For a month after my old hound Ann died, I was paralyzed, unable to read or write, numb to the beauty of autumn. But I also felt an obligation to my young new bird dog, Colter—to his young heart and burning eyes.
My old truck won’t make it through the winter. Early one afternoon Colter and I drove down to Missoula, where I trade the old truck for one that’s even older, but in better condition.
Then we head farther south and east, toward Dillon, where I’ve heard there’s a huge ranch where the public is allowed to hunt for sage grouse.
We arrive in Dillon well after midnight. There is a rodeo in town the next day, so all the hotels are filled. I spread my sleeping bag in the back of the truck. It is a cold night—twinkling stars, and a serious frost forming—and I try to show Colter how to get in the sleeping bag with me, but this is a thing that is definitely not in his blood, and so he spends the night draped across my knees on the outside, shivering but never whining—getting up and pacing around in the night, teeth chattering, waiting for morning, until settling his bony frame back down across my knees again, where he shivers so hard that the truck rocks. A Texan, and a shorthaired pointer! What are we doing this far north?
The sun’s slant, still early into September, still has enough bite to burn the frost off quickly the next day. We drive out into the country, find the vast ranch, park on the side of the road, and I wait for a few minutes, savoring the blue sky, and my freedom, and the health and vigor of my dog, and the scent of sage. A distant line of willows snakes through the distant prairie, beyond which are foothills. Colter’s raring to go but I want to sit a moment longer, soaking in the autumn, and this new place, new pursuit.
A truck drives by with a dead moose in the back that looks as large as an elephant. It’s archery season. It took a while after the truck and moose were gone, for the notion of birds, not large mammals, to fill my blood again. In this way Colter will always be the master, and I, the student. Birds are always in his blood.
I made sure I had everything in my vest: shells, pocketknife, water, lunch. I closed the truck up and unloaded Colter and we set off. I have complete confidence in his nose and know that if there is a sage grouse within our range—roughly twenty miles today, with him covering easily five times that distance—we will find it, and I will shoot at it, a one-in-five chance I might hit it.
Some days—probably only a few in my lifetime—I’ll go three-for-three, or three-for-four, or four-for-six, but there are longer stretches where I’m oh-for-twelve, or one-for twenty-five. It averages out to about one-in-ten, and Colter, bless his wild heart, knows it, and does not back off a bit for knowing it. If anything, he pushes on harder than ever, and I think that it must be a kind of bravery for him to do this, to continue to hunt so hard for such a lousy shot.
There is a kind of joy in bird hunting that is like passing through long stretches of shadowy forest, toward patches of sunlight, brief shafts and columns of it through the forest. A huge part of the joy is that the artifice and ego, the veneer, of almost everything else in the world, except for your family, is revealed nakedly, under only the eye of God and the sky. Pushing hard into a north wind with a big-running dog in big country, is only the moment: only the one bird, or the one covey, somewhere out there, in the shadows. There are so many shadows, and so little light, that when you pass into it, you know it, and the dog knows it.
It’s a good thing, I think, that it can’t be articulated too well. It’s a good thing—a great thing—that dogs can’t speak our language. That we have to leave the shadows and step into some new ground, new place, where we learntheir language—the language of muscle and desire and the vision of scent—and that they, too, learn this middle ground that exists between dog and man.
My God, it is a real thing, unlike so much else. It is still what it is.
We push out onto the prairie: my first steps of any consequence, of doing anything, since Ann died. All of the old clichés of re-birth, or healing, are so time-tested and maddeningly true. On that bright morning after traveling far through the night in a new-old truck and stepping out into a new place with my pal, my hunting partner, I feel like I’m emerging blinking from a chrysalis. It is not re-awakened emotion I feel—joy, regret, nostalgia, sorrow—but rather a return of the senses after a long numbness and confusion.
