In the lines again with the cockeyed stares of those around. Gawking in pajamas as they ram into achilles and wondering how my eyes look so carefree. They push and the ticket clerks again clueless about how to check a firearm. Travelers shuffling baggage of selfish anticipation- and we all move through talking out over them with big ole a howdy-do to our crew as they file in waving back as the exhaust curls up from their wive’s car. I struggle with my gear- but my son is there to help.
On the third weekend of October, it’s still pretty damn warm in the South and for sure humid. The anxiousness of travel generally balances out at the gate in the connecting city- once you are seated in the little plane- it’s all hunters. Your crew connected and the wider fraternity of the sport aboard. Masks come of and the one flight attendant has very little control over the crowd except to giggle at the euphemisms and the hyperbole of the jokes and stories,
and serve beer faster than the mini-bottles come out of the carry-ons,
and just come to except that the plane is tighter than an MRI tube,
and warm still carrying the humidity clung to all the Southerners-
and it will just smell like a fart that no one will claim unless it’s so loud that it’s laugh worthy.
There are old boys in Carharts and old boys in overalls,
and corporate types that still haven’t shaken the city off of their asses in loafers and pressed shirts.
There are old men with Bryll cream and old men with beards and pony-tails.
There are young guys in the logo gear and young guys in wranglers.
There are spit cups and a good stewardess learns by the second week of the season not to throw them away off the tray table some that fella doses off.
We have gotten off onto the brisk jet-bridge in Sioux Falls more than a dozen times now. From the the first step onto solid ground, down the escalators and you are greeted by the tourist bureau and the outfitters. You are peddled cookies and coozies, side hug pictures with Copenhagen cowgirls, and interviewed for the local news. The TSA is friendly. It is Black Friday in South Dakota.
We travel and hunt with a large group that confluence in the car rental lot and caravan up I-29 North, every year. Ninety-two miles per hour in a line of rental suburbans that draft like the secret service.
The the first stop is always a C-store named Cowboys. Again, the town’s business chamber has a tent with a big ole rooster mascot and a bunch of free swag. Cowboys is a mall for this trip starting from front to back: fuel, tobacco, beef jerky, ammunition, hunting licenses, tacky hats, beer, and pizza.
Our crew meets the hotel manager with hugs and she generally leaves us goodie bags- most personalized enough to know what brand of whisky you like to drink right by the ice bucket. Each man gets a room that faces a central atrium. How in the hell the plants live is beyond me in corridor’s lamp lit darkness. Once a light unpacking happens, the boys mingle out with cocktails poured and unloaded guns to brag about.
The core of this group has been together since the beginning, so the stories repeat and get big-fishier and are corrected back to the truth- and as all the time is chronicled, there always seems to be a few newbies- a brother-in-law, a son-in-law. So we talk a little safety- we pump them up. We talk a little about our house rules. Ron and Ken like to always work the outside and snipe the ones that get away with long barrels and full chokes. Old guys stay in the truck and block. We walk in straight lines through the fields of grass and corn and sorghum- Egyptian wheat and understory double-barrel. We try not to shoot more than thirty degrees right or left of that perfect line we describe and correct it as we lose ourselves in the tall growth. “Blue sky always, not down the line- but backwards is okay once you’ve cleared it with your muzzle up.” “Don’t shot your blockers, your guides, your vehicles, the dogs, and don’t shoot your friends.” “No bird is ever worth more than seeing your friend get injured.” And the greatest rule of them all: “IT MIGHT BE CUTE TO SMOKE THEIR ASS INTO A TUMBLING BALL OF FEATHERS, BUT IF YOU DO IT MORE THAN ONCE YOU’LL PROBABLY NOT BE INVITED NEXT YEAR.” The core of our group is composed of clays champions and fellas that cut there shooting cadence flushing quail in the pine timber with .410s and 28 gauges. We like to see wings open for a shot and have edible animals on the table.
A dozen years ago my father and I were invited by a dear friend to hunt in his families reunion pheasant hunt in their Eastern South Dakota hometown. The family was dwindling with age and that family’s acquaintance guide and his two sons seemed to shoot more birds out from under us than help. They had a couple along to join us that first year, veterinarians with great dogs from Colorado. (That shot one of us on the level, adding patina to a Turkish Walnut stock.) They added to the cold company of the guide and his sons, who walked ahead in our shots and drank all our beer at the barn before we returned from the field. On the last day that year, the guide’s hunting space fell through and he arranged for us to drive about twenty miles south to a farm he had heard about. Needless to say, the farmer liked us a whole lot more than the man that introduced us and over a decade later we have returned every week- even starting a second and third week with guests from our home town there.
Our crew has waxed and waned with different composure of guests, all special and all dear. There are years with dirty jokes and poker games- there have been years with colleagues that couldn’t leave their work at home- but it was good for work.
This year was particularly special to me because it was the year of father and son with a couple of uncles and nephews and plenty of brothers. A trip full of colleague dentists at the core- but family in feel- your dearest people with mentorship throughout. We have taken boys before, but young and fully occupying the attention of safety. Our boys came this year as seasoned hunters. Taller than us. Better shots. Curious. Courteous to carry our bags. Mature enough to take the life lessons. I never met my grandfathers and watched in emotional awe as my oldest son walked and shot with my father.
It was a year. The Corona year- yes, but so much more. I lost both of my grandmothers, my wife’s grandmother too. I lost my young favorite uncle, that was like a brother. The business that I’ve invested the energy of my whole adult life to was forced to close for longer than it shoulda and ensuing a struggle beyond my control, taking an undeserved attention. I was diagnosed with cancer. Nothing crazy- transitional cell carcinoma in my bladder. I had it removed eight days before wheels up in a really uncomfortable manner. Needless to say, I never imagined that I would spend a perfect weekend with a long vantage of all the people I love- sitting on an ice pack in the brisk thirty degree prairie air as I followed along on an ATV. It hurt- but the vantage was amazing- but the hunting was amazing.
After a previous year of queer crop yield and wet fields- this was the powerball year of a decade. A bumper corn crop cut at just the ideal time to push more the birds into the grass, ditches, slues, and food plots. We packed for cold and it was. It was dry, but perfectly punctuated by a Christmas-like snow on the third day. When the shotgun and jumping up was to much, I turned to my camera- hoping to take one picture that I would remember forever. Memories will not fade and should suffice, but here I share these images with you.