I came up here to get a break from the ‘perfect storm’ of my life… and for three days, it sort of worked. I started this jaunt with fresh everything… except memories. I bought new wools-n-wets-gear, new boots, traded the Chrysler in for a new (to me) ’73 F150 4X4 (it had character, I’ll give it that) and even a new hat. The tent and camp gear was all new, loaned cheerfully by a friend who knew the feeling… and also knew, that at the moment, there was nothing else he could do for me.
The only ‘old’ thing I brought into these mountains was the Howatt El Dorado, that my father had used to feed his family and his soul, in places just like this, for years and years. He had given it to me that November before the dementia finally closed the last window of his clear eyes and piercing wisdom. It was one of the few items of his journey on this land, that he had truly cherished (his loyalties and his treasures rested firmly in a broad audience of people… and the Almighty). I had always thought of it as just “that stick”. It must have shown when he handed it to me. He said, “Son, I’m dancin’ on the squall line for the last time, here. I can see the storm boiling into the valley, and I know where it’s headed.”
His eyes probed my face, then brightened as his chin lifted and he continued. “I know it’s just a stick, son. But if you’re willin’, it’s also a connection. That’s what it’s been for me for over 40 years… a connection.”
“With what?” I quickly asked. This was the first time in months that the man I knew as Dad had spoken through those lips.
He chuckled and reached up with a steady hand, and patted my face, like he did when I was a tike. “With the truth, son, that nothing is forever down here. Thank God, especially not the storms. I hunted because I loved it, son. But I went on the mountain, on more than one occasion, because I needed a break from the ‘storms’ in the valleys of daily livin’. Up there, the thunder and lightning was just Nature’s music. And up there, I learned to dance to it… and to be a little less afraid of the noise and rain down here.”
“Does any of that make sense, son?”
I nodded yes with my head. But it wasn’t until this outing that my heart learned to join in.
I wasn’t much of a hunter. I’d learned to shoot fairly well when I was a kid. You know, one of those “I’m gonna be like my DAD!” things that never seem to get very far off the ground for some of us. And even as I grabbed it and the quiver of arrows off the display rack in my office the night before I left, I wasn’t real sure why. Except, reaching for it was the only natural thing I had done in weeks… and it felt “right” in my hand. So, I brought it.
And it had been sitting next to me now, in the tent, for three days of a downpour.
I’d tried to hunt with it the first couple of days. I say ‘hunt’ almost in jest. I mean, isn’t it kind of funny to call plodding aimlessly up and down the cutbacks and logging roads, through the liquid misery, with your head down, and your mind full of everything but the animals you were scaring the bejeebees out of… hunting?
But that’s what I was calling it.
It was on the morning of the fourth day that I discovered a part of my father’s secret to Joy… and nearly lost my life in the process. The weather had broken for a while. The next fury of the season was hanging low, just a couple of ranges over. But it would have to claw its way better than 6,200 ft., over the knob of Roan mountain, before it could swarm me with its raindrop hordes. So I headed out for a high-base meadow that Dad had ghosted for five years, trying to get the better of the biggest buck of his life. I wasn’t even thinking about hunting… I was just glad for the change.
But as I crossed the benches and rounded the horn, the Howatt was feeling good in my hand. It, and the razor-edged shafts that his own hands had fletched, made me feel the part, anyway. And as I cut the gap that led into the meadow, the sight of deer feeding calmly amidst the ebony and chocolate sheen of scores of turkey raised my pulse… and calmed my mind.
That hadn’t happened it months.
I guess I had been paying more attention than I thought to all the stories my dad had shared with me about his adventures, because I went into autopilot. I hugged that rain-sog’d ground and every dripping shrub and bush like I was Indian-born and brave-raised. I inched my way, just like Dad had spoken of so many times, toward this mob of the unaware. And slowly, almost imperceptibly, the rich, heady perfume of this earthy vixen, this beautiful mountain that had captivated my father all those years, began working its magic on his wounded son.
I was doing pretty well, until my stealthy attitude slipped on my lack of stealthy experience. I had been so focused on a wad of turkeys and a young spike feeding no more than thirty steps from the brush I was slow-stepping to, that I didn’t notice the change in pitch of the already steep ground. Looking back, I would love to have had a camera.
My feet went out. My rump, went down. The bow, went thankfully, away from what followed. I rolled and tumbled and cursed my way through the bushes (like a foul-mouthed shepherd’s staff hitting the Red Sea), cartwheeled (thankfully!) over a couple of “ohh, that’s gonna leave a mark!” rocks and finally landed belly-first and slid to a fairly graceful stop.
The turkeys had scattered like a group of muddy 5-year olds fleeing the word ‘bath’. A few free falling feathers were the only evidence of their passing. The spike, on the other hand, was as stunned by the event as I was. As I came to rest (I guess that’s what you’d call anything less flailing than what had just occurred), and before I gathered myself for the rage that would have normally followed such an ‘injustice’, I looked up, into the face of the most unhinged ungulate to ever walk the earth. His legs were splayed. His head was down. And he was looking at me as though he were waiting to see if that was the whole act.
And I started to laugh.
I laughed at the look on his face (which, by the way, helped him find his feet. He ran three full strides in mid air, before he got traction). Then, I laughed at my good fortune of having not been crushed, broken, chewed, or dissolved. Next, I laughed at how good it felt, to be laughing.
Then I cried.
After a couple of minutes, I gathered myself and my weaponry and started back over the gap to camp. I’d made it about a mile and a half, with just one ridge and a couple of benches to go, when the leading edge of that storm crawled over the hump of the ridge. I was just about to slip into my old pattern of getting mad at my ‘misfortune’ when a great peal of lightning broke the growing dark with its sizzling brightness. And then… it thundered.
And I felt the warmth of my father’s hand gently patting my face, just like he did when I was a tike. And right then and there, with the Howatt in hand, I made the connection. And I took my first steps to dancin’ on the squall line.