The Reunion Hunt: A Remarkable Story of Tragedy and Friendship

A tragic accident led to their unlikely friendship. Now, more than 40 years since their last time in the woods together, the author reconnects with the man who first took him hunting.

I’d forgotten about his long stride, how quickly he covered ground. I remember practically running behind Keith Gleason, holding one of those old olive-green ­periscope-shaped Boy Scout flashlights in one hand, a homemade climbing stand banging the back of my legs as I tried to keep up. That was 40 years ago. Now, climbing a ridge in the North Carolina hardwoods, I’m determined not to lag behind. The logging road takes a sharp bend, and Keith stops for a breather.

“Look familiar?” he asks.

It’s a curious question to pose in the dark, when there’s nothing to see but intersecting tree branches overhead and the next few feet of the path ahead. But I’m not sure that’s what Keith means. I’m not even sure he expects an answer. He’s quiet for a moment, then turns up the trail. We climb.

There's much of my childhood that I only faintly recall, but I remember this: Growing up, I dreamed of becoming a hunter. In some of my earliest memories, I am moving through the woods behind my house, a pellet rifle or small bow in hand, barefoot, feeling for twigs with the pads of my feet as I practiced stalking for whitetails. There was a jumble of busted-up concrete, dumped in the woods years ago, that gave me a vantage point across a small bottom. I called that spot the White Rocks. Perched there, I would watch for rabbits and squirrels. I would hope for a deer to emerge through the saplings.

Except it was all make-believe. Those woods behind my home were city woods. There wasn’t a deer within miles. I never carried a real gun. I’d never seen a rifle. No one in my family hunted. None of my friends were hunters. I had never even met a hunter. While it’s hard to overstate how badly I wanted to hunt as a kid, it’s equally difficult to overemphasize how far-fetched it seemed that I would ever get the chance.

The author (left) and Gleason plan their hunt.

Nonetheless, by the time I was 10 or 11 years old, I was consumed by the idea of hunting. I was a walking preteen wannabe cliché: I squirreled away copies of Field & Stream and Sports Afield. I sent off for every free classified offer. I enrolled in the mail-in correspondence course offered by the old Northwest School of Taxidermy.

I’ve often wondered about the roots of this obsession. I was always drawn to nature, but early on I sensed a need to be more than an observer. Maybe it was linked to my early love of biographies. I devoured the tales of fur trappers and early pioneers. I knew Jim Bridger’s and Daniel Boone’s stories like kids today can cite Heisman statistics. Reading of their adventures was like living in a parallel realm—a reality that was just as real as my own, yet just out of reach.

I remember asking myself, over and over: Would I ever hunt?

Could I imagine a set of circumstances that would lead me to those places in the magazines, the woods where giant bucks ghosted in the morning, where ducks sprang from the marshes in a slanting rain? I could not.

Then, in the fall of 1974, everything changed.

➞The Walk In

Our headlamps light up the late fall color along the logging road, as if we’re walking through a kaleidoscope. The woods carry the sharp edge of tannin from the oaks, a slight tinge of decay. It’s a two-track logging trail, and we start off shoulder to shoulder. But at some point I drop back a few steps, matching Keith’s stride. We climb the ridge, incrementally, and as I listen to our footfalls in the leaves it occurs to me how different it was with Keith and me back then. There was nothing incremental about our meeting: There was a single defining shift at which my life took an irrevocable turn—and what I do now and the things I love and who I am changed because of that moment.

More precisely, there were two moments.

My father loved to fly. He saved part of a slim salary working at a brake shop in my native High Point, N.C., to pay for flying lessons. I was little in those days, 8 or 9 years old. When he was in the air on his first solo flight, my brother and I were playing behind the airstrip, climbing a steep mud bank. I fell on a stick and slashed my face. The control tower called my father on the radio to flag him back to the ground. He asked if the gash was life threatening. It wasn't, so my father flew. Stitches could wait. Dreams couldn't.

The author’s dad.

He also loved the woods and took my mother, brother, and me camping up and down the North Carolina mountains. I remember bear tracks in the mud beside our tent in the Great Smokies. I can see him skinny-dipping in a mountain stream. He was a kid with kids, a mid-20s Air Force veteran who played football with the rest of us in the backyard. When his flying career took off, he moved into flight instruction and small-plane sales. He could sense a dream within his grasp.

By the time I was 13, my father was working full-time for a small avia­tion company. And then, a turn in the road. I was walking home from school, rounding the long curve in McGuinn Drive, when I noticed a line of cars in my family’s driveway. The plane had gone down in a field up near Pilot Mountain. My father’s friends broke the news. They wouldn’t yet allow me to see my mother, distraught in the back bedroom. Frightened and panicked, I fled to the woods. I was found there, some time later, standing on the White Rocks, staring into the trees.