One would think joy, or happiness, or pleasure, would be a component of this awakening. But it is nothing so complex as that. It is simply a clearer notion of scent and sound and vision; greater tactility. The edges of things seem to have a sharpness they did not possess the day before, or the day before that.
We launch ourselves into the wind, into the vastness of the country before us, making our way through hard-grazed stubble toward the winding green corridor of a creek, and the sage of the foothills beyond. The young dog is happy simply to run, casting perfectly, casting hugely, and it relaxes a thing in my heart to watch the grace and ease of his long legs, and to see his continuous joy, uninterrupted by even the shadow of a passing, fleeting, negative thought.
Newborn, but older, I follow him, ever conscious of my responsibility to participate in his joy. He needs me.
It’s hot. We strike the willows and he crosses the creek in a Herculean bound—easily fifteen feet—and I wade it to join him. We travel upstream through tall grass and willows. He catches scent and moves in tight to a clump of willows, and goes on point, though it is a tentative point, and with a bit of a hunched back.
I’ve seen him staunch on birds a thousand times, and he has never, ever, been wrong: not once, even as a puppy, has his body betrayed him. When his stub tail stops twitching—when it locks—the bird is there. Not the scent of where the bird-was-just-a-moment-ago, but the bird itself, at this moment: the scent picture of the hidden bird painting itself, feather-by-feather, line by line, across his palate.
He’s not staunch now: not of full point. But such is my grogginess from the month of grief that I want to force things—to force my dog to learn some restraint even as I, at the age of forty, have been unable to learn it.
“Whoa,” I tell him—he “whoas”—and I kick at the brush, wondering what will emerge. Nothing. “All right,” I tell Colter, “get that bird up.”
He creeps in, just as he’s supposed to—I’m so proud I could burst—and I urge him on.
He catches sight of his unfamiliar quarry, and lunges. A porcupine, and I mean to tell you, a big one. Colter yelps, backs away, and then, furious, attacks it again and again—two, three more savage bites. Colter is still attacking as I wade in and pull him off the beast. Blood everywhere. An ivory pincushion obscures the face of my dog. He yelps with pain as he tries to spit out the quills lodged in the roof of his mouth. Every time he barks or pants or yelps he stabs himself again and again with the mouthful of daggers. No quills in the eyes, thank God, but all around them, so that he looks as if he’s wearing a clown’s mask.
Like a rookie, an amateur, a sleepwalker, I am not carrying hemostats. I didn’t even bring any on the trip with me. Perhaps I do not deserve this dog. I do have some scissors in the truck, so we head straight back to it. You can’t just pull porcupine quills; you’ve got to snip the ends off to deflate them, then snatch them out. Otherwise it’s like trying to pull fish-hooks.
It’s a Sunday, of course, and we’re damn near a hundred miles from a vet.
I ask Colter to heel, so I can pet him and soothe him as he trots alongside me, but he won’t have any of it: as ever, he races out ahead of me, hunting hard, casting.
I think that’s when the next phase of my renewal kicks in: the return of joy.
We spend only two-and-a-half hours pulling quills, though it seems like days. I stop counting near two hundred. Bits and pieces of clipped quills are scattered all over the road, all over the tailgate/operating table. Quite understandably Colter doesn’t want me tugging on those quills, snipping and then gripping each one, saliva-slippery, with the needlenose pliers, and jerking, and he squalls and yelps like a pack of coyotes, lunges and twists and writhes, he’s far too strong for me to restrain and pluck at the same time, so I’ve got him trussed and haltered and bound, stanchioned every which-way, but still he twists and rolls like a pretzel, winding himself (and me with him, hunched over him) into a corkscrew, and then back out again, so that the scene out there under the big sky and the lone prairie, unobserved by the eye of man, is like that of an anaconda wrestling with a hapless deer.
I don’t know how it ever ends, but it finally does. I offer Colter some water, but he doesn’t want it. I try to entice him to kennel up, but it’s no dice: he skitters away, dances out into the field, anxious to go hunting.
