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Whitetail Nation : My Season in Pursuit of the Monster Buck
Every autumn, millions of men and women across the country don their camo, stock up on doe urine, and undertake a quintessential American tradition - deer hunting. The pinnacle of a hunter's quest is killing a buck with antlers that "score" highly enough to qualify in the Boone and Crockett record book. But in all his seasons on the trail, Pete Bodo, an avid outdoorsman and student of the hunt, had never reached that milestone. Sadly, he had to admit it -- he was a nimrod.
Whitetail Nation is the uproarious story of the season Pete Bodo set out to kill the big buck. From the rolling hills of upstate New York to the vast and unforgiving land of the Big Sky to the Texas ranches that feature high fences, deer feeders, and money-back guarantees, Bodo traverses deep into the heart of a lively, growing subculture that draws powerfully on durable American values- the love of the frontier, the importance of self reliance, the camaraderie of men in adventure, the quest for sustained youth, and yes, the capitalist's right to amass every high tech hunting gadget this industry's exploding commerce has to offer.
Gradually, Bodo closes in on his target - that elusive monster buck -- and with each day spent perched in a deer stand or crawling stealthily in high grass (praying the rattlesnakes are gone) or shivering through the night in a drafty cabin (flannel, polar fleece and whiskey bedamned), readers are treated with a hilarious and unforgettable tour through a landscape that ranges from the exalted to the absurd. Along the way Bodo deftly captures the spirit and passion of this rich American pursuit, tracing its history back to the days of Lewis and Clark and examining that age old question - "why do men hunt?"
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Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
September 30, 2010
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Excerpt from Whitetail Nation by Pete Bodo
All Roads Lead to Antlers
ANDES, NEW YORK, OCTOBER 12, 2008
IT WAS THE SECOND week in October, the Year of Our Lord 2008.
I took extra care in preparing and packing for opening day of bow season. I dug through all the hunting gear piled helter-skelter in the big wooden box in my mudroom and washed all the clothing in a scentless detergent. Then I sprayed it all down with Autumn Blend, a commercially made scent-masking agent that smells like wet leaves and soil, and goes for $11.99 for a mere twenty-four ounces.
The clothing all went into a giant, industrial-grade Ziploc bag, and then into an airtight plastic container. It keeps the clean clothing safe from the unwanted odor of cheeseburger, cigar smoke (I caved on that after Saskatchewan), or wet dog, all of which deer are thought not to like.
I packed the rest of my gear, as usual, by smell. Anything that stank to high heaven of Doc's Extreme Heat Double Doe Urine, or Team Fitzgerald's Rampage Dominant Buck Lure, went into my duffel bag. I wouldn't need much of that odiferous stuff until weeks later, at the arrival of that period in early November that the magazine editors ominously call "the pre-rut lull." After that, everything I use smells like the pee of a whitetail doe in estrus or a dominant buck, including (according to my wife, Lisa) kitchen utensils, my wallet, the doorknobs.
In a new season, nothing is ever where it will end up by the time you've put in some time afield. Certain pockets--and Lord, do you have pockets on those "Deep Timber" camo-pattern fatigue pants, or your "Bow Hunter Extreme Special Legends Edition" jacket--are more accessible than others, and you've got to give your critical stuff time to migrate there.
I fished out a small Ziploc bag and dropped it, horrified. But that thing that looked like a shrunken head was just an apple that had been sitting in my pack for about eight months, since last deer season.
This year, I had vowed, it was going to be different. Instead of stealing away in some helter-skelter fashion to hunt when I could, I was going big. I wanted to shoot a big whitetail buck; I felt I needed to shoot a cockwalloper. Maybe not one like the Picket Fence (nobody ever did get him, I'd heard years earlier, and that was some consolation), for that Saskatchewan hunt was too rich for my blood. But I was determined to get a monster buck, because I'd grown tired of expecting to stumble on one by chance. And because time was running short.
