Salvation

e8df0757-4b59-4c47-a754-7add350b01eb By Chad Love
 

Fall 1992

The ramshackle old jeep with the worn-out clutch and the bent front leaf springs that telegraph every washboard rut jostles and shimmies its way down the road trailing a plume of talcum-fine dirty white caliche dust that blows into the jeep and settles on everything within; the driver, the dash, the half-grown pointer sitting in the passenger seat.

The young, brown-haired driver looks in the rear-view mirror and sees an old, gray-haired man staring back at him. He shakes his head and the dusty illusion is gone, its portend unrecognized and quickly forgotten.  He drives on while the dog whines and stares out at the world rushing by, thinking thoughts known only to dogs.

He is not a native. He’s a downstater, a college kid from the green southlands, and this is his first solo hunting trip into this odd, lonely, dry, brutal and lovely plains country so shunned by others, yet so bewitching to him. And he has no damn idea where he is. He doesn’t even know if he’s still in Oklahoma or somewhere in southwest Kansas.

As he passes over a dilapidated county bridge spanning a braided ribbon of shallow water, he notices a truck coming toward him from the opposite direction, the first one he’s seen in an hour.  He stops the jeep on the bridge, and as the truck approaches it, too, slows down and stops.

The old man behind the wheel resembles the land itself; lean, brown, furrowed, worn.

“Having trouble?” he asks.
“No, not really trouble,” the young man replies. “I was just trying to figure out if I was still in Oklahoma.”
“Yep, you’re still in Oklahoma, but not by much. I’m guessing you’re lost.”
“Well, sort of. I’ve never been up here before, and I wanted to spend some time just driving around, maybe finding some places to quail hunt and just kinda losing myself for a few days.” 
“I don’t know about quail hunting, ‘aint been many birds the past few years, but it looks like you lost yourself, anyway. This is a damn good place to do it. Lots of good people have lost themselves out here, just flat broke themselves on the bones of this land.”
“I guess there’s not much out here, is there?”

He leans forward on the steering wheel, tips his sweaty, grimy feed store cap back on his head, looks at the young man. “Hell, boy,” he says with a bemused cackle, “ there ‘aint nothin’ out here ‘cept heat and sky. Good luck finding your quail, I’d let you hunt my place but I don’t got any quail left. Keep lookin’ and you’ll find a few out here might let you on their place, and you can always hunt the grasslands if you got a map. Don’t get too damn lost, though. This place makes some people go crazy. A few years out here and they’re never the same.”

Miles later, with the farmer’s words still in his head, the young man stops the jeep in the center of a lonely crossroads in the middle of a vast silence. He kills the engine and watches cloud shadows dapple the endless grass, listens as the ceaseless wind sings a constant tune on barbed wire. 

He and the dog are utterly alone, and vague possibility shimmers like a mirage in every direction and in every time. There is no map, no plan, nor even a half-assed goal, just the brash assumption of youth that eventually, somewhere, out here in this land of heat and sky, he and the dog will find those few perfect moments in those few perfect scenes that elevate true meaning into more than just a word people discuss over coffee.

The road stretches off before him. Left, right, straight ahead. Anywhere but back. Make a decision. Does it matter? Do they all lead to the same place? He whistles for his dog, gets back in the jeep, starts it, picks a road, drives away. He is soon lost to sight, to memory, and all that remains of his passing are a few footprints in the middle of a forgotten, lonely road and a distant plume of caliche dust receding toward an unknown horizon.
 

Fall 2012


She goes on point in the tattered, sepia-tinged ruins of a Dorothea Lange photograph; tail up, body rigid, eyes imploring me toward the scraggly patch of weeds and cactus sprouting from the corner of a crumbling foundation where once a house sat and a family lived, loved, wept, lost and left. I walk in perpendicular to her point, kick the grass, watch for flushing quail and rattlesnakes. I find neither.

I give her an “OK” and she immediately disappears into the scrum of weeds, re-emerging triumphantly a few seconds later, box turtle held gently in her mouth. She’s a good dog, a sweet dog, but I’ll be damned if I could ever keep her away from porcupines and turtles. We all have our weaknesses. Mine, like hers, have always been found in places like this.

I let the turtle go, and as he makes tracks back to the ruins of the house, I continue my exploration of this half-section graveyard of long-abandoned dreams, wondering about theirs and searching for my own. I am alone in this search, always alone.

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My family and friends don’t know why I continue coming out here out, chasing dogs, birds, and an unknowable solace across the wastelands and into the dark, vexing, scarred heart of the plains when I could be back home doing something more interesting or sociable or at least more quantifiable, like deer hunting.

None of my friends bird hunt, save for the occasional drunken party-hunt pheasant shoot. Most of them are deer hunters, and when they proudly break out the cell phone pics of their latest corn-fed, trail-cam-patterned conquest, I nod, mumble something appropriately flattering, and think about lonely campfires, the silence of space, and dogs dancing across a far horizon.

“Don’t get too damn lost, though. This place makes some people go crazy. A few years out here and they’re never the same.”
  
The crazy old farmer was more right than he knew. The opiate of space. It does something to you – makes you flee or makes you crazy. As I ponder why I never chose the former, and how afflicted I was with the latter, the dog and I swing back toward the truck.
 
Halfway there she gets birdy. Her tail starts crackling in that “I’m working something here, boss” manner of dogs on scent, then she slides into point on a tiny, anemic patch of cover that looks like it couldn’t hold a sparrow, much less a covey of quail. Thinking turtle, I half-ass walk in with my shotgun slung lazily over my shoulder, expecting nothing.
 
