I wake up at 5:30 and roll out of bed. I’m in Plainfield about 90 minutes south of Chicago. The weather the night before called for snow and we got a solid 18 inches overnight. They’ve done this before though and the streets are mostly cleared already. The snow stopped about an hour ago and the plows have been through twice. I stand, still in my underwear, looking out the window at the mess. Cars splash through the slush still on the roads and spray it everywhere, another snow plow rumbles by tossing more of the slush into the driveway behind my cars where it promptly freezes. The snow isn’t pretty… it’s wet and dirty and cold
Two years later I wake up at 5:30 and roll out of bed. It’s Monday morning but I’ve taken the day off which is all the more reason to get up early. I quickly pull on two pairs of socks and a pair of fuzzy underwear. Jeans, boots, flannel shirt and bib coveralls follow. That last with a Mossy Oak Breakup pattern camouflage. I walk into the living room and stand in front of the picture window. The security light at my neighbors nearly a hundred yards away glows orange and lights up the mist and fog so that the whole world seems to glow. The trees between our houses stand stark, black and still in the early morning quiet. It’s wet and cold… it’s pretty.
In Plainfield I toss on work clothes (business casual) and check my email quickly before heading out. I should shovel the walk but decide that I don’t care. Mrs. Jinksto won’t go anywhere today so it can wait. I’ll have to shovel to get the car out of the drive though. I take a look at the wet and freezing mass of ice thrown across the drive by the plows. It’s nearly two feet tall and it’s going to be a lot of work to dig through that dressed for work. I go back into the house and get the truck keys. Returning, I drop it into four wheel drive and power out into the street. I can feel the F250 crushing the snow and slush down into a layer of pure ice. I’ll pay for this later but for now I enjoy the redneckness of doing it my way. As I cruise carefully down the street ignoring piles of snow missed by the plows I wave to a neighbor who is slogging away in his business suit trying to dig his car out. The four-lane streets are reduced to two. The yellow line is replaced by an eight foot wide swath of snow and slush that is nearly impossible to get through in a car. You just sort of follow the guy in front of you and drive where others have driven. It’s the only time of the year that these people are even civil on the roads.
Thirty minutes later I pull into the train station. The parking lot was plowed the night before but another inch of snow has fallen since then covering the lines. I use the lot number placards hung from a steel cable over the lot to help me get close to an actual parking place. I’ve done better than most so I probably won’t get a ticket. I pass by the pay area and push a dollar into the proper slot. As I turn back toward the train tracks I notice the stark white security lights glowing like beacons in the mist and fog. A woman nearby is yelling at the ticket agent about something but I can’t hear what. I really don’t care… it’s her problem not mine. It’s ugly and cold.
A lifetime away in Stanley, NC I fire up that same F250 and turn around in the drive. The truck hasn’t warmed up yet so the defroster is on high and working hard. It’s cold but we’re so bundled and layered that we can hardly tell. I look at my nephew on the passenger side and grin. He’s ten and he’s leaned forward in the seat trying to see everything at once. It’s his first real hunting trip and he’s white with excitement. Everything is new and fresh for him. I remember when going hunting was that way for me too. Some days it still is. The guns have been cleaned four or five times in anticipation. The truck loaded the night before, the stands have been up for weeks now. There’s nothing to slow you down on this first day, there’s nothing to go wrong. The anticipation builds for weeks and early in the morning on opening day there’s nothing left to do but go.
Ms Jinksto has filled a thermos for each of us and presented them with a kiss as we went out the door into the dark. Mine has coffee, his hot chocolate.
We trundle slowly down the gravel drive and bounce onto the highway where we pick up speed. The truck has that earthy smell that trucks do on early morning trips to the woods with the heater blasting. It’s a mixture of gunpowder and cigarette smoke and dust from the heater vents and any number of other things that builds a rich smell. We drive for forty-five minutes and pass maybe two or three cars. Either other hunters or some unlucky guy off to work. On the way we stop at the local Texaco and I buy him a bottle of milk and a honeybun for no other reason than that’s what you’re supposed to do when you go hunting. He tells her that he’s going on his first hunting trip and she seems genuinely happy for him as she wishes him luck.