A month after my father’s death, Keith Gleason, a 25-year-old man in our church, asked my mother if he could take me squirrel hunting the next Saturday. Keith had helped my dad with the boy’s group at church, and though he knew my father, there was no strong connection between them. He was fresh out of the Marine Corps, newly married, with time on his hands and enough intuition to know that a young grieving boy might need a distraction. My mother, grateful for the gesture, said yes.

I couldn’t sleep. I could think of nothing else. The boys at our church already idolized Keith, this Marine sharpshooter with the gorgeous wife and a battered Jeep Comanche pickup truck—the coolest rig ever. We hunted squirrels that Saturday, and again the Saturday after that, and again the Saturday after that.

And that’s how it began: From junior high to college, I hunted with Keith from one end of North Carolina to the other. We chased squirrels, deer, bear, and groundhogs. We camped in plastic lean-tos in the Great Smoky Mountains and sweltered in canvas tents pitched beside cornfields in the coastal plain. He taught me to shoot a rimfire, a deer rifle, and a bow. We drove thousands of miles in the dark, unaware that the path we shared would lead me to a lifetime—and a career—of hunting and fishing across North America.

I lost my father. I found my way. A man I didn’t know took me hunting.

But once I left home for college in 1979, Keith and I never hunted together again. We reconnected for a time a few years after college, when I wrote a story for Reader's Digest on my first squirrel hunt with him. He invited me to hunt Eastern gobblers on his mountain place. We talked briefly about another try at groundhogs in the Blue Ridge. But by then my career was taking off. Plus, I had kids and a mortgage. I had excuses.

It seems inconceivable to me now that I let Keith slip out of my life with such completeness. So it was sheepishly, then, that I dialed Keith up with the idea for a reunion hunt. I should not have been surprised when he responded with unquestioned enthusiasm, as if we’d been hanging around each other for years. We talked about one of the famed whitetail lodges of Alabama or Georgia. I made a few calls to friends in Kansas. Even Alberta was on the list. Deep down, though, we both knew where we had to go.

From left: Gleason on a hunt. The author with friends.

➞Back Where It Began

The Uwharrie Mountains rise from the west-central North Carolina farm country in rolling crests of oaks and hickories, rounded by the ages. Five hundred million years ago, they soared as high as the Himalayas, but they’ve been weathered to their bony foundations. Today, they are mountains in name only—the highest peaks are little more than 1,000 feet in elevation—but they wear their age like an old man in a rumpled quilt. Creeks cut deep under quartz bluffs, with rocky outcrops cresting long, loping ridges, and flat ground is as rare as the gold a few hardy miners still seek with a pan. The Uwharrie National Forest covers 50,000 acres of the biggest woods for miles around. Deer hunters hit it hard.

Keith has done his homework, scouting the area we’ll hunt, which comes as no surprise. I recall his focus, forged in the Marine Corps. He has close-set blue eyes and tightly cropped salt-and-pepper hair; he’s a big man, in great shape at 65 years old. He looks like Steve McQueen, who sits astride a motorcycle on a poster inside Keith’s basement. He plays competitive soccer, skis the Alps, races ORVs, flies his own airplane, and rides a Harley.

He scouted this less-traveled corner of the Uwharries, the ravines and ridges where he took me deer hunting the first time, and many times after. While scouting, he bumped a nice buck and marked two treestand sites. After our mid-trail breather and another 20-minute walk, our headlamp beams catch a flag of orange surveyor’s tape, and Keith pulls up short.

“Off in the woods here, maybe 20 yards, there’s an opening where you can see pretty good,” he whispers. “Good luck.”

I step off the trail as Keith continues climbing, his headlamp blinking in and out behind trees. I find a promising pine and run the climber up. With each bite of the stand’s blade, each foot I ascend in the dark, the years fall away like the bark scaled from the tree.

Keith had just been discharged from the Marine Corps when we first met, and I remember boasting to my friends that I was hunting with a Marine sniper, fresh from Vietnam. I was enthralled by the fact that I was wingman to such a tough guy.

He was a disciplined, passionate rifleman, and early on rifle shooting became a bond that defined our friendship. We both loved to hunt groundhogs in the pastures and farm fields along the New River. Keith was a grain-counting, reloading fiend who had tuned a Remington 700 Varmint Master to spit out .22/250 handloads that would crack a walnut at 400 yards. It was a bull-barreled beast of a gun that I had to carry with two hands, but there was no coddling from the Marine. From our very first hunt, it was mano a mano. We traded shots at woodchucks from 200 and 300 yards or farther, and if it wasn’t fair that a 13-year-old neophyte couldn’t shoot as well as a jungle marksman, well, then, shoot better.