To feel the world again, to taste it, to see it, drinking it in, like gulps of air. We jump a lot of deer—whitetails—out of the willows, but Colter’s learned not to chase them. I’m worried he’ll go after another porcupine, demanding a rematch—his heart is larger than his considerable brain—but I know that we have to get back out there and try.
We make it over to the foothills unscathed—we break even: we find nothing, but nothing finds us. There is one tense moment when, moving hard through the sage, zigging and zagging, Colter springs right over the top of a snarling badger. I’m right behind Colter, and as the badger charges out of his burrow, all I can see are teeth—but I veer hard left, to the north, while the badger’s rush carries him south. For a long time afterward the image of the badger’s teeth and rank musculature sticks in my mind, and I begin to wonder if there is hidden behind some hellish gantlet, some series of challenges through which all dogs and hunters must pass to reach the land of sage grouse.
Whatever the price to be paid, it feels good to be free again.
Bird dogs, like writers, are crazy. Hunting, they charge out and seize the world with great boilermaker hearts, attempting to bend and alter it, it seems, to their desire. Who can say what they’re thinking. When they’re off-duty, when they nap, as Colter does, resplendent and brown, in the light outside my writing cabin, in his little nest of grass at the edge of the marsh, eyes shut in bliss, a slight snore rumbling from his bony frame. He leads me out to my writing cabin each morning and, if it is not raining, sleeps there until I come out in the afternoon. Over a few short years the weight of his sleeping body has pressed the earth down in that one spot, sculpted it to his shape: muscular shoulders, deep chest, tiny waist, gaunt hips—head laid straight out, neck stretched, as if on point, even in his sleep.
In his absence I have examined the mold he has left in the earth, the ground packed hard as fired clay. I have run my hands over the inverted cast of those deep shoulders and bony hips and I lay down in it, to get a dog’s-eye view of the world. A wall of grass rises like a cornfield against the blue sky, it doesn’t seem like a bad way, or place, to spend a life.
A dog’s heart is at least as knowledgeable as his nose and I wonder, as I write, how much he picks up off my rhythms, my emotions from sentence to sentence. I wonder if those silent efforts, word by word and then strings of sentences, carry to him invisibly, like the background saw of some summertime insect—or if he just sleeps.
When I come out of the cabin in the afternoon, he yawns, stretches, pulls his leggy self back up from that place of pleasure, and, still a little groggy, follows me back up to the house. There are a series of stepping stones we use to keep our feet dry in wet weather, and our steps mimic each other’s, stone for stone, as if we are crossing a stream in single-file unison. Somewhere along the way he will awaken from his sleepwalking and pick up a stick or a branch and move in closer and tap me against the back of my knees with it, lightly, as if urging me along like a goat herd, because he knows that once I am up at the house then I am in a far readier position to get my gun and vest and go out to the truck and call for him to kennel up: not that the words ever need to be spoken; he leaps into the front seat the second the door is opened.
I never go out to my cabin that eagerly, which I suppose, why dogs are dogs and humans are, most days, humans. I never leap into my cabin. I trudge, often needing a goat herd in both directions.
In the field with him, in the autumn, though, as we move through the light and shadows, I can hear, somedays dimly but other days as if with a shouted roar, some of the silent fury and joy passing through his blood as he runs—and I can almost feel it in my own blood.
We push on up a dry wash, deeper into sage country now. The sage makes a rich smell as Colter smashes through it, and I crush it with my boots. I want to know what the meat of a bird that feeds on sage tastes like.
Colter follows some mystery scent upslope for a minute or two, but it turns out to be a cottontail; he flushes it, then veers away, satisfied, it seems, to merely have disrupted its rhythms.
