365 Days at Deer Camp
The whitetail season might be over, but the memories from the time spent at camp and in the field are still fresh. Here, the author reflects on the collective year he’s spent at his family’s hunting camp
I never believed I’d get old. Me, who grew up on stories told by the Old Ones—my grandfather, father, uncle—about bygone days, taking these stories in as one would a meal. I might have understood intellectually that one day that would have to happen, as the natural course and order of things.
But because I came to that landscape as a taker of stories, and learned it, in that manner, it was a stretch indeed to ever imagine myself as a giver of stories. And yet: it happened, year by year, story by story. I have been on both sides now, a taker and then giver of stories about our deer camp, and I think what I miss most is being in the broad middle, that spell of time and country where one is lost in the hunt, guided by the temporary myth that it is the kill, the hunt, that matters most, and not the characters fore and aft who are secondary to that passionate pursuit of the physical senses. Back before I became one of the Old Ones myself, I remember being crazy for the hunt itself, rather than the larger fabric of family and place. When I was young, I think there was a purer, if narrower, kind of fire. I remember the way my ears strained for the crunch of dry leaves amid the oaks where I sat hidden, nostrils flared, keenly cognizant of even the slightest breath of the breeze, and the sounds and movements of birds, and every other creature, while I waited for a deer. Such focus is often described as a kind of prayer; and if it is not that, then why, eventually—after enough focus and intensity—did the deer appear?
I’ve been coming here all of my life, hunting here, all of my adult life. Allow me to do the math. We gather here in the Hill Country of Texas for the first or second week of November. One week per year, for 35 years, in my instance, plus all my secondary visits to this place, adds up easily to 365 days: one year of my life. And that may not sound like much, over the course of so many years. But the incandescent quality of those days—each hour so very alive, not just with the electric luminescence of each cell alert, sitting quietly, or walking quietly, while hunting, but luminous too in the deep relaxation of peace back in camp, with family, and in that rugged bower of granite and juniper in the hill country, away from the clamor of the so-called “real” world—well, 365 of those kinds of days are an electric year indeed. What if we lived all of our days, all of our years, with that intensity?
I think that either we would collapse or experience some kind of perhaps unbearable transcendence.
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Life and Death at Deer Camp
In the old days it used to be about killing deer, and, if opportunity presented itself, a wild turkey, feather-jeweled, sunlit glimmering radiant. Now it’s about spending time with each other—it’s amazing to me how little we care now about pulling the trigger—and it’s amazing to me also that now that I have left the Texas Hill Country, have run away to the wilds of Montana, where I’ve lived for nearly the last 30 years, and where, I have to say, the hunting is superb, due largely to the vast tracts of unpaved wilderness—exhilarating—and is best accomplished when solitary—that I keep coming back to Texas—tame little Texas—anyway.
About Montana: the electricity of desire and understanding that comes into play within the shimmering dynamics of that strange triumvirate, now unknown to so many, these days—an immense landscape, a single hunter, and, moving away from that desire, through that landscape, the quarry—is one of the great elixirs of my life.
And yet, I keep coming back here, to the same tame little thousand acres, beautiful, pastoral yet gnarly in its own scrubby fenced-in way, the hills and creeks bounded by sagging, rusting barbed wire, and bathed in the strange—and increasing—heat of that land.
I give up, for a week, the wild Montana delirium of my following new elk tracks in the fresh snow up long ridges and down the backsides of steep mountains, the trails and tracks wandering through forests of pine, snowy meadows, the edges of marshes—crossing creeks, ascending again, with the elk always traveling, by mid-November, always moving, when every elk in Montana understands by that point that the entire world is against them.
Mountain lions follow those elk, and wolves too. In those hunts, I see the broad human-like footprints of bears, the bears strolling through the forest in a gait that bespeaks possession and pride, as if they own the place: own the snow, the forest, the elk, the day—as if knowing, without arrogance, that they are one of the axes around which much else moves and spins, though they are not the only axis.
It’s hard to leave that, to come down so far south, and just when I’ve gotten so used to the delicious cold, and the rhythm of the quick-shortening days.
What creatures of routine we are, and need to be—that’s understandable, I think, from an evolutionary standpoint—yet how we need also the unpredictable or the unfamiliar to keep fresh in us and nurture our skills for adaptation and adjustment.
