Tucker is almost quivering, sitting on the edge of excitement and instinct. I have his leash in my hand but we both know it won’t be used once we’re in the woods. We put on a show for my parents and say we will be safe, we will take water, we will go east if we get lost. I know what to say now so they won’t worry. One day I’ll be old enough to go on my own without telling them.
My old camo pants have a small hole in the knee but I can’t imagine it mattering unless some tick found its way in. I’ve only had one tick and it wasn’t the small black kind that makes you sick. I am not a fan of ticks; neither is Tucker. He sits between my legs when he has one and I pull it from beneath his shiny black fur with my fingers. As long as I put it in a napkin quickly my Mom doesn’t mind. Better me than her.
Tucker and I take the path through our small block of land to the Quinn’s driveway and follow the gravel road to the spot where we can find the main trail that leads into the woods. I recognize the big trees along the drive and the weirdly shaped one where I know I’ll find the boardwalk along the swamp. The barking from our neighbor’s dogs finally stops and I feel better about unleashing Tucker. He pulls me forward as much as I pull him back to my side.
He weighs more than I do.
The boardwalk sinks into mud and the grassy breaks in the woods begin. The familiar pathway ends with a faded NO TRESSPASSING sign that I can barely read. We walk along the first open area for about half of a football field and kneel down at an intersection in the open, grassy paths; what I consider to be the edge of the woods I know and the wilderness I don’t. There is a tree rubbed raw here, but I don’t know why or by what. Anything can happen past this point. It is why I come here; beyond the boardwalk, beyond the signs. I grab Tucker by his collar and take the leash off. He licks my neck as I turn away from the full face slobber attack he is attempting. The wilderness is beyond and I want to see everything.
I stand on my tip-toes to peak over the tops of the weeds and see the old diagonal log pointing the way down the next set of trails. I am not sure about the fork in front of me. The woods to the left is young, it must have been a farm sometime in the past so I watch out for barbed wire in the trees. How does the wire get so far into the trees? The bark folds over it like play dough that’s hardened from being dried out. I can’t remember which way to go. On the right is an old trail with ruts. Old oaks line the edges, easy to identify by the acorns hanging high above me. The path to the left is a thicket of those mean, pointy, sharp pricker bushes. I should have brought that old army machete to cut them all down!
I know where I am; the trails are easier from here and the chance of getting lost is lower. I walk along the path on the edge of the woods so my silhouette doesn’t scare away any wildlife. I want to see everything there is and ever was. Someone should invent binoculars strong enough to find bugs in the trees and worms in the ground. Someone else should invent a weapon to take down the prickers of the world.
I make it to the spillway now, everything opens up. Tucker is jogging back and forth, taking in the smells and who knows what else. Ducks take off on the water below me and a heron croaks its dinosaur call. There is life here and I am a part of it. I want to sit and take it in but today I am going further and I can’t stop here, we’re headed for the wilderness.
Light sweeps through trees too tall to climb like water through a spaghetti strainer. The bark is smooth in this part of the woods, the trees made of stone. There are no branches low enough for me to climb, for me to find out if I am close. There are prickers here at the edge of the woods; they rise up high enough to stare me in the eyes. I get down on my hands and knees, begin an army crawl. I can feel the mud against my legs and arms and the hole I crawl through grows smaller now and the prickers close in, my hand is scratched and my cheek feels a rough poke. I don’t know if I’ll get through here; I may have to go back, find another way.
Tucker’ brushes against me, puts his head down and squints his eyes. I follow in the hollowed out area that he clears for me. I get through the thicket and stand up, using Tucker’s high shoulders to steady me. His ears perk up and he cocks his head. A bird of some kind is flushed twenty yards out. He’s never been trained to hunt but one spring he brought home a duck and so I figured he must have it in him. I’ve never hunted either, shooting things with binoculars is as far as I go. I lift them up quickly to see what took off in front of us. Some little chicken thing.
The teepee field is in front of us. I don’t know why we call it that, I’ve never seen a teepee here. This is the furthest I’ve ever been into the woods, the edge of this field, the edge of the wilderness. Today is the day I cross the field, onward to a new part of the woods. It’s why I brought Tucker, just in case there are coyotes. Or something else. There is an old road I can follow along the pines to the left of me and so I walk over and hold my binoculars up to see what might be at the end.
