Joe’s SUV hummed over the pavement of single-lane highways. Pods of other vehicles on the road, all trucks and SUVs similar to Joe’s, glided past us in the opposite direction.
“No one used to hunt around here,” Joe said. “Most guys that do it nowadays get along, but there are a few jerks.”
Joe’s remarks were spare, but I grasped from them that hunting was just as competitive as any spectator sport. The trophies, the taxidermy, the pictures of dead animals I found silly, were tangible monuments of accomplishment in a world saturated with university metaphor and corporate abstraction. In order for proficiency to be meaningful, one must have something concrete to justify the toil and sacrifice. Regardless of where your moral compass points, a trophy buck is a powerful trumpeting of proficiency. And, as proficiency doesn’t exist in a vacuum, the definition of one’s hunting prowess is more clearly rendered when a resplendent quarry can be personally claimed. All the better if its rack of points is bigger than yours.
A waning crescent moon shined like white gold atop the split ribcage of a freshly killed deer on the side of the road. My breakfast turned hot in my stomach. Joe made a right onto gravel shortly after the roadkilled deer. The SUV bounced through dust and rock. A gray tongue of road unfurled into a copse of trees that looked like malnourished birds missing their feathers. Joe slowed the vehicle. Chunks of concrete and cinder block stood next to the undignified shells of old appliances. The land we were on must have been a makeshift dump in its past life. The SUV sleepwalked on a winding trail that ceased being a thoroughfare altogether. Joe stopped in a clutch of colorless and slumping tall grass. He jerked the stick and parked.
“Roads out here are low maintenance,” Joe said softly as we exited the SUV. “No way out here in the winter.” I shut the door like it was a priceless vase.
Brandi and Justin pulled up next to us. Without so much as a word, we gathered our stuff and separated into groups of two like we had discussed earlier: Joe and I went one way, Brandi and Justin another. We would break for lunch around noon. A few scuffs of cloud were being burned away by the rising sun.
“Blanket?” Joe said, offering me the squishy bundle of a sleeping bag.
I shook my head, deeply wanting to prove I wasn’t some troublesome diva. Brandi and Justin disappeared over a bristled and yellow hill, guns cinched over their shoulders. Joe and I walked through a desiccated corn field, its rows of broken stalks still clearly delineated. He handed me a clump of earth wafers that smelled like an untilled plot. I broke them up in my gloved hands and rubbed the dust across my blaze orange vest and layers of sweatpants. Up until a few days ago, I didn’t really appreciate the keen sense of a deer’s nose, but apparently they can pick up human scents from hundreds of yards away. So once again I complied with whatever Joe told me to do, as I didn’t want to be the reason he came home empty handed.
“I left some corn and soybeans for the deer, all over the place,” Joe said while barely disturbing the crystalline air and waving his hand across the massive acreage.
We made our way to an open-topped trailer, rectangular and rusted, the kind you would see towed behind a large farm vehicle. Wheeled and spacious, it was about seven feet off the ground and offered a generous panorama of a flattened, brittle field that stretched out for miles in three directions. There was an icicled echo of unseen barking dogs. We settled into some canvas chairs. Joe took his muzzleloader from the case and went through his usual maneuvers before loading it. I dared not do anything but watch the puffs of cold from my mouth melt in the ether. The slightest sound, of boots against the metal trailer or the sniffling of a wet nose, rippled to the edge of the world. Loquacious though I was, I didn’t even fathom speaking a word unless I was spoken to. Christ, it must have been ten or fifteen degrees above zero. And so we sat there, unmoving, unspeaking, unblinking. Waiting.
Minutes passed. Shit, maybe hours. Time itself became just another man-made concept, seemingly a faltering idea until a bird trilled or the speck of an airplane drew a wan white line across the firmament and the cosmos were jump-started again. As a man notorious for his fidgeting, it took all my willpower not to drum with my hands or tap my feet or say something dumb like, “Cold enough for ya?” Joe was in a trance, moving only his eyes and occasionally his head. The horizon’s black gave way to blue. My nose was running, my pen kept freezing, and I jerked my head around like a rube every time a bird raked my eardrums with a call. Was it a turkey? A pheasant? Some mammalian varmint that sounded like a bird?
“This is my zoo,” Joe said in a cushioned monotone without moving, like he was a prairie ventriloquist.
My knee-jerk reaction to this declaration (and it was a declaration delivered with thoughtfulness and contrition and profundity) was a scathing internal rejoinder: “This is your ‘zoo’? This? This…barren, cold, lifeless stretch of pseudo-country that is, right now, comprised of the shattered husks left over from industrial-sized agribusiness? Zoos have tapirs and sun bears and those cute little savannah rats from The Lion King. This is empty and false and dead and, man, I wish I would have taken that sleeping bag because it’s so very…”
Joe elbowed me. I focused for once and squinted. Two deer at the edge of sight, maybe a mile away. Maybe further. Two females, foraging. Certainly too far to shoot. Even at our distance, it quickened my blood. Lithe and aware, they’d pause occasionally and lifted their snouts from the ground to stare into the distance, our distance, with felted ears alerted into the shape of spear points. Joe and I sat in stillness and watched; he like a relaxed predator, I like an unnatural mannequin. For a good half-hour, they receded into the distance, into a blur of nothing but a fawn-colored phantasm. And so I became only a slight cloud of breath and two eyes, there to receive Joe’s gentle elbows that noted the perching of a Cooper’s hawk or the wanderings of a skunk.
