My last wild bird hunt of the year went as most of them did this past season, with weather that erred on the side of terrible and birds that proved me a hunter—and not a killer—time and time again. It was one of those days where we didn't get an early start, and the dogs were feeling a little ornery, and I kept catching my mind wandering while we walked. But we were out and it was still upland bird hunting, so how bad could it be?
Not bad at all, all things considered. But also pretty unremarkable. It was cold and a little windy when we left the truck and started walking, down a long dirt road and then onto the top of the ridge. I’d only been to that spot one other time, the season before, and the wind then nearly knocked me down—the kind of gale-force that steals words from your mouth as soon as you say them, makes your chest ache from having the air forced back down into your lungs. It wasn’t that windy today, but the memory of it was enough to make me wary of the weather we were walking towards.
Once over the ridge, the river just barely appeared, snaking through the dry walls of the canyon like an enormous eel—not moving fast, but thick, wide and shimmering just a little. T was threatening to sock in, the clouds hanging low and heavy, and every so often we’d pass through a little pocket of especially cozy ones hugging the ground. The suddenness of it—air made apparent—catches me off guard every time. The ground was wet and I stumbled over rocks here and there, and the dogs worked hard but kept moving past where we could see or hear them point. My Uncle has taken the low route, in deference to me, because it’s a harder walk down there—the slope even steeper, the rocks even slicker—and for a minute I think about resisting, saying I’ll go down, but then I think better of it and stick to sidehilling up top.
We see maybe one or two birds—I shoot and miss—my Dad’s aim is true on one Chukar, my Uncle hears and sees nothing below. We split up, my Dad and I down a side canyon, my Uncle following the main, and then it’s us who sees nothing and hears nothing. The dogs search fruitlessly until they start to get wily, following every whim of their noses far out of our reach, starting to hunt only for themselves. We hear the echoing thunder of my Uncle, having more luck than we are, and finally after a day of this—when our legs and hips and ankles ache from the uneven ground and our shoulders grow heavy from the guns—we head back for the truck.
Do you see how really rather unremarkable it all was? Just a normal, wandering day out in big country, so much like they all are. But it was the last hunt, even if I didn’t know it then. A heavy, cold, mean, long winter was a few weeks away, about to bury everything in snow and ice, including the birds. I wouldn’t be back out before the end of January when the season ends. Only in the weight of knowing that it was the last do I hold the day up in my mind’s eye and sink into the memory of it, the way the river looked and the air smelled. How wet the rocks were, how steep the hill. How the sun finally beat the fog and we ended our day coddled by late November sun.
It is a gift and a curse, the knowing—would it have been a different trip if I’d known I wouldn’t be back? Would I have pushed harder, taken the low road, stayed out longer? Maybe, probably. I would’ve agonized that I hadn’t made enough of it, even as it was happening. Instead I was offered the beauty of a day without fanfare, and then the memory of it made crystalline merely by time.
Everyone has heard that oft-repeated phrase, “Treat every day as if it’s your last”, haven’t they? I’ve always thought—my black and white brain roaring—that it sounds like a terrible way to live. Practically speaking, you’d spend your life emotionally exhausted. What a manic way to exist! I know the intent is to ask people to appreciate more, in the moment, what life has given you, to see the beauty in ordinary things. To elevate the mundanity of day-to-day life into a miracle. Though I do worship at the altar of gratitude, amazed at how it turns everything into enough, I wonder if there isn’t something to treating each memory of a place, a time, a conversation as the last. Isn’t that, in the end, what we hold onto? In the processing of an experience is when the experience is made real to us, what it was and how we remember it.
This is true for my last wild hunt of the season—there were moments of clarity, of transcendence—looking down at the river, my heart fit to burst, the sensation of clouds sliding past the skin on my face, the feeling of deep satisfaction when Cedar stiffens into a point. But mostly I was tired from my senses being peeled back to their roots: trying to hear, watching the dog, watching where I stepped. My feet hurt from the rocks underfoot, my shoulders tightened against the weight of the Verona, my eyes began to weep from squinting against the odd quality of the light.
And yet none of that matters, now, from that ordinary day. Because it was extraordinary, it was sublime, it was the last day I was out. The depths of my appreciation of that time knows no bounds, now. I remember that day exactly as it was, not as if it were my last, but because it was.