We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs. Learn more ›
Welcome to Drive Week. To celebrate the launch of our brand-new Drive Issue, all week long we’ll be publishing stories about road trips, hard (and rewarding) hunts, classic truck guns, and more. So, buckle up and enjoy.
I’m too excited to sleep. I’ve spent most of the night packing, and now that that’s finished, I just lie in bed, awake, staring at the ceiling and running through the contents of every bag in my mind.
Did I pack the grouse loads or just pheasant ammo? Did I purchase the magazine plug for my 12-gauge for the duck hunt? Do I have the right Allen key to adjust my bow? Should I pack a .22 in case we go after squirrels? Have I pinned enough elk hunting spots?
The night bleeds into morning and, before my alarm has a chance to go off, I know it’s time to leave. I step outside into the October predawn and fire up the truck to warm the engine. I have 50 hard days on the road ahead of me, zigzagging across the country to hunt everything from birds to bull elk. The journey seems so big that, at the moment, it almost doesn’t feel real. My breath clouds in the cold air before the headlights. One stop at a time, I tell myself—and I know that if we’re going to reach our first spot in time, we need to get going.
My wife, Eva, comes out of the house and climbs into the truck. We hit the road. Suddenly, the lack of sleep no longer seems to matter. Now that the road trip is officially underway, I’m too excited to be tired.
Part 1: Grouse And Woodcock Way U.P. There
Two days after leaving our home in New York, Eva and I pull into the driveway of Dan Canedo’s hunting cabin, in Michigan’s north woods, just below the Upper Peninsula. It’s late when we arrive, so we open the truck’s rooftop tent and hit the sack. I rise early the next morning, and from the canopy of our truck camper, I look down and see Canedo, along with Dave Kuritsky and Larry Giordano, all walking their dogs outside Kuritsky’s truck—which is hard to miss.
Dubbed the Sweet Rig, Kuritsky’s Chevrolet 3500 has an aluminum box on the back outfitted with kennels, cabinets, a water tank, and a refrigerator. The box also sports a custom paint job and stickers that Kuritsky has collected over his years of dog training, road-tripping, and bird hunting across the U.S. As tricked out as my overlanding loaner is, it doesn’t have the same kind of character as the Sweet Rig.
Kuritsky is the ideal hunter to tag along with at the start of our trip. I first met him in 2019, while I was writing a story about upland hunters who spend the season on the road. For the past 25 years, he’s brought his dogs and a few buddies along on an annual drive in search of birds. They’ve hunted just about everywhere, and Eva and I catch them as they stop for a grouse and woodcock hunt at Canedo’s camp.
We follow the Sweet Rig down a network of dirt roads, sloshing through puddles and potholes, surrounded by sun-dappled aspens and conifers all on fire with yellow and orange light. We park in a field that’s been cut from the young forest, then unload Kuritsky’s German shorthaired pointer, Bling, and load our guns. Then the five of us begin to work our way through the grouse cover. Bling cuts in front of us across the trail back and forth. She operates like a machine designed to find every bird in the woods. While she’s out of sight, we hear her rustling in the leaves until something catches her nose. Then the rustling stops, and Kuritsky’s GPS beeps, signaling that Bling is on point.
We move quickly but tread lightly to keep from busting the bird before we’re able to get into position. Canedo puts a woodcock up, and it flies right at my chest. For a moment, I confuse my shotgun for a baseball bat and take a swing. Then I catch Bling out of the corner of my eye. She gives me an expression that says, Well, go ahead and shoot.
The bird is behind me now, and I quickly pivot and mount my gun. I fire twice at what few feathers I see peeking through the leaves. My first shot breaks off a tree branch, but the second sends the bird arcing downward. We’re officially on the board.
The rest of the day unfolds like a fireworks display with gunfire, wing beats, and brilliant fall colors. We change dogs on the hour; each time, my pockets full of shotgun shells are lighter and our gamebags a little heavier. At sunset, we punch through the last bit of grouse cover and end up on the road heading back toward the trucks—but Canedo’s dog Chestnut doesn’t want any of this to end. He points at every chipmunk and rabbit he sees as if he knows that means he’ll get to stay out longer.
When Chestnut darts back into the forest and goes on point again, we pay little attention—until a woodcock bursts above the treeline. The bird coasts down the road over our trucks and drops into a pine forest.