I used to get so balled up before our first hunts. At home, I would lie in bed in cold sweats, practicing trigger pulls in my mind. When I mentioned to Keith, the night before this reunion hunt, how I felt at the time that it was unfair to make a kid compete with a Marine sniper, he laughed. “But it taught you to make that first shot count, didn’t it?” he said. Then he added: “But I was never a sniper in the Marines. I don’t know where you came up with that.”

As Keith went on to explain, he never served in the war theater and was never shipped overseas. While he graduated at the top of his class at Parris Island, was known for marksmanship, and was given orders for Vietnam, a last-minute countermand switched his fate—and likely mine. He spent two Marine Corps years stateside, guarding ammunition depots with a top-secret clearance and shoot-on-sight orders.

I was surprised but not exactly stunned. It's a phenomenon I've read about: Memory is a poor historian. Psychologists speak of the retrieval processes in our minds that color what actually happened into what we remember happening. And trauma doesn't have to be a part of the mix. "History," Voltaire wrote, "is fables agreed upon." Tell a story long enough, and you start to believe it.

Somewhere along the way, I had layered the reality of Keith’s military service with a veneer of myth, a lie of my own making. For 40 years, I would have sworn to anyone who asked that Keith Gleason was a Vietnam sniper. It had become truth to me, and a meaningful truth, for there was some added measure of healing in knowing that I’d been taken under the tutelage of a decorated veteran. Along the way I had fabricated in my head a kind of symbiotic relationship: Keith and I needed each other—the kid who’d lost his dad and the soldier who came home with a soul scarred by horrors he would not discuss.

I’ve run into this mythmaking of memory before. My father’s plane crashed into a field at the base of Pilot Mountain, not too far from the Uwharries. At his funeral, our pastor spoke of his final moments—of engine failure and of my father steering the limping plane toward the salvation of a cleared field only to pull the craft back to the skies when he spotted a farmer on a tractor below. His dying act of grace was the gift of life for another.

I didn’t question that story for years. Like the story of Keith’s war service, it was a meaningful truth to me—something that illuminated a dark place and made other truths less painful and frightening. These were the stories I needed to calibrate a spinning compass. How much truth is in this story of my dad’s final moments, I cannot say. But I wonder. I’ve gone as far as to find an online FAA report of my father’s plane crash. I have it bookmarked on my laptop but have never clicked on the link. I’m not sure whether it’s fear that holds me back. But I’ve been to the White Rocks before. I don’t need to return.

I waited 40 years to parse out some of the truths of my relationship with Keith. I’ve yet to walk to the end of the path with my dad.

In a three-hour sit, all I see is a single whitetail, moving off into a thicket. Just enough of a deer to know that a deer is here. Just enough to quicken my heart and remind me: I am hunting. But it’s early in the game, and it’s no fun to tag out too soon. I clamber down and meet Keith on the fire road. On the way out of the woods he tells me something else I’d never known: This ridge was the very first place Keith ever hunted. He was after deer. His father wasn’t much of a hunter, but his son was crazy to go, so he’d brought him here.

➞Still Searching

For the afternoon hunt I find a promising setup: an old fire trail that dead-ends into a cul-de-sac in a saddle between two ridges. I climb a white oak, acorns raining down. It’s a mixed omen. So much mast is on the ground that a deer could fill its belly and not move 5 feet, plus the rut is still a week or two off. But the best time to hunt is any time you can steal. I have four hours till the end of shooting light. It will be a long sit, but this is what I’ve come to love: the incremental stilling of my presence in the woods. The ripples of disturbance move out and flatten, my intrusion forgotten. It only comes with hours in a tree.

I have scant recollection of the years immediately following my father's death. I've long thought it odd, and a bit unsettling, that I remember so little of that time. From the age of 13 to about 16, I can summon very few memories. I've figured this for a protective cocooning of my psyche, or perhaps an outright excising of the trauma that visited the most formative period in a young man's life.

Except for those hunting trips with Keith. They’ve been preserved in a kind of spiritual amber, and I can summon up hunting memory after hunting memory in astonishing detail: a doe hanging from a gambrel in Keith’s garage, its neck oddly canted with rigor mortis; the metallic tinge of C-rations eaten under a military tarp; the drum of rain on the plastic walls of a homemade bear-camp tent; the musky smell of an arrow smeared with blood and guts; following Keith as we tracked a fox in the snow, stretching my gait to place my boots in his footprints.