When I turned the significant corner of fifty years, a sense of urgency began to work at me. I'd hunted as steadily as I could, for a man with a job, a family, and some sense of responsibility to both, for more than a quarter of a century. It was unlikely that I could hunt another twenty-five years. I'd shot quite a few bucks, including some good ones. But not a great one. And I couldn't shake that image of the Picket Fence, sauntering across the frozen plain. Another year slipped away, then another. The birth of my son, Luke, was a joyous occasion, but afterward it was even tougher to focus on hunting. I had to face the facts; I was getting older, the law of diminishing returns was kicking in. It was time to man up.
Over the years, my aims and ideas about deer hunting also had changed. I never fancied myself a "trophy hunter," but I ingested all of the books and magazine articles outlining the strategies for ambushing a big deer, learned all there is to know about hunting transition zones between feeding and bedding areas.
I spent enough time in the woods to be able to tell whether a track in three inches of snow was relatively new or old. Over time, I accumulated a bewildering assortment of calls meant to mimic deer vocalizations, from the lost fawn bleat to the aggressive buck's grunt-wheeze. I bought rattling antlers that promised to lure dominant bucks to the sound of combat between two younger peers, and camo everything.
I had everything but the buck.
But in this year, the Year of Our Lord 2008, it was going to be different. I was going to take up every invitation that came my way, from hunting acquaintances and friends near and far, and make as much time as I could--without having to consult a divorce lawyer--to get myself a wallhanger.
Now, on the brink of another opening day of another deer season, one that I wanted to be different from the ones that had come before, I was getting on my game face.
I admired a new addition to my bow hunting kit: a very light, wide-mouth, one-quart plastic jar that originally contained peanuts. It was filled with miscellaneous small but critically important items: a mini Allen wrench (for repairs to the bow), spare bowstring, a variety of arrowheads . . . I was tired of slicing fingers on those nasty-sharp objects that poked a hole through whatever I put them in and made me bleed like a stuck pig every time I reached into my duffel.
Hunters take an absurd amount of pride in DIY brainstorms, and the magazines we read are filled with "how-to" features that will teach you, among other things, how to create a rifle cartridge holder from a bar of household soap (not a bad idea at all: when you shoot up all your bullets, you can wash off the stench of failure), or fishing lures out of your wife or girlfriend's pantyhose--preferably after she's vacated them.
"Who's the man?" I cried, shaking and admiring my "everything" jar. Did I tell you that I don't even have to open the lid on my magic jar to make sure it contains what I'm looking for?
Hello, nasty-sharp broadheads. You can't touch me now!
I answered myself in a voice so confident it would have scared the kids, had any been around: "You are. You're the man."
According to American Hunter, a publication of the National Rifle Association, 10.7 million Americans hunt big game (out of a grand total of 12 million hunting-license purchasers). And the whitetail deer is--far and away--the most widely beloved and sought after of North American big-game animals.
The whitetail also happens to be about the most perfectly realized of God's creations, and this sometimes gets underplayed simply because deer are so abundant. Imagine bumping into a couple of Angelina Jolies or George Clooneys every time you popped into a convenience store. Would they still seem so exotic? So . . . beautiful? Deer hunting in northern states generally begins with a bow season sometime around mid-October, and it peaks with a general firearms segment during, or right after, the mating season, the November rut. But you'll still find scores of hardy souls out there in January, toting their smoke poles, or muzzleloaders, thanks to the late "primitive firearms" season, or some variation thereof. Deer seasons have grown longer in recent years, opening greater and greater windows of opportunity, thanks to a burgeoning deer herd, wiser management of both public and private land, and increased demand for hunting opportunity. Word is that an early Pennsylvania blowgun season is in the pipeline--boo-yah!
Hunting your way through three months or longer takes stamina, fortitude, and a pretty strong stomach, but don't underestimate the grit--or plumbing--of a dedicated deer hunter. Come October, he morphs into a Ho Ho and convenience-store microwave burrito-fueled doomsday hunting machine. He's unstoppable: he'll switch from bow to gun to smoke pole, acquire the slew of special permits and licenses required to transition from one to the other, and write the name of his wife on a Post-it note--just in case he should forget. When he uses up his sick days, instead of returning to work with his head bowed, wondering just where he ranks on the boss's shit list, he just calls in dead.
