I had been driving for nearly three hours when I made the turn onto the gravel two-track road that leads to the deer camp. In the inky dark of an overcast, early November night I set to nimbly avoiding deep potholes, muddy ruts, low-hanging branches, and the crowns of large rocks embedded in the road.
I’d like to drive a truck, but my real-world sensibilities as a commuter have me in a fuel-efficient family sedan. Some years back Frank, an often missed and sadly departed member of our deer camp fraternity, took it upon himself to paint the largest rocks a bright blaze orange. Our memories of him have not faded over the intervening years, but the paint on those damn rocks has. Thinking of Frank, I switched off the radio and drove the last five minutes to camp in a somber, pensive silence.
The loud metallic bang on the underside of my car, right below my passenger door told me that as I attempted to nimbly tiptoe around one of the stones on my left side, one of its brethren had found my runner board halfway back on the right. I swore foully at the rock and pressed on. Further on, a raccoon humped its way across the narrow road and climbed halfway up a spindly tree on the roadside. He glared at me comically as I rolled by and for a moment I forget that he was probably hanging around the camp so that he could try to raid our coolers. I made the turn off the two track road and saw the deer camp ahead; in the blackness of the woods surrounding it, the glowing windows resembled the dying embers of a smoldering, unattended campfire. I parked on a grassy spot adjacent the rest of the vehicles, and pulling my duffel out of the trunk, stopped and listened for a moment. The low hum of the gas-powered generator behind the camp and the murmur of animated conversation and country music on the radio inside competed with the breezy November night.
Closing my eyes for a moment, I take a deep breath before I stretch out my car-cramped legs and back. The November night fills my lungs and for a second all I can hear is the late autumn wind in my ears. I exhale slowly, savoring the taste of damp, cool air as if it were the smoke from a fine cigar. Smell is allegedly the human sense most tied to memories, and the night air bracing my cheeks is heavy with that fine chill that makes the deer, and the men that hunt them, remember the falls of the past and the winters that they inevitably bring.
As I open the screen door and look through the window, I catch eyes with one or two of my comrades as they sit around the long wooden table that is the centerpiece of the camp. Everything of import goes on around that table. Meals and stories. Lies and jokes. Arguments and nonsense. Every year I try to think of some novel way to make an entrance, but every year it becomes an afterthought. Walking in I just say something perfunctory like “Hello fellas” or “Gentlemen”.
Right away someone says to sit down. My Dad asks if I ate and before I can answer he tells me that there’s still some roast wild turkey and stuffing in the kitchen. My cousin Dane says to get a beer for myself and one for him while I’m at it.
And that is about the time that I realized why I show up there every year. The odds are slim that I’ll see a deer, and slimmer still that I’ll shoot one. The weather may be so sodden and rainy that we’ll spend hours in camp reading magazines, playing cards, or napping. Close quarters will fray a nerve or two and someone will get lippy with someone else and then immediately forget about it. People will argue about politics, economics, dishwashing, sweeping and all sorts of other things because we are all exceptionally strong and belligerent personalities when we’re in the same space together for five or six days. Odors of varying levels of pleasantness will waft through the cabin and we will laugh a whole hell of a lot. In between all that we will spend several hours of every day in the forest waiting on a deer.
It is an adventure and a trial, a vacation and chore, and the most fun you can have while being an occasional asshole to your family and friends. The hours in stand whip by, and the time spent in the woods melts into my memories.
And then as soon as it started, it ends. Driving out at the end of the week is a mixture of relief and regret. Regret at the passing of another deer season, but relief that it all went to plan, even if no deer strayed into the crosshairs. I’m not far up the road before I’m thinking about the next year, or in this case, the next week. Another deer camp calls my name, and this one is even more cramped, argumentative, and hilarious.
I can’t wait.