A rooster erupts from the tangled patch of dead tumbleweeds and sunflowers. Of course. Startled, I fumble the gun to my shoulder, shoot once, twice, poorly, stupidly, and watch as the intact, unscathed rooster flies away in that cackling, infuriating, kiss-my-ass way that only a rooster can pull off. Interlopers. Invaders. Gaudy, preening, wily little bastards. I admire them, but I’d rather have a quail, anyway.

“Well, at least he held for the point, right?” I ask her.  Whatever thoughts she may have, she keeps to herself and goes back to hunting. If dogs judge, they do it silently, inscrutably. We could learn a thing or two from that.

We make it back to the truck without further embarrassment.  I load the old girl in the box, let the younger pup out to air, then hit the road.

It is dark when I pull into the campground. I am alone. Not surprising. It’s mid-week, mid-season and a down year for bird numbers, which makes it the exclusive purview of the hard-core, the hard-headed and the simply too-stupid-to-know-better. I’m firmly behind door number three, but that’s fine. The world needs her Quixotic idiots as much as she needs her geniuses. I savor the campground’s loneliness, the sound of an autumn night wind rustling through the dead leaves of ancient prairie cottonwoods.
     
I feed the dogs, fry myself some eggs and sausage for dinner on the little propane stove, make a fire, then sit on the tailgate drinking beer and watching the vast inky mystery that is the night sky. My campfire is the only earthbound light for miles. A meteor leaves a trail of glowing dust above, and I marvel that a chunk of rock that’s been floating around the solar system for billions of years chooses this very moment to burn itself up seemingly for my benefit alone.

I ponder the randomness of life, listen to the coyotes, argue philosophy with the dogs and drink another beer, lost in the maudlin and utterly non-returnable, non-refundable past.

Twenty years I’ve been doing such as this out here on these plains, seeking feathers and moments and answers. I abandoned all I had once hoped to achieve in far-off places I had once hoped to see. Walked away from all that was familiar, rejected goals I once held dear. Like almost everyone, I once was sure I’d accomplish great things. Like almost everyone, I settled for achieving ordinary things, all to stay out here, spending my life walking grass and watching rocks flame out in the night sky.

But sometimes, late at night, on trips like this, with no one but the dogs and the heavens bearing witness, I question: Did I make the right choice? Should I have turned around and gone back all those years ago? Would I have achieved any of the cocksure, naïve predictions of youth? Would I still have the same passion for chasing whatever it is I’m trying to catch out here on these plains? Or would I have never known anything of birds and dogs and wild, lonely places?

Eventually the beer, the firewood and the questions run out, as they always do, and I wake the next morning to hoarfrost and a headache. I heat water, make coffee, fry more sausage, load up, hit the road.
 
I’ve got two more days before I have to be back home, back to the dead-end job, the never-ending money struggles, the bills, the questions, the second-guessing, the constant Thoreauvian struggle. I want to make the most of these two days, so the dogs and I are headed west, deeper into the yonder country.

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But first, damn, this headache. I’ve got to get some Excedrin. And wieners. And more beer. There’s a small town down the road, so forty minutes later I pull into the town’s only grocery store/gas station/feed store/diner/women’s clothing boutique.
 
As I get out of the truck I notice there’s some kind of small-town travelling tent revival going on in the empty grass lot adjacent the store. The ceaseless plains wind swirls dust about the feet of the flock. A preacher thumps his bible, waves it in the air, points at it, talks to it, beseeches all within earshot of the microphone to live its words. The small crowd of believers looks to the sky and gesticulates accordingly.

Fearing the proverbial lightning bolt if I continue dirtying the scene with my heathen presence, and with my head still pounding, I duck into the store. I grab a package of hot dogs, Excedrin, and a twelve-pack of beer.  I pay, pick up my bag and walk back into the glare of the afternoon sun toward the truck when one of the flock catches me. He thrusts a pamphlet into my bag with one hand, places his other gently upon my arm, and asks, “Brother, have you been saved?”

I ponder the question. Saved from what, exactly? All those weaknesses, vices, obsessions, faults and decisions that, taken together, have traced the arc of my life and made me, for sometimes better but mostly worse, who I am?

It’s a tricky existential life question, one I’m ill-equipped to answer standing here alone, tired, and with a thumper of a hangover in the parking lot of a tiny little grocery store in an anonymous little town out in the middle of nowhere holding a sack full of wieners and rapidly-warming beer.
 
All I really want to do is pop a couple Excedrin, get on the road, spend the day following my two dogs, hopefully kill a few birds, then find the state park my atlas says must be out here somewhere, get a campsite, take care of the dogs, roast a few weenies, drink a few beers, and sleep, in that order. Confronting the consequences of life choices, lousy and otherwise, is not on that list.
 
But the man demands an answer. “Brother,” he repeats, “Have you been saved?”

Over his shoulder I see the preacher has stopped preaching and is now leading the flock in a hymn.

“Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, That saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, Was blind, but now I see…”

I look over at my truck, my tired, worn-out, never-gonna-afford-a-new-one truck, and see the two dogs with their noses pressed against the windshield, waiting for me. I look out past the edge of town, into the nothing beyond, and see a crazy, cackling old fortune-telling farmer, footprints in a crossroad, and a kid and a dog in a jeep becoming a tiny plume of dust receding into an unknown horizon twenty years distant.  I once was lost, but now am found...
 
Have I been saved?  I look back at the man. “Brother,” I reply, “I surely have.”

Chad Love is the editor of Quail Forever Journal

This story originally appeared in the Winter 2020 issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you enjoyed this story and would like to read others like it, join Quail Forever today