Deer Hunting in the Texas Hill Country
In Texas, on the land we call the deer pasture, we relish the rituals of eating the same 10 or 12 recipes, and in hunting often the same places, again and again, with every contour of that land and every tree and bush and stone known to us, through decades of what can easily be called a meditation of the most focused and sometimes incandescent sort.
We know it as well as we know anything. But also alluring is the phenomenon, known to all hunters, wherein each day when you awaken and go out into even the most familiar of landscapes, you will positively, absolutely, encounter something different, something new.
What, at the deer pasture, is familiar, and enduring, if not eternal? Hominy, red-eye gravy, ham and biscuits, the Burned-Off Hill, the East Side, the Back Side, T-bone, porterhouse, baked potatoes, jalapeño gratin, Panther Hollow, the Water Gap. The Old Moss Tree.
The way the 1948 Willys Overland jeep-truck needs priming every time, every year. Knocking the dirt dauber nests loose from the battery terminals. The way the land’s granite monoliths—giant frozen lozenges of underground fire, or once-upon-a-time fire, sculpted now dramatically in the upper world and by time and wind and frost into the most fantastic shapes: the head of a rhinoceros, the backs of a herd of camels, an elephant, a raised clenched fist.
The shapes are so sculpted by the breath of the world and the scour of time as to seem almost animate, and all the more so for the slow but steady rate of their decomposition, the crystals of feldspar, zinc, silica, and pyrite exfoliating to spread ever-wider at the base of these great boulders, spilling like jewelry pouring out from within the rocks—so that it seems the animal shapes of these boulders are swimming through the sea of their own detritus. There is great beauty in the full and undiminished shape of things; but there is great beauty in the washing-away. The boulders are always in motion.
About the cast of our characters: some of the original crew have gone away, in a form of their own dissolution—Granddad, Homer Young, Howard—but the rest of us endure, for now. Uncle Jimmy carrying a couple of strokes, Dad with titanium knees and hips; older cousin Rick with high blood pressure, middle brother Frank with some kind of mysterious dizziness…
It occurs to me, considering all the years—75—that our family has been coming here that time doesn’t have to move fast, to be strong. Its power and beauty comes, I think, from the illusion that it barely moves at all; that in fact, perhaps time desires not to move. Cousin Randy, youngest brother B.J., cousin Russell, and, only recently, some new recruits, nephews Nathan and Ryan; Russell’s son-in-law: as some of us fall away, always, others of us are stepping up.
On these thousand acres, over those last 75 years, all the cumulative Basses have killed, by my estimate, a thousand deer. I know that sounds like a lot, but one a year—two, some years—has a way of adding up. “Time,” the character of Maddie Ross reminds us in Charles Portis’s novel True Grit, “just marches on.”
The Solitude of Hunting Camp
The same sounds, year after year, impressing themselves across the landscape like the weather, the sounds like the seasons: grasshoppers clacking away on checkered wings amidst the sun-yellow and butterscotch orange wings of dry autumn; the exuberant yet also lulling croak and rattle, rasp and sonorous grate, of the sandhill cranes; the machine-gun sound of hail on the roof at night as the year’s first cold front moves through—or the dry-branch scrapings of the oak branches scratching back and forth across that same roof in drier weather, a steady seaswell ship-shape sound.
Acorns releasing from the branches, falling like marbles, rolling down the tin roof of our dreams. The radio announcers calling out the back-and-forth of plays, the white noise of their voices chronicling the titanic clashes in distant gladiator-cities, though we can never stay awake late enough to see these night games through to their conclusion, and instead, in the morning have to try to piece together the final score and how it came to pass by patchwork assemblages of who heard what when, upon reawakening, briefly.
The deer pasture is a great place to hunt—to wander with incandescent intent—but a great place also to chill out and read. If we have killed a thousand deer here, over the last near-century, so too easily have we read a thousand books.
I do believe that there are certain places in the world where one sleeps easier, better. I am not necessarily speaking of dreamscapes, but instead, the biological terrain of the deepest possible sleep, or the ocean-trenches of sleep. Places where sleep is not only experienced more profoundly, but where it advances upon the participant almost like a hunter approaching his or her quarry. Places where sleep is entered so easily, so completely, that it is more like a stepping-off than a drifting-down. Places where one closes one’s eyes and plummets to a distant land of rest.
It is not just in the camp house at the deer pasture where this phenomenon manifests itself, but anywhere upon those thousand acres: as if a strange yet benign spell has been cast upon all the land: a safe-place, a place to rest and grow stronger. A place, too, where the heart stays young.
