Let’s go find something with our shotgun

I’ve never known where I stood on the man chart. How manly am I? I’ve always been into sports and chasing girls but really never got into fixing cars or playing poker.  While most of my teenage friends were skateboarding or looking through dirt bike magazines, I would find a shady spot of grass to lie on and read some Walt Whitman or Jack Kerouac.  I love a good night of boozing, but I pass out if I get a needle. I am stuck somewhere in the middle, maybe a five or a six on a ten-point scale.  Some of this is due to growing up without a father and some due to all the hours spent on the phone playing M.A.S.H. with numerous girls in high school.  Also, I just find things like working on cars boring as shit.

So months ago, when I was invited to go hunting for the first time, I remained undecided.  Half of me immediately perked up for the adventure: the Mojave Desert, camping, tracking and hunting.  This was all new, all exciting.  On the other hand, my softer side said, man, I don’t know about killing little birds, plus, and more importantly, I don’t want to get shot by some crazy Billy Bob whose had one too many Buds at seven in the morning, I like my face.

I have only shot a gun once in my life (they were stolen and I was drunk and running through the neighborhood where I grew up), so I can’t say I really feel like I am an experienced pistoleer.  In fact, guns scare the shit out of me.

I tossed the invitation back and forth for weeks, debating, usually interested, sometimes not really caring.  The invitation came from my wife’s friend’s husband so I didn’t know any of the guys I would be going with.  Steve, the host, persisted, often sending me emails and updates as to the upcoming trip.  Finally, I wrote a page-long email telling Steve why I couldn’t go.  Before I could push send, I found the other half of me dialing Steve’s number and accepting.  That inner guide that has led for so much of my life, to danger and beauty, distant continents and the California coast had once again won out.  You only live once, sleep under the stars, learn how to fire a gun, legally, live, live, live like a Roman candle!  The chant echoing in my head, I heard myself telling Steve yes.

The hunting grounds are 170 miles north of Los Angeles and about 100 miles south of Death Valley.  Red Mountain is the town, population 130.  California’s varying topography is one of my favorite things about living here so I spent the afternoon driving through the hills and deserts, the Autumn sun tinting the world in soft sienna.  As Bruce Springsteen sang me forward, I was alone with the two of me.  Half scared of what laid ahead, half busting with wild adrenaline. I pulled off the tiny two-lane highway at the designated fork and headed down a dirt road.  Within fifty feet, all communication with society was lost, cell phone dead.  I proceeded slowly, my Honda scraping and bouncing across the desert floor.  After thirty minutes, I started to get nervous.  Little roads had intersected here and there: did I make a wrong turn?  Shit, I saw The Hills Have Eyes and this was starting to be the part where you yell at the TV, Turn back you asshole.  Just as I was about turn around, I saw a sign painted white with red letters, Chuk,Chuk, Chuk.  The Chukar, a round, medium-sized partridge, was to be my foe.

The long and winding road

The road less traveled

I pulled my Honda Accord up a dune and over some small bushes under the watchful eye of the men I was to meet.  They stood by their large Chevy and Ford pickups, equipped with shotguns and ammo and all kinds of killing shit.  I must of looked hilarious getting out of my sedan, shorts and sandals like I just got off the beach.  Steve came over and introduced himself then introduced me to the other fellows.  We stood around and made small talk, me quickly throwing in an Africa story in an attempt to prove that I was at least a five if not six on the man scale.  Well, said Steve, should we shoot?  Him and I went across the road to the foot of a small mountain and he set up a target.  By this time the sun had begun to set and a pink hue covered the desert around us while Cirrus clouds lightly streaked the sky. After going over the safety instructions of his handgun, I loaded it up and began to fire.  I fired about 70 bullets. Although I was not a direct shot, I was at least hitting the board.  Next he pulled out a 12-gauge shotgun.  Holy shit, I felt like Doc Holliday (Wyatt Earp’s buddy, not the pitcher from the world famous Philadelphia Phillies).  I was nervous the shotgun was going to knock me off my feet, but after a few rounds I was blasting the hell out of the autumn dusk as Steve cheered me on.

