The title of this essay references my infatuation with the David Gutterson novel, East of the Mountains, and actor Tom Skeritt’s portrayal of Gutterson’s protagonist in the film version of the story. In essence, Ben Givens (Skeritt’s character) finds out he has incurable cancer and decides to wander off into the vastness of the West in search of partridge with his Brittany. There’s an allusion or two to the ailing hunter taking the Hemingway approach to ending it all but thankfully, Dr. Ben doesn’t take that route.
With things all balled up politically, an aging mother who just lost her significant other and was due for a cognitive assessment likely to end her driving, and the hint of mortality whispering in my ear as the seasons turned, I set out to hunt pheasant with Kena (an eight year old black Lab) and Callie (a year and a half old Brittany).
The wisdom of a sixty-seven year old wandering about the prairie without human companionship is dubious. An old guy can stumble and break a leg. Or a hip. Or an ankle. Or have a heart attack or a stroke. Any manner of possible bad outcomes await a hunter foolish enough to venture out into the unknown on his or her own. The trip, one facilitated by the kindness of Mark and Brad, two guys I’d met along the way who open up the Miller ancestral farmhouse for me to use as a basecamp, wasn’t supposed to be a solo endeavor. But my sons backed out of the trip for one reason or another and, well, as I made clear before, this journey was one I needed to make.
I brought with food for breakfast, lunch, and dinner; simple, easy fare like packaged rice dishes and dehydrated chicken for supper, oatmeal and breakfast bars and milk and juice for breakfast, and peanut butter, chips, candy bars, apples, and bread for making lunch to eat on the move. When I arrived at the Miller Farm near Dagmar, Montana I unloaded my gear, stashed the dog kennels in the garage, fed the dogs and tucked them in for the night, Mark greeted me with pizza and we shared some Linnie’s dark I brought from home. Brad was off working on important stuff, leaving Mark and I to talk about life, politics, family, and old men foolish enough to hunt alone. Tired from the twelve hour drive, I said goodnight, unrolled my sleeping bag, and fell into bed.
5:30am, I was up and about, fixing breakfast, getting dressed, feeding the dogs, and making ready to hunt the Miller Farm. Before 8:00am, my canine companions had flushed (Kena) and pointed (Callie) two fine prairie roosters. My nearly-new Stevens 555 over-under twelve barked but the birds flew away unscathed. I trudged on through the morning dew and thick swale hoping upon hope my dogs would forgive me.
By noon, after taking two splendid roosters on the Farm and finding another on a nearby BMA (Block Management Area; private land open to hunters), I had my first Montana limit of the trip.
Giddy from success, I tweeted and texted and sent all manner of messages back to my sons and wife and friends about how the hunt was going. Sure, I’d missed two birds but hey, I hit the next three with one shot each. I envisioned a trip where, by the time I was done hunting Montana (three days) and North Dakota (three more), I’d have my possession limit of fifteen big fat roosters in my cooler. That was the dream.
The reality was something else. I put in, as my iPhone computed it, over forty-four miles walking swales and grasslands and treelines and hills over the next week. In the end, I missed a hell of a lot of cackling, bursting-from-cover, seemingly invincible male pheasants. The next two days, I walked and walked and walked in the bright sunshine of the Montana prairie and shot one additional rooster and one wayward Hungarian partridge that, given it was about half the size of a pheasant, one wonders how I was able to draw a bead on it. Through it all, the dogs were stellar. Callie doesn’t, at least at her young age, retrieve. But her points were rock solid and she, despite a Brittany tendency not to listen to voice commands, got the eCollar messages I sent. Kena, who’d only pointed a rooster or two on previous trips, got in on the pointing thing and amazed me with her German Shorthair-like ability to lock on birds. More importantly, we did not lose a single downed bird.