“I’ve got the bird marked,” Kuritsky says. “Go ahead and send Chestnut in.”
Fifty yards into the pines, Chestnut straightens like an arrow, and this time we know it’s for real. Everybody fans out to cover a shooting lane. Canedo flushes the bird, and it rises overhead. I see its silhouette juking in and out of the light peeking through the treetops and do my best to float it on top of my barrel, tracking higher and higher. Take your time, I remind myself. When I pull the trigger, the shot cuts the top off a sapling, and I watch the bird fold and tumble onto the duff.
“Great shot!” Canedo shouts.
Chestnut brings the woodcock to Canedo, who hands it to me. The bird looks like an alien and feels as if it might fall apart if I handle it too roughly. I hand it to Giordano, who holds the small bird in his big hands and passes it to Kuritsky, who gives it back to me.
Back at camp, we cook spaghetti and meatballs and the woodcock from our hunt. Then Eva and I head to our truck for the night. In the driveway of Canedo’s camp, I can feel it’s the first cold night of the fall. Even though we’re hundreds of miles from New York, I still experience that familiar feeling I get at the beginning of every hunting season. It feels like home.
I light the small fireplace in our canopy camper and fall asleep as soon as my head hits the pillow.
Part 2: Opening Day Roosters In Minnesota
Just after 8 p.m., Eva and I arrive at the motel—a low-slung building at the edge of town with bugs buzzing around the neon light of the VACANCY sign. Halfway through unpacking, my phone lights up. It’s a text from Julia Schrenkler, one of the hunters we’re here to meet.
Is that you in the badass truck in front of room 8?
I look over my shoulder and see Schrenkler’s silhouette in the lit doorway of her room with a bird dog by her side. We wave at one another, then Schrenkler walks up to our rig with a couple of beers in hand.
This hunt is a tradition for Schrenkler and her friends Emy Marier, Ashley Peters, and Mercedes Akinseye. Every year they travel to western Minnesota with their dogs for the pheasant opener and stay at the same motel. This year, they’re also joining Matt Kucharski from Pheasants Forever, and Schrenkler has invited us to tag along.
No matter where you are, opening days take one of two directions. Either they provide everything you’ve been waiting for all year, or you don’t see a damn thing. By noon of the Minnesota opener, we’ve experienced the latter. After lunch, however, things start to pick up.
Kucharski’s neighbor Tim Kraskey gives us permission to join him and his guests on their annual opening-day hunt, which has grown over the years to include the friends, cousins, aunts, and uncles of all his hunting buddies. Between our group of hunters and Kraskey’s, we have enough people to push a quarter of the entire property. We walk to the field and fan out in a long, wavy line.
As a half dozen dogs work the cover, pheasants erupt every few steps at various points in the line. I know that it’s just a matter of time before Eva gets a shot at her first bird ever; she’s about 10 people away from me when I see it happen. Eva swings to mount the gun and pulls the trigger just as I watched her do when we practiced shooting clays back home. But the bird doesn’t go down. Instead it veers left and coasts down the line of hunters, who start shooting too. The bird eventually hits the ground, and Marier’s dog, Lux, picks up the pheasant and returns it to the line. I feel bad Eva didn’t get to claim her first bird. But I would rather be with her anyway when she does.
We continue pushing the field back and forth like a combine until the loose order of our line starts to break down. But we run out of territory before things completely deteriorate, and eventually we all end up in the driveway of Kraskey’s place, swapping hunting stories and getting to know one another.
A father and son from Texas who attend every year.
A man with an old bird dog named Pickles, who’s probably seen more pheasants than anyone else here.
An old-timer in a golf cart with a shotgun who introduces himself as Grandpa.
I look around and see hunters of all ages, backgrounds, and home states. The one thing they all share is this American tradition: opening day. And Eva and I—even though we’ve only just met them, and even though we’ll soon be gone, on our way to the next stop—are now a part of that tradition.
Driving out of town, I see Eva texting back and forth with somebody.
“Doesn’t work know you’re taking time off?” I ask.
“It’s not work,” she says. “It’s Julia. She’s invited me to come back next year.”
Part 3: Up A Creek Without A Paddle
The marshy edge of Wisconsin’s St. Croix River is beautiful, but at this time of year it’s almost entirely void of ducks. “I’ve been here sometimes, and the whole marsh is covered with wood ducks,” my friend, Outdoor Life editor-in-chief Alex Robinson, says. “Now, not so much.”