As we walk out of the store I notice the security lights glowing in the mist again. These give a bluish tint to everything that’s somewhere between refreshing and cool. A lady is parked beside the store with her hood up glaring at the engine as she talks on a cell phone. As we walk over I hear her say, “Ok, baby, I’m at the store so it’s safe, don’t rush.” And it is safe here. The last time this place was robbed was… well… never. Still, I offer to help but she declines. Her son is on the way and he “deserves it because she’s told him twenty times to get this car fixed!”
I grin and wave as we climb back into the truck. She heads in the store where they’ll let her loiter until help arrives because it’s cold out and the clerk wants someone to chat with in the dead hours of early morning.
I’m near the beginning of the train line and the train has been staged over night so it’s amazingly cold. It’s still early in the morning and dark out but the lights on the train are glaringly bright. I wish they’d dim them but it’s too dangerous to do that here. The heaters are on and blowing lukewarm air into the car. I slide over near the window and shove my feet against the heating duct to try and draw some heat out of it. The train lurches into motion. I slide my monthly ticket into the clip on the back of the seat in front of me so that the conductor and I can do business without talking to or even looking at one another.
I stare morosely out the window and frown as the snow begins to fall again. I hate snow. I hate Chicago. I hate the city. I watch the traffic on the interstate as we blow by. It’s stopped and not moving in the snow. Bumper to bumper traffic for 35 miles into the city… I hate that too. Soon the train loses it’s cold touch and then becomes too warm. I put my forehead against the glass of the windows to cool off and slowly nod off to sleep.
As the train pulls into the station in Chicago I wake with a start and snatch my ticket from the clip before shoving it in the inside pocket of my jacket. I quickly check for my wallet to make sure that it hasn’t been stolen and then slide to the outside edge of the seat. As the doors open I wedge myself between two people in the aisle and force my way off of the train. In the early days I felt bad about acting that way. About not trusting my fellow man. About being close enough to touch someone and forcing them out of the way instead of saying hello. I’ve gotten over it.
We step off of the train into the dank (I never really understood that word until I saw Union Station in Chicago) undercity cavern and push toward the exit. The trains run on diesel and the station is underground so the fumes are almost overwhelming. The passenger drop is “open air” which really only means “unheated” and very cold. It’s under the buildings of the city and is dirty and grimy with soot from the engines and litter. I climb a short set of stairs and am poured with a hundred other people onto the wet sidewalks.
We arrive at the hunting lease and pull onto an abandoned driveway to park. It’s still dark here… very dark. I shut the truck down and we get out to pull our heavy jackets on. Mine is worn from years of service. His is brand new and still has that new clothes smell to it. We pour a cup of hot liquid from our thermos’s and talk quietly about the plan. He doesn’t have a clue about most of what I’m telling him but I go through it all anyway. Partially to break the silence but mostly to engage him in the experience. He picks up the lingo quickly and asks smart questions. Teaching without teaching.
I get my rifle and pull the old beat up 20 gauge single shot out for him to carry. There’s no joking about the old gun. It belongs to Aunt J and is on loan but more importantly it’s a gun and he knows what that means. His dad has done a good job of teaching him to respect them. That’s to be expected, we learned in the same place. and in the same tough way. It’s serious business all the way as I show him how to make sure that it’s not loaded and how to carry it.
I wait patiently for him to point the barrel the wrong way. When he does I give him a solid smack on the back of the head in the same way that his grandfather taught me. He doesn’t make the mistake again… the kid learns faster than I did. I still get dizzy if I stand up too fast.
