Cottontails . . . or Beating the Winter Blues
“I live in that solitude which is painful in youth, but delicious in the years of maturity.” —Albert Einstein
My shotguns reflect who I am as a person. When you look you see that my youth was represented by power. I have a ten-gauge that will take your shoulder off if you hold it wrong. A great goose gun. The most represented gun is the twelve-gauge. Probably the most versatile gun ever made. Some have pretty etchings of hunting scenes. Then I have a couple of twenty-gauges and a sweet sixteen. As I get older, I lean toward the finesse of the lighter calibers. I love the sixteen but supplies are just getting harder to find and the range of shells keeps shrinking. More and more I grab for one of the twenties. Mine are both pretty guns. Both are nice Browning guns with the bottom eject that suits my left-handedness. So I pick one of the twenties and lock the safe back up.
I always clean and oil my guns when I take them out to hunt and again when I put then back. I respect my guns and want them to work properly. As I am cleaning the twenty, I start to daydream. One sure sign of the winter blues is the increase in daydreaming. I have always daydreamed. I can remember getting roughed up by nuns for doing it. Cautioning me that if I kept it up I would get nowhere in life. Perhaps a self-fulfilling prophecy from unhappy virgins in black? It’s always a form of escape. This day I’m dreaming about escaping the winter blues. I am daydreaming that I am cleaning a Purdey side-by-side with all the heavy scrolling and etching. I have always wanted one but somehow a gun that cost that much (fifty to sixty grand or more?) just has not been a reality.
I find the hunting vest I like. It has a game pouch across the back. For the kind of hunting I am about to do it is exactly what I wanted. I grab a box of number six shells and fill the shell sleeves on the vest. The elastic in the cloth of the shell holders is a bit weaker than it used to be. I hold the vest in my hands. Memories of past days and hunts flood my mind’s eye. I realize that I will soon have to have new elastic shell-holders sewn in. It’s as if we somehow impart some of our spirituality into items that go with us often enough on intimate journeys. For this hunt, and for the next several, this vest will hold the shells and that is enough. I grab a small hunting pack that fits comfortably and holds a couple bottles of water, lunch, and a few other items. I round up everything and set it by the door. I will try to go early in the morning. The only thing to do is check the weather.
I gave up on the Weather Channel a long time ago. It deals in general trends over broad regions. I want specific conditions in a very precise area. Several Christmases ago, a friend gave me a home-weather station. I was skeptical of the thing. It required being mounted outdoors and running power to it. Then you needed to mount and connect everything to the “station” indoors. I let it sit in the corner in a limbo of sorts. Nearly making its way to the “reject pile” in the basement. Its saving grace was that I happen to be a gadget junkie. One day two years after I had received it, I installed it. Turns out it works. If you use what it tells you (and your experience) you can do pretty well. It was reading a very cold twenty-two degrees. Wind chill made it minus ten. Rising barometer. I looked at the sky and it was clearing. The likelihood was a cold, sunny February day.
The alarm goes off. There is that moment when you have two minds and have to consolidate them. One is enjoying the warmth of the bed, and one is enjoying the anticipation of a long walk while hunting. As the clock ticks the confusion gives way. My legs roll over the side of the bed. My toes feel for the floor. The touch relays the cold and the one mind says, “See!” before it retreats into the reptile part of your conscious. I walk to the window and the stars are twinkling clear and sharp. It’s going to be sunny and viciously cold. The local weather station and meteorologist do okay again.
I sit in a chair and wait for the kettle to whistle. Hot water is important. It’s going to be tea and oatmeal for breakfast. With any luck the oatmeal will stick to my ribs for a while. Over the years I have hunted these tracks many times. Sunday morning at first light has been the established favorite. You walk for miles in almost perfect solitude. The God-fearing are working on getting to their house of worship. The heathens are stretching out the sins of their weekends just a bit longer. I am not sure which camp I am in anymore. I spent plenty of time in each. I was force-fed religion in my youth. So much so that I rejected it most of my adult life. Now? I am of the mind that all of this had to come from someplace. God particle be damned. I still mistrust organized religion. God doesn’t need money or my soul. In a way I am going to my house of worship. I guess I am just home churched.