Tuesday night, Mark (with Brad still off doing the Lord’s work), came home from teaching kids to sing and play musical instruments at the K-12 school in nearby Grenora, ND, cooked up a lovely meal of spaghetti and french bread for the two of us as the family pet Mourning dove (a rescue bird) zoomed around the living room. Once the bird was put away, two cats made themselves known, seeking the occasional belly rub before wandering off to do whatever cats do. Wednesday evening, we feasted on Fraboni’s pasties I’d brought with. Thursday, as Mark was providing keyboard accompaniment for a musical being produced in nearby Antelope, after a long and tiring day of shooting that solitary Hungarian partridge, Mark drove us to the Antelope Bar. After eating hearty flat iron steaks, baked potatoes, salad, and having adult beverages (my treat) we attended the play practice. Despite the remoteness of the place and the likely scarcity of folks willing to act and sing in public, the acting and the singing and the play itself were actually quite good.
Thursday, as I sought my zen moment and resumed treking over hill and dale, I was blessed to roust a ginormous bull moose from cover, watch pronghorn dash across the plains, count any number of owls and hawks in flight, and chase myriad whitetail and mule deer from their hiding places.
Friday, my Montana license done, I hunted near Grenora on my ND license. Amazingly after my dismal showing on Wednesday and Thursday (where a clown with a rubber hammer could have knocked his or her limit of pheasant out of the clear Montana sky) I limited out on ND roosters. We worked a big piece of WPA (Waterfowl Production Area) and bagged two beautiful roosters. It wasn’t like I became a deadeye or anything. No, I missed some easy shots, causing Kena, who has somewhat of a superiority complex, to turn her head and look at me with those big brown Lab eyes as if to say, “What? Now I have to shoot the damn things too?” Callie never slowed down, even when as I took stock of her after downing the last bird to my limit, I discovered she’d cut herself either on barbed wire or underbrush. Her feathery white fur was blemished with pink; blood she’d shed working her ass off for her master.
Knowing what old fences can do to Britts (after taking my beloved Britt, Leala, to the Williston Vet for twelve staples two Novembers ago) I’d recently purchased a canine first aid kit. I bandaged Callie in the field and called it a day.
Friday night, I ate one of my rice packets and dehydrated chicken pouches for dinner before settling in to watch Godfather II. Mark and Brad eventually made it home as Pacino had an unsuspecting Fredo dispatched while fishing from a tiny boat. We chatted about life, politics, hunting, and the world at large but, given the length of my wandering and tired legs, I turned in once the movie ended. Before hitting the hay, Brad found me some ointment to put on Callie’s wounds. I removed the bandages, noted things weren’t as bad as I’d first believed, salved the now-scabbed sores, and put my girls to bed.
I arose on Saturday feeling melancholy. I made the decision to take Callie with but only allow her out of the crate if we were hunting easy ground; no cattails or swales for the little girl. I donned my orange hunting jacket, slid on gloves and an orange stocking cap, put on my hunting vest, and motored off in rainy gloom. Despite the inclement hand God dealt us, Kena found a rooster in cattails bordering a frozen pothole. I hit the pheasant with the one and only shot I’d fire that day. As the wind whipped and drizzle turned to snow, I yelled above the gale, “Kena, dead bird.” She worked the shoreline over and over and over. Nothing. She got disinterested, at one point even flushing a second rooster from cover, raising my ire that she’d given up on the dead bird. “Here, Kena,” I yelled above the howling wind. “Dead Bird.” She complied and, after another ten minutes of covering the same small patch of bullrushes, I saw her stop, nuzzle the ground, and lock up. Forty-five minutes had passed and yet, the forever puppy had done her job. “Fetch,” I yelled. And she did.
Mark cooked a pork roast with scalloped potatoes and a salad for dinner. I was bone weary and had nearly decided, as I watched Callie scamper across the gray plains when I finally let her join the hunt at the end of the day, fresh snow blowing about us, to pull up stakes and leave Sunday instead of Monday as planned. I was disheartened at missing so many opportunities presented by my loyal and hardworking companions. The dogs continued, even with Callie’s afflictions, to put up roosters and sharptails well within range; birds I missed without reason or excuse. But after thinking it through, I decided to see my epic journey through. I’d shot eight pheasants and the one Hungarian; the trip could not, I mused, end because I hadn’t been as successful a hunter as I would’ve liked. My walkabout, my journey to Dagmar, wasn’t made to fill my larder with dead birds. It was to rejuvenate my beleaguered soul and find purpose, if such purpose could be found, to my being. So I stayed.
