We weren’t sure we could make it through the Gorge in the dark. It had been a false winter storm warning in Portland, but not in Hood River—they were knee-deep in snow and up to their armpits in ice. Outside the wet warmth of the valley, there was a world of harsh weather and winter the way winter was meant to be: dark wind, biting cold, a fierceness the sun cannot touch. Morning was our only hope. There were chukar out there to hunt, and I was itching to go—it’d been awhile since I’d been out, held captive as I am by a regular job and a rash of recent travels. I needed fresh air and something to sharpen my senses, to force my mind to focus on one singular, instinctive goal, and to pursue something tangible. I needed to go walk around for a while with a dog and my dad. A little fresh air, some wide open spaces. It’s not too much to ask.
Uncle Jay’s headlights carve out two tunnels of light in the still dark of 6:30 when he pulls up to the curb, mired as we are in winter’s short days and long nights. I watch him idle for a minute out the kitchen window, imagining how cozy it must look here in the house while he is out there, listening to the huff of the car and the churn of the heater while chill creeps in through every crack. I open the door before he gets there, too early on a Saturday for even a knock (my roommates, safely sleeping, would not appreciate the same early wake-up I’m reveling in now) and say want to come in, I’ll be ready in just a sec. A thousand times, my Uncle says, looking too big in my kitchen—a lot of wool--a thousand times did Ryan and I make plans to get up early and go hunt, only to have him pull up to the Wilderness, no lights on, no one up. He'd come wake me up--he'd go through Grandma and Pepere's house in the dark? I interrupt, in disbelief--oh yeah, and be so pissed, but we'd go. Well I guess I'm doing good, I tell him, and he says, I'm amazed. Get your stuff.
My Uncle is a good story-teller because he is honest and unflinching in his appraisal of the truth as he sees it. As we drive out of town and into the yawning maw of eastern Oregon, the day’s first light illuminating the icy walls of the Gorge (a thousand shades of clear glimmering in the dawn), we trade stories—the worst times we’d ever been homesick, the restless ache of wandering hearts, children, why the Gorge stays icy. There are a lot of things I think my grandparents did not do well for my Dad and Uncles and Aunts, but my God they can all tell a story. There is nothing as captivating as a Hobson, starting off slow and picking up speed—well, one time…and then taking off, creating a world for the listener to enter, mesmerized by the magnetic personality standing in front of them. It is beginning to be a lost art, storytelling is. I can write you anything, craft you something beautiful and tangible in print. But I can’t weave a yarn with my voice the way my family can—effortlessly—the way my Uncle can, here in this car, or at a Winter Solstice party, or around a bonfire. Not me, not like that.
We get stuck behind snow ploughs from Cascade Locks to Hood River, a winding line of cars both trapped and freed by their slow progress. Without them, the road would be nearly impassable—but with them, we are inching along for thirty miles, watching dirty snow spray the side of the road. We’re gonna be late, my Uncle says.
We are. By the time we spot my Dad’s truck, at the turn-off to Ajax Road we’ve lost an hour of hunting time. The Subaru takes the lead—your Dad doesn’t know how to drive in the snow, my Uncle tells me—and not three minutes later we watch through the rearview mirror as the truck ploughs into the side of the snowbank (one dark dog head bouncing wildly in the passenger side). You should’ve heard Uncle Jay laugh.
Finally, we come to a barbed wire fence stretching as far as we can see in either direction. Here, we’ve made it, the snow ankle deep and blanket white, tucking in the earth, the land put to bed. Deep cold breaths fill my body to the tips of me—hair to toe cold—and I hurry with layers, pulling on boots and gloves, a hat. The sun is present but without warmth, the light is the kind of bright that only comes when the sun’s rays are magnified by a thousand miniscule diamonds littering the ground. I squint my eyes, take it in. A canyon before us, the faint outlines of a road stretching past the gate, sagebrush smell hovering—or maybe I imagine it—just out of nose’s reach, dampened by the white. Grays and greens and tans shimmer in the distance, somewhere warmer than where we stand here. Save for the wild running the dogs are doing—raucous circles around each other in their anticipation of what’s to come (they know, as we pull out guns) that it will soon be their time to do what they were born to do.
To be so lucky as to know what your singular purpose is from the moment you were born. I envy them their ease, I pity them for there is so much joy in discovery.
I have always known that I am a creature of relatively dull senses, my reactions slow, my range of scent limited, my ears clumsy instruments, my eyesight unusually bad. But I can’t help but feel a little more aware, out here, where nature demands your attention if you know how to hear what she’s asking. We start walking, the steady squeak and crunch of boots sinking through the snow to the iced crust underneath beating out the rhythm of the day. I see, I hear, I feel. My face is numb already by the time we drop down into the canyon we’ve been courting, Uncle Jay taking the hill side with Remi, my Dad and I at the top. I follow the narrow trail Dad carves out in front of me, I’ll spread out in a minute, but for a while it’s nice to follow a familiar back through rough terrain—have the low spots and rocks pointed out to me, beat no path of my own but trust the one being made for me.
We get lower and the snow thins, I break off from my Dad and take the middle, wading through the sagebrush at the bottom of the draw, keeping an eye on the dogs—though they are forever dancing on the edge of my view, try and match my pace to the two flanking me. I curve around and meet back with my Dad—no birds here. It’s quiet, and still, and all the places that look likely get a dog sniff in them and a proverbial shake of the head. No birds here. So we keep walking, cover more ground. We come out of the canyon and crest a ridge, and from here we can see out over the rumpled hills that cascade towards the John Day. To spend forever ranging through this terrain would not be long enough—there is too much, and too many, things and places to see. Where do the animals hide is not for us to know. We walk more, down a deep bowl in the land—where an old, abandoned homestead sits, lonely and forgotten. It cries out for company and gets no response, shivering out here in the middle of this winter. We cross an endless field—maybe the birds have sought higher ground, although it seems unlikely. And still, nothing. The dogs work harder, run farther, put their noses closer to the ground. But there is no scent for them to hit, to fill their hearts and minds with the smell that will stop them dead in their tracks, lock every muscle in their body as if to say—THERE. THE BIRD IS RIGHT THERE.
It’s a day of trying. I’ve been out the whole day in stuff like this and never seen a thing. You have to enjoy the journey, remember. And I do, my spirit brightened by good company and good dogs, a wide blue sky, the welcoming embrace of land that isn’t home but is familiar and loved all the same. We eventually come back around to the untouched, unstubbled stretch of white that marks the road back to the truck and we hop on it, relaxed and more casual now. There’s another spot we’re going to try, since this one proved so unsuccessful. The sun is still high overhead, there’s daylight left, we might as well see if we can find something somewhere else. I thought we might get lucky here, Jay, my Dad says, but it maybe it’s the snow. Would be worth coming back when it’s clearer—and then, with a rush of beating wings and the burst of tiny hearts, a covey breaks right off the side of the road, catching the whole lot of us—humans and dogs alike—off guard.
Chukar soar off, and we stand like statues, dull senses roaring. Well I’ll be damned my Dad says. Walked all that way and they were here in the road the whole time. My Uncle throws up his hands, we hoist guns a little higher on our shoulders, and keep walking for the truck. Better luck next time. The birds are black against the sky, though I know they are a steely gray in the hand, and while we walk I watch them dive into a different canyon, somewhere else. We could go after them, find them somehow, put those dogs to work. But I am too content here, with this moment and this day, to feel like chasing any other dream. I am already in one I'm loathe to leave.