I'll be your huckleberry

Autumn's twilight

After a delicious dinner over a crisp campfire, the full moon crept over the mountains behind us and painted the landscape with a soft yellow silk.  I discarded my tent for the evening, the air was still warm, and slept under the stars in a sleeping bag.  Orion was by my feet, the Big Dipper above my right shoulder. I surveyed the sky and softly drifted into sleep, a manly man alone in the wilderness, only a 12-guage shotgun (and a band of hunters) to protect him.

I woke up during the night and walked a few feet from my sleeping bag to take a leak.  I stood there, half asleep, and surveyed the silent desert.  It was surreal. Millions of stars peppered the sky yet I was alone in the universe.

I awoke to the clinking of a tin pot. Steve was brewing coffee in the pre-dawn darkness.  How’d you sleep? he asked.  I wanted to tell him that, quite frankly, I loved sleeping outside under the stars and was probably going to become a hermit in Alaska or buy Ted Kaczynski’s house after this trip.  I didn’t. Instead, I ate breakfast as the sun began to rise, pushing the moon farther across the sky.  The others woke up and all of us prepared to head out for the hunt.  I didn’t have a hunting license so I didn’t have gun, but this was not the only difference between me and the other guys.  First, I was in shorts, running shoes, a fleece and a Phillies hat.  Everyone else had boots, bright orange shirts and hats (so they don’t get shot at) and a gun.  Damnit!  I should have gotten the license.

Morning is breaking

At 6:30 a.m., we headed straight up a mountain, on foot.  The landscape opened in the daylight as we climbed.  We heard echoes of shots from other hunters in the surrounding hills, adding to the intensity of the situation.  We could hear the Chukars hidden in the hills, laughing at us with their little calls.  Let’s go find something with our shotguns, Steve said as we reached the top of the ridge and began to descend down the other side.  We walked across the mountains, the rib cage of the Mojave, shotguns ready.  The day was spent on high alert, the silence broken sporadically by distant shotgun blasts.  We spread out and canvassed the hillside of volcanic remnants, walking fifty feet apart in a line, trying to flush out the enemy.  These Chukars were a smart beast, and I couldn’t help to feel their eyes on me as I sweated and stumbled across the hillside.

A rest stop, Steve in the foreground

An apple and a talk of youth

The military actually trains in this area of the state because the terrain is similar to Afghanistan; every twist of my ankle reminded me of how much I hated Afghanistan.  Steve and I had a chance to get to know each other, even stopping a few times to enjoy an apple or P&J over stories of our youth. With the sun fully awake, the autumn desert glowed bright and beautiful.  We crossed the riverbed and climbed another hill.  It was about 11 a.m. so we decided to start heading back.  As we came across a steep ledge of rocks and gravel, Steve pointed to a small cave.  Looks like a coyote’s house, he said.  Um, Great, keep that shit to yourself until I’m past it please.  A few yards on, two Chukars surprised us and took flight before Steve could get a shot off.  Damn, we were close.  My feet were miserable now, the sharp grass saturating the cloth edges of my shoes and stabbing my ankles.  Finally, we spotted a few Quail and Chukars close to our campsite.  Steve took a shot but missed.  Damn was it exciting.  We came over the hill to find my little Honda sitting beneath us on the desert floor.  I was suddenly tired.

Steve and I heading home

We reached our campsite and sat down to a cool drink.  I thanked Steve for everything, the invitation, the knowledge, the bullets.  It had been a great time out in the desert, hunting, even if it was only for twenty-four hours.  I loved the experience, the loneliness, the wilderness.  I felt fresh, cleansed from the smog of society.  I headed home in silence and spent the majority of the drive alone with my thoughts.  My wife and I were house sitting and, four hours after being dusty and dirty in the Mojave Desert, I was sitting happily by the pool.  It was a good trip, a needed notch on my man belt, fucking hunting some Chukar.  I think I’m going to get a foot massage at that Thai place, I said as I turned over to tan my back.


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