Begging Answers from the SKy
In Search of Quail and Peace
Story By Katie Willis || Photos By Aaron Black-schmidt
Story By Katie WIllis
Photos By Aaron Black-Schmidt
Ignited by heartache we cast off, the dogs and I. Jettisoning all but what could fit in a camper, I sold the house and quit my job. The only place I wanted to see the world I knew was in the rearview.
Spending September and October in Montana and the Dakotas, we rolled back west in November to Oregon with a plan to close the season via a big loop through Nebraska and Kansas, then New Mexico and Arizona starting in January. Short of the general route, I set no expectations or plans greater than to hunt as many days as possible, hopeful somewhere in all those miles the darkness and self-recrimination would lift.
• • •
“You could get the single season quail slam,” my friend Austin said, raised beer at his lips.
“The single season quail slam. All six species of quail in a single season. You got your mountain quail yesterday, and you have shot plenty of valleys, including today.”
A run of mild days allowed a return to mountain quail country, a place of failures earlier in the season. Never had I encountered a bird so deft at avoidance, possessed of an uncanny ability to escape without offering a single shot.
We were again bird-less and shot-less on our walk back to the truck, my shotgun loose in my hand, resigned to try again next season. High above me, careening through the ponderosas, Gravy loosened rock, the sound of tumbling stones echoing through the narrow canyon.
Then silence, Gravy suddenly a statue, neck bent back over his shoulder. Taking two steps, a lone bird broke from cover. As he passed 10 feet to my right, I saw the telltale spike of feather on his head and the deep ruddy tone of his throat. Following, I squeezed off a round when we met on the same linear plane.
Gravy was quick across the creek, and with a hop, back to deliver our bird. I marveled at the weight, equivalent to a pair of valley quail. The feathers longer, heavier, stone grey across the back, chest and wings. Rust dancing along the black and cream of his flanks. A ribbon of white crossed his eyes, drifting off to his shoulders. Impossibly long feathers stretched inky-black from top of his head.
The following day, I took Clancy my 6-month-old pup and my old black dog out across a sage flat for valley quail. Clancy excelled at finding coveys, but failed at holding them so I left him to sort through his recklessness while I trailed after the old dog, picking up a matched pair over the greyed face and shaking legs.
Truth be told, prior to Austin’s comment, the idea of all six in a season, or even a lifetime, hadn’t crossed my mind. I have long chaffed at the tallying of birds. To me, it reduces their divine magic to trophy, converts their enviable flight to human ego. In the same breath, the scars of falling short are cut to my bones, I don’t seek opportunities to add to their number. But ideas are seeds, and within a few days, this one took root.
• • •
The undulating, unobstructed horizon of Nebraska, so vast as to be oceanic, allowed for a particular pleasure. Days in the field with my old dog. He found new life in the prairies, the soft loam easy on his bones. We learned the country together, slowly wandering in and out of coulees, watching birds flee our inexperience.
• • •
He was with me, trotting just up ahead, when Clancy dropped his nose in stems of grass and stopped. I paid Clancy little mind, given his recent proclivity for mousing, and walked onward towards the old dog.
The rise of a covey is unmistakable. Forty wings set in simultaneous motion, launching to flight as a singular being, an ear-filling thrum. Spinning, there was barely a moment as they sped up the rise and disappeared through trees on the other side. My bird tucked wing, rolled to the earth, coming to rest on his side, the ground undisturbed by his delicate weight. A study in three colors — white, black and the orange-brown of tilled earth. Perfectly camouflaged in his native land, his edges distinct against my hands.
The contrast of New Mexico was startling. The soft cushion of winter-weary grasses replaced by thorn and barb, Martian-red rocks crumbling beneath my feet as we chased birds that would rather run than fly. Having met up with a quartet of friends, we spread out across a desert dotted with man-made watering holes and tanks.
The day began with watching comma-crowned birds race out of a wash, grab an edge of the breeze and sail off, disappearing one by one into the dark black and green of the creosote. Gravy had also disappeared, grateful no doubt for a sea of scrubland to burn through, the space to stretch his gangly legs.
Walking south, we were heading back to the truck when my watch alerted of Gravy’s stillness. Turning back, my friend Stephanie and I found him, shoulders rolled up, crouched in monsoon-loosened stones. The crunch of our boots drove a half-dozen birds from cover. I miss the first, connect with the second.
Wings extended, the midnight black of his cheek skyward, we found him lying in the taupe gravel. His crown red umber, ear covered by a disc of subtle bronze, dashes of cream along his flanks.
I reach for Gravy, the bellows of his chest expanding, every rib threatening to burst from his skin. He drops his head, panting, I roll the skin of his ear between finger and thumb. “Gravy is good,” I whisper. I am too. What seemed unlikely a couple weeks ago is two birds from completion.
Word of Montezumas in the mountains pushed us west and we spent a day, bird-less, hiking oak-choked ravines dotted with abandoned mines. Knowing I am bound for the Montezuma-laden reaches of Arizona, the decision to return to the desert for Gambel’s and scalies is fine by me.
