It’s a funny thing, but when I look back to my very first hunting trips, on my own in a cabin with a woodstove and a Marlin 336, hoping against hope that I’d see a white-tailed deer, the thing I miss most is simply being alone.
Aside from the invaluable lesson of teaching you to live with disappointment, hunting and fishing do one thing that few other activities can match: They teach you to be alone, and appreciate the benefits of being alone.
This morning’s e-mail deluge brought with it yet another invitation to yet another gathering of “like-minded people” to celebrate our hunting heritage. To tell the cynical truth, if these people were truly like-minded, they wouldn’t want to be there any more than I do.
Think back to the really great stories about hunting — and all the really good ones are non-fiction, I would like to point out — and you will find that most of them are accounts of solitary activities. Col. Townsend Whelen, the universally admired “dean” of hunting and shooting writers in the 1930s and ’40s, wrote at length about a solitary trip he made into the Rockies, backpacking, in the 1920s. Jack O’Connor, who knew him well, wrote later in a tribute piece in Petersen’s Hunting that Col. Whelen always harked back to that trip as the highlight of his big-game career.
O’Connor himself, later in life, liked nothing better than to recall his adventures hunting on his own in Mexico and the Southwest, early in the century. Most of O’Connor’s stories end with a triumph, in which he outwits and brings down a desert bighorn, while mine consist of the modest achievement of getting back to the cabin in one piece, having survived a sudden snowfall, or getting lost in a swamp, miles away with darkness coming quickly. Oh, well — we take our triumphs where we find them.
Next to hunting and mating, mankind’s strongest urge is to organize, even if it means destroying the very thing the organization is being set up to preserve. Take fly fishing: As a solitary activity, and one that imparts many of its benefits from that very solitude, you would think that organized fly fishing would be anathema. Not at all. Now there are gatherings of fly-fishermen (and women) who set up mass fishing expeditions to despoil some poor unsuspecting river, out west somewhere, complete with campfires and singalongs.
My boyhood hunting camps consisted of just me because I did not know anyone else my age who was a hunter. Later, when I was part of a small group that hunted deer together every year, our usual modus operandi was that we would leave the cabin before dawn and go off alone in various directions. We’d each hunt in whatever manner we thought most likely to pay off, and then gather again after dark. There were, of course, no cell phones. Every so often, someone would suggest we invest in walkie-talkies (remember those?) to carry, just in case. It never worked out, mostly I believe because none of us wanted something else to carry, and also because such things are nothing but an electronic leash.
When I left the cabin each morning, always in the dark and sometimes in rain or snow, there was a tiny thrill of not knowing what might happen that day. Generally, I knew better than to hope to see an eight-pointer silhouetted against the sky. One might as well hope to run into Kim Novak, lost in the woods and desperate for company. But there was the real possibility of coming across an old logging road and following it to see where it went. Or finding the remains of an abandoned hunting cabin with who knows what artifacts among the debris. Or — less desirable — breaking a leg and having to survive, somehow, completely on my own.
Sometimes, straying into strange territory, I’d stumble onto a trail, long unused but obviously leading somewhere. Then, it was like Alice down the rabbit hole, or passing through the looking glass or opening a wardrobe to find Narnia.
To be sure, I was there hunting deer, but I now realize that wasn’t the only thing I was hunting for. And while I don’t have the head of a big eight-pointer on the wall to recall those days, I do have, in my own small way, what O’Connor and Col. Whelen found, off on their own. It is something worth looking for, and it’s not found in crowds.–Terry Wieland