Robinson, Eva, and I stand on a high bank that overlooks the water, each with a pair of binoculars glued to our face, for the better part of an hour. Then, just at dark, they start landing, wings cupped, down in the patchy marsh grass and out of sight.
“There we go,” Robinson says. “You’re allowed to shoot three wood ducks each. Just paddle in there with the canoe tomorrow, scare the birds off the water, and they’ll circle back to your decoys.”
“How about mallards?” I ask.
“If you shoot a mallard, I’ll be proud of you guys,” Robinson says. “But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”
At 3 a.m. the next day, Robinson’s canoe feels extra heavy as Eva and I pull it from the roof of our truck. “Why did we have to wake up so early?” Eva asks in her groggy, half-asleep voice as she picks up the stern. I take the bow, and we walk down a steep, slippery hill toward the launch.
No matter the hour, I can always get excited about ducks—but I can tell right away that Eva isn’t sold. She’s not used to camping in a truck, waking up in the dark, and paddling into a marsh at this hour. As we continue down the hill, I watch her headlamp bob up and down as she walks. Then I see the light wobble and fall to the ground. The boat suddenly gets heavier.
When I reach her, she’s fully awake—and pissed. She’s sitting on the ground with her canoe paddle next to her, surrounded by 20-gauge shotgun shells strewn everywhere. “These shoes are too big,” she whisper-yells at me, pointing to Robinson’s size 12 wading boots that she’s wearing. “I hurt my ankle.”
“Is it broken?” I ask.
“No, it just hurts.”
Let’s just call it a day and get breakfast. That would’ve been the right thing to say.
“It’s OK,” is what I actually say. “You won’t need to use it all that much.”
Eva gets up and limps down the hill. We shove off into the dark, making our way down a long, skinny channel—but we can’t find the opening in the marsh grass we identified the night before. “We’ve gone too far,” Eva whispers. “That’s the river.” Robinson warned us about a big mudflat, and just as I think of it, the canoe slows to a stop. I make the silly motion that everyone makes when they get a canoe stuck, rocking my butt and upper body back and forth, while Eva sits in the bow, not moving at all. I can only see the back of her head, but I can practically feel the what-am-I-doing-here look on her face.
I stop rocking and whisper to Eva, “Push off with your paddle.” She tries, but the paddle sinks in the muck. “Keep trying,” I say, and I start rocking again. Still nothing. “Come on, we’ve almost got it.”
Eva pushes hard, and the paddle goes deep into the mud. She pulls on it, but it won’t budge. She pulls harder, dislodges the paddle, then throws it out of sheer frustration. I scramble to the bow of the canoe, reaching for the paddle. A slight breeze pushes it across the inch of water on the mudflat farther out of reach. It glides, frictionless, as if on ice.
I get out of the boat to follow the paddle—but in two steps, I’m up to my crotch in sticky, boot-sucking mud. I look back at Eva in the bow, which now seems to be free of the mud and starting to drift with the current. Then I look down at my right hand, which is holding our one remaining paddle. Eva is headed for a morning ride down the St. Croix, and I’m not going anywhere.
No matter how hard I try to run at the boat, I can’t move my legs. I feel that gut-punching panic you feel when you realize you’ve done something dumb and possibly irreversible. Then I see the ratchet strap. In the rush to get the canoe off the truck, I left one of the straps tied to the bow, and now it’s fluttering around in front of me in the skinny water. I hook the strap with the end of the paddle and bring it toward my free hand. Once I grab the strap, I pull the canoe toward me and climb back in.
Paddling against the current with one paddle is difficult and slow, but the good thing about waking up at 3 a.m. is that it gives you plenty of extra time. At least, that’s what I tell myself as I inch the boat back toward the channel. When we get to the marsh grass, I pick a random opening and paddle in. As soon as I do, we hear a commotion of wing beats on the water.
I find a square foot of dry dirt for Eva to stand on and hand her a shotgun. Then I wade back to the boat and start throwing decoys out as fast as I can. I get to work on a blind, pushing stakes into the mud and stringing up fabric and fake grass. When it’s ready, we crouch behind it, load our guns, and wait.