But it isn’t. Not because we don’t find birds but because I break. Wholly and completely.
Powdered blue, cotton-topped birds rise generously in front of me and I miss. Again and again. The sound of empty shells rattle with each step as I watch my friends tuck birds in their vests. Hot, angry tears rise in frustration. I pitch my gun to the ground and walk off. In an instant I am filled with shame. Turning to reach for my gun, the thorns cut at my skin and the tears start in earnest.
There is no crueler devil than the one living in the reaches of your soul and mine has come for me.
• • •
The voice in my head says you are not enough. It chides me for thinking myself capable, whips my shoulders for seeking birds as trophy, sings out past failures as proof of my folly. I have been pushing myself as hard as I can, seeking the answers and comfort in landscape I couldn’t find in the life I left. And I have failed.
• • •
I am alone for a time, working my way back north to the mountains of central New Mexico. Later in the week, I rejoin friends and we chase Gambel’s across oak-covered slopes. It feels good to stretch my legs against elevation. I climb higher than I need to, not in pursuit of birds as much as to feel the ache in my legs, the race of my heart in my chest.
It is breathtaking, this country, mountains rising as blocks. Bands of cliffs along summits as if the earth was scraped from them as they raced to the clouds. Between peaks, valleys twist around smaller outcroppings, grassy and blonde to the west and south, scrub oak transitioning to pine on the north sides with roads ribboning around water tanks and timbered washes.
Close to noon on the last day in this place, I hear a shout from below. The unmistakable flare of a setter’s tail a beacon in the tall grass. My friend Chad waves. It is his dog, perched, peering over a rolling break. As I approach, Clancy comes barreling in from behind, driving the quail from cover. They rise, two, then one, then two again, chortling and chirping as they make their escape. My gun finds my cheek without thought. A bird falls before me.
She is beauty, a blush of blue on her hawk-like bill, the buff taupe of sandstone cut with cream, dotted with black, feathers thick above her eye. A New Mexico Montezuma.
The weight of her shoulders in my hand frees me. The perfect script would cast her as a rooster, harlequin and garish, not this subtle landscaped perfection. To further the ideal narrative, this dog of mine should claim the find. This story now lost, I am absolved from its pursuit.
• • •
Meeting up with Stephanie again a few days later, she offers up her favorite scaled quail spots, but I decline, needing only her company. We spend the day working washes and tanks close to camp with the sun setting on 14 miles walked, 6 dogs hunted and not a feather to show for it.
As we crest a hill on the drive back to camp, I see a glimmer, soft and cloud-like cutting the darkness just beyond the headlights. Disappearing as fast as it rose, a covey.
In the cool of the morning, our heads fuzzy from a bourbon-fueled night of singing to the stars, we load dogs and head for the highway. A hairsbreadth from sleep, I wonder if the covey was a dream.
The big diesel is picking her way across a stretch of washboard, hands loose on the wheel, mind replaying the night before when a flash of blue catches my eye. It hops over the dirt mounded on the edge of the road and disappears.
“Pop that back door, Steph,” I say, slamming the truck into park.
“Pop the backdoor, Steph. Scalies. Let the old dog out. I’ll grab your cocker.”
He is confused, my old friend, so suddenly rousted from a nap. But he shakes his head and follows me into an easy wind rising from the rocky wash down to our left. He isn’t but just off the road when the confusion lifts, the smell of his heart’s desire pulling arthritis from his bones.
And he becomes what he has always been, catty, deliberate and deft. He points, I see them, scalies, running hard and headed for the wash.
I run too.
A bird rises, my shotgun cracks the morning.
• • •
Stephanie and her cocker head off for the rest of the covey, leaving my old dog and I in the mesquite. My best beloved points his bird for the second time and I pick it up to show him. The sun, just above the horizon, brings crisp light to the white of the quail’s crown, the pale of his breast, scalloped as a pinecone with slashes of deep brown and cream. A careful line arcs along his closed lid and trails horizontally across his cheek.
Tears again. Twenty-seven days after my first mountain quail, and I have held them all. Rubbed silken feathers between fingertips and marveled at the perfection of wing and bone. Watched my dogs delight in pursuit, toasted moments with friends, drank in landscape deeply. Spent sleepless nights, steeped in regret, ached in the pain of memory and old injuries. Sought water in a desert of loneliness, begged answers from the sky.
I am not what I was but the same as I have always been.
Not a catalog of my shortcomings any more than I am a sum of my successes.
My life a wheel, no beginning, no end.
Katie Willis lives in Oregon when she isn’t traveling far and wide with her dogs in search of birds and answers.
This article originally appeared in the 2023 Upland Super Issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you like this content and would like to see more of it, consider supporting Quail Forever as an annual member: among many other benefits, you'll receive the Quail Forever Journal 5x/year in your mailbox.