Attached to a branch
from the leaves surrounding
-until some rain
and a gust of wind
set you free.
downward from the cliffs
through waterfall spray
and pulsing gusts.
Caught and lifted
by unseen currents
-a midair dance
tracing loops and circles
bringing patterns to life
drawing across the sky.
Independent, alive, and shining
-but eventually falling
and joining the obscurity
of those that have already danced
on the canyon floor.
Everything was covered in a layer of ice crystals and when I hit a field catching the sun’s first rays it was like walking through a sea of diamonds. Glistening everywhere.
I was looking for quail, though I would’ve been happy with any upland game. Two weeks prior I flushed four covies in this area, but packing a .22 there wasn’t much I could do about it. Little phantoms, erupting from nowhere into cacophonous flight, then completely disappearing back into the brush. I was hoping to come back and cash in with a 12ga this time, a delivery of Rio Bismuth shot bringing new potential to the Winchester Model 12 that belonged to three generations of fathers before me. I figure $2.75 per round is a small price to pay for being able to continue to take it into the field. I fell descending a slope and put a nice new scratch in the stock, but I suppose I’m just adding to its history. This shotgun is not getting sold, and any “collector’s value” is trumped by my pleasure keeping it in action.
The morning was filled with canyons, hiking streambeds, thrashing stands of brush to see what I could rouse. Hunting quail- wild quail- is hard, especially alone and without canine. I’ve shot pen-raised birds on private land with trained dogs, but the solo pursuit of wild quail is a different thing altogether, as is the animal. I have no lingering interest in the former, especially the ethics of it. Unlike their prison-raised cousins, wild quail don’t give themselves up easily, either bursting into escape long before you’re in range or remaining dead still and silent in the deepest and thickest of snags, so disciplined in their hiding you nearly have to step on one to make it budge.
All of which is my roundabout way of justifying why I wasn’t able to shoot any. Shooting is the easy part; I didn’t even see any. But it’s not for lack of fucking effort.
The covies of two weeks ago were nowhere to be found. In fact, all of the animals, save for jays and sparrows, were quiet, most likely headed for farms and fields in the lower country. A stillness seemed to have covered the entire area. I have my theories about when and where to find the quail, but I suspect that recent storms, high winds, and temperature drops had them fairly holed up, making it very tough to get on them without a lot of luck or a dog.
After a morning of fruitless hunting and a stop for coffee and food, I decided on changing plans, leaving the main valley, and exploring another drainage. A large cliff band separated me from the higher ground where I entered and I was hoping to find another route to get out, a few ridges looking promising on the map. The map showed a plateau at the top that looked good for more hunting.
Heading up the new canyon, there was the tingle of adrenaline on the back of my neck as I looked back to make sure I was oriented, taking bearings on distant peaks and landmarks behind me. The uncertainty of cross-country travel is incredibly appealing, as is the thrill of exploring new areas while trying to make new route connections.
I walked slow and stayed on the lookout for game, crunching sage, navigating brush and thorn, eventually breaking down and packing the shotgun in preparation to climb a ridge.
Looking at my watch, it was clear that I was at a sort of crossroads and had to evaluate the commitment involved in what lay ahead. Darkness would be coming fast, and if this climb proved slower than I estimated or didn’t go through, I’d be racing darkness to backtrack.
I enjoy being out past dark and the prospect normally doesn’t carry any threat, but in this case, it could get serious. Doing steep climbs by headlamp can be difficult, if not downright dangerous, and all of the landmarks I’d been using to navigate would become invisible. The nighttime low was slated to be around 20 and +20mph gusts were pushing the windchill severely (despite all the sunshine in these pictures it was in the 30s in the shade). Given I took a cross-country route to get in, complete with a steep canyon descent that has many potentially confusing tributaries, I’m not sure I could’ve reversed it in the dark without getting into bad territory. I had some emergency gear- a light down quilt, a puffy, a 3/4 length CCF pad, but I really didn’t want to have to go there.
I went for it, embarking on a ridiculous bushwack, shredding a Rab Boreas shirt and forcing my way through manzanita stands so thick I’d literally get arms and legs stuck and just stand there supported and resting like a scarecrow before thrashing my way out. Unfortunately, the bushwacking only gave way to steeper, looser rock and dirt, and I soon found myself navigating a knife ridge and staring at a 30′ cliff band ahead of me. I had already been pushing the limits of solo safety and everything in front of me looked downright stupid. Dead end. And now the prospect of turning around racing the darkness to get out.
I reversed course into a different canyon on the opposite side of the ridge I climbed, and was promptly engaged in another horrendous vegetation battle, complete with crawls on all fours through game tunnels and a slip and slide down a loose slope. Pushing the pace, no hunting, no rest stops allowed until I could see that I was within reach of my exit, I kept trucking along, singing Captain Beefheart’s Abba Zaba to ward off a potential bear surprise in the more vegetation choked areas (tracks were everywhere). I was able to relax some once I finally began my climb out of the valley, knowing now that I was now well ahead of schedule before light disappeared and temperatures plummeted.
Enough time for a pot of ramen while relaxing on a ridge and a slow hunt over the two miles of hiking left to get to the car. While hunting left me empty-handed, the day was a complete victory. Wild, wandering days like this are a great reminder that I need not always go out overnight, that hot coffee in hand and a lazy drive home are sublime ways to end 12 hours of rambling.
Long shadows in golden grasses, sun dipping behind a western ridge. Slowly working my way through a field of sagebrush on a bench above a damp creek bed. There’s a glimpse of movement in my periphery. And then there’s a rabbit head and ears in the grass about 30 yards out. Clicking off the safety and shouldering the rifle, the dark silhouette is in my crosshairs. A squeeze of the trigger and an obscene crack shatters the canyon air. Its head pops and disappears beneath the grass. Lowering the rifle, jogging now, crunching sage and winding my way to where it lies. There is nothing there but a burnt brush stump and a few splinters. I shot a piece of wood, not a rabbit.
Everything is a rabbit when looking for rabbit. I’ve taught myself to look for eyes, to look for movement, but everything still looks like a rabbit. And sometimes the rabbits turn to wood, sometimes stone. A clump of grass with a stick behind it can become a rabbit, and then you approach and the rabbit becomes a ghost. Shape shifters. Illusions. Nothing left but a breeze.
I realize that with a .22 in this sort of country I’m hunting them the hard way, but I enjoy chasing ghosts. It’s good reason to slow down, to spend an hour covering a small patch beside a wash, watching ice crystals shimmering and flashing in fields under morning sunlight. Walking, pausing every three or four steps, looking, walking. I saw three, took two shots, and came home with nothing. Patience, this has worked before. I suppose certainty is for the supermarket, whereas hunting is full of hope…but also hinges on using the right tool. It’ll be a 12ga next time; the .22 is better suited for open desert.
I walked miles and miles of canyon and valley, high stepping brush and picking my way through snags. Hard miles, slow miles, wilderness miles that are a far cry from groomed trails.
The air temperature is dropping fast, the entrance gates to the area are getting locked. Leaving those who are willing to walk further to find themselves alone in paradise. It’s my favorite time of year here. Solus Rex, the lone king.
I’ll be back again next weekend, looking forward to the first snows likely to come later in the week. Thousands and thousands of acres….