I hear ducks flying overhead, and I can feel the same rush I always feel right before shooting light when I know I’m in a good spot. We’re covered in mud, we’re one paddle closer to being up shit’s creek, and we’re sinking in the marsh. But I couldn’t care less—because we’re also about to shoot a pile of ducks.
“Any minute now,” I whisper to Eva, “they’re going to start pouring back in.”
She replies, at regular volume, “This is the last time I’m ever going duck hunting.”
Had the morning played out the way I thought it would, I could have made a case to Eva to stick it out. But after two and a half hours of nothing, it’s safe to say we’re getting skunked. The guy about 100 yards in front of us, though, is not. We didn’t notice him when we arrived, but now we can hear him banging out a limit, one duck at a time. The ducks we kicked up? We see them too—cupping their wings right into his spread.
The nearby shots get Eva’s competitive side going. So she starts looking for birds. “There’s one,” she says, pointing to a drake wood duck. He flies within range on my side of the blind, and without hesitation, Eva shouts, “Shoot him!”
I shoot—and miss. The morale in our makeshift blind takes an even deeper nosedive.
We’re well into midmorning when the other hunter calls it a day. The sound of the outboard motor on his boat is a bitter reminder of the one-paddle-short trip back we have ahead of us. We decide to give the hunt 15 more minutes.
Ten minutes in, Eva breaks the silence with a single word: “Ducks.” She points to the sky, at two birds coming in for a landing on my side again. I track the second bird and shoot, but the duck shrugs it off. They both climb higher to get away. I shoot again, and I can tell the bird is hit, but it keeps climbing. I give it one more, my last shell, and the duck crumples in midair. As it falls toward the marsh, I see the mallard’s iridescent green head flash in the sunlight.
“All right, I get it,” Eva says. “But this is still the last time I’m ever going duck hunting.”
Part 4: Eastbound And Down, Then West Again
After Wisconsin, we travel to Pennsylvania for the Hunting Public’s Public Land Challenge and tag along for a couple of days as the group films its popular YouTube series. From there, we head south to Kentucky to hunt squirrels with F&S hunting editor Will Brantley. Along the way, Eva and I find a rhythm.
I’d spent a lot of time on the road by myself before this trip, but I’ve never seen the country through her eyes. Eva is an extrovert and stirs things up in a good way wherever she goes. It takes me days to get to know new people, but no matter whom we meet, she has everyone talking in minutes. Her outside perspective helps me notice new things about the hunts we’ve done and the hunters we’ve met along the way. Plus, everywhere we go, she’s there to help field the same questions we keep getting about our overlanding rig from other motorists at parking lots and rest stops.
No, it’s not a toolbox, it’s a camper.
Yeah, that top part opens up into a bed.
That pipe sticking out of the side? That’s the stovepipe for the fireplace.
Yup, we can cook in the camper.
Actually, there’s a fridge and freezer in the back.
We don’t use a generator. The solar panel powers everything.
The winch is right there, but thankfully we haven’t had to use it yet.
After Kentucky, I had a choice between two whitetail hunts: Arkansas muzzleloader season and Tennessee bow season. Brantley offered me a crossbow and a couple of good spots where we could find a deer, so I chose the Volunteer State. But before I hit the woods, I have to say goodbye to Eva. Tennessee is her last stop before she has to go home. I knew I was going to miss her, but I don’t know how daunting the rest of the trip will feel before I watch her step into her rental car and drive away.
I spend a week in Tennessee and see only one deer. From there I head to Nebraska to bowhunt mule deer with my friend Nathan “Newt” Borowski. I’ve driven for long stretches alone before, but after more than a month on the road for this trip, I feel a little trapped in the cab of the truck. I have gear for hunting just about every North American game animal piled up and spilling over into the front seats. And with COVID raging everywhere, finding a place to stretch my legs and relax is next to impossible.
In Nebraska, Newt and I come close on a couple of bucks but can’t get a shot. Still, the sandhills are a kind of country I’ve never seen before—hundreds of rolling hills, all the same height, spreading to the horizon as far as I can see. Because of a coronavirus outbreak in town, Newt and I can’t really leave camp. I forgot how camping off the grid for a few days straight always brings me back to center. With no cell service and nothing to worry about except the tasks at hand, I have a chance to reset my brain for what lies ahead—the most challenging hunt of my road trip: a third rifle season elk hunt in Colorado. While it’s only one state over from the rolling hills of Nebraska, I know the mountainous terrain will be a world apart.