Tucker is tired now, I can tell by his tongue hanging out of the side of his mouth. He jogs along next to me as we cross the field. An old trail drops down to the lake and somehow it is hidden where I can’t see a highway in any direction. Tucker walks right into the water. He laps at the water as he swims an unorganized loop, gangly legs switching between swimming and walking every other turn. Nothing stops him. He is in his prime, a black beast of fur and love dedicated solely to me. The ground under the water is more sand than muck and by the time I have stripped down to my boxers it might as well have been the beach.
I walk in carefully, not completely sure if this sudden urge to swim is the right thing to do. I push off and mimic Tucker with a doggie paddle. I know that nothing could be more right. The day is mine, the woods are wonderful, and the moment quickens something in me, the want for more. Today is everything I have imagined the wilderness to be. If anything ever happened to these woods, to my wilderness, if it was ever ruined, something would happen to me.
The road was paved and I hated it. I could not remember hating anything in my life as much as that road. What happened to the dirt, the chip and seal? My childhood street had gone from classic country road to a red carpet for city slickers. My haven from sprawl and society sat open to desecration, to anyone to who wished to enter. Cars were parked in new locations and there were new signs along the woods that actually had legible words on them. I had always wondered if a NO TRESPASSING sign that was completely bleached out by years of irrelevance would hold up in court. There was always the chance that I would be caught, that the ranger would lock me up and ban my entrance into my wilderness. The new signs that protruded above the old fields and forests along the road gave no room for consideration, no hope of escaping the law. If I were to be caught, there were no excuses.
My family home looked like I remembered, though the property seemed smaller. Everything seemed smaller. Traveling the world does that to people; did it to me. Mountains and oceans abroad made ponds and streams at home into some poor imitation of wilderness. National parks the size of states in other hemispheres made a hike through the forest at home seem like a treadmill. My plans to spend time at home were already withering. Find a job; move somewhere else. Living away for two years was great for perspective, for my understanding of the world, but it was bad for my sense of place. Despite my best efforts to never take home for granted, my time in other countries made it seem boring.
A yellow lab greeted me as I pulled in. It was strange not knowing him. Who was this creature in my home? My parents, at least I recognized them. They were real people, not as if they were not people before, but real people outside of being my parents. I enjoyed the distinction.
Catching up. The only type of conversation that encourages eagerness to share stories and the tragedy of having to explain it to someone who will never understand . Without the actual experience, without witnessing the grandeur, there wasn’t much to pass along. I had no questions for the road, nothing would satisfy the blasphemous inevitability of urban sprawl. I learned the new signs along the road that I feared would catch me in theoretical legal jargon were not new NO TRESPASSING signs. I was slightly relieved; more attention to trespassers on the privately owned city land behind us would mean I would have more of an issue getting back to my favorite spots in the woods, but that would have been better than the truth. Each indicator along the road stood as a sentinel to the written laws of a city nowhere near the land on which they stood, silent contradictions of accessibility and gluttonous hoarding: they were signs for public hunting. The days of sneaking into my woods were over; now it belonged to everyone.
After talking with my parents, I had to visit the woods, to see what damage all these intruders might have done. The familiar floppy rubber boots that I thought would comfort me felt clumsy as I trudged along the soggy trail. The stiff, supportive Italian leather boots I used to climb mountains and walk through wilderness overseas would be drowned. Boredom arrived awkwardly soon. There were no clear rivers in which to sight fish for trout, no rapids to scout or traverse. Mountains and glaciers were nowhere to be found, only the rolling flat forests of the American Midwest. Maple tree. Beech tree. Flat. Safe. Everything I avoided for the past ten years was all around me. There would be no adventures to talk about after this day, no adrenaline hits or split second decisions, no delicate presentations of seasonal hoppers to trout of world renown.
I passed my first public access sign and did my best to ignore it, told myself no one would be back here anyway. By the time I reached the spillway, I saw no sign of trouble, no risk or excitement, though I took solace in seeing no people. There was no glacial till or aquamarine reflection off of the brown, soupy water before me. The bass that I knew inhabited the lily pads were drab and did not have the noble air about them as the trout I spent the last two years chasing. A lesser species, perhaps. A lesser place.
The rain was expected and unencumbering. I put on my rain shell but knew that I was in no immediate danger of freezing or falling or running out of water or food or being lost. I might as well walk barefoot. There were no crevasses to open up below my feet and swallow my life. I wondered why I even took a day pack. I should have worn my jogging shoes. Teepee field was smaller, the trees less imposing, birds more boring. I did not just grow up while I was away; I grew out.
