Highland Bound

I was spilling my guts about how hard work had been for the last year.  “How’s the family,” the vendor asked taking me off guard.

“Oh, they’re doing great,” I answered.

“Life’s not so bad after tall then, is it?” he said.

“When you look at it like that,” I answered, “you’re right.  I guess life’s not so bad after all.”

In those days I was a plant manager for a major marine manufacturer.

One of the boats we produced in my plant was the hottest selling 35-foot sport yacht on the market.  The boat was being engineered during the late summer and fall of 2001. After 9/11 we expected a downturn in the economy.  Instead of spending an inordinate amount of time getting all the bugs worked out in engineering, we made a conscious decision to introduce it into production and to finish working out the bugs there.  We expected to have extra resources but the anticipated hit to the economy was shallow and brief.  For a plethora of reasons, and it happens across the industry, it’s always tight getting a new model to the winter boat shows.  After a much better winter boat show season than expected, there was a bigger push to get the boats to the dealers.  And then just as we were getting all the bugs worked out, just before shutdown that summer, we found the hull was flexing and the furniture was shaking loose.  We disassembled the 8 boats we still had at the plant and rebuilt them through shutdown.  I sent key people out to fix the boats already sold.  Then we went up in production.  As people burned out, it became impossible to replace them quickly enough.  However, anyone who’s familiar with production boat building would ask, what’s the problem? This is pretty much business as usual.

So be it.  It does not diminish the fact that I’ve been so stressed out my wife took pity on me and did not complain about my hunting trip the next fall.  I was Highland bound, going to hunt in the mountains on the border of West Virginia and Virginia near our hunting camp in Pocahontas, WV.

I felt as if I was back in college when I dropped out a semester while attending WV Tech to hunt and trap there.  That’s one screw up on my part that I don’t regret.  I had a ticket to fly back to Orlando in a week.  But what if I didn’t use that ticket?  But, ah, family; too many responsibilities to drop off of the face of the earth again.  But still…

Boarding the plane there was an attractive blond in business attire loudly going on about her bar room antics the night before.  She was traveling with business associates.  One was a dashingly dressed business man wearing a sport jacket, the two top buttons on his shirt unbuttoned showing off a fairly thick gold chain.  There seemed to be an attraction between the two.  There is another woman in the group who laughs along but doesn’t seem so eager to share all the gory details from the previous night with the rest of the passengers – rightly so I think.

Oh, no.  On the plane the loud obnoxious lady took the seat in front of mine and insists the man sit beside her, for strategizing she says.  For flirting I think.

They laugh and go on for a while.  It takes about 10 minutes for her to cozy up very close to him.  As we wait to deplane she asks him where he’s parked, toying with the zipper on her blouse.  They deplane before me.  I saw them again in the lobby.  He has that look.  She has him in her crosshairs and is squeezing the trigger.  He’s essentially bagged and doesn’t know it.  He doesn’t seem so full of himself now that his fate is sealed.  She seems quite content, though.

My flight had been delayed and there was some question whether I could make my connecting flight.  We arrived in plenty of time.  At the Charlotte airport there were other West Virginians waiting for the flight to Charleston.  One is a good old boy with his plump wife and newborn baby.  He’s talking to a sassy blond wearing a tight pair of white jeans and a sweater that shows off a slim midriff.  She says she’s form Cross Lanes.  The good old boy sounds like Jeff Foxworthy the way he talks about how wrong it is to be wearing shorts in November while they’re decorating palm trees with Christmas lights.  This banter goes on the entire flight and others gather in the empty seats around him as they trade stories and make jokes.

Dad picks me up at the airport in Charleston.  He’s wearing a green sweater and jeans that look good on him since he lost weight.  As we walk out of the terminal, I notice the sassy, blond-haired woman from Cross Lanes sitting on a bench eyeing me as she takes a long draw from a cigarette.  She has a tired look about her.  I have the thought that she could be a dancer in a strip joint, and have an immediate attack of conscience.  I say a silent prayer for her as I climb into Dad’s truck.

King was already at camp.  He is a retired officer of the county police force.  He drove a grey utility truck and carried all kinds of gear in the compartments on the sides.  He’s famous in our camp for a diatribe he did one night on the 9mm cartridge.  None of us had any idea there were so many different types.  It was so reminiscent of Forrest Gump when Bubba Blue talked about shrimp we had to bite our lips not to laugh out loud.