The beginning of the trail is thick and overhung with vines and limbs. I push through and he follows. The fog has started to turn to dew on the limbs and he makes an awful noise as a stream of water goes down his collar. It’s very wet and very cold. I shush him and glare as fiercely as I can and then grin and try not to laugh as I turn back around to lead the way. Out of the corner of my eye I see him turn up his collar to match mine. Another lesson learned.
I walk through the woods without a light. I know where the trail is and I can keep track by looking at the sky through the trees. Each tree has a unique shape, each turn in the trail is marked by a landmark that I can recognize at night. I have a light in my pocket that matches his (Mrs Jinksto bought us a matching set). I wanted to leave them in the truck but it’s better that he has one. I teach him to keep it pointed down and mostly blocked. He’s walking behind me so his light lights my way as well which allows me to go faster than I normally would. He can’t figure out how I go that fast without a light and turns his off occasionally to try walking in the dark. The first time he makes it five steps before catching a vine and tripping.
He could have caught his balance if he had dropped the gun but he doesn’t. He tucks it against his chest with the barrel pointed in a safe direction and falls flat on his face. It’s a good job and I whisper to tell him so as I help him up. He’s turned his light back on and shines it in my face to see what I’m saying… I’m blinded for the next 10 minutes. Baby steps I guess.
I can see from his light that the fog is thinning and it’s getting colder but we don’t notice it now and after a while we unzip our jackets to keep from sweating.
I duck walk onto the icy sidewalk and join the throngs headed for “the loop” or downtown area of Chicago. It looks a bit goofy and stilted walking on ice but anyone that doesn’t do it will bust his ass. It takes practice to stay completely balanced with your weight centered at all times but it’s the only way to stay unbroken. It’s only two blocks form the station to my office but part of that is over the river. Steam rises off of the river in the freezing air as I walk over the bridge. A bum sits huddled near one end where people can’t avoid him. I ignore him… his jacket is better than mine anyway.
Salt crunches under my hard soled shoes as I push my way through the revolving glass doors into my office. Red carpets have been rolled out to keep people from slipping on the water and slush tracked in onto the new marble floors. On one side a wall of windows stretches to the second floor and I look out into the mess that I’ve just come through. Sensation slowly comes back into my fingers and toes as I trudge to the elevator for my three minute ride into corporate America. I want badly to go back home now. But it’s cold and nasty enough that I decide it’s better to stay for the rest of the day as I recite all of the things I hate about it again.
We ease through the woods as silently as possible and find our way to the stand. The sun is starting to lighten the sky and it’s getting easier to see. He’s fallen twice more in the dark but seems to be handling it well. He just gets up without a word and tries again. I’m proud of him.
I make him check that his gun is unloaded again and show him how to tie it onto the line that’ll let him pull it up. We used to climb with our guns but this way is much safer. I show him how to climb the ladder to the stand by always keeping three points of contact and explain to him how to best turn around and get seated once he’s at the top.
If you think you’re brave try climbing a twenty foot ladder… and figure out how to turn around and sit down… at ten years old… in the dark. He does a good job of it while I stay below to play catch if something goes wrong. He never balks at the task and follows my whispered instructions exactly.
I quickly climb up and sit beside him before showing him how to pull his gun up safely. He breaks the single shot open just like I’ve taught him and I give him a shell to put into it. He knows what it is, we spent 45 minutes at Outdoor World looking for exactly the right load. When he unloads it later I’ll let him keep that shell in his pocket. I nickname him Barney for the day. It’s a joke that he doesn’t get of course but one that I find completely hilarious so I stick with it.
We’re in a good spot that catches the Sun as soon as it rises. We warm slowly as we watch the sunrise cause the remaining fog to first glow a thousand shades of orange and then burn away. The day dawns perfectly clear and the wet pine needles shine a bright green off to our left. It’s a truly fantastic day and we enjoy it. Teacher and student. Buddies. Side by side for a common task in the cold of the North Carolina woods. I quietly recite to myself all of the things that I love about living here as we pass the morning hunting.