It’s important to start a hunting trip off at least partly on your terms. No one on the trip should feel bullied into anything, or like nothing is in their favor. This, of course, means different things for different people.
If you take my route, you might spend the night before the trip loading an hour and a half of Jim Gaffigan and John Mulaney onto your phone. If you take my father’s, you may purposely download a terrible podcast and insist on listening to it for at least half an hour.
This is how my second turkey hunt with my dad began.
It takes several hours for my dad and I to drive down to our regular hunting grounds every season, and though every trip is different, there are always the same subjects that are brought up on the way down. We always pass the High Desert museum, where I typically recall a memory from my youth, a tidbit about my friend who used to work there, or any museum-related word vomit. It usually is about forty seconds after that when I suggest we skip our destination and head straight for California or Ashland directly below. This trip in particular, I’m sure that on some subliminal level I was aware that I say that every time, but I didn’t become conscious of it until my dad took in a long breath and said slowly, “I’m going to stop driving you in this direction.”
When we arrived at our destination, we touched base with our regular contact and exchanged hellos. He told us to go talk to his grandfather, the true owner of the land that we had hunted on for so many years. We already had permission to hunt, but it wouldn’t hurt to be polite, now would it? It never does.
We found the landowner’s home with the help of his grandson’s directions, “a mobile home with lots of cars around it. It looks like a lot of garbage.” It wasn’t difficult to find. We parked in the drive way and made our way up some very slippery stairs and dad knocked on a rotting door while I shared uncomfortable, extended eye contact with the most eerie housecat I’d ever seen.
He knocked again, after pointing out a puppy in a far-off doghouse. It blinked but made no sound.
He knocked one more time while I eyed a row of curious and rainbow-like chickens sitting on a handrail.
He was not answering. The animals did not welcome us. Moss was probably starting to grow over our bodies as they grew colder with no explanation. I almost definitely saw a ghost.
As we walked away, dad commented on the fact that there was smoke rising from both the chimneys and the landowner probably just didn’t hear us. I suggested that he was casting a spell. Dad nodded solemnly. We weren’t out here to judge, after all, and what we were there for was a little longer coming.
We found a flock of turkeys, which we both did a lot to chase away. After a couple of hours, it was starting to rain and most of the turkeys had figured out what was going on and taken wing.
All except for one. One turkey, sitting on the edge of a cliff on the other side of a muddy-looking ravine, and looking none too worried about why all the others had left.
I mounted my shotgun, held the bead on its head, and pulled the trigger. A burst of feathers flew outwards, but the bird I had hit was sailing straight down.
Right. The cliff.
I heard a splash – but it took place a long while after the bird disappeared.
We hurried to the edge of the cliff and looked down. Dad and I had known the stream was there, but it still managed to surprise. It was thirty feet down with steep mud-and-clay walls around it and the water itself was an opaque brown with streaks of darker brown, constantly moving, constantly splashing, and constantly super, super brown.
Like, you know, a turkey.
Thankfully, Dad found the bird before I did, because I was a couple weeks out on that pursuit. He climbed all the way down the slope, plucked the bird out of the water, and tossed it up onto one of the only ledges in the ditch. He shouted that he was going to climb back up a different way, and I decided it was my turn to go down. I made it to the bird and devised a foolproof way to get back up again, but it required I put all my weight on a tree branch that was actively looking for excuses to join the brown below. It also required I have enough semblance of upper body strength to carry an adult turkey above my head.
That plan was not destined to go well.
My plan B to wind it up like a shot put and toss it. Without the afore-mentioned muscle tone, that obviously didn’t work either. I tried though; I tried until I was covered in the feathers of my turkey and the disapproving stares of the sparrows around me.
Finally I realized I hadn’t seen Dad in a while, and my priorities shifted from ever escaping my muddy hell to yelling his name for a solid five minutes before he peeked over the edge of the surface and I chucked a turkey at him with all of my remaining strength (not a lot).
With both hands free, I was able to more easily climb the walls, an endeavor that made necessary the truly singular pleasure of ripping chunks of stinking, heavy mud out of the vertical ground to create footholds.
Once we were both skyside again, I remember looking down at myself and thinking something along the lines of “ten showers should do it.” Dad and I were the exact shade and stench of the creek, but we had claimed the bird.
As we walked back to the car and discussed all the other birds that we had spooked, we took turns glaring down at the turkey I was dragging through the grass.
People who don’t agree with the act of hunting animals for food often cite that the animals can’t defend themselves, and how would you feel if they treated you as you treat them?
I have never been hunted with a shotgun. I hope to never be.
But today? Today that turkey got its revenge.
If turkey spirits linger before making their way to the happy hunting-free grounds in the sky, this one was splitting a feathered side watching me and dad try to scrape the mud off our hands with any sharp edge we came across on the rainy trek back to the truck.
(I’m sure he ascended before he had to listen to that podcast on the way home)
I may have won the battle, but the turkey won the war.
And for that, the bird has my undying respect.