“America is like a wave of higher and higher frequency toward each end, and lowest frequency in the middle,” Ian Frazier said in his book, Great Plains. I thought about those words, realizing that southwest Minnesota, assigned as the “Prairie Grassland Biome” on the DNR website, was the easternmost edge of the Great Plains and thus a place of “lowest frequency”. So the natural beauty of the area wasn’t going to pop out and announce itself. Southwestern Minnesota’s charm was for the patient; it was a place that rewarded the perceptive with a fireball-flash of a redwing blackbird’s markings and the savage brambles of undigested vermin bones in owl scat. In the interstices of wind-breaking oaks and rows of decaying soybeans, there was a zoo of sorts, one that was wild and persistent and secretive.
Joe and I sat under the fading moon as it transmuted from an ivory sickle into a nearly imperceptible toenail clipping. Hours passed. I became intimately aware of the audible intricacies of my digestive tract. Noon crawled to the top of the sky, washing away shadow with bolts of white and warmth. There were no more deer sightings.
“Brandi probably has to pee,” Joe said between sighs.
He set the safety on his gun and got up. I moved with him, putting my notebook away. We stepped off the trailer and my knees crackled like they were geriatric wreckage. I assembled a fake smile for Joe, trying to buoy his feelings and erase any trace of disappointment. Hey, I got some good stuff. We’d get em’ next year! Joe, however, carried not the slightest hint of failure in his visage of raised eyebrows and mirth.
“Got to see some deer, see some nature,” he said, a smile cleaving through his gray beard. “We’ll eat, go back out. Take you to the stand for the afternoon.”
Wait, what? Although I appreciated the subtle facets of staring into a harvested cornfield’s void for over five hours, I didn’t think I could mentally withstand the rigors of such social deprivation for another five hours. And in the same day! I didn’t recall that there would be TWO separate ventures into the unforgiving cold of a late-November day. There were football games to watch and books to read and various websites to browse. So Brandi and Justin eventually trumped down to where the vehicles were parked. Not a single round was fired between the three of them.
“See anything?” Joe said.
“Nothin’,” Justin said.
“Some turkeys,” Brandi said.
“Yeah,” Joe said, turning to me. “I’d say there’s only a good shot 20-25% of the time. It’ll be better at dusk.”
We slumped into our respective automobiles. On the way home, I rubbed the feeling back into my hands and tried to concoct a few excuses concerning why I wouldn’t be going back out in the afternoon.
Back inside a warm home, I shed layers and dislodged boots. My two-year-old daughter, Ingrid, a master of heart-on-sleeve wonderment, ran to my side. She wrapped all ten fingers around my right wrist.
“Did you go hunting?” Ingrid said, her black eyes as wide as they could open. She had no idea what hunting really entailed, but it was such a new and exciting concept that it raised her eyebrows in livewire glee.
“Yeah,” I said, feeling kinda cool. “We saw two deer and a hawk and a skunk. Sweet stuff, huh?”
She smiled and nodded and stared some more. Nicole came in behind her; Ingrid ran off to knock over a tower of blocks.
“No luck?” she said, hugging me. “When are you going back out?” It was a rare display of public affection that I was certain to ruin.
“Well…” I said, rubbing her back a bit. “Don’t think I’m going to go back out.” Nicole’s face went blank and stiff. “I already got plenty of good stuff and…”
“We drove two-and-a-half hours to come here,” Nicole said, her lips tight enough to crush both diamond and the affection she felt for me in regards to my enthusiastic accompaniment hours earlier. “You’re going back out.” I wasn’t going to win, so…
“Looks like daddy’s going hunting again,” I shouted into the living room. Yay.
After scarfing some cold taco pizza, checking the college football scores, and loafing on a couch, Joe, Brandi, Justin, and I reapplied our layers and reloaded Joe’s SUV and Justin’s truck. It was clear outside, with wind picking up from the northwest. The sun was a bit player in the blue country expanse, content to let the other variables of an oncoming winter pick up the slack. It was 2 p.m. and still below freezing.
“Might get cold,” Joe said, driving toward a new hunting destination.
We zigzagged through a square collection of inert and drab farming plots. The gravel roads attacked Joe’s tires with an onslaught of rocks and ruts. As we drove into an even more remote and depopulated slice of prosaic rural eternity, flattened and dulled vegetation eventually became more topographically diverse. Clusters of cottonwood and birch popped up on rolling hills. Creek beds and groves interrupted the terrain, engraving the scene with nature’s persistent chisel. Flocks of cowbirds and crows scattered at the sight of the SUV and coalesced like a blot of rummaging black mercury once we passed.
Joe and Justin parked on the edge of an undisturbed expanse of monochrome grasses. A roughhewn fence of barbwire clung to the flapping remains of a plastic bag.
