CHILLICOTHE — Nine-thirty on a Friday evening in Chillicothe. The woman across the counter looks at me like I am an alien and talks to me like I am 10.
“So you’ve never had any kind of fishing or hunting license?”
“Uh, no. Is that a problem?”
She asks for my driver’s license, and I hand it to her, trying to gauge whether I’ve committed some kind of sacrilege by waiting until I’m 27 to engage in an outdoor sport that requires a license.
I try to ease the tension with some small talk about the unseasonably warm weather and its impact on the opening of rifle season. Silence. I’m getting progressively uneasy. Did I break the fourth commandment of the outdoorsman’s bible? Am I the only person in Livingston County to have never fired a gun at Bambi’s mom?
A few minutes later, I decide to investigate. Three teenage girls walk past my roommate and I as we near the exit of Wal-Mart.
“Excuse me ladies, I’m curious, have you ever been hunting?”
The question is barely out of my mouth, and they’re laughing. It’s funny not because I’m the second-coming of Jeff Foxworthy, it’s funny because it’s like asking them if they had ever combed their hair.
Now you have to understand, I’m not exactly a city boy. I lived on a farm for four years of my life. Both sets of my grandparents were farmers. I know what a cow is. I own a John Deere cap. I like country music. But when it comes to hunting, I’m as clueless as a deer in headlights. To me a slug is something found in the mud under a rock, and the word doe is most commonly associated with the frustration of Homer Simpson.
Yet in the eight years I’ve lived in Missouri, I’ve found that hunting is something of a holiday. There is a Super Bowl like buzz around opening weekend. Schools close. Families gather. Money is spent. Your roommate makes statements like: “Northern Missouri has some of the best deer hunting in the world.”
Really? In the world? In the spirit of our good state, I asked him to show me.
As I found in Wal-Mart, my experience, more than anything, would show me that I was out of place.
My next sign came at 5:40 Saturday morning. And its sequels followed Sunday.
Crawling off the couch Saturday morning, my anticipation wrestles with my tiredness and my body struggles to catch up to my brain.
Standing next to my bag, I realize my American Eagle jeans and Missouri sweatshirt are not the ideal hunting attire when my roommate and his dad are decked out in full camouflage. Good thing the hunter’s orange covers a multitude of sins.
There is a cover for my next sin, too.
“Don’t put no perfume on,” my roommate’s dad yells at me as he walks into the room.
I stop mid-stroke under my left arm. It’s not perfume, it’s deodorant. And why not?
My roommate senses my confusion.
“It’s your scent, it scares away the deer,” he said. “Here spray some of this on.”
He throws me a bottle of scent neutralizer — with extra dirt. Now not only would I blend in to my surroundings, I could attract an iron deficient Sasquatch.
As I found out Sunday morning, scent neutralization also has its natural sources.
It’s 6:20 and my roommate has just shot a button buck. We approach it quietly, not so much as to pay homage as to not spook any other deer that might be nearby. By the time we stand over the deer, its blood has added some color to the brown blanket of leaves.
My roommate moves into action. He flips the deer onto his back and takes his knife to cut away some fur along its torso. He penetrates the skin next, exposing a bag of organs. Before long, his hands are coated in blood and the organs are on the ground. Finally he cuts away a little sac the size of a golf ball. Then he turns and looks at me.
I step back away from him, thinking he wants to play some kind of joke on me.
“Come here, and give me your boots.”
“What are you talking about?” I ask, moving back another step.
He holds up the sac and pokes a hole in it with his knife.
“I want to spray some urine on your boots. It neutralizes your scent.”
Good grief, I think, reluctantly stepping forward to let him squirt some deer urine on my boots, what kind of noses do these deer have? What's next, rolling around in the mud?
By Sunday evening, that nearly became a reality.
A little after 4 on Sunday afternoon we head out one last time. It had been raining most of the day and the ground is a soggy mess. Even though I had stared into these woods for hours, they feel less and less familiar, mostly because my mind is drifting somewhere where there is heat and coffee.
Around five, we walk back to the truck and load up. As we drive off, I start doing the math. I had spent close to 15 hours in the woods. I saw three turkeys, two cranes, a squirrel and 90 of his close relatives. Deer? I saw one doe. So much for some of the best deer hunting in the world. I didn’t even fire a shot; unless you count firing a shot at a target for practice. Mostly the .243 Winchester rifle sat on my lap, a companion for my naps on the forest floor.
Then it hits me. Maybe it really doesn't matter all that much. Maybe it's not about bagging the trophy buck. Hunting is full of have-nots. In our truck alone the have-nots account for three of the four.
I look at the gun that rests against my leg. So maybe it is much more about holding the gun in your hand, or falling asleep with it in your lap, than it is about firing it.
As I glance over at my boots, I realize there might be a place for me in this sport after all.