Think I'm kidding about that? According to U.S. Labor Department statistics published by the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, Wisconsin traditionally leads the nation in an odd but recurring spike of unemployment claims filed for the week when the rifle season for deer begins. Wisconsin claims jump by more than 15,000 filings, fully five times greater than the next biggest leap, by Arkansas. But I could have told you that whitetail deer are more bewitching than catfish.
The sense of fraternity among deer hunters has never been stronger, and it isn't because all those unemployed guys in Wisconsin have nothing better to do than hang out, giving each other man-hugs between hunting sessions. It has something to do with our times. Deer hunting has become, to use the inescapable word, a "lifestyle"--one that's predicated on reconnecting with nature and traditional virtues and pursuits, including competence in the natural world, self-sufficiency, providing for the family, even understanding the role of death and killing in some vaguely felt natural order of things. The Spanish philosopher Jos? Ortega y Gasset put it best when he wrote: "I don't hunt to have killed. I kill to have hunted."
Hunting is about the things we witness and feel in the woods and meadows, usually alone, often at times of the day or under ambient conditions when nature is at her spectacular best--or worst, if you prefer feeling comfortable, warm, and dry. Deer are most active at daybreak and nightfall, before most bird watchers, hikers, or fly-fishermen are out, and after they're back in front of the fireplace. Deer become active on the leading edge of a cold or storm front. You don't have to endure four or six hours of misery to feel truly alive, but it's a better way to get there than spending that amount of time staring at a computer screen.
This way of thinking seems ingrained in the American character, insofar as there still is such a thing. The Journals of Lewis and Clark, one of our nation's iconic texts, is, as much as anything else, a hunter's diary. It includes details like the white man's first recorded encounter with a previously unknown species, the grizzly bear (it was up near the Great Falls of the Missouri, in present-day Montana), and the men of the "Corps of Discovery" hunted and feasted upon deer, antelope, buffalo, black bear, wolves, and elk galore. Hunting was central to life in nascent America; it was a symbol of the pioneering, adventurous spirit of a new people, and often a necessity for survival.
The pendulum swung away from that kind of thinking as our culture matured, but it still has a strong gravitational pull for many, and that's not just a matter of nostalgia. The number of immigrants, like my own father, who leap feet first into the hunting culture as soon as they settle here is impressive, if difficult to quantify in numbers and statistics. And the blowback against hunting from scolds and "enlightened" urbanites in our time has created some unintended consequences. Nothing will galvanize a group of like-minded people and encourage them to define themselves better than a threat to their common interest.
Starting in the 1960s, antigun, antihunting, and, a little later, "animal rights" sentiments began percolating in elitist circles, especially so in cities and suburbs. The rise in crimes committed with firearms completed our transformation from gun-toting to gun-fearing folks. Hunters were often caricatured or scorned by the well-educated citizens who fell out of touch with the natural world, except in a sentimental way. The mainstream media merrily fueled the fire. When did you last see a PBS or HBO special on, say, the ritual of opening day in a deer hunting epicenter?
But persecution is a powerful tool for community building, so hunters quietly began to push back, aided by powerful organizations like the National Rifle Association, Ducks Unlimited, and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation. It's hard to define a group as large and diverse as deer hunters a subculture, but castigating or ignoring them effectively made them one.
A growing industry also fueled this process. Entrepreneurs flocked to two distinct hunting product categories--the gear, and the dream. Even big-box stores that somewhat hypocritically refused to sell firearms began to stock their shelves each fall with massive quantities of doe-in-heat urine, camo thermoses, and even ammunition. And roofers and insurance claims adjustors started brown-bagging it all year in order to afford a one-week, six-thousand-dollar "dream" hunt in Canada and elsewhere.
In recent years, the tide of public opinion has been turning in favor of hunting, mostly due to the self-interest of nonhunters. Problems like deer-automobile collisions, the spread of Lyme disease by deer-borne ticks, and the destruction (by out-of-control deer herds) of the forest understory combined with a better understanding of the role "recreational" hunting plays in wise herd management to soften up some of the resistance to the hunting and killing of deer.
My "Deermobile," a 1991 Jeep Cherokee, would need a seven-digit readout on the odometer to display the number of miles it's traveled. In an earlier life, it bore a bumper sticker: I SMOKE AND I DON'T VOTE. But after 9/11, I peeled it off in favor of a pair of small American flag decals, one in either lower corner of the liftgate's rear window, and a big white decal depicting a magnificent buck.