My way home took me past my neighbors, the Quinns, and I veered in their direction to catch up after being away for so long. I wanted to see what they thought of the new public access. If there was anyone who might know the woods better than me it was the Quinns. I wondered how they were taking the changes.
The beer at the Quinn’s tasted bland. All we talked about were my adventures, my experiences on the other side of the earth. They were good to listen, though I was aware I was the only one talking. I did not tell them how small the woods felt or how fast I walked them, or how there was nothing there for me anymore. I patted their oldest dog on the head, the one I remembered. Her snout was silver, her eyes held the same expression as a long gone dog I used take back in the woods as a child. The dark sheen of her coat was the same reflective black and the shape of her head felt similar beneath my palm; a longer head with a beautiful crown. Not nearly the massive brute of a bear that I remembered from my youth but the look was the same. I could not remember the exact lineage, but I knew she was related.
A month at home and no job to escape the doldrums, no adventures to fill the time, to build my own egotistical legend. I was drinking that same basic beer at the Quinn’s. Old George Quinn recalled the days before public access , when he had the woods to himself. I laughed; I used to think the same thing. I asked him what he used to do back there and then it was his turn to talk. About bows and bucks, turkey and shot, pine trees and prickers. I had never heard these stories, only seen the trophies on his wall. There were deer with more points than a porcupine, turkey with beards scraping the floor and a lifetime of experiences that seemed a foreign language to me. I eyed them warily as we moved along the steps.
George walked me to his basement and pulled down an old wooden bow that somehow related to a deer we were discussing. The weapon was simple, a stick and string. He wedged the bow between his legs and summoned his best Odysseus to gently place the string into the end of the bow, holding it taught and loaded in front of him. He held the conduit of human history in front of him, and I wanted to be a part of it. He wanted to connect the stories of the woods to something I could touch, something that he could share. The bow was a feature in the stories and it made them real, gave the weapon life. George wanted me to shoot, to understand a piece of what made the woods behind our homes his own wilderness.
I was not allowed to shoot until I strung the bow. George was not going to let me get away without doing it on my own so I took a few attempts to get it right. I bent the lively sinews of a long dead tree and felt suddenly less masterful. When I went to pull back the string I knew I was not going to hit anything outside of ten yards. George grabbed an old leather quiver and ushered me outside.
I was an awful shot. George laughed at me as I let go my third straight arrow at the ankles of his target and a fourth off into the woods. The foam buck was not looking at me but I knew every piece of composite was laughing. I worked on my breathing, my aim, my release point. Same place every time, or so I tried. There was something familiar in the shooting, the motion, the focus. It reminded me of working line along a river or an ice axe on the mountain, all-encompassing on its own accord. I kept shooting until my arm was sore, the grass was dipped in evening dew and the target disappeared in the dusk. George bade me take the bow with me and explained how to store it properly, lying flat not vertical, unstrung in moderate temperature.
In the morning I got sized for arrows.
Sizing arrows did nothing for my accuracy and a month of practice into late summer yielded limited results. I was still shooting the 3-D target everywhere except where I wanted the arrow to go. I even hit it in the antlers, though I assumed that was not a kill shot. The Quinns were not home but I used their target anyway. They left the porch light on for me to shoot as close to dark as possible. I could finally string the bow and make it look like I knew what I was doing, so part of me wished someone was there to watch my new skill. The cold came with the evening and my fingers felt the anxious, inevitable fatigue of the bowstring. Headlights up the driveway meant that George was home and when he saw me shooting past dark he seemed to acknowledge that I might actually want to learn to hunt.
When he informed me that I would have to put more time into scouting than shooting, I thought he was kidding. But when he offered to walk the woods with me I knew damn well I’d go to bed early to make the morning wake-up.
The morning scout with George started in the dark. The camo he gave me didn’t fit in any direction. My ankles stuck out the bottom, the waist held two of me and the pockets were somewhere near my belly button. Our breath told us the direction of the wind as we set off with the sunrise. I did not know what we were looking for that morning but I did know the woods, the firebreaks, the old oaks. I asked George where to go because I wanted to lead. He had two hip replacements and still needed a new knee. If there was an obstacle ahead of us I wanted to be the one to run into it. When I stepped over logs and branches he went around or sidled up next to them and threw his leg over the top like some long debated, deliberate Fosbury Flop.