King had fired up the warm morning coal stove and the camp was cozy warm.  After living in Florida for 17 years, 43 degrees feels like 20.  We unload the food.  Dad and King put it away while I sweep up rat turds.  I think of my wife and how this is the one thing that spoils the camp for her.  I finally get in bed at 2:00 AM.

I wake at 5:00 AM but don’t have the gumption to go hunting on 3 hrs. sleep.  I finally get up when Jeff and Dustin arrive.  Jeff is my brother-in-law and Justin is my 19-year-old nephew.  They brought my deer rifle and shotgun.  Now I won’t have to use Dad’s guns.

It was a hassle getting my hunting clothes together.  I had packed them in 2 duffels and I didn’t know what was in which.  It’s in the low 40’s – too warm to wear the new $109 camo coveralls I bought from Outdoor World in Orlando, Fl.  I walk a lot so it’s important that I layer properly so I don’t get too hot when walking and sweat, and then get chilled when I get on a stand.  It had rained hard the day before, flooding many areas, but now the cold front had passed and its one of those dazzling blue-sky days.

On days like this, the wind gusts and dies down coming from different directions.  You hear it coming from a distance on a far ridge rushing toward you sounding like an approaching train.  When the wind blows like this at night, some call it the winter witch.  Day or night, it’s a lonely sound.

I decided to hunt the Jack Mountain Wildlife Management Area about an hour’s drive into western Virginia.  I stop at a country grocery and gas station to get the Highland county damage stamp I couldn’t get off the internet when I bought the nonresident Virginia hunting license.  The store is stuffed full of canned goods, candy, flower, etc., and is heated by a squat wood burning stove.  The proprietor is a humpty dumpty looking woman with a figure that reminds me of the stove and is about my age.

She is very friendly, too friendly for my taste.  I guess she doesn’t get to talk to strangers from Florida often.  She offers to check in my deer with no questions asked.  Suggests I shoot a doe on public land on the days doe season is open on private land only.  “Since there’s so many does and there’s no oak mast and many of them will starve this winter, you know,” she explained, batting her beady, possum looking eyes at me.

I get almost to Staunton before I realize I missed the turnoff to Jack Mountain.  It’s been close to 20 yrs. and I wonder if I’ll remember the woods.  Once I get there, I do.  They are like a long lost friend you pick up with right where you left off the last time you saw them.  I see the deep hollow where we cleaned the squirrels and the point where it took me 8 shells to kill one grey squirrel.  Dad grew up poor with shells in short supply.  He hated me wasting shells like that.  I usually manage 1 shell for 1 squirrel but when I did miss I had a tendency to get rattled.

I see 2 hunters coming out of the woods as I approach the place I want to hunt.  I don’t like to hunt where other hunters have riled up the woods.  It’s difficult to get away from other hunters on public land.  That’s the reason I walk so much when I hunt, to get to the far woods where no one has gone lately; that and the wonder of seeing “new” woods.

I hunt low in the bottoms for a couple of hours seeing little deer sign, but I do come upon a make shift campground with several RV’s and huge army tents.  I decide to see if there’s more sign on the ridge tops.  Not many people have what it takes to make it up the mountain through the thick tangles of mountain laurel.  I love it.

It’s a good feeling, the mountain air filled my lungs and my legs were pumped as I broke into a sweat.  I decided to take the point to the ridge instead of going up a hollow.  The laurel is so thick I can hardly see 10 ft. in front of me.  Once the deer get in cover this thick, it’s almost impossible to get them out.  They hold tight like rabbits.

At the top, the ridge is broad and level.  I get to a place where the laurel thins out and I can see down some lanes 35 or 40 yards.  I settle into a depression left by the roots of a downed tree.  Just as I’m starting to feel the chill from the sweat and the wind, I glimpse what seems to be a fine set of antlers.  Sure enough, they’re not oak limbs but connected to a boss buck.  I can hear the guy on the monster buck video saying, “this one’s a shooter, Jackie”.  A tree trunk hides the buck’s vitals.  Before I can put the cross hairs on its neck, the buck either winds or sees me and bounds away.