Driving down the long hill below my farmhouse in the Catskill Mountains town of Andes, New York, I noticed two people on the dirt road. I took them for the young couple renting a nearby cottage. I'd heard that these folks were vegetarians, or vegans, who came up weekends from the city, slept late, and spent most of their Sundays holed up with the massive Sunday New York Times, emerging now and then to tend their garden.
They were pretty well bundled-up and visible from a great distance thanks to their blaze-orange hats and jackets. They stood huddled close together like refugees right in the middle of the road. Maybe they were afraid that if they strayed too near the woods, some yahoo operating on a beer breakfast might mistake them for deer and take a poke.
I almost pulled over to put their minds at rest; it was only going to be bow season. Bow hunters are a lot like fly-fishermen--dedicated, conscientious, responsible, image-conscious, and more than a little proud of their prudence. More important, for my vegan friends, a bow is effective only out to about forty yards; at that range it would take a dose of something much stronger than beer to mistake a lanky slacker from Brooklyn for a whitetail deer.
The scowls of the couple dissuaded me from stopping; let them figure it out for themselves. I waved halfheartedly and goosed the accelerator. It must be tough, being a vegan during deer season.
The Deermobile hummed along, heading for Interstate 88 and the upper Susquehanna River valley. Although we'd enjoyed a sultry Indian summer, the previous night had brought lashing rain and a biting cold front. That was good--it would get the deer moving and feeding. The skies were still threatening, though; it was a day of autumnal war games. Giant raindrops exploded on the windshield intermittently, and a strong gust pushed the Deermobile toward the shoulder. What did I care? I was warm and cozy, listening to a country music station on the radio; the coffee in my thermal cup was still warm.
Underneath it, though, I felt simmering anxiety. Ordinarily, I would be hunting on opening day on my own property, where I could screw up in any way imaginable and who was going to know?
But I was spending the opening weekend as the guest of Tom Daly, at his farm up near Buffalo. This was the first and, in some ways, most delicate leg of my quest. For bow hunting demands a greater degree of skill than hunting with a firearm, and a far greater level of attention to details such as wind direction, human scent, and the entry-level skill--judging distance accurately while in the grip of high anxiety, often from an extreme angle fifteen or twenty feet above the ground. Bow hunting offers myriad opportunities to make a hash of things, and for that reason the chance of killing a trophy buck is diminished.
The bow hunter has two big advantages, though. Because bow hunting is allowed earlier than gun hunting, he's in the woods long before the opening day army of gun hunters puts the deer on red alert for the remainder of the season. And in October, the deer are still in their summer feeding and bedding patterns. A diligent, stealthy bow hunter has the woods mostly to himself, and he can "pattern" the deer over the weeks and months leading up to the season.
I stopped in the town of Walton to tank up and bought a Vanilla Coke and a ceremonial bag of Cheez Doodles, because it comes in the hunter's color, blaze-orange. Somewhere west of Harpursville, I passed a freshly killed red fox. The bright blood still trickled from its nose, adding to the expanding black patch on the tarmac. I felt bad for the poor critter, but for me roadkill is a life-affirming experience--a testament to our abundance and a viscerally experienced index of the local wildlife. If roadkill creeps you out, you can move to Europe, where the general lack of furry creatures solves that problem.
My route took me to Corning, the "Crystal City" where the eponymous glass and cookware company is based. More important, this prosperous, neat town is on the eastern edge of Steuben County, which consistently tops New York state when the annual, official deer harvest numbers are compiled. Corning sits on the bank of a Susquehanna tributary, the Chemung River, which gets its name from the Iroquois language. It means "big horn" or "horn-in-the-water." I clearly wasn't the only hunter to pass this way and think whitetail when I beheld those brushy, riverside draws and poplar and willow bottoms.
What is it with antlers, I found myself wondering again. Why does the single element that distinguishes a "trophy" buck from any other deer seem to mean so much?