There: a deer. In the dog-hair saplings on the edge of the fire road. Not the whole deer, but the deer of memory—pieces and parts among the thicket. It’s like a deer made of sticks, just the articulated forelegs, a curve of the chest. It moves into the thicket where it becomes less distinct, a brown blob, branches rocking with its movement, and then it is gone. My heartbeat slows. I wait and watch. When I was a child, I read many times that in order to see deer in the woods, you did not look for deer, but parts of deer—glints of antler, the horizontal line of a belly or back. In the woods behind my home, I would practice looking for whitetails. I forced myself to look between the spaces, between the trees, tunneling my eyes into the dark voids, training my mind to hunt, looking for the deer that were not there.

With 10 minutes of shooting light left, two yearlings step out into the fire trail’s cul-de-sac. They are 50 yards away, and I track them with the scope, then pick apart the dog-hair saplings, looking for the mama doe. Getting a deer out of here would be a two-hour drag, but worth every step. The yearlings feed, never feeling the crosshairs on their chests, then slip back into the woods. I never see the doe. The woods are lit with moonlight as I make the hike down the ridge.

Later that night, in the hotel room, Keith and I quiz each other on what we remember from our years of hunting together. I remember, on a bear hunt to the Great Smokies, bathing in Fontana Lake with Lava soap, the only kind that would lather in cold water. I remember the old cars in the water, the remains of a copper mine. We both remember the Wise Potato Chips sign that marked the turnoff to the squirrel woods. We remember that one sunny October day when it seemed like rattlesnakes were everywhere. Keith remembers letting me smoke an occasional camp cigar. My mom would have killed him.

He asks if I remember the bear and the Indians. We were in the mountains again, this time with my church youth group, which Keith helped lead. I refused to get off the bus to shop through Cherokee, he says, because I was furious at the treatment of the black bears in the cages and the Indian “chiefs” who charged $5 for a photo. I don’t remember any of that.

“It’s amazing to me,” I tell him, when the stories lull and the silence grows, “how much time we spent together.” Then I let a question hang in the air, unspoken. Why did you do it? Weekend after weekend, year after year, why did you give yourself to this boy? Keith is quiet for a long moment, so long that I think this will simply be another of the unanswered questions. But he’s sorting through a timeline I’m unaware of, and answers with a chronology I don’t expect.

“You know,” he says, “I don’t remember anyone ever telling me: ‘Hey, you should take that boy hunting.’ I just knew you were going to need something. You wouldn’t know this, but my dad had a real heart for helping the down and out. Money, food, places to stay. He was always trying to help people get back on their feet. I guess I have a little of that in me. One of my favorite Bible verses is Proverbs 27:17, where it talks about how iron sharpens iron, and how one man should sharpen another. That is so true. Just like me and you hanging out. We made each other strong, even back then.”

➞Familiar Territory

The next morning we hike back toward the ridge. At a dry creek bed, I tell Keith how to find my stand site from the previous evening. I walk 10 yards down the creek bed to my own climber, stashed in the woods. When I look back, Keith’s headlamp flickers through the trees. It is the first time I’ve ever sent him to a treestand.

The eastern sky reddens as I ascend a ridge crowned with a sapling thicket. I’d scouted this spot at midday yesterday, trailing a line of fresh rubs, and it’s the kind of place you recognize immediately—a hard interior edge deep inside the woods, just what a cruising buck likes to travel. I run the climber up a stout red oak and settle in for the wait. It wasn’t far from here, within a mile at most, where I used a climbing treestand for the first time.

The woods begin to lighten, dark shapes appearing in the black void. I breathe deeply, settling into the stillness. I crave this feeling, when every moment is fraught: You must weigh the possible reward of movement against the possible cost of being discovered. I swivel my head, slow as drifting fog, and pick apart the spaces between the saplings, between the tree trunks, between the light and the shadow. If a deer suddenly appears in the open, I’ll see it without looking for it. I focus on the interstitial spaces for the clues I might find there.

I have missed my father in all the ways one might imagine, and while I've made my peace with loss, I was blindsided not so long ago with a surprising resurgence of grief. As I grew into my 30s and 40s, hunting more frequently in distant locations, I began to meet fathers and sons at hunting camps, men and their boys who shared the stories of their days spent in deer stands and duck blinds together. I was staggered by waves of fresh anguish. I felt as if I'd stumbled across a foundation stone that was rotten and crumbling, one I had never suspected. The sight of a dad helping his kid out of waders would send me scurrying behind the truck in tears. For a few years, I would find myself weeping alone in my treestand or out in the woods beyond hearing and firelight, when faced with yet another reminder of what I never had. Thirty years after my father's death, this new aspect of what I had missed, and was missing still, sent me through a second mourning, a tough few seasons of a pain reawakened. And for the first time I was beginning to understand how much my father missed, as well.

