The Game Plains

The rich prairie near the upper Missouri River may help a hunter discover the essence of his sport.

It's that sweet spot in autumn, when, on the east side of Montana, you can, beneath brilliant blue skies and in shirtsleeve weather, with cottonwood leaves cascading around you like so many gold coins, hunt pheasants, sharptail grouse, ducks, geese, Hungarian partridge, and antelope, all in the same day, and all within sight of the same mountain, or the same lone puffy cloud.

We head east, out into the plains once inhabited by the First People--the Blackfeet--and into the geography subsequently claimed by Jefferson and the new republic, and explored then by his emissaries, Lewis and Clark. Our plan is as loose as it is ambitious. Elizabeth and I will check in at our favorite cheap little hotel and be out in the stubble at dawn; should we be fortunate enough to find an antelope, we'll take it from there. I have it in mind to borrow an old canoe from the hotel and drift one of the slower, quieter tributaries to the Missouri, stopping on every gravel bar I come to, and getting out and searching those protected thickets for pheasants.

I have in mind paddling silently, sticking close to shore, and jumping ducks and geese, too. I have in mind doing it all within 24 hours--to freeze time in its tracks, and ignore its passage. To hunt not as if I have to return home the next evening, but instead as if I have all the time in the world: to go out onto that plain and see it certainly not as Lewis and Clark saw it, nor as the Blackfeet and, if any such existed, their progenitors saw it--but to see it as it is now, pretty much unpeopled and, though latticed with wheatfields in the high country above the great gouged gorge of the Missouri, still productive.

Should I get an antelope, there's a recipe I have that involves grilling an entire quarter after marinating it all day in a dry rub composed of kosher salt, freshly ground coarse black pepper, toasted cumin seed, cinnamon, brown sugar, thyme, marjoram, and oregano, with shards of cinnamon stick embedded in the meat. You grill it over glowing mesquite coals for about an hour. I don't mean to presume luck or success, it's just that I can't help but think about that recipe.

A Propitious Beginning

In the evening we go into the small town to find a steak and play a game of pool. Some football team in which I recall taking a keen interest at the time is playing on the overhead TV, though even now I can't remember which one. I can remember, however, what needs remembering: the way we didn't see another car or truck on any of those back roads all day, and the rattle of yellow cottonwood leaves. There are, inexplicably, still a few mourning doves around, and that dry clatter of their wings as they leap up from their dust baths is a sound from childhood in Texas, welcome and familiar to me. I have a few recipes for them, as well. When we are young we tend to think of the quarry we hunt in terms of sport, and as we turn toward middle age, we tend to think of it more as meat. When we are firmly into the middle of middle age, I believe we think of it in terms of some ideal balance between the two: savoring the quality of the experience more than ever, yet also desiring the delicious extravagance of wild game--clean meat, gotten fairly.

We're lucky, right from the start. Not long after first light, we spy a herd of antelope right where I have seen them in numerous years past, the impenetrable middle of a square section of stubble, protected from the likes of me as if housed safely within a square-mile cage constructed of invisible iron bars. It's not really a cage, however, because I can enter it--can begin creeping toward them--from any point on the map, anywhere along the perimeter of that square. It's unlike a cage, too, in that they are just as free to leave it, at any time they wish, and at any location.

Where they stand in the center of the grid, they are only about 800 yards away, but as soon as I play my hand and enter their landscape, gripping my puny firestick, they slide away like beads on an abacus, 900 yards, then 1,000, kicking up little puffs of white dust as they haul ass away. Surely they know I can't catch them; they must turn on their jets out of boredom: as if wishing, perhaps, for the return of the great North American cheetah, 10,000 years gone now, which sculpted them, and kept them in such fine and precise shape.

We have a plan. Elizabeth lets me out on one side of the mile-wide cage, and I gather a cluster of tumbleweed from the borrow ditch, make a little fort there behind the ditch's 6-inch-high lip, and watch. She drives around the section to the other side of the cage, parks, gets out, and begins walking across the prairie toward the antelope.