You probably have to observe a buck in his full majesty to understand. His antlers, lacquered by sunlight, are heavy; they protrude on either side of his forehead and curve forward gracefully, sometimes to the point where the tips almost touch. The main beams are picketed with tines, each of which can be eight or ten inches long and tapers elegantly to a fine tip as sharp as any dagger. Sometimes, the tips are as white as ivory and contrast handsomely with the caramel or mahogany tones of the main beams and tines.
Antlers have had a mysterious, remarkable hold on man's imagination for time immemorial. Back in the day when people ran around in pelts and believed that giant nets to the east and west kept tossing the sun back and forth at twenty-four-hour intervals, antlers were associated with the Sacred Tree and the mysteries of birth, death, and regeneration--the latter because a buck sheds its antlers every winter, and spends most of the spring and summer growing new, bigger ones.
As far back as the Paleolithic era, man was busy producing symbolic images incorporating antlers and assorted cervids (the Latin genus to which whitetail, mule, and less common deer belong). Human skeletons were sometimes represented wearing a crown of antlers, suggesting a primitive belief in regeneration. Antlers are a potent symbol partly because it's awfully hard to pin down exactly what they represent, but as someone once observed, there has to be a reason people have been nailing them up above the barn door for centuries.
The association of antlers with virility is obvious, and that may explain why so many of the ad pages in the back of hunting magazines are devoted to human potency-enhancing therapies and drugs, like Viagra. It's rich Freudian ground, but I couldn't care less. I don't need to know everything; I've moved on. I'm just glad that the Chinese, many of whom believe that consuming ground-up rhino horn can make an impotent old lecher pop a woody like there's nothing to it, haven't shifted their attention to deer antlers. Deer horns cause enough problems as it is.
The white and black markets for antlers are well-subscribed. George Waters, an Iowa taxidermist, wound up in jail when he and an accomplice were convicted in Colorado of killing at least forty-two huge whitetail, eleven bull elk, and six mule deer estimated by federal officials to be worth $338,000. The Boone and Crockett Club (of which President Teddy Roosevelt was a founding member, and an outfit of which many of our protoconservationists and environmentalists were proud members) is America's official keeper of big-game hunting records. In Whitetail Nation, the club's record book may even rank ahead of the Second Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as a sacred text and lodestar for hunters.
The B&C Club inadvertently opened a Pandora's box in 1932 when it came up with a scoring system for measuring antlers. The system is precise and complicated, with the final "score" of a given set of antlers determined by the total inches in length and girth of the main beams and all the tines--with penalty deductions for irregularities. The entry-level score is 160.
The club distinguishes between two types of antlers--typical (symmetrical antlers) and nontypical (those antlers have significant variations, including palmated growths and drop tines, which grow downward off the main beam instead of up).
Exceptional antlers have become more than the traditional ticket to bragging rights at the gas pump. They're a highly desired commodity, subject to the usual market forces. Antlers can bring Big Money. According to a report in American Hunter, a single, shed antler thought to be from the famous Lovstuen buck (a nontypical whitetail shot in Iowa in 2003; B&C score: 3075/8) was put up for auction on eBay with a starting bid of just under $4,000. The same article reported that the full rack of the Lovstuen buck was ultimately bought by the Bass Pro Shops retail chain for a figure reported to be over $200,000.
Antlers have been the source of all kinds of chicanery and woes, including expensive court battles and intense, multigenerational family feuds resulting from disagreements over just who owns the dusty, decrepit head mount of the buck Grandpa shot in 1934--which turns out still to be the second or third largest buck ever taken in the state.
In 1932, an Alberta man, Ed Broder, shot the world record nontypical mule deer (B&C score: 3352/8); in 2007, his descendants were still in court wrangling over ownership of that rack. One of the rival parties landed in jail for ignoring a judge's command to give up the rack, which he had stashed somewhere.
There's also the more contemporary phenomenon of antler chic, which triggered crises of conscience at the always busy intersection of fashion and animal rights. Unbearably hip, typically antihunting fashionistas noticed antlers showing up in boutiques where they shopped or worked (how could so many girls who claimed in their high school yearbooks that they wanted to become "marine biologists" go so wrong?). Stuffed deer heads--Ralph Lauren himself had them at his designer ranch!
Weren't hunters just those Elmer Fudds you saw in the scary parts of the nation where they didn't even have the basics, like cell phone service and a decent tapas bar?