Part 5: Packing Out Toward Home
Somewhere off I-70 in Colorado, I stop to buy my hunting license from a hardware store gun counter, and it looks as if the whole place has been ransacked. Aisles of hunter orange and freeze-dried meals are disheveled. It seems as if all the out-of-state elk hunters arrived at once and remembered they forgot everything they were supposed to bring.
Driving deeper into the Rocky Mountains, I listen to the Toyota’s engine gasp for thin air just as I know I’m about to. I’ve gotten to know the overlanding rig over all the miles we’ve spent together so far. The truck has become a safe haven—a warm place to suit up for a hunt in the morning and then download all the information about my misses and triumphs at the end of the day. But no matter how much of a shelter the truck has become, it’s still winter in Colorado, and I know my heater has run out of propane the minute I wake up for day one of my hunt.
Outside, the truck is completely covered in ice. I need to close the camper so I can drive to where I want to hunt, but the buckles won’t work—because they’re frozen. So I start chipping ice off the latches in the dark and watch dozens of other hunters on ATVs buzz up the road next to my campsite. It seems as if the whole world has come to this exact location to find an elk.
I’m hiking over a rock slide when I hear a shot followed by a cowboy whoop and a holler 100 yards in front of me. To my right, the mountain rises up, and to my left it drops off, giving way to a view of the Rockies. I scramble toward the sound, fighting through sagebrush until I spot a father and son dressed in orange. The son is sitting with a rifle propped on shooting sticks, aiming uphill into a draw. The father is behind him, looking up with binoculars. I signal so they can see me, and the dad motions for me to come toward them.
It’s the fourth day of my hunt and the three of us started up the mountain together. I was suiting up when they came flying into the parking lot. The son got out of the truck first, and then his dad came up to me with a question about how to access the property. He was a wiry man with a beard, a weathered face, and worn-in hunting clothes—and he was excited like someone trying to keep a big secret. I showed him the easement and how it led to BLM land.
“You’re not hoping for a muley buck up there, are you?” he asked.
“No, I only have an elk tag.”
This mountain is the last place I expected to see anybody. Because of the easement, not a lot of hunters know it’s accessible. So far, every place I’ve hunted in Colorado has been packed. I’ve come close twice, and now it seems this hunt is over, so I decide to join the two hunters.
When I get there, the kid is loading another round. I glass into the draw and see a mule deer buck that looks like it’s been hit. Then it falls out of sight. We inch our way toward the deer. But when we get about 25 yards from where the buck went down, we see him up and looking right at us. The kid shoots him again, and the buck falls and slides toward us—its antlers resting at our feet. We look at the deer in silence. Then the father lets out another whoop and holler that the whole mountain can hear
The father, Brandon, and his son, Cory, are from Utah. I stay and help them break down the deer. In return for my help, Brandon shares a pin of his best elk spot. He promises I won’t see anybody there because the only road in is so dangerous he’s nicknamed it “the road of death.”
I’d like to say that I go up there and find a bull elk to shoot and there isn’t another hunter for miles. But I spend the next two days dodging a blaze-orange army that makes the woods in my home state of New York seem like a private preserve.
On the last day of my hunt, and the last day of the trip, I decide to hunt the timber. It doesn’t make a lot of sense; my best chance at an elk is driving around and glassing to find the herd. But maybe, like the elk I’ve been hunting, I just want to find someplace quiet, away from the crowds.
I park at a trailhead I pinned months ago when I was back home. Then I just walk. I notice that my lungs have acclimated to the high altitude, and I start cruising through the woods. It’s quiet, covered in snow, and I don’t see any tracks—not from hunters, and not from deer or elk.
A few miles in, I remember something Dave Kuritsky told me back in Michigan at the end of our bird hunt. “Some people define success by shooting a limit, some by shooting a double,” he said. “I define success by going to a place I’ve never been, burning boot leather, and finding a bird.”
I haven’t shot an elk—and I realize I’m not going to—but I’ve found a few. And in the past 50 days, I’ve seen plenty of country I’d never gone to before. As for boot leather, I’ve burned more than my share.
In fact, if I burn a little more, I might make it home in time for deer season.