When the light reached a navigable shade, I fell back behind George and watched him move, tried to learn how to walk from the guy with one hip joint and half of a knee. I could hear every branch beneath my feet, each crack of kindling below my boot and every sniffle in the wind. It was embarrassing how inept I was at moving through the woods. I found deer tracks and thought I had done something. George leaned awkwardly on his good leg to get a closer look at a nearby print. He spread two fingers apart and pointed out the two divots where a buck’s track differs from a doe’s. There was something exciting about the track, an excitement I had not felt in the woods since I was young enough to get lost in them. Something big lived there.
We found enough sign to know the area was worth hunting, something George already knew. I was starting to enjoy the scouts enough to go on my own; walking silently, peaking around the trunks of trees and hiding behind pines. I scouted the old woods, the young woods, the pine stand, the teepee field, the oak tree trail and even the creek. I performed intimate investigations of every deer crossing, each rub and sign until I could imagine where the deer walked, where they paused to check the wind and when they bowed their heads for a mouthful of acorns. George’s son took four years to kill his first deer. I’d be damned if it took me two.
Opening night eve. I did not know if that is what hunters called it, but that was the term I used. I had to visit the Quinn’s, see if I could glean any knowledge from George before the early morning rise. Their basement was always full of camo. I think at one point in my life they gave me some old pants to wear on my hikes behind the house. Come to think of it, they gave me a dog, too.
I wandered around to the far side of the basement where George and his son had drawn a map on a chalkboard of the woods with every landmark, nest, wetland and field. I recognized the locations immediately, but somehow my knowledge of the woods behind us seemed suddenly smaller, as if drawing it made the knowledge more concrete, legitimate. Some kind of chalkboard cartographic advantage. There was something childish about the map. It looked like something I would have drawn when I was kid, but to see it as something sketched by adults gave it all the wonder of a child in the woods. The door to the basement around the corner opened and I could hear the toenails of the dogs running down the warped wooden steps. I felt a familiar nudge against my knee and a wet nose on my fingers. The old dog wanted a stroke on the head and I obliged.
George appeared from around the corner and handed me the bow I had been shooting. A gift for a beginner, the longbow I had been shooting. I knew it had taken down at least one deer because the head was mounted in the living room. The laminated wood around the handle was beautiful, a perfect melding of nature and man, an instrument for communicating between both.
George picked out one last piece of camo, a mismatched camo glove, and we walked up the steps of his basement. The two younger dogs bounded ahead of us but the old girl could barely make it up; George had to carry her. Her gray flecked snout nuzzled my hand and I gave her one last pat before I left, eye to eye, still in George’s arms. I recognized my childhood dog in her eyes and face, a face that used to push away prickers, steady me while I stood up and defended me from whatever was out there in the woods. I was finishing something as an adult I had started as a child and only then realized the significance.
I was up well before sunrise, and when the forest finally turned from dark to gray, I made my way to the first of my hunting spots. I convinced myself after a few hours in one location that if I did not move, the morning would run away from me faster than any deer.
I moved from my first location and walked up the road to the other side of the creek, moved into the adjoining forest. There was noise ahead, I crouched down and put up my binoculars. Three hunters walked out along the same trail. I was late. Their stomping and tramping had to have spooked every deer in the woods. I gave it a few minutes to let the woods recover, to calm down. I slid down a bank toward the creek and sat down against a tree that had been dying longer than I had been alive, limbs the size of my torso still growing even as the trunk’s life dissipated. I had a good view, the floodplain of the creek stretched out before me, and I could pick out three trails that I knew the deer used. I sat quietly against the tree until I heard the other hunters pull out and drive down the road, away from the woods. Ten minutes. Ten minutes and I would get to another spot before it was too late in the day.
After five minutes, the sound of crushed leaves and an ungulate cadence meant I was going nowhere. Of all the hunters in the woods that morning, the young buck found me, the young hunter. Twenty yards from me was his favorite scrape. Oblivious to my presence, I could see the heave of his chest and the cold of his breath. He exhaled and I watched the condensation float away, a shadow of the moment before me. Neither I nor the buck knew our incompetence until we saw each other. We grew up together in that same, half second of eye contact. I held the bow in hand, felt the string beneath my shaking fingers and the tendons in my arm flexed. Seconds divided into smaller increments of time until there was but one moment when the world grew large, I was small, and my woods became wilderness again.
Artwork by David Wilson.