Higher Education

dc710817-7270-4f0e-a055-939a6dcd8900 By Tom Reed

At first, it was funny. Funny in the sophomoric way that humor is when you are full of the carbonated testosterone that only exists in males of a certain age—late teens to early twenties—and a certain intersection of freedom and verve—the early college years.
 
“We’re going hunting,” we announced, the three of us, all of that age and in that intersection, but more importantly, cut from the same bolt of cloth. Then we went, loading into an overloaded but workhorse dependable Chevrolet Luv 4x4. Camping gear. Beer. Bird dogs: a half Lab, half Springer named JD after our favorite Tennessee beverage. Booker, a high-strung Weimaraner from show stock who never made a single point in her too-long life and who ate most of a Thanksgiving turkey and a straw Resistol in the same meal one Arizona November afternoon. 

We went every weekend, leaving classes, girls, parties, the city, pointing north, three big guys in a little red pickup wound up in fourth gear. The Beeline Highway.
 
It was the announcement that was funny. We made a point of dropping by the house where a cadre of our fraternity brothers lived, picking up ice from the industrial ice maker for our cooler, sometimes snatching up a fourth to cram into the bed of the pickup truck between the dogs and the gear. “We’re going hunting” invariably would be met with “Again? We’re having a party Saturday night, you guys are going to miss it.”

I am proud to say, nearly forty years later, that I’m just as glad now as I was then to miss those parties, maybe even more so. It was the early eighties. If desert quail populations are plotted out in a simple line graph, the ups and downs, highs and lows like a jagged mountain range on the western horizon, the Himalayas, the very top of the world, were the nineteen eighties in the desert Southwest. Still are.

Those were the years that the Salt River, usually little more than a wide dry arroyo, burst out of its channel and washed away every highway bridge in one hundred miles except the one that was built at the turn of the century. Spring wildflowers were stupendous, the stuff of magazine covers. The desert reservoirs brimmed to the top and threatened to overflow. 

We went hunting. We went hunting in the rain and in the sunshine. The Luv forded rivers of rainwater in what had days earlier been dry ravines. We pitched a good tent, built impressive campfires, ate quick breakfasts and started hiking. We did not know what we were doing and made a lot of mistakes. We were in the throat of it and abundance was everywhere.

The quail, the young dogs, the bottomless energy, the land itself. Had populations of desert quail, particularly Gambel’s, not been so high, so abounding, we would have been seriously guilty of over-doing one spot. Of pounding one place too hard. But the coveys were huge, twenty or more birds, and the shooting was not particularly keen.

I used an old classic, a Remington Model 11, a 12-gauge that had gained more notoriety in the hands of gangsters than upland enthusiasts. It had a feeble spring and often hacked spent shells only halfway out while I clawed for a pocket knife to work loose the jam. Meanwhile the rest of the covey flushed. 

We camped in the same spot weekend after weekend and headed in different directions. As hunters will when they go back to a patch of public land time and again, we began to see the spot as ours. No one else was out there and we only ran into another hunter one time that I can remember.
 
Then came our third year in the desert. Early in the season we came in at midnight to find an old school bus parked at our camp. How its owner had rocked and rolled a big rig on a four-wheel drive road was hard to ascertain. But he was in our spot. We pulled off to another site a half-mile away and unloaded in the dark, bags on the ground. 

The next morning, we followed the bird dogs into a covey, shooting a few quail and moving in the direction of the school bus because that was where the covey was going. As we got nearer our former campsite started to look like a junk yard. It wasn’t just a school bus. There were a few junker cars around and trash barrels. It looked as if some heavy machinery had been at it too.

A bird flushed as we got closer, peeling off to the left, close, but a safe shot. But it was enough to bring the desert squatter from his school bus lair where he was apparently living, yelling at us to get away from his mill site. We yelled back that he was on public land. He considered three guys with shotguns and yelled back again, but nothing escalated. 

The next week, I was in the office of the US Forest Service, reporting the interloper and his junkyard. It was my first experience as a hunter-conservationist and I was told that the squatting was perfectly legal because the bus and all of the trash was part of a mining claim on public land. I was also told that the miner was required to clean up after he was done.

It was a blow to us, to lose a great hunting spot, but we ended up camping in a better place a mile or so away and hunting the same quail. A year or so later, the miner had left and left behind all of his treasures. I reported this to the same ranger and I can still remember the response: “Well, what can I say, the best-laid plans. . . . ” The taxpayers paid for the clean-up and the desert recovered. 

There is a habit, among those approaching life’s milestones: births and graduations, marriages and deaths, to reflect backward with a sense of melancholy. To sprinkle one’s life with “I wish I hads” and “should ofs.” To pine for moments lost that one didn’t even know were moments when they were right at the tip of your nose, like wishing you had bought Amazon and Apple stock in the ‘90s or kept that FJ60 Toyota back in ’89. 

I’m proud to say I have none of that when I reflect on the amount of quail hunting on public land I did in the college years. Indeed, if I had not gone as much as I had, I would be reflecting backward with regret for having spent so much time living the college city life rather than living the college outdoors life. 

There is nothing like waking up on the ground and hearing the desert come alive. The smell of rain-washed creosote and Mormon tea. In my mind’s eye, coveys of Gambel’s quail burst and fly over far ridges. JD’s nose to the ground, her tail frantic as the scent strengthens, a Coues buck deer standing twenty feet away in a rare blizzard on a Mearns’ quail hunt, and the laughter of college friends all connecting in that rare, good way that the like-minded do. 

A young person’s education comes from all angles. There are the books and the professors, true. But there are also the friends, the mentors and the experience of life itself. Deeper still is the education that comes from the land. This is higher education. 

Tom Reed is the author of Give Me Mountains For My Horses and has spent a career as a hunter-conservationist. He lives with his family, including a pack of setters, in Montana. He co-writes the popular Mouthful of Feathers blog

This story originally appeared in the Fall 2019 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you liked it (and really, who wouldn't?) and would like to read more stories like it, become a member of Quail Forever today.