our silhouettes. Marked with orange tape to make sure we could find them again.
Dad walked me out to my spot that morning, careful to avoid stepping on sticks, lest we give ourselves away. And then his flashlight bobbed away through the woods to his blind, before winking out. Sitting motionless in the blackness of the cold morning, listening to the forest come alive. Alone. The creek gurgling off in the distance to my left and down the hill. A slight rustle in the underbrush behind. The first twitters and chips and flutters of songbirds as the eastern sky began to glow. A chill on my neck. Bow clutched tightly in hand. A quiver full of tested arrows with the yellow and green fletching. One knocked. The feel of the leather finger tab over thin green gloves. Excitement building in a steady crescendo for first light and first deer.
As the dusky darkness slowly morphed from black to grey, I waited for the buck I was sure would come.
If I'm guessing, I may have sat a solid 90 minutes, but in all likelihood, it was even less. Eventually my eyes grew heavy and my feet cold, so I made my way over to Dad's blind, to sleep on the ground next to him.
Those first memories run through my mind tonight from the tree stand. The last pink glow is fading from the late-October evening; maybe 20 minutes of shooting light remain. I've endured nearly five hours with no action, but this location always produces late.
And just at the thought, a doe bounds through from the left, clearly being pushed. My senses snap back into focus as she quickly works through the small pines along the ridge of the creek. The wind is perfect, and I watch her back-trail for the buck I know will be coming. It doesn't take long for him to appear; a young seven point. Nose in the air, he briefly pauses before following her winding path, less than 20 yards away. The thought of a shot passes through me quickly enough to give me the shakes, even though I simply watch him go on his way. There's still season ahead, I reason.
I wait for dark and then some, just to make sure I don't spook anything, flick on my headlamp, climb down, and head back to the truck. A short drive and I'm back at the cabin where Dad is fixing dinner. The boys roll in not long after, with their own stories to share. It's a perfect moment, in a perfect place, in the most perfect month of the year.
October, tidily tucked between the last summer-like days of September and the damp blowing bluster of November. When the forest begins to shed itself for another season, fragrant in its decay.
October, when college football is in full stride, but there are too many other distractions to pay attention. When we sip coffee from a thermos and hike the trails in Ludington, visiting the bench dedicated to my grandfather. The one overlooking the quiet spot on the lake he always loved. When we rake leaves remembering years past–the boys jumping through them, young dog in pursuit.
October, when the deer are chasing, the brown trout are aggressive, and the thrum of partridge wings mixes with the tinkling bells of sporting dogs. When we sit around campfires with wool jackets, briar pipes, and warm drinks from a flask.
What I wouldn't give for a year of Octobers, I muse. The thought abruptly followed by one more sober: how many Octobers will I live to see? Fifty? Sixty? Eighty? I settle on 80, at least as an average. Some get more and some get less, I reckon. Regardless of the number, we only get so many.
I'm stricken by the notion.
It's not that I'm afraid of what lies on the other side; I'm afraid of giving away something I can never get back: another October.
Using my number, I have more behind me than in front. I try to clutch the moment even tighter, but it slides through my fingers like so much sand in an hourglass.
Ernest Hemingway wrote a eulogy for his friend Gene Van Guilder: “He loved the warm sun of summer and the high mountain meadows, the trails through the timber and the sudden clear blue of the lakes. He loved the hills in the winter when the snow comes. Best of all he loved the fall … the fall with the tawny and grey, the leaves yellow on the cottonwoods, leaves floating on the trout streams and above the hills the high blue windless skies. He loved to shoot, he loved to ride, and he loved to fish.”
I imagine a similar eulogy delivered on my behalf at some unknown time in the future; maybe by a friend, or one of my children. I know someday my own light will bob through the woods before finally winking out for the last time.
Today, I have so much more than I did as a young boy. A cabin has replaced that old musty camper, and a tree stand instead of the tumble-down ground blind. I'm decked out head-to-toe in the latest camo and fancy warm boots. My bow is top of line, with all the gadgets and gizmos. The hunting knife on my hip is hand made from the finest steel.
I have more stuff. But it's not all I dreamt it would be.
"More" these days takes many forms: more bills, more stress, more responsibilities. More things pulling at me from all directions. And I also have less: less time, less new experiences to look forward to, less wonder than the younger me.
Like any man my age, I'd trade it. I'd trade it all to be that 12-year-old boy in K-mart camo, following my dad through the woods again. To be carefree and content. To sleep by his feet without ever seeing a deer. To believe we have endless Octobers in front of us.
But it doesn't work that way. So instead, I remind myself to stop. To be present. To soak it up.
And I do, here with my dad and adult sons, in our cabin, together for one more October.