When It All Goes Wrong

49e381c3-5490-4183-90bc-5270039d40da By Chad Love

A good friend and I have a semi-regular tradition of meeting up every year for a few days’ hunting at the very tail-end of the season in the farthest, loneliest part of one particular plains state. It is a hard, harsh, empty land. The weather is capricious and mean. The roads can swallow your truck to the axles, punch a hole in a sidewall, and simply disappear like a lost thought, all in the space of a single county section line.

There are few towns, few people, and at this point in the season, few hunters. We come here for the quail, the pheasants, and the solitude. And since neither the quail nor the pheasants that have made it this deep into the season are inclined to die easily or honorably, we often end up with solitude. Every feather taken out here is a feather earned, every trip both pilgrimage and tribulation.
   
This year was no different. There was snow. There was wind. There was ice and mud and roads that hadn’t seen a county grader this century. There were birds busted, birds flushed wild, birds missed, and birds we knew were there but were simply too damn shrewd and clever to get killed by the likes of us.

There were ankles twisted in badger holes, pants ripped on barbed-wire fences, sandburs and cactus thorns embedded in hands, asses, and dogs’ pads. There was sweaty, filthy clothes, tired legs and blistered feet. There was the inevitable dog with the squirts, the other inevitable dog rolling in cowflop and then yacking up some unidentifiable, half-digested rodent, and the always-inevitable, “Now where the hell did that dog go?”   

But there were also crystalline grassland sunrises enjoyed with a cup of coffee, warm dirt-road sunsets appreciated with a cold beer. There was tailgate philosophizing, world problem-solving, jokes, and laughter. There was the joy of watching wild young dogs stretch out across the horizontal yellow of the prairie, and the satisfaction of watching old dogs act young, if only for a while.

There was the weight of a bird in the hand, the evocative, ancestral grassland scent of it. There were hours spent between words, walking in silent awe across the scattered and tenuous remnants of an ancient sea of grass and still finding primal magic in what little remained.
 
And finally, there was the realization that all these moments, good and bad, are the sum of what compels us to carry on this love affair, even in the face of despair, difficulty, age, and loss.
     
That realization takes me back to a day, years ago, when I was sitting on the tailgate of my truck in the parking area of a local public-hunting area one unusually mild February afternoon eating lunch. A truck with a dog trailer pulled up beside me with two men inside. Old-time quail hunters and dog men, representative of a sepia-tinged epoch now largely past, an era when men like them were still common.
 
Like me, they hadn’t found any quail and decided to break for lunch before driving home. My drive would be about 15 minutes. Theirs would be about four hours.
 
We sat and talked for over an hour. They were both in their late seventies. Their dogs were old, their truck was old, their guns were old, and their tales were old. And wonderful.

We talked dogs and guns and quail and OU football and when it was time to leave I gave them my card, told them to call me next fall for a scouting report, and wished them luck.
 
I never saw or heard from them again, and I often wonder whether those two old men ever hitched up that dog trailer one more time, or if that conversation we’d had in the waning days of that long-ago season was the final act in what I’m sure was a helluva bird-hunting life.

I thought of those old men a lot on the way home, and it made me grateful that trips like this still matter, still have meaning, and that I’m still able to take them, because even when they go all wrong, there’s still more right in them than most things. And that, I guess, is why we keep doing it.

Chad Love is the editor of Quail Forever Journal. This story originally appeared in the Spring 2019 issue. 

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