The antelope are far more concerned with her approach than my tumbleweed clump. As they skitter from her, coming my way, I roll the clump along in front of me, the tumbleweed tumbling wherever the antelope veer, with the antelope hopefully not noticing that the tumbleweed's movements are irrespective of wind direction. It is ridiculous, would be embarrassing, if there were anyone out here to see me.

In the end, it works out. They pass near enough for a shot, which I later pace off at about 280 yards--long for me, and my grandfather's old .270, but about as close as you'll ever hope to get in this country. One antelope falls, a young buck, while the rest of the herd, does and fawns, continues on into the future, as fleet as if convinced the cheetahs were still behind them.

Homebody Bird

After cleaning the animal and reducing it sufficiently to fit into the giant ice chest in the back, we drive on farther into the country, driving leisurely, with the windows down, sipping coffee, fully aware of our good fortune and smart enough to savor it. Everything's perfect, there's not another human soul visible to the horizon in any direction, we've got our health, and now we have enough antelope meat for a full coming year of occasional, ceremonial meals.

I'm aiming us toward a secret sharptail place I know, so perfect for that species that doubtless it is ancient and immemorial, inhabited by them for as long as there has been land and sky and sharptails. It is a treasure, a scrap of mind-map that perhaps I will share with grandchildren, rather than leaving any trust fund, and just as hard-gotten.

There is no pleasure quite like that of receiving such bounty: healthy, delicious meat, the wide open landscape, and time--if not all the time in the world, time that is nonetheless amplified by the beauty of the day, and the season.

Sharptails are curious birds, loyal to a place beyond all others, it seems to me. Hunt a landscape for 10 or 20 years, and eventually you'll assemble quite a roster of local hotspots, generous landowners, and priceless secrets, the knowledge of which increases your chances of success dramatically. It's a knowledge that becomes more fine-tuned every year. You spend a few years learning where a species of bird hangs out, and then over the next few years you learn how it behaves early in the season versus later.

Still more years pass and you learn how birds distribute themselves in years of low population densities versus high. More years pass and you plug in the variables of wind, sun, temperature, snow cover. A lifetime is hurtling past now but still you are learning, there is still always something new.

Certain patterns begin to repeat themselves. A certain spot on the landscape gives up the same kind of individual animal year after year, and maybe it's genes, or maybe it's a physical fashioning by that place, and the predisposition of a certain type of individual toward a certain landscape.

The birds that prefer the gnarlier thickets acting the same way, running the same paths, stopping in the same places--haven't you seen this all before, and if you have, why does it grow more wonderful, not less, with each passing year?

The dogs are impatient, having had to bide their time during all of that antelope-and-tumbleweed foolishness, and while the day still retains some morning coolness, I turn the old one, Superman, out first into the sharptail place, the beautiful rolling hills of calf-high shortgrass. The old long-abandoned homestead lies about a half mile below, at the base of these sloping hills, and we have hunted our way there and back many times in years past, but no more. Superman's hind legs are giving out; he has a cancer impinging on his spinal nerves and grows tired easily. It will be his last season, and his enthusiasm for the hunt is vastly disproportionate to his physical limitations, so that I have to carefully manage and monitor him to avoid stranding him too far from the truck and having to carry him, in the humiliation of gracelessness, back to the truck.

At this time of day, the sharptails generally lie a little farther on, beyond Superman's cruising range, but it's a beautiful thing just to see him enter the field he has entered so many other times. The peculiar way time eventually and totally collapses for a hunter, in which the memory of a certain hunt, a certain bird, from 10 years ago, seems to have happened only a moment ago, is poised and waiting to happen again, always again, in one more step, one more breath.

The sharptails are just a little too far away, today; the morning is beginning to grow warmer, and reluctantly I bring Superman back around toward the truck, angling to get him there before he collapses and knows diminishment. It's just a bird, after all, and we've killed thousands. We'll get them next time. Or in the next lifetime.