In the cowboy-chic world, antlers began to compete with the bleached-out skulls of longhorn cattle. The market was flooded with antler-themed goods and patterned fabrics, suggesting common ground between an interior designer toting a man-purse and the mill worker trudging to his tree stand wearing a camo fanny pack.
Hunters with good radar for political correctness will often take the path of least resistance when asked the silly, loaded question: Why do you enjoy killing those beautiful deer? They answer, truthfully, that it's not about the killing, and trot out the familiar justifications for hunting. But the eight-hundred-pound gorilla in the conversation is antlers.
Let's face it, nimrods don't walk into taverns with their chests flung out to prattle on endlessly about the spiritual experience they had shooting an antlerless doe, although it might have been something like that. They gather to talk about antlers, not the variety of fungi they discovered on some log trail (as pleasant a discovery as that is), and they're bewitched by legends of great bucks like the Picket Fence or Old Mossy Horn (every rural county has one), who invariably makes his appearance at dusk, just after shooting light, down in the cedar swamp. The one thing all those legendary creatures have in common is big antlers. A deer gets a name only when it has a rack deserving of one.
Technically, any hunter who refrains from killing the first legal deer he sees because he thinks there might be a better specimen to be shot is a trophy hunter. He's out for antlers. Granted, there's something cold and remorseless about hunting for the sole purpose of killing a great deer with impressive headgear, as if it were just an interesting, machismo-driven game. Charlie Jeffers, the owner of a three-thousand-acre ranch in the Texas Hill Country, made this intriguing comment to a wildlife official: "My personal feeling is that the emphasis on the size of the antlers has shifted the emphasis to be on the animal harvest, rather than the hunting experience."
In other words, antler obsession is decadent; it strays far from the fundamental purposes and value of hunting. And on top of that, killing the biggest and best bucks was long thought to have an adverse impact on herd quality--theory being that those animals were the ones that ought to be doing the most breeding.
But on-the-ground realities emerged to challenge those assumptions. Bucks within reach of a reasonable number of hunters rarely attain full maturity; in some places--like much of my own state and neighboring Pennsylvania--nearly 90 percent of the bucks born in any given year are killed at eighteen months, which is when they usually first have visible antlers. That's a staggering waste of, among other things, young life, and it represents an enormous waste of reproductive energy and labor.
Trophy hunting, with its premium on big antlers, is most viable only where a reasonable number of deer manage to attain full maturity (roughly three to six years) and antler growth. It's an admirable and perhaps even morally commendable approach: allow deer to live full lives before dropping the curtain. Everybody wins, including the deer.
And if you think old age is a drag for us humans, imagine being a nine-year-old deer in the dead of winter, too enfeebled to feed or move, patiently awaiting death as a pack of coyotes tears at your hocks and intestines.
Recent science also challenges some of our received wisdom. A highly controlled scientific study of whitetail breeding in Texas and other southern whitetail precincts showed that, contrary to cracker-barrel opinion, the biggest, most dominant bucks--the specimens that theoretically carry the integrity of the herd in their loins--were not nearly as dominant or prolific as everyone imagined, at least not by the time they attained trophy status.
The study demonstrated that relatively young (two-and-a-half- and three-and-a-half-year-old) deer were the most active and successful breeders. And those "decent" bucks, which usually have more than single-spike antlers, but not necessarily trophy racks, are the ones that most hunters simply won't pass up. The guy holding out for the monster buck has science on his side, in terms of herd health and genetics, because Old Mossy Horn is done as a vigorous breeder, if not as a wise, stealthy ghost of the woods.
The chance that a buck will make it to old age in areas accessible to hunters is slim to none. Yet even on my own home grounds, the grapevine every season hums with reported sightings of a few bucks in the 140 or even 150 B&C class--the baseline for a whitetail trophy-seeker in the northeast, even though antlers of that score fall at least 10 points short of making the revered B&C book.
I would take a buck like that in a heartbeat, for my own plight was a sad one. I've always been so fearful that no buck I've shot would break the 100 B&C mark that I'm scared to score them. I was aiming to fix that.