When I awoke on Sunday, the sun was peeking over the eastern horizon. I’d made the decision to drive north through Plentywood, Montana, and head east towards Fortuna, ND. The reasons behind my long-distance meander were two-fold.
First, I wanted to fill up the Jeep. Dagmar has no gas station so I either needed to drive east to Grenora, where I’d already filled up once, or north to Plentywood. Wanting to scout out additional BMA land for next year’s trip, I made my way to Plentywood, filled up, and took Highway 5 towards North Dakota. At the top of the hill east of town, I was teased by a gathering of between thirty and fifty Montana pheasants pecking grain on a mown field. The sight was both aggravating (my Montana license had expired) and hilarious because the flock of pheasants taunting me was feeding right across from a BMA Jack and I’d hunted, without seeing a single bird, the year before.
The second purpose behind my long drive was I wanted to check out the PLOTS (Private Land Open to Sportsmen) around Fortuna, ND. This I did. The one easy-to-hit bird Kena and Callie (I used her sparingly) rousted for me flew off without a scratch. The rest of the day, I saw few birds, mostly distant coveys of sharptail and Hungarians; birds I had no chance to bag. The dogs managed to point and flush any number of hen pheasants; birds they wanted me to shoot but off limits to human hunters. Mostly, we tooled around, fighting the clay-based muck of section-line roads that threatened to, but never did, mire my Grand Cherokee. One road was so greasy, the Jeep felt like it was going to slide into the ditch despite me throttling down to a crawl. I had no wish to call Brad, who has a new Ford F150 4X4, so he could pull me out of the mud. I stayed the course, saw tons of mule deer and ducks and geese, and headed back to Dagmar.
As our last day on the plains waned, we returned to the WPA where I’d shot two roosters. It was drizzling again as Kena and I took one last walk along the rushes. That’s the thing about this year. The experts forecast a tough year hunting due to drought. The evidence of the lack of rain was clear in myriad empty potholes dotting the prairie. The WPA we ended our hunt at was no exception. As Kena and I moved, our legs tired, our sprits flagging, the snows and Canadas and swans riding the wind high overhead towards Nebraska and the Platte, the entire basin of the wetland was a vast sea of frozen mud. Still. Kena locked up hard. Her snuffling had once been loud but, as she stopped moving, the world grew eerily silent save for the calls of the great migration overhead. Then it happened. A big fat, North Dakota rooster burst from cover close enough for me to grab it. I fired my twelve gauge. Once. Twice. And still it flies.
I learned something about myself as I wandered the fields and prairies of the West. While prolonged solitude might be a worthwhile experience, hunting for a week straight without human companionship proved to be too much isolation for this old man’s soul.
After a hot shower, I ended my time in Montana with a fine steak dinner (thanks to Brad and Mark), excellent company, and some lively political discussions. I was up and out the door by 6:30am Mountain Time. The twelve hour drive home was spent thinking about my gracious hosts, my aging mother, my beloved wife, and my kids and grandkids. Central to my nostalgia was thanking my father, Harry, the man who introduced me to pheasant hunting as a young boy.
Today, as I write this essay and reflect, I feel refreshed and satisfied despite my inability to down the easiest of birds taking wing. The dogs? Callie’s on the mend and Kena seems to have forgiven me. I sense they’re anxious to make our last hunt of the year; a trip planned for early December to chase Minnesota roosters with Tim and Poncho Scott.
The number of dead roosters in the freezer is of little consequence to me. The takeaway from my recent journey west is this: I thank the Creator I’m healthy enough to witness my dogs working the prairie, the majesty of their steady points, the adrenaline rush of roosters bursting from cover, and the whirl of pheasant wings in the bracing November air.