After that, I cross the ridge into the head of the deep hollow where we used to skin our squirrels.  I see a turkey, a jake I believe.  I could shoot it but the season’s not in – I think.  I better check the game laws.  I’ll be disappointed if I find the season’s in.

On the way back to camp I pick up the Pendleton Times and the Monterey post to see if there are any job openings.  I doubt if anyone up here could afford me, but who knows.

On the drive back after dark, I see a possum and a bobcat crossing the road.

As usual Dad has dinner cooked.  I eat a deer burger and fried potatoes with a pumpkin roll and whipped cream for dessert.  Dad had brought up a TV and we watch Midway as I eat.  While I’m journaling they watch Quigley Down Under.  I’m disappointed at the lack of storytelling.

Jeff and Dustin were so tired from the drive they didn’t hunt today.  Dad and King didn’t go out either.

I’m going to take a shower.  I guess I’m getting old or civilized or something.  I used to hunt 3 days before the thought of a shower crossed my mind.

Two days have passed since I last journaled.  On Tuesday I’ll take the laptop into the woods with me and catch up on the details.  (I didn’t do this.)

Last night as I pulled up beside the camp, my headlights caught 2 possums red handed eating the rock hard biscuits Jeff had made himself and Dustin for breakfast.  Jeff says he’s a camp cook in training.  He’s a sorry deer hunter and he can’t cook, but he will drive long distances while everyone else sleeps, so he’s good for something.

After dinner, Jeff, Dustin, and I were going to the phone booth in Frost to call home.  I slipped out the door first with my headlamp and 12 gage hoping to see the possums.  Sure enough, the possums had run into the woods 30 yds. and stopped.  They sat there on a fallen limb, one positioned a little behind the other.   They sat there watching me like house cats.  I put a bead on the one in front and squeezed the trigger.  It’s always surprising how far the fire licks out of the end of the barrel when you shoot at night.  The possum didn’t know what hit him.  I was surprised to see both possums laying in the leaves when I went to retrieve the one.

Two good sized possums, we’d eat well tomorrow.

I skinned the possums to save the fur and keep as a curiosity for my 2 boys and put the carcasses in the fridge.  I was hoping Dad would fry them up.  When I returned from my scouting trip the next day, which was a Sunday, Dad had already par boiled and fried the possums.

No kidding, this is what we had for lunch:  pinto beans, turnip greens, boiled turnips, corn bread and possum.  Possum tastes like a cross between chicken and pork.  It’s greasy like pork but tastes good if can get past the smell.  Just kidding, it smells ok.

As we were eating, one of Dad’s friends arrived.  His name is Clell.  He’s a stately gentleman, tall and slim, very friendly and talks in measured tones.  He’s on the board at the local bank and is fairly well to do.  He reminds me of Abraham Lincoln.  Dad told him to grab a plate.  He said, don’t mind if I do.  I told him to be sure and grab a piece of possum.  Evidently he thought I was joking.

“What is this coon?” he asked.  “There’s nothing better than coon.  I think coon is the best meat.”

“No,” I said, “it’s possum.”

“What is it, groundhog?  I like groundhog.”

“It’s possum,” I said.

“Eat it and we’ll tell you what it is,” Dad said.

“Ah, this is good,” Clell offered as he tore a mouthful of possum off the bone.

After Clell finished a back and rib section, a big glob of turnip greens, and a side bowl of pintos, he asked again, “What is it.”

“Possum,” Dad said.

“Well, whatever it is, it’s good,” he said, thinking we were still trying to pull his leg.

Possum gets a bad rap because of their scaly, rat tail, and beady possum eyes. Put a furry tail on a possum and set their eyes back in their heads a bit and they’d be an endangered species.  People would pick up road killed possum like they do deer from time to time.

On Monday, I have an epic hunt. I didn’t see much game. In fact, in all the miles I walked, I saw only 4 deer. The thing that made it special is the woods, the weather and the distance I covered. It’s difficult for me to go to camp and not hunt the long broad ridges that roll down from Snow Buzzard field like plump baby’s fingers into the deep recesses of Sugar Camp hollow. There were men in our camp who hunted these woods for 40 yrs. and passed away who didn’t make it back to these woods.

