_November. 1998. Opening weekend. This is my place. My name may not be on the deed, it may even say “public” on the sign, but it’s mine nonetheless. I’ve purchased it with the coin of time and sweat and shoe leather and blistered skin. And I sure as hell don’t want to share it. Yet here they are, the bastards. Rich ones in their new trucks pulling shiny trailers. Poor ones in rustbuckets with plywood boxes thrown in the bed. And all of them–regardless of social class–here to take what’s mine; what I thought I was jealously guarding by keeping my big mouth shut. Self-delusion: I was born to it.
I drive around the area–my area–and the license plates read like a litany of the dead for what used to be bird country: Alabama. South Carolina. North Carolina. Tennessee. Florida. Kentucky. Virginia. Georgia. Arkansas. Louisiana. Mississippi. The In-state-but-out-of-towners. The Mongol hordes of landless Texans. And me. I want to hate them all for being here, for screwing up my little set-piece dream of solitude and birds and the pup and me and not another living soul under this brilliant bowl of sky. But of course I can’t. Because they are me. He is us. Not enemy, but kindred seekers trying to sate the desperate hunger for a moment when sky and birds and dogs converge into an instant of pure meaning._
And how can I begrudge my kindred their quest for such validation of existence? I can’t. So my little set-piece dream is returned from whence it came, shoved back in the mental file labeled “unfulfilled.” I load up the pup and drive home. There will be no solitude, no magic and no first point this day. Today belongs to others. And as road dust obscures the receding prairie in my rearview mirror, I must convince myself once again: I don’t begrudge them. Really, I don’t begrudge them. But you can bet your ass I’m gonna beat those kindred sonsabitches out here next weekend.
I wrote those words in my hunting journal some 14 years ago. Times have changed. This past weekend marked the quail opener in my home state, and despite the howling wind, the crunchy, drought-stricken vegetation, and quail populations hovering near all-time lows, I do what I have always done: I load up the dogs and go hunting on my favorite piece of public ground, the very same place I wrote about in frustration all those years ago.
I know the parking areas will be mostly empty. They are. I know I’ll have the place virtually to myself. I do. I know that on this quail opener, I’ll finally be granted the solitude I craved all those years ago. I am. Solitude. That’s what drought, rampant habitat loss, waning hunter participation and bird numbers at historic lows will buy those few of us who refuse to give up, sell the dogs, and take up something easier. Is it hope that drives us, or mere muscle memory, the vestigial liturgy of a long-gone past and a rapidly fading present?
I have no idea. All I know is that today, just like that day 14 years ago, I have a young pup who desperately needs to hunt. Solitude doesn’t make a bird dog. Birds do. So the dogs and I set out across the lonely, undulating sandhills, three tiny specks, two white, one blaze orange, crawling across a giant swath of emptiness and memory. And as distance and time grows, so too does the realization that today, solitude is all we are going to find.
At noon, the dogs and I climb a tall sandhill overlooking the riverbottom below. I shrug out of the vest, give the dogs some water, lean back against the sagebrush, and take out my lunch. My spot commands a sweeping view, and there’s not another soul anywhere within it. As I munch my sandwich, I somewhat ruefully recall that fourteen years ago, when the number of quail hunters in my state numbered in the hundreds of thousands and I was so outraged by the gall they displayed in showing up here at “my” place, that this moment would not be possible. Now, with quail hunter numbers at an estimated 17,000 and dropping fast, I might actually be able to go all season and never see another bird hunter.
And suddenly, I realize that it’s not just solitude I crave. Or even birds for the pup. No, what I’d love to see right now, more than anything, is another tiny orange speck crawling across the landscape before me, looking for the same thing I am, driven on by hope and muscle memory. Perhaps then I could finally shake the feeling, if only temporarily, that I am living in epilogue.