This day I get to the pulloff just right. Rays of sunlight are starting to shoot past my side of the earth. The railroad tracks were placed by the Rome (New York), Watertown, and Ogdensburg Railroad in 1876. The last train ran on March 31, 1978. Over the years the Hojack—the rail’s nickname—has fallen into disrepair. The particular section I hunt will remain nameless. As I get out of the truck I look for human tracks. There are never any. Occasionally snowmobile tracks but the snow cover seems too thin for them today. It will be just like I want. I will be alone for as long as I like. I put on the vest and pack. I load the gun and sling it over my shoulder. I start to walk. I am keeping my eyes peeled for rabbits. This is not a rabbit-every-ten-feet situation. Sometimes you go a long way before you see one. As you keep looking your eyes begin to sharpen. You wonder how much you missed before you settled in. At first your steps are fast and methodical. Crunch, crunch, crunch—each step sounds as if it has been transmitted over a PA system. The air is cold. The temperature was in the teens when I left and isn’t any warmer now. In a while my eyes stop watering and my nose stops running. My body is getting used to the cold. My mind, though, it is still cluttered. I am thinking about upcoming business appointments, doctor appointments, tax bills, my parents, my children. We worry about things no other animal worries about. The noise in our heads can be deafening. After an hour my steps are not as fast as before. Crunch . . . crunch . . . crunch. My thoughts are lightening, some. I am thinking about if I keep the car a year longer and dine home more maybe I could afford that Purdey shotgun after all.
A couple hours later and the footsteps have lost much of their authority. The sun is shining on my face and I close my eyes. Even with eyes closed the sun is still shining on my face and it feels good. The winter blues are lifting. I walk and look at an old railroad shed. I think of the last guy to work in it. I wonder what his life meant. I wonder if he is still around. I do the math—thirty-six years, it’s possible. Then in an instant my reptile brain fires for the first time since the alarm. In a blink of an eye my shotgun finds my shoulder and the report booms through the crisp air. I walk over to the rabbit. He is fat and healthy. His fur is thick and shiny. I put him in the game pouch. I remember how pleased Molly would be to get a fat cottontail like this. I wonder if she taught anyone else the recipe? I tried to tell my daughters about it. They wanted no part of eating rabbit. They love venison but rabbit is on the other side of the line. I still get invited to a few game dinners where it is well loved. Other than that it is for me.
It takes some time for the reptile brain to pull back. It must be about seven miles now. I know a road crosses the tracks at the eight-mile mark. I am hoping to get there and turn around. I like to keep the ditch to my right going and coming. As I hit the road I look at my watch and it tells me it’s 1:00 p.m. I know now that I will be back at the truck after dark. I used to do this all in the light. My cheeks and nose are numb and my lungs are engorged. I start walking back, noticing old farmsteads that crawled off a Wyeth work. I am not feeling my legs and I am not really thinking about anything. Layer after layer has lifted. I am, at this moment, free. I am alone, a prophet in my solitude. In our youth solitude terrifies us. We cling to each other like rats on a raft. In our maturity it buoys us.
As the rays of sunlight slip to the other side of the earth, I am happy. I must have picked up the pace some. In the distance, the streetlight I parked my truck under lights up. I am awash in endorphins. I wonder why I don’t do this more. It is past shooting light. It will be a one-rabbit day. I don’t need more. It is the perfect portion. I might invite a friend and open a Salmon Run Riesling. My legs churn effortlessly and I look out of youthful eyes. Gradually and comfortably, I am enveloped by darkness. It falls like a curtain on a great play. It was a great play. One I will see again. I have been cleansed for now. It will be short-lived. As soon as the ignition fires the engine in the truck, the accumulation will begin again.
If church is a place where a man can go to purify, where he can feel closer to that from which he sprang, then indeed I was in church. Before I turned the key in the ignition I wondered to myself when the next time would be? I could feel the sting in my cheeks as they thawed. Later as I sat under the hot water streaming from the shower head—it felt so good—I could feel the back of my legs pulling. I knew church was starting to be felt by my fifty-year-old body. It was fine, as the aches and pains would remind me of a good day. One of delicious solitude. One that needs to happen often enough to keep us real.
In Outdoor Chronicles: True Tales of a Lifetime of Hunting and Fishing, Jerry Hamza takes up the gauntlet of the storyteller to take nature lovers away for a little fun and relaxation. Hamza’s stories will not make you a better caster or shooter, but they will make you want to spend more time fishing or hunting.
This book is a collection of outdoor stories wrapped in the human condition. They were written with an eye toward honesty and cynicism.
The stories cover the gamut from a fishing trip to northern Canada to a little stream that was actually better than remembered, to how the baby boomers almost trampled a sport to death, to a solitary trek along railroad tracks during a cold, dark, and dreary February, and many more.