We pound those hot hills for an hour, finding no birds, but there are beautiful flecks of turquoise underfoot, some of which I pocket to take back home to the rain forest. I stop often and pour water into my cupped hand for Colter to drink, but as usual, he’s too jazzed to drink. He’ll drink all the water in his bowl in the hotel room tonight, and then, at four a.m., as I’m trying to sleep, he’ll get up and lap all the water out of the toilet bowl, too—drinking steadily for about fifteen minutes, the lapping sound amplified by the acoustics of the porcelain curve, and his dog tags jingling mightily—but today, under the broad sun, he doesn’t have time for water.
After a long while, we give up on the hills and turn back down toward the flats. There are some abandoned outbuildings a mile or two distant, shimmery blue-and-gray in the haze, and I point Colter toward them without a word. I have heard people say that their dog would “hunt his heart out for them,” but the way things are between me and Colter, I think, are that each of us would hunt our hearts out for ourselves, and in that respect we are a good match. I wouldn’t mind hunting to the horizon on any day, every day, and I know that Colter feels the same. In this respect we’re not master-and-dog, but partners. He would choose the birds over me. He can’t help it.
Softer than he, I would choose him over the birds. It’s why I trail him.
He reaches the creek, dives in—swims in circles, grinning. The autumn light ignites his eyes like gold candles; he grins like a kid as he swims in circles in the deep hole. Then he hauls himself out, ribs tight against his slickened skin, shakes once in his goofy, rattling, disjointed hound way—the back half shaking totally independent of the front half—and then he is off again, galloping, fluidity and grace, and for a moment, just a moment, I catch a whiff, an inkling, of how it must feel to be running cool and damp through all that hot dry air, and to be that young and strong.
He makes game near the old homestead—snuffles about, darting this way and that—seeming crazed and frantic, I’m sure, to an outsider—a million pieces of data igniting in his brainpan, blossoming to incandescence. There are grouse scat and downy feathers everywhere; he makes his read, his decision, and dashes off toward the creek, and I follow, but after three or four hours of walking, I am not ready, I am not alert—I am just out walking, rather than hunting—and when he goes on point and I move toward him, the birds, too many of them, and big as Dallas, flush out ahead of me, and I take too much time choosing one, and I fire twice at a distant going-away bird, missing both times.
Colter holds staunch. The flock sets back down not too far away, and we move off toward them. He stops after a few steps, points again—a single is still hidden—and when this one gets up, no excuses, no one could ask for more, I miss by a mile, shooting so far behind the bird that to even a casual observer it would have seemed that I was trying to miss the bird.
And at the sound of my shots, the rest of the flock gets up again, and this time they fly a long, long way—flying south, until we cannot see them.
We travel for a long time toward the horizon over which they disappeared but we do not find them again.
The thing about grief or sadness—even if it is over such a seemingly-“lesser” creature as a dog—is that it takes both your strength and your endurance, as any injury does. Later that afternoon the sadness hits me, and the loneliness of the country, and the paucity of sage grouse. We flee north, to look for sharptails, and to draw closer to home and family—as if I have overextended, getting so far from home, not yet having regained my heart’s stamina.
We stop at a chain-motel in the state capitol. It’s raining like hell, sleeting, with thunder and lightning too. We walk down the hallway—its after midnight—like tired businessmen, and I set the alarm for dawn.
As the sun is rising a clear day, we are up and driving north along the Rocky Mountain Front: the towering reef of mountains rising above us, as if beneath a frozen wave of stone, and with us tucked right in there against the base, the only things moving, the only signs of life, on that sea.
A distinctive mesa rises out of the prairie all by itself. There is a brightly-painted farmhouse at the foot of the mesa, shrouded by a dense oasis of fruit trees. I turn and drive slowly down the gravel lane toward the house. Antelope watch us pass. Fierce rooster pheasants run cackling down the drive, running for the house, before darting beneath the fruit trees. Red and golden apples litter the green grass.
A window is open upstairs with curtains blowing in the breeze. There’s no sound in the world, and nobody in the world but me and my dog. I stop and get out and go knock on the door.