I stopped to poke around in Corning and found it well-kept and pretty, with a gauntlet no tourist could resist: antique shops alternating with jewelry and crystal boutiques, leather-goods shops, emporiums offering the "world's best" homemade fudge, and art. But something was missing, amid all the handsome gaslights, colorful flower boxes, and reproduction turn-of-the-century storefronts: there was no "sporting goods" store of the kind that once was a regional magnet for folks interested in guns, ammo, duck calls, crusher hats, and woolen long johns.
The American sporting goods store has given way to the year-round "Christmas Shoppe" (Over four thousand ornaments in stock!) and other specialty units. The few old-school stores that deal in guns and fishing tackle have been driven into shabby and decaying strip malls on the fringes of town, to huddle alongside the Chinese takeaway restaurant, the "Images" hair salon, and the Brazilian waxing parlor.
I picked up some Scotch and a few bottles of wine for Tom Daly and pushed on, feeling a little nervous. I'd never hunted with Tom, but he's one of those guys who seems to have it all figured out. He's a painter (canvas, not house) who specializes in landscapes and still lifes, in both watercolors and oils.
I've been an admirer of Tom's work for a long time, and finally met him the previous fall at a conservation-related dinner. We struck up a conversation about deer hunting, and I learned that he isn't just a deer hunter, he's an archer--part of that splinter group of bow hunters who eschew modern compound bows, like my own Mathews, in favor of "primitive" or "traditional" instruments, including the longbows once toted around by Robin Hood and his band of merry men. (Some of those outlaws were also hunters, and ended up slightly less than ecstatic when they were caught poaching deer on the king's land. They were then hung by the neck--often from their own bowstrings instead of rope.)
These days, the compound bow, which looks more like some weird electronic musical instrument than that thing you made as a kid with a stick and some string, is such a refined and technologically superior killing instrument that, despite its obvious lineage, it's really more like a firearm, albeit with a drastically reduced range.
A good compound bow, with all the requisite accessories, also can cost well over a thousand dollars--nearly twice as much as a high-quality rifle. Compound bows appeal to hunters who have a zest for "fair chase" (the ethic that attempts to keep hunter and hunted on a relatively level playing field) along with an interest in high-tech articulations of low-tech, traditional weapons.
Tom, by contrast, comes by his bows the old-fashioned way. He makes them--from scratch. After our conversation in New York, I decided that I couldn't imagine a more fitting way to open the bow season than in the company of Thomas Aquinas Daly--painter, outdoorsman, and traditional archer. If I were going to go all out this year, I might as well cover all the hunting bases and immerse myself totally in the deer hunting subculture.
What I didn't really envision was that Tom would think this was a good idea as well and invite me up for opening weekend.
I got off the interstate at Dansville and crawled through the small country town, exchanging a friendly wave with an elderly gent in porkpie hat sitting in a folding aluminum beach chair, just watching the cars go by. I guess there's only so much whittling a man can take in any given day.
Soon I was on a winding roller coaster of a two-lane blacktop lined with yellow "deer crossing" signs, each bearing the image of a leaping buck. I fell in behind a beater pickup truck, with a gun rack and a decal of a wind turbine with the familiar European-style red circle and slash. A few miles on, I passed a large piece of plywood propped roughly on a lawn, bearing the legend: NO WIND TURBINES.
I was looking for the town of Bliss, where I would pick up a dirt road on the last leg of my trip. Semidistracted, I pulled up a long incline and . . . Wham! Wind turbines--giant three--hundred-foot-tall towers, with propeller blades like long, freakish steak knives--towered over me. And I knew, viscerally, that if I lived in this place called Bliss, I'd be thinking, like the guy in the pickup I passed miles back: What the hell are the environmentalists doing to my town?
About five hours after I left Andes, I pulled off the road and onto a crushed stone driveway alongside a well-maintained barn. A good portion of the structure's south side was covered in dark green ivy, a handsome contrast to the deep red siding. The ivy rippled in the breeze, the golden highlights of the afternoon sun crossed it in waves. Nearby, trees towered over a dark, pretty little house with mullioned windows. It was the kind of well-kept place that belonged to someone who cared deeply about details.
Sweet, I thought. I sure hope it's the right place.