Eventually, this becomes a confusion to the body—why do one’s knees and hips hurt now, after a day of hunting, why is one’s balance less certain, while the landscape one fell in love with so long ago remains so fundamentally unchanged? This disparity becomes an equation I wrestle with yet; no algebra or calculus exists to explain the widening variance between the land and the man.
Though there is comfort in remembering, realizing, that if one had to choose, body or spirit, with regard to which of those two would begin to age the fastest, I hope and believe there are few among us who would choose to preserve a youthful body before or rather than an ever-young heart.
Days of heaven, of course, back when each of us first came into this country, in the full retention of both.
What is it about happiness, about peace and contentment, that summons more of the same: laughter, and mirth? At the deer pasture, there’s a great tradition of practical jokes. It would be easy enough, just when we’ve come to a kind of cease-fire among the older of us, each of whom has pranked the others mercilessly, endlessly, to say All right, enough’s enough; but look, now, just in time, there’s a whole new crop of sons and nephews to fool with; an opportunity—a mandate, really, I think—to keep the jokes going.
I can’t say what the best pranks have been—they scroll together—but for a long time, one of the very good ones involved my youngest cousin, Russell, who had shot a nice deer below Burned-Off Hill, back in a tangled cedar thicket. It’s how he likes to hunt: to crawl into the thick of things and then sit quietly in the shade on a hot day and wait, wait all day if necessary, alert with all the senses, not moving, until the deer, or a deer, begins to move.
Watching, downwind; crosswind. Listening, upwind.
I’d heard him shoot. I was over on the back side of Buck Hill. A few minutes later, I saw a nice young buck, a 4×4, step into the sunlight, in the small grassy clearing I was watching. I was hoping to have a look at the deer, and hoping to have the opportunity to make the shot; and afterward, after I had cleaned him, I dragged him up and over Buck Hill and across the creek and started up the long rocky scrabble of cedar-wild Burned-Off Hill, when I spied movement back in the brush. A flash of wings, a little squawking sound: a scrub jay.
When I went to investigate, I found Russell’s deer—such a nice big 5×5—also gutted and hanging from a branch.
It took a little effort, but I was able to untie and lower his deer, then hoist my much smaller one in its place. I hid his big deer farther back in the cedar jungle, then continued on my way.
It was lunchtime when I got back to camp. Russell was already there, and telling folks that he’d shot a nice deer. He was being modest, but did acknowledge that it was a whopper, which got everyone excited, and we all agreed to journey over in the truck after lunch to see the big deer, and to help load it up. An expedition, if not a safari. An eagerness for that ritual.
Did anyone else shoot? my father asked.
I thought I heard another shot from somewhere over that way, B.J. said.
I didn’t hear anything, Russell said, pouring syrup over his eggs.
How satisfying was it, when, after brunch, we drove on over to the back side, got out of the jeep and followed Russell into the woods, to see his fine deer? Watching, as he slowed, approaching it, then stopped altogether, and stared at it. Stupefied .
That’s not my deer, he said finally. He turned to us as if to a jury. My deer was a lot bigger than that!
Oh, Russell, my father said, they always look bigger in the scope.
A Home Away from Home
The bunkhouse: we built it 30 years ago. For the 25 years before that, it was an old leaning, sagging plywood shoebox of a building; before that, a wall tent, so that the camp of today still has the emotional feel to us of a luxury resort, even as we each understand that it is not a luxury resort. The once-taut floors swag in places, the leaks on the roof need re-patching every year, there are scorpions and granddaddy longlegs, doubtless rattlesnakes in the rock wall base of the cabin. The woodstove could use a cleaning, wasps find their way through the window jamb cracks, but it’s home.
We’re just there for a week each year, but that’s also like saying it’s just a lifetime. The way time slows down, asserts its own cycles and rhythms, or rather, gives you more space, or more time, or more time-and-space, in which to move around: is it the edge of hunger, the hunter’s desire, that makes this so, or is it the landscape, the place, itself?
It doesn’t really matter, does it? In the old days, it used to take us up to a couple of days to catch on to the immortality of those rhythms—that days-suspended-in-amber quality—but by this stage of our deer hunting lives, we’re able to step right into that center-stream of slow, center-stream of home, the minute we get out of the car and close the door. The minute we open the heavy wooden door to the camp, and push open the screen door.
It might have been an entire year since we were gone, but each time, it’s as if we never went away.