A woman appears at the door. She’s dressed nicely, as if on her way to some important meeting, but a meeting among friends.
“You must be a bird hunter,” she says. “You can probably find some birds over by that silo,” she says, pointing across the road. “There’s about three hundred acres over there.”
I thank her, and like a glutton, like an audacious bandit—the things we’ll do for love! All for my dog, not me—I ask her, “What about those pheasants, later in the year—can they be hunted?”
“No,” she says sweetly, but with a bit of her autumn-generosity thinning, “we like to keep those around to look at.”
I thank her again, and drive off toward the silo. I park before the rolling field of land left fallow in the Conservation Reserve Program, for erosion control and wildlife habitat—and again cannot shake the feeling—nor do I wish to—that everyone in the world has vanished except Colter and me. And that there might possibly be sharptails out in that sea of grass.
We launch ourselves into the grass, quartering the wind. We will patrol the perimeters like a combine, then clean up in the middle. Colter will eat the half-section like a giant threshing machine.
He goes straight to the first covey, as is his habit, but he bumps them, or rather, they get up wild. I shoot anyway, so excited am I to hear them chuckling and to see the white undersides of their wings flapping like banners against that blue sky. They are flying high and fast and away and I shoot twice, missing of course, and Colter runs after them barking, and bumps more. I shoot at those, even farther out, and miss them, too. Colter becomes unglued—I shot when he did not make a staunch point, I changed the rules on him—and he accelerates, running after those birds and howling. I wonder if the kind lady in the farmhouse is watching—she can certainly hear the shooting, and Colter’s barking.
How strange it must be for a dog to be taken out of the dark wet fungal shadows of grouse-dom and turned loose in a land that receives only a tenth as much rain. In the distance, Colter bumps more birds, runs howling after them, and my confidence in him weakens; for a moment, I feel like sitting down and weeping.
Instead I shout, whistle and wait. Colter comes slinking back, knowing he’s done wrong, but, Hey, it was only a little wrong!—chill out, Pop. He also does his trick of pretending to scent game right in my vicinity—snuffling for a moment, feinting, darting—so that for a moment, I can’t help but wonder if there’s a bird hidden right under my feet. Only once in maybe a thousand such times has there actually been a bird—but I fall for Colter’s trick every time, and my anger fades.
We settle in to the real hunt. Colter casts big, runs big, for about ten minutes before making game again, and making it with penance, this time—moving forward with a strange combination of recklessness and caution that is beautiful to see, especially in a dog so desirous of running with the throttle wide-open.
He gets as close as he possibly can—creeps, points—and then the birds must skitter away beneath some tunnel of grass, because he pussy-foots forward again—being careful not to run up over them, in his enthusiasm—and with my heart beating about two hundred times a minute, I step in to flank him, and the birds go up, and I shoot one and it tumbles, and like a pro Colter still holds, until I release him. He bounds over to the bird, mouths it—sharptail blood, his first ever, the best-eating bird there is, I’m told—and though he does not bring it all the way to me, he comes halfway, and I reach down and take it from him and spend a long time letting him know that he is just the most amazing damn animal on the earth.
We repeat the process twice more that afternoon, so that we have three of the beautiful birds in hand when we head back to the truck (the limit is four). They seem to bleed more than other grouse, and there are drops of bright red blood stark against their snowy chests, like the red trim around the door of the white farmhouse of the lady who betrayed them, though it was not her who betrayed them of course, but Colter: or rather, if there was any betrayal, it was their own rank and delicious scent, which Colter’s family has been pursing for millennia.
We sit on the roadside and draw the birds; I won’t pluck them, but instead will take them back to the rainy valley where I live, to show my family, as if returning with rare and interesting specimens from the deepest Congo. The crop of each bird is packed jam-tight with wheat-seeds and crickets, so that it looks like some kind of strange quiche. One of the crickets is still moving, though sluggishly. I release it back into the wheat, but can tell that it is not going to make it.
