What Is the Meaning of Life?

David E. Petzal shares the most valuable lessons he’s learned during his lifetime in the outdoors


Illustrations of Old School Hunting
Our rifles editor has learned a thing or two during his life spent outdoors.Illustrations by Peter oumanski

I’ve been around awhile. When I was born, there were men alive who had fought in the Civil War. I can remember bits and pieces of World War II, and I clearly remember life before television. I bought my first rifle in 1956, began shooting in organized competition in 1958, and got my first hunting license in 1960. After 70-some years of fart­ing around on this planet, mostly out of doors, I can’t exactly tell you the meaning of it all. But as it says in the insurance ad, I know a thing or two because I’ve seen a thing or two. Here’s some of it.

1. Hunters, more than other people, are reverential of life because they know far better than others how difficult it is to stay alive, and how ­suddenly life can end.

2. There’s no worse experience than putting down a dog. She would die for you, and now she’s dying because of you.

3. Big-game hunting is the great leveler among men. Either you can climb the mountain or you can’t; either you can shoot or you can’t; ­either you hold up your end or you don’t. Money, education, and social standing have no ­bearing on any of this.

4. Nothing in the outdoors gets your attention like a grizzly paw print with water still oozing into it.

5. According to anthropologists, Neanderthals never built big fires to sit around and swap stories, which is one of the reasons why they vanished and our ancestors did not.

6. The best judges of ­character I have met are African trackers. Their assessments are ­brutal. One hunter with a drinking problem became “Bwana Ginni Bottle.” Of Robert ­Ruark they said, “He has bad legs and much fear.” To ­paraphrase Hamlet: Of all the people in the world, you do not want a bad review from them.

7. The great, unspoken allure of true wilderness, in an era when we are trying to remove all risk from life, is that if you screw up in it, you can die in it.

8. When The Moment comes, your armored, shockproof, waterproof, SEAL-approved $75 butane survival lighter will go click…click…click…click…click…click….

9. Scent is the great memory jogger of the outdoors. If you smell an elk ­wallow, your hair will stand up ­every time you scent one thereafter.

10. You may have the hardest body in your gym, but you’re not going to be able to keep up with someone who runs up mountains as a regular thing, even if they’re 30 years older and smoke three packs a day.

11. Ecstasy can be defined as how you feel when you’ve gotten your critter and can stay in your sleeping bag while all the other poor ­bastards who haven’t ­gotten theirs are rolling out at 3:30 a.m.

12. Hunting and fishing are, at their core, sports of solitude, and they will end when enough shitheads decide that nothing is worth Being Out of Touch.

13. Some of the ­greatest thinking takes place in bathrooms. If I’m told by people that they read my stuff in the john, I take it as a ­compliment.

14. Being afraid is a waste of time, in the outdoors or anywhere else. What bites you in the ass is going to be something you never worried about.

15. There comes a moment in the life of every hunter or angler when intuition blossoms and they Catch On. In my case, this held for hunting but not for flyfishing. I became an acceptable caster but remained baffled about everything else. If this happens to you, accept it. You don’t have a choice.

16. True marksmanship requires a tranquil mind. I’ve never met an angry man who was a good shot.

17. When Homo sapiens is ­finally gone, Earth will give a shudder of relief and clean ­itself up again, just as it ­always has, over and over, in its 4.6 billion years.

18. A long time ago, I read the words: “Like most brave men, he was also kind.” Experience has proved this out. The sons of bitches you meet usually have a yellow streak, in addition to being sons of bitches.

19. I’ve been writing for Field & Stream since 1972 and am proudest of the fact that every time I’ve made a mistake, the readers have caught it.

20. Hospitals ask you to describe your pain on a scale of one to 10, with 10 being unbearable. There is an 11, and you can experience it on any horseback ride longer than one-tenth of a mile.

21. If you want to be a legend in your own time, never say a word about your accomplishments; let others do it for you.

22. “Thank you” is the most ­useful phrase in any language. That’s why I learned to say it in Spanish, French, German, Italian, Swedish, Shona, Russian, ­Kikuyu, and Afrikaans.

23. For those who would be writers, here is a golden rule: Keep your big mouth shut and listen.

24. In New Zealand, a South ­African told me that the reason he hunted was to be able to stand alone in the wilderness and be reminded of his own insignificance. Ted Trueblood used to do the same thing by letting the campfire die out as he sat watching the stars.

25. If you’d like to know the true worth of a person, watch how they deal with major disappointment on a big-game hunt.

26. Whenever you leave ­wherever you’ve been, turn and look one last time to engrave in your mind what it looks like, because you’ll probably never see it again.

27. What I’d like as my epitaph: “He had just enough intelligence to appreciate it all.”