We drive on back to town, still not spying another human. Some days the distance between loneliness and isolation is very small, almost indistinguishable, but other days the distance seems infinite: as if the two cannot be farther apart, and have no relation whatsoever. The aloneness is delicious, fantastic, intoxicating.

We nap on the sagging mattress in the little hotel room with the black-and-white TV droning quietly, a fuzzy image flickering of some football game, and the scent of moldering cottonwood leaves wafting through the open curtains.

Visions of Birds and Buffalo

When we awaken, the old dog is sleeping hard, but the young dog is ready to go. We walk out into the junkyard and examine the dented aluminum canoes overturned and tumbleweed-shrouded there, searching for the one with the fewest leaks, pinhole or otherwise.

While we slept, the blue skies mixed with gray shoals, a pearlescent haze that has chilled the remaining day, and with it there is a wind. I don't think it's snow weather quite yet, but it's that time of year when the snow is only days or at the most weeks away.

I intend to have a couple of ducks to take with me, and maybe even a fat goose, if everything goes just right. A brilliant rooster or two would be most excellent, as well. Am I being greedy, or am I just being alive, sensate and hungry? Only I probably know the answer to that, in my heart, and I try to stay on this side of that narrow distance between hunger and gluttony. I have no doubt that time and the world have built into and wired within the scaffolding of our existence an evolutionary advantage for this burning to be so bright, at this time of year; for this hunger to be so ebullient.

We select our canoe, the one that appears most riverworthy, and as we pull it from beneath a couple of decades' worth of tumbleweeds, invisible vapors that seem a lot like loneliness stir. You encounter such pockets, here and there, out on the Great Plains, wherever the white immigrants passed through and sought to set down roots and make a stand; and despite the natural bounty of the land, it still hasn't really happened yet, and I don't think it will.

But what a landscape for a hunter!

We slide the craft into the historic river, the Marias, upstream of the great Missouri. For a few days, Lewis and Clark thought this was the river whose headwaters they sought. We paddle down the quick waters, the old dog quivering with focus and meaning, and never mind that he has less than a year to live; none of us knows that. We glide past high bluffs in which buffalo skulls are buried--we don't see any today but glance up occasionally, having heard stories of how, after each sloughing-away, new ones are revealed, like buried treasure--and we stop at the first tangled cottonwood stand we come to.

There are the familiar long tridents of pheasant tracks stippling the mud, and we ease into the whipsmack slender branches, with the dogs pushing the birds toward the other end of the island. They flush wild, one rooster against the hazy ball that is the sun, and a dozen hens, with no way to shoot at the rooster without risking knocking down a half dozen hens as well. Did the rooster do that on purpose? Who can say?

We walk back to our canoe, climb in, and float on farther down, to the next stepping-stone island, and start all over.

It's hard hunting. The frequency of floods keeps the undergrowth cleared out, so there's nowhere for the birds to hunker; instead, they race through the beaver-chewed jail bars of cottonwood whips, reach the far end of the island, and launch, while you are still far behind them, clawing your way through the maze, face-welted and eye-teary from cottonwood slapback.

There are no geese or ducks today; they have heard the commotion. It's not a very graceful descent. Maybe it was easier in the old days. Maybe the game was less wild. How strange to think that the colorful roosters weren't even here, that short a time ago. Maybe one day the buffalo will be back, real buffalo peering woolly-headed over the bluffs at the sight of a man and a dog floating down the winding little river beneath a -gunmetal-​gray sky at the edge of the season's first snow, gathering as much wild meat as they can, with brightly colored birds, and wild ducks and geese, spilling out ahead of them like jeweled confetti cast into the wind. Real buffalo standing above the bluff-buried bones of their ancestors, which in turn are deposited above the hunter below them, as another hunter paddles around the bend, delighted to be in the present.