There are robins up here in the north woods, not the lazy puff-breasted suburban lawn robins but gaunt harrow-eyed dive-bombing shadows that veer away with such suddenness, that, I at first think they are hawks—northern goshawks, their natural predator. The long-shadow’s distance of twilight, and half-a-second, one second, two seconds at most, is all that separates the robin from the goshawk: and in that moment I can see how the swerve of wings, plunge and plummet of escape, has been carved and sculpted by the pursuit.
Though I love to hunt with friends, these parallel, sometimes overlapping lines of grace, where shadow and object merge and become for some few moments indistinguishable one from the other have only come when Colter and I have been alone in the field. I hate trying to capture them with paper-and-pen—with drying ink on paper. It is like trying to drop a fleeing sharptail by throwing a pen at it, or an apple. They usually come on the second or even third day of hunting. We’ve both made mistakes. Colter has misbehaved just enough, and then some, to show that he still has spirit, and that it is a partnership: that he is not a mule hitched to a harness. And I will have missed shots.
The moments come in big country. The visual imprint, visual palate, is gold wheat and brown dog, or brown bush and gold dog. The dog is ranging big and steady into the wind, head up, charging, in perfect casts uninstructed by any trainer, and dependent upon the terrain—and the hunter, also strong, is moving steadily forward into that wind—walking briskly. The dog has adjusted his casts to fit the hunter’s steady progress.
There is nothing ahead of them but more country—no borders. Everything is behind them: everything. There are two lines of movement—the north-south stride of the hunter, and the east-west stitching of the dog—with both of them wanting only one thing, a bird, and wanting it so effortlessly and purely that they come the closest they will ever come to shared language. For several minutes they travel across the prairie like that, indistinguishable from one another in heart, in desire—until finally the scent-cone is encountered, and the dog must leave that place-in-time, that striding harmony, and accelerate, super-charged, into his own greater, vaster capability to desire that bird . . . The hunter feels a super-charge of excitement as well, but much of it comes from the dog—the shadow, now—rather than the subject itself, the bird—and the hunter hurries forward to the completion of things, with the dog dashing and darting now, chasing the bird, running it, trying to capture it as a tornado perhaps tries (in flinging up trees and houses and people) to capture the soil.
These are the moments you remember, after the season is over: not whether you got the bird or not, but the approach: the process. The shadow of the thing, more than the thing itself. It’s very strange, very beautiful.
Nothing but prairie, sky, wind. Nothing. You’re walking along, striding big-but-tiny, keeping up with the heartworks of the dog, and he with yours. Sometimes you laugh out loud at how conjoined the two of you are.
We drive home, Colter curled up in the seat next to me. He seems transformed by only two days and two hundred miles of running—as if he is no longer the big hard-charging bruiser I came out here with, but some frail, bony little hound. With a dog that runs as hard and as long as Colter you can almost see the flesh melting as he runs—his ribs becoming sharper by the hour, until they are like a fine set of knives. As if his desire is eating him, and that he is in greater peril from himself, for that reason, than is the bird.
He is wasted, emptied finally. Spent. He curls up and tucks his nose beneath his flank, so that it’s hard to tell where he begins and ends, in his all-brownness. His bony little haunches are hunkered way up, folded sharply over his ribs like the wing of a bird nesting, its head tucked beneath its wing, roosting for the night: and I see in the curve of muscle and bone—how his hind legs are wings, and how again his desire powers him to his own kind of swooping, slashing flight.
I think that in those moments, those perfect moments, when we are crossing the big fields like that, an observer looking down from a mile or two above—a bird’s-eye view—would not believe that we were earthbound. I feel certain that that observer would see the two animals—man and dog—moving steadily across that prairie—one casting and weaving, the other continuing straight ahead—and would believe that they were two birds traveling in some graceful drift to some point, some location, known surely to their hearts.