It was late when we got there, late enough that I was heavy with sleep all the way over—every blink an invitation to slip back into the twisted tangle of dreams lurking just beyond my eyelids. I kept fighting to stay awake for Darren’s sake, so he didn’t have to fight the same battle I was—plus the long, windy road—alone, but the cozy warmth of the car and the reassuring weight of puppy on my lap made it nearly impossible. Each time I surfaced to consciousness I opened my eyes on a new flash of shadowed, curving highway—a familiar road turned ghostly and strange in the night.
When we arrive, a new energy invigorates me. I’m wide awake and confident getting Darren up highway 19, knowing exactly which turn was ours, anticipating the bend—this other home to me, the smell of cold, sharp air, the dark outline of hills I know well. The night is almost day in moon shine, the crunchy layer of snow underfoot casting light all around us. Puppy runs happy laps while we pack our bags into the empty cabin, the soft glow of embers in the stove the only sign that life has touched this place. I know the rest of the crowd is up at one of the summer slash piles, burning the night a thousand shades of flame. It’s late, remember, so we tuck puppy in to bed and then chase the fire and my family up the road—I don’t quite know where they are, but I remember slash piles higher up than they’ve ever been—so we just keep driving, swaddled safe in the Jeep, the forest, and the stars, until we see the tail lights of the truck. The big shorthairs jump out from the backseat, a blur of barking, wagging tails and jumping, they lick our hands and circle our feet. And here is the legendary band of brothers, the raucous and rowdy, their familiar faces licked by firelight as the dark is consumed by the flames. My cousin Spencer is here too, and his friend—someone I met once, maybe—and everyone is happy, easy in companionship. I delight in the company of this group of Uncles, I’ve known them for so long, you see—and they’ve known me. The lucky benefit of a tight-knit family, so many people to remind you of where you’ve come from, and how far left you have to go.
The fire eats into the ground and dances for the sky, smoke roils up to the above—meeting no clouds on this starry night, only the moon to whisper secrets to as it passes by. We stand around and listen to them tell stories, bullshit mostly, as one does in the presence of beer and fire, until the cooler drifts towards empty and the circle grows quieter and quieter. Muckle Matt tells my Dad he’s driving the truck back to the cabin—like hell you are—this pack of animals play fighting like any other. We follow them back down the road in the Jeep, my Dad hunched on the tailgate (of my own damn truck!), my Uncle Matt the victor.
In the morning Darren leaves early to elk hunt and I let that little puppy into my sleeping bag, until the combined heat of both our bodies is too much to handle in one down cocoon and we break out of the little cabin gasping for cooler air. The day hasn’t quite started yet, early dawn light washing the world blue, but we are up. I need too much from this place to be able to sleep in—we have so much to do and so little time to do it in, or so it feels. Cedar has no fear here, something instinctive in him has sparked, and he runs hard up the hill, free from cars and sidewalks and the noise of people. I have no fear here too. His ticked coat blends in too well with the patchy snow on the ground, and now big fat flakes are flurrying down from above, so I can hardly keep track of him as he speeds around the drive, nose to the ground. I whistle for him, whistle again, until he appears at my side (as if by magic) and we go into the big cabin.
A slow starting morning for those of us here, though we keep an eye on the porch for the elk hunters. My Uncle has a tag and is leading a bit of a war party out there—the boys all clamoring for the experience, thrilling at the thought of sighting one, hunting something, connecting to that primal animal that lives in each of us. I am content here, today—the cabin heated by the fire, coffee in the pot, my garden book begging for my perusal. The familiar voices of my family swirl and settle around me, boot stomping, a little puppy yelp once in a while from the dog wrestling happening on the floor. We’ve got a bird hunt to go to a little later on—well, really I don’t think I can go. I’ll be sacrificing today to spend with Cedar in exchange for many more seasons hunting behind my own dog, but I’m excited for the others. I know how their hearts will beat a little quicker at the ROOSTER call, how they will start (can you help it?) at that harried flurry of wings, how they’ll race towards the dog, standing stock-still in the cover, every cell in their bodies concentrated on a smell (the most delicious of all).
I know how it will go, and I know I’ll feel a brief pang of frustration while I watch them walk away—their backs a line of orange vests and camo, the men easy and open as they get started, the boys tense with anticipation—I will feel left out. Puppy will be at my feet, whining as the big dogs walk away, we’ll be united in our mutual unhappiness—standing here on a bluebird sky day, a weather-beaten barn casting shadows to our left, a hundred birds missed for the shots I won’t be able to take. And I also know that this will give way to wistfulness, and then optimism, as I head back down the highway in the Jeep with my dog riding shotgun, a day at the ranch open and all mine.
I have no time to waste on disgruntled unhappiness, not when I have an open road ahead of me and that wide blue sky above, a good dog snoring gently by my side. The local radio is playing something twangy, the black and yellow ticks by steadily as I curve down towards that land I’m tied to. Quiet again when we get back, a dead fire in the stove and breakfast still all over the counters. We were out there at Skip’s—was his name Skip?—for an hour or so, after the elk hunt proved fruitless and we drove the highway for too long looking for the right turn-off. Cedar did enough romping around that he’s tired now, and he sleeps on Dexter’s bed in front of the fire I get started again, rote in my actions although I rarely am here alone. Outside my hands are cold as I chop kindling, my nose runs constantly, my face gets a little dumb while I stand on the porch with an armful of wood. So much of this place is colored by the people who love it—this view, of the road carved out through the valley, racing away from the cabin and into the beyond---I’ve walked it a hundred times on foot and a thousand times in my mind. This view that my Dad made his legacy, that Uncle Ollie caught in oil paints, that Uncle Jay gets up early to see. The view that my Mom looks out on and recognizes the person she loved first—before all the rest of us—all the wild in an almost untamed heart, all the dreams that were made reality. And I stand here, and I see all this, but I see more too—I see what it means to me, something intangible and unspeakable, and all the things it will be to me.
These trees and rocks and dirt, they don’t mean anything until we make them something. Humanity’s gift and curse, this fight for reason—our reason to be—in a world that asks us to accept only because. But here in front of me, stripped bare and sacred, is my reason. Because I am alive and I am a part of this, more than anything else. Because I know nothing but contentment among these wild things, because to walk for miles on rocky ground is to know the only God I do. I think we are all seeking the same things, out here, though we walk different roads.
Cedar whines from inside, I’ve been gone for too long. I go inside, feed the fire through the black yawning maw of the wood stove. I make tea while Cedar wakes up, and then whistle for him outside—we’re going for a walk.