Before daybreak, I topped the ridge that separates Cressy hollow from Knaps creek. I settled into a draw in Cressy where I could see up to the top of the ridge and down into the mountain laurel. (At ground level, the laurel obliterates your view and makes it easy for deer to hide there. However, from above or across a hollow you can see through it.) I sat there for about 2 hrs. before the urge to see the far woods overwhelmed me. I walked to the low gap where Cressy heads up into Sugar Camp. On the low ridge I see a 4 wheeler parked. I feel like shooting it. ATV’s are illegal in national forests. Those who own ATV’s would disagree, but I feel all they are good for is getting lazy, fat people to far woods they do not appreciate, or deserve.

I slipped down into Sugar Camp hollow. The slope is very steep. If I could get a good run and jump, I would land in the bottom of the hollow. Once I get to the bottom I see the tracks of another ATV. I had scouted this area the day before and had seen mink, coon, possum and deer tracks along the creek. The ATV tracks covered them like so much graffiti. I could see where the person had already drug a deer from the Snow Buzzard Field side of the hollow to where the ATV had been parked. In my mind, that guy didn’t deserve that deer.

I follow the person’s trail up a short “hanging” draw to where he shot the deer. There was a substantial gut pile. The gut was jammed full of some kind of food. There are no acorns and I wonder what it was that the deer was eating all night. I see its discarded tarsal glands and penis. I’m no expert on the size of a deer’s penis but I imagine it must have been a huge deer.

Once I reach the long, broad, flat point that heads up in Snow Buzzard Field, I get that reverential feeling that I always get when I’m in the woods like this. I feel as if I’m in a cathedral. The huge oak and hickory trees are columns holding up the heavy, gray sky. The approaching squall, with its low, black band of clouds and rain is the Holy Spirit. I feel God’s presence.

I believe man’s purpose on earth is to glorify God and to have an intimate relationship with Him. I see His glory in the beauty of his creation here. I feel close to Him. As the wind whips around me, the trees wave their branches in adoration. I’m where I’m supposed to be. I know that before the day is out, I’ll be wet and cold –and content. What a blessing!

I decide to hunt the hollows, going from one swag into another, crossing the low flat points all the way to the head of Sugar Camp. It rains until evening and my clothes become soaked.   I’m wearing tennis shoes and light clothing and an ineffective nylon, camouflage rain jacket.   At least, I think, it is it is not one of those days the rain turns to snow and everything freezes.  I’ve been out on many of those miserable days when I nearly froze to death.  On the contrary, now I feel comfortable.

Just as I have that thought the rain turns to sleet.  In a half-hour the water on the trees is frozen and the trees begin to creak as they sway in the wind.  Still I feel comfortable.  I walk into camp a half-hour after dark.  Although I had jumped only 4 deer all day long and not gotten a shot, I’m pumped form a great day in the woods.

My brother, Kevin, had arrived Saturday afternoon.  Now, he is standing in the walk-through between the living room and kitchen completely filling up the space, listening to me tell about my hunt.  I notice how broad his shoulder are.  If he could lose the gut and keep the shoulders he would have a heck of a build.

No movies tonight.  We tell stories ‘till late.

I mentioned one of Dad’s friends at camp, Clell.  Dad had another friend who came to camp.  His name is Harley.  Harley is also lanky, not quite as tall as Clell and in better health.  Clell is a retired insurance agent, and was a regional manager.  Harley is a retired schoolteacher and administrator.  From their stories, it sounds like they’ve been friends since childhood.

Harley matched me story for story.  I’d tell an outlandish, mostly true story and then he’d tell one.  He specialized in bear stories.  He had me at a disadvantage, though, seeing as how he had 30 more years’ experience telling stories and lying than me.  My West Virginia stories which impressed my friends in Orlando, didn’t hold up well against Harley’s stories.  To impress, I had to resort to stories about the alligators and water moccasins I had encountered in Florida, which seemed very exotic to these native born West Virginians.

We tell stories late into the night.  Some of the stories get repeated year after year and if you’re asked to tell one of these stories it’s a great honor.

I think about all the stories told at deer camp throughout the ages that have died with the men who told them.  At some point I’ll write mine down.

This is a start.


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