That Next Good Thing

By T.W. Batzel, Jr.

The soft fresh snow dampened the sound of leaves crunching under my feet. I paused to survey my surroundings. Having been still-hunting for several hours I was beginning to fatigue and knew that my patience was waning. My hands were cold and the cold was spreading through my body like a disease from the middle ages. I knew that fatigue and cold were about to make my still hunting prowess a casualty.

I had seen several does and a small four-point but had passed on all of them, something now that I could not find one good, sane reason for doing. My hope was flickering like a candle in a hurricane and I was beginning to think that I would go home from this whitetail hunt empty handed.

I leaned my rifle on a maple tree and pulled out my water bottle and took a swig. I returned it and then took a small pinch of Copenhagen and put it in my lip, thinking about my wife's admonishments about my habit. Alcohol, tobacco, hunting, driving fast, flying recklessly, hunting, and well, hunting. Why would I come to the wilderness and spend a week in an old log cabin the size of our bedroom instead of taking her to the islands to lie in the sun and sip drinks with umbrellas. Why? Probably because I don't like umbrellas, beaches or lying about in the sun.

I like old log cabins, the smell of smoke and frying bacon. The smell of saddle leather and gun oil and venison frying with garlic. I like watching the flames dance inside the old cast iron wood stove and dreaming about what I might see tomorrow or regretting the mistakes I made today. I like to throw a log on every now and then and lean back and feel the thick hollow hairs of the deer hide that covers my chair while I sip old scotch and talk with my brothers. I like to get up early and feel the cold morning air burn my lungs as I take a deep pollution free breath of life. I like to feel my heart beat like a grouse's wings when I catch a glimpse of a gray deer slipping between the trees in the fading sunlight.

Not that I don't love my wife. I love her and I know she is the best thing that's happened to me. I miss her when I'm at sea, and sometimes, although I would never admit it, I miss her when I'm hunting. She knows I like these things that she can't understand and she tolerates it, she just can't be overly happy about it. But she lets me go hunting instead of spending time with her and here I am. It's the end of the week and I'm already dreading going back to work. Already planning next year or another state. Always driving for the next thing, trying to get over that next hill, just past the horizon, where the grass is greener.

Stopping to drink some water and work on my cancer plan I look around. Not really looking around here but looking around in my life. Where have I been, where am I going? But I guess I am looking around here. I'm looking at the snow that covers the ground and weighs down the boughs of the old hemlocks. I'm looking at the woodpecker working on the peak of a long-dead broken tree, a widow maker. I'm looking at the naked maple trees that seem comparatively cold compared to their coniferous kin. They seem to shiver in the wind. I see the cliffs and boulders and the little stream that somehow hasn't frozen over yet.

I see a beauty that surely was created by some higher being. I'm always reminded by the argument that if you can't see Him he must not be there. Then the counter that asks "Have you ever seen a million dollars?" Well I have never seen either, but I know God exists and I have heard of people that have seen that much money. Too many times I should have died, and looking back realize how close I was and too many times I have stood in the woods somewhere and said out loud without really realizing it "Tell me there's not a God!"

I have more faith in Him than I do in seeing another deer this afternoon. But then I realize that being here is worth it and I'll forget about work until tomorrow afternoon when I leave. I'll forget about work and traffic and budgets and mortgages. I'll forget about career planning and retirement and college funds. This is my time and I'm not going to let those highway robbers steal it from me. I have wasted too much time worrying about the future or if I had only . . .. I'm here now in this winter season looking for an animal to kill. The most basic of human instincts whether the folks at Berkeley want to admit it or not. Then I remember a non-hunting, almost anti-hunting friend of mine at work with whom I have friendly debates. He told me one day that he heard Vegetarian was an old Indian word for "lousy hunter". It made me laugh. Although I have been forced to dine on vegetables and store-bought beef. Never by choice but through the miracle of supermarkets, I have survived.

Which makes me think of the naysayers. The folks that profess that Americans are spoiled and lazy and cruel. Those people have rarely been to countries where they are spoiled and lazy and surely cruel. They wouldn't go there because you can't drink the water and the receptacles don't allow them to plug in their hair dryers or electric razors. If there are receptacles. They have never done anything to help others if it cost them personally. Maybe some very disposable income or writing their much solicited opinions on the Internet or in some magazine with glossy pictures and advertisements for the Hampton's. But they've never sacrificed or even been uncomfortable for something they believe in. Neither have I, but I don't go around burning flags or condemning the people that give me the freedom to condemn my country without getting dragged off in the night. I don't offer solutions to things I'm not willing to fight for, and I don't try to get people to think treasonous thoughts because it makes me feel better and I have the constitutional right to do so. The hell with them.

Which makes me think of the reason I'm out here, which is not to think about checking my email at work, or watching CNN, or getting a prostrate exam. I'm here to enjoy the silence of the woods and hunt all day on a handful of beef jerky and a pint of water and then get back to camp and drink a bottle of beer that's so cold it has slush on the top and I have to keep my work gloves on to hold it. I want to drink that beer after I have drug a 150 class Boone and Crockett buck back to camp by myself and tell my brothers that "I got a decent buck" and they can come out and look at him. Or only after that, and I have cut and split a tall stack of fire wood and I'm sweating in my shirt sleeves in 35 degree weather and I sit down and start a new fire in the wood stove. Or only after I have done all that and seared the tenderloins and started slow cooking them on the cold side of the grill and I can smell the fresh ground peppercorns and the unmistakable, unforgettable smell of grilling venison.

But only after I have pulled and propped and adjusted the lifeless carcass of my deer into position so my one brother can take what I have described in excruciating detail as a proper trophy photograph while my other brother looks disgusted and says "just take the damned picture". And I have told the story of how I conquered the mighty beast with my cunning and witty prowess as the family's premier Whitetail hunter. Which they allow me to believe in my shining moment. But the long held family limit on self-indulging stories is an even half dozen, subsequent years excluded, of course.

But then I'm back at the grill watching the charcoal glow and thinking about how if I was in my hot tub with my wife, I could just dip the bottom of the bottle in the water for about ten seconds and it would melt the slush, making it easier to drink the beer. I realize that I'm just impatient and I want everything good all at once. If I'm one place, I want to be somewhere else even though I really like where I am right now. Like the fact that I'm standing in the middle of the woods staring at the top of a Hemlock tree thinking about drinking a beer while I'm cooking venison tenderloin while thinking about being in my hot tub with my wife. I'm never happy but I'm always happy. I always have something to look forward to, and when I have reached that goal or place or time or activity, I am looking to the next good thing.

I realize that there's a big six-point staring at me like I'm a Martian and I should probably pick up my rifle and at least start shooting with the wild hopes that he may run into a stray bullet. Then I realize that I'm not standing there staring at a nice six-point because I'm staring at my computer screen, on a boat, eight thousand and some miles away from the deer woods, dreaming about that next good thing.

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Copyright 2003 by T.W Batzel, Jr. All rights reserved.