“We’ll walk from here,” Joe said, nodding into the yawning prairie. It was the kind of desolate grassland where mosquitoes and ticks would devour any mammal with vampiric glee in the spring and summer.
“Ready to see blood and dead stuff?” Brandi said to me. “Not gonna freak out, right?”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, huffing through a confident smile, looking into Joe’s gray eyes in order to reassure everyone.
As always, I tried to exude the rock-ribbed vibe of the unshakable and open-minded Renaissance man. I was a neophyte, sure, but also a guy who had seen and experienced enough to at least qualify as a non-poser. Brandi’s expected shit-giving notwithstanding, I felt confident that I was the opposite of a nebbish urban wuss who would be frightened by deer’s blood. You know what? Screw everyone in Nicole’s family if they doubted my fortified constitution! I was an avid weightlifter, a former college football player, an infamous roughhouser and wrestler, a lunatic beer drinker and dare taker and mosh pitter who was fond of scar tissue. Yeah, I adored manly stuff where nothing would get killed, but character and toughness and thumos were always involved and tested time and again. In short: I’M A MAN! DON’T DOUBT MY MASCULINITY, MY ABILITY TO ADAPT, OR MY WANT TO PERSEVERE! Why wasn’t that non-lethal stuff good enough for those who loved to hunt, anyway?
Maybe there was something deeper I wasn’t grasping. Perhaps my very need to constantly prove, define, and meditate upon the purported tenets of masculinity via push-ups and keg stands and philosophical jiggering revealed the flaw in my actions and classifications as an urban man. I had never ventured to the logical conclusion of thumos: the taking of another life. Hunters have. And so maybe that was why I always felt inadequate, like I needed to catalog the virtues of masculinity with CAPS LOCKED circus stunts masking insecurity. Guys like Joe and Justin, reserved and quiet and relaxed, killed things and did so with minimal fanfare and without seeking much attention. While taking the life of another mammal certainly isn’t the end-all-be-all of masculine pursuits, hunting provides a grim, concrete, and hands-on intimacy with life and death that renders the trivialities of surface braggadocio mostly moot. Turns out the non-hunter was the closest thing to a Hemingway-esque chest-beater.
And so we walked. Once again, Brandi and Justin going to one stand, Joe and I to another. A million steps later, with Brandi and Justin receding into a dense phalanx of hills and trees and obscuring underbrush, Joe and I arrived at our deer stand. It was fifteen or so feet tall, a miniature tower of sorts that was a (somewhat) sturdy trellis of crisscrossing iron undergirding a wooden box set on top. Although not an engineering marvel by any stretch of the imagination, the stand did an admirable job of melting into the edge of twenty or thirty trees, many of which superseded it in height. Joe went up first through the trapdoor in the bottom of the wooden box and I followed. I didn’t ask if it was safe for two people to occupy, but the deer stand certainly wasn’t shy about swaying like a storm-besieged cattail as we shimmied our collective weight up the slipshod ladder. There were two crude structures that barely fit the definition of “chair” and they were about seven inches from one another. We sat down in a space that could barely fit one comfortably. I quickly realized we would be testing the laws of physics concerning matter’s ability to occupy space that’s already inhabited.
“Comfy?” Joe said without a trace of irony. Not in the least.
“Oh, yeah. Sure,” I said, realizing I was doing that thing where I unconsciously imitated the vocal mannerisms of those in outstate Minnesota in order to better fit in. “Could be worse.”
We settled in and got our stare on. The scale of our panorama was even grander than the one we shared in the morning. Shocks of nude trees appeared acrylic, as though they were an addendum painted onto the prairie at the last minute. Alluvial pockets, rich and black and nestled near wild vegetation, provided additional aesthetic appeal.
Once again, the words between Joe and I were few. But the dearth of conversation didn’t only exist because of our want to stay quiet and not scare away potential deer. Although we were always courteous and amiable with one another, Joe and I didn’t have much in common. Joe was the oldest of ten children, growing up on a dairy farm near the southwestern Minnesota town of Hanska. An electrician by trade, who married Nicole’s mother a few years after her father died, he wired the upstairs of my house, put together the sizable wooden playset in my backyard, and built numerous additions onto Nicole’s girlhood home from scratch. Electrical work was his specialty, but he could fix cars and install plumbing and, although an admitted amateur, he knew his way around a farm. In contrast, I was an adherent of the liberal arts and a voracious consumer of pop-culture ephemera. I loved Roman history and Batman and Big Ten football and underground deathgrind metal and essay anthologies edited by Phillip Lopate and Lee Gutkind, but all of it seemed like bluster and artifice in comparison. Bullshit, really, in the shadow of a pretty brilliant and resourceful guy who actually did stuff. As a person who prided himself as aggressive and enthusiastic in his athletic and academic pursuits, I was so…passive with the material world. Who was I to criticize a man painstakingly and honorably killing a deer every now and again for meat and maybe even a trophy? Next to Joe, in his cherished environment, I felt sad and small. So I scribbled some things in a notebook. And kept my mouth shut.
Check back next week for the conclusion, The Art of Zen and Gunpowder (Part Three)!!!!!!