The back seat of Jim Mitchell’s jeep has always smelled like Rig 2 gun lubricant. It is a smell that can take me to places memory alone cannot. It’s also a reminder of the fact that he has shot over 900,000 trap targets since the 1950s, and is one of the most successful and likeable competitors in American Trap shooting. Jim Mitchell has a gentle heart and a dry sense of humor. His ready advice from a lifetime of experience ranges from “Always stay in the light” to “Never squat with your spurs on.” His outdoor life has subjected him to the brutal inspection of the sun, and the creases in his weathered face all meet at the corner of his shooting eye–an effect that makes everyone he meets feel comfortable and exposed in the same instant. He is an honest man, whose life is not confused by the gray areas of political correctness. Jim Mitchell is a relic of a time past. He is one of American’s last great cowboys. He is larger than life, and he is my grandfather.
At the ripe old age of twenty, I have learned that all outdoorsmen have sunrise stories–experiences that separate us from the common man, and make us better for having seen the world through the gray of pre-dawn light. I’ve watched deer emerge from the frost-bitten tree lines of North Georgia, and I’ve seen pods of tarpon rolling through the fog off the beaches of Boca Grande. I have also felt the cold porcelain tiles of my bathroom floor against my cheek the morning after another Old Miss Rebels loss. As with most memories, we relish the good and bury the bad. This particular pre-dawn story recalls the best, when my grandfather introduced me to the outdoors.
On an early Saturday morning in December, I sat in Jim Mitchell’s jeep behind him and next to my younger brother, heading from Atlanta, Georgia to Oak Ridge Plantation in Aiken, South Carolina. While other twelve year olds were asleep with dreams of new bikes and stuffed stockings dancing in their heads, I rubbed my sore, right shoulder, engrossed in visions of the quail coveys and twenty-gauge shotguns that were about to be my first hunt. Since the quiet of the morning is too much for any pair of boys to endure, I asked my grandfather to turn on the radio. He glanced in the rearview mirror and dryly assured my brother and me that he would be happy to sing for us instead. We continued our drive into the Carolina upland to the sounds of Jim Mitchell’s off-key rendition of Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.”
Many outdoorsmen speak of their first hunts as milestones on the path to becoming a man. First kisses, first punches, and first kills all seem to be stations in man’s life that must be successfully navigated to avoid being less than a man. I don’t know how successful I was at these milestones, but as I rubbed my right shoulder, half enjoying the ache from target practice the day before, I knew that I would at least give my first hunt my very best shot. Granddad had decided that a twelve gauge would overpower my 100-pound frame, a .410 would afford too little shot, and that Belgian Browning 20 gauge with an English grip would be the perfect choice. My brother and I laughed at his assertions that the 28 gauge he would be using would “give the birds a chance.”
The morning and afternoon of that clear December day seem frozen in time. The dogs feverishly cut through rows of millet while we walked the adjacent paths of gray Carolina sand after ever-elusive coveys. And that was the beginning of my appreciation for why we got outside–to be impressed by an understanding of how small we are, how finite. Our desire to hunt and fish is not as much about the trophy buck or trout as it is about the comfort we take in feeling that we have some ability to survive in a world that otherwise seems beyond our grasp. Though these revelations are usually discovered while alone, it is important to remember who set you on the path to realizing these complex-simplicities of life. Andd for that, I thank my grandfather.
Many years later, I stand alone in the Tallulah River of North Georgia. The trout are rising around me, and the Hemlock trees and Rhododendrons seem to form some grand, evergreen cathedral above. There have been many birds and even more fish since I walked with my grandfather on that first hunt. A peace is with me that I’m sure was with my grandfather when he was my age because someone introduced him to this same stream. He and I have not hunted in awhile. Nowadays, his legs are unsteady in the swift current of this mountain stream, and he uses me rather than a wading staff because I have “more handles.” He jokes that his friends are so old they “aren’t optimistic enough to buy green bananas.” But I still see in him the youth of a child. The wrinkles in his face fade when his eyes light up at the sight of a pointed dog or a disappearing fly. I know that Jim Mitchell’s love of the chase will never be lost because he entrusted it to me–along with an off-key rendition of Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon,” which I softly hum as I cast upstream.