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Author: Thomas McIntyre
For most of us, it is the final hours of shooting season, not the New Year countdown that matter the most.
The news this New Year's was about the decline and fall of the traditional New Year's Eve celebration. Either nobody takes it seriously anymore--it's the casual-Friday look instead of black tie and cocktail dresses; no more big bands, confetti, champagne glasses, or limousines--or it is ignored all together. I'm afraid I never fell into the former category (always having been more of a casual 24/7 kind of guy); but as I "mature", I definitely rank among the latter: If I wanted to spend an evening in a smoky overheated room on the off chance of being kissed at midnight by a stranger, I would have long ago taken to hanging in the sauna at the Paris Y.
So this last New Year's Eve afternoon, I found myself in my armchair, watching a fishing show on a cable channel. And I probably would have stayed there till Dick Clark climbed out of the cryogenics tank to bring down the crystal ball in Times Square if the show's maniacally grinning piscine-head host hadn't reared up on the screen to tell us breathless about all those tarpon "under the water." "Under" the water? Were we supposed to expect them to be hovering several inches "above" it? In disgust I knew, like the old Animals song, I had to get out of this place, if it was the last thing I ever did. Fortunately, I still had a fall turkey tag and an hour left to fill it.
It is good to have a mission at any time, but especially when it is the ticket to prevent you're sliding into auld-lang-syne catatonia. There shouldn't be anything "fraught" about New Year's Eve, but it does seem to work on our minds that way. Too often we end up staring back on the year that was, and lamenting all that we failed to accomplish, or our "successes" that we would have been better off not having touched with a ten-foot pole. Then we'll start resolving to do better in the year to come, or at least hope we will perform a superior job of not getting caught. And all the time the secret is that, absent some entirely arbitrary numerals in a day planner, there is no last year or next year, and we ultimately have no more control over our future than we have over our past.
The mission today--or what was in fact the final hour of shooting light of the last day of not only the calendar year, but of the 2003 hunting season--was at last to go after that turkey I'd been saving for later, until later had almost turned into too late. I'd had a good year for turkey around the country, and still had a couple in the freezer, so there had been no desperate urge to chase down another, just for the sake of one more set of breasts, thighs, and legs. That turkey tag for the area right around my home (or within reasonable driving distance of it, anyway) was like a Get-out-of-Jail card not to be used too hastily; but as I say, it turned into one I nearly didn't use at all, if not for the intervention of that moronic fishing-show host.
Instead of drowsing fitfully in the recliner, then, I was hurrying down a winding piece of dirt road under an overcast sky. I had my .22 Hornet single-shot broken open in the gun rack; and on the pickup's passenger seat was a half-empty cartridge box (or was the cartridge box half-full?) of hollow-points (all centerfire rifles, and .22 mags, are legal for turkeys here). I didn't know if I would even see an example of "Meleagris gallopavo merriami" when I got out to the 1500-acre stretch of bottomland along the winding river that was my turkey hunting spot; but at least I had that as my purpose as I rolled along. And that purpose gave the drive more meaning than if it were merely a sightseeing outing. I'd pass herds of mule deer all facing the same direction, showing me the round white patches of their rumps, making them look like an orchard of banjos. Even from that perspective, they appeared in good shape, and I could hope that they would carry-over through the winter. In the road, magpies dined on a cottontail that had jumped too quickly or hesitated too long. It was understandable why at my truck's approach the birds would flare up and glide off long-tailed to roost in the bare ruined choirs of leafless cottonwoods; but what was their gauge for how far to fly and for how long they should wait after my passing before flying back: How had magpies evolved a multipurpose instrument like that in their heads? All right, it was an odd question, to be sure; but it was one I would have never thought to ask if, rather than being on my way to hunt, I were still sitting there, watching some imbecilic master...angler.
When I got to the hunting grounds, I couldn't see any turkey from the road; but rather than blundering around in the hopes of stumbling over one, and this being the West, I drove to the high rimrock point I used for my regular observation post, from where I could view the complete bendings of the land. From among the sage and yucca on the point, I swept the country below with my binocular. It's not easily believed by hunters from elsewhere who are used to chasing wild turkey in hardwoods, but here this is the best way of find a wild turkey to chase. And after five minutes of thorough glassing, it was clear that there wasn't a turkey to be seen, let alone chased.
All there was to do was to lean against the truck grill and look to the west, here in the West. The overcast ended above the crest of the mountains, and some white-fired thing was rolling off the edge of the cover. It sank into the gap between the cordillera and the clouds, then slid from sight behind the mountain range, but not before bathing everything in a last gold light of a year ending, at least by the calendar. There would be a new numeral on the wall tomorrow, but the day itself would be hardly any different. The only real change would be in what might be hunted and what might not. There was always something to hunt every day, if you looked hard enough, making hunting an auld acquaintance that need never be forgot. Hosts of fishing shows were another matter, however.
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