It wouldn’t take a psychologist to recognize my overcompensations. When it comes to spending time with my kids, I am a compulsive planner. Markie and I took our first father-daughter trip when she was in the second grade, spending a week on Oregon’s Rogue River. I’ve hauled her to remote regions of Quebec, Honduras, Costa Rica, and a half dozen states. From September to February, my son, Jack, and I are near constant companions in the field. I know what I’m doing. I’m not sure it’s the healthiest approach to parenting, but I am haunted and shaped by the memories I do not possess.

So here is the clearest memory I have of my father: He was sitting cross-legged on the living-room floor when I leapt on him from behind, and in the midst of our father-son wrestling match, I wriggled free and took off running—out the back door, down the gravel road, to the woods. My territory. I couldn’t have been more than 10 or 11. By the time he pulled his shoes on and took up the chase, I’d slipped down into the creek, and backtracked upstream like a deer on the run. I was panting, stifling my laughter, as I watched Daddy through the briers, just a few feet above, stalking the creek bank. Looking for me.

At 10:25, I’m thinking about climbing down, even though we’d agreed to hunt until 11 a.m. I get a text from Keith: “Let’s stay till noon.”

He is still one step ahead.

➞The Walk Out

We can feel the clock ticking on our last evening hunt. We’ve seen few deer and joke about how it’s just like it was in the old days. I started hunting with Keith when deer populations in the South were abysmally low, and we’d go a month without even seeing a whitetail. In fact, I have never killed a deer with Keith, and we both badly want to close the circle. The buck he’d bumped while scouting these woods earlier had been moving along a rub line, and Keith figured it was headed toward an overgrown clear-cut at the foot of the mountain. After lunch, we shoulder our climbers, and I move downhill as Keith climbs the ridge one last time, his orange hat enveloped in the riot of reds and oranges that mark the Southern hardwoods in October.

I work my way toward the timber cut and find a tall pine with views of woods on two opposing slopes. I fret for a moment that the evening’s cooling air will pool behind me, scent-fouling the heavy cover along the creek, but I’m also counting on deer side-hilling the steep contours above, giving me a shot as they move into the oaks to feed. I clip a carabiner into a treestand harness, and as I’ve done countless times, in countless places, I breathe words of thanks: I am hunting.

Given our history, given the weight of this trip, if ever a time seemed destined for a deer, this is the moment. But hunting doesn’t work that way. When a whitetail comes into view, feeding slowly along the hillside, it drifts into the dark timber before presenting a shot. I sit and watch and repeat the hunter’s silent mantra as the shadows grow: It can happen. It will happen.

I remember this: Those first Saturday morning hunts, years and years ago, my mother would wake me in the dark, and I'd smell scrambled eggs and chipped beef on toast, and pull waffle-weave long johns on under blue jeans. Saturday after Saturday, until the years turned into a lifetime. And this, I will always remember: For a very long time, I could hardly believe it. I would not believe he was actually coming, until the headlights of Keith's Jeep washed across the glass panes of the back door, and my mother would hug me tightly before she set me loose into another world.

Twilight turns to night, and there is no deer. The hunt is over.

In the dark, as I work the climber down the tree, I’m overwhelmed for a moment with a wave of emotion. I’d come here to hunt with Keith to commemorate his acts of grace, yes, but also to tease apart the vines of grief and loss and gratitude that have gripped my relationship with Keith Gleason—and with my own father, Hubert Edward “Buddy” Nickens Jr.—for 42 years. By searching for a clearer vision of who he was and who we were together, I have a clearer vision of who I am still working to be.

Now we walk out of the woods—Keith and I, perhaps all three of us, together—quietly, as much to keep from spooking deer as to honor the grace of these last few moments. We’ve talked more in the last 48 hours than in the previous 40 years. Ahead in the dark, I am thinking that I can’t believe we waited to do this for so long, and that I am ashamed of how little gratitude I’ve paid to the man who took me hunting, who changed nearly everything about the life I would have.

Keith whispers: “Man, I hate getting skunked.”

“I know what you mean,” I reply.

But it’s a lie. I have never left the woods feeling that I’ve wasted my time. I have never walked out of the woods empty-handed. And it doesn’t feel that way tonight. It has never felt that way, and never could, because of the man who walks through the darkness behind me.

_Photographs by Miller Mobley _