He walked up the campfire slowly, leaning heavily on a hiker’s walking stick with a noticeable limp. It was early October, and we were in the sandhills of Nebraska hunting sharptails.
It’s an annual event for me, sort of a kick-off to the season where I can purge the accumulated mental detritus of the preceding year and get myself into an autumn mood in a landscape that is an astringent for the soul. I get nervous in tight, closed-in country, always have. I need a horizon I can align myself to, and there are few places better suited to that mental alignment than the Nebraska Sandhills.
I fell in love with this place a long time ago, and return every year prior to quail season to chase prairie grouse and find what I can of myself in the hills and grass of its vastness.
I usually make this sojourn alone, just the dogs and me, but this year I brought two friends along. Perhaps it was a nod to getting older, and recognizing that your time here is brief, and sometimes best spent with others. A shared life, like a flame in the dark, seems to help keep the wolves of mortality and loneliness at bay, or at least in the shadows for a while longer.
It’s natural, of course, to prefer sharing these moments with friends rather than strangers, so when he asked if it would be OK to camp next to us, it was — I must admit —with a little resentment that I said it would be fine. Courtesy dictated it. Courtesy also dictated that we offer to share our fire, our dinner, and our whisky with him as well. So we did.
As it turned out, he was a jovial, pleasant person to share a campfire with. He was traveling the country, he said, hunting along the way. He was primarily hunting deer, but had brought a shotgun along to hunt turkeys, and for the off chance that he’d see some sharptails or prairie chickens.
We talked of dogs and birds. He was from Indiana, and although he’d always had an interest in bird hunting, he’d never hunted behind a bird dog, nor seen one run. He said this wistfully, as if it was something from another world.
By and by, and after a few drinks, he told us the story of how he’d come to have his limp. He had been in a motorcycle crash three years prior and had fractured his pelvis and broken the lower half of his body almost beyond repair. It had taken numerous surgeries to even get him walking and would take many more before those sticks would no longer be needed, if ever.
It was a somber reminder of the things we take for granted every day, and for a few moments after he finished his story the four of us stared into the fire without speaking.
Eventually the campfire waned, the night grew long and cold, and as we shared the last of the bottle, I casually mentioned my plans to hunt during the course of our winding-down conversation.
We had been hunting for the past three days, and the next morning my friends were leaving, while I, hoping to get my young pointer pup on one good, solid sharptail point, would stay one more day. My plan was to break camp in the morning, say my goodbyes, and then hunt a few spots before heading home.
“If you wouldn’t mind some really slow company, I’d love to tag along. I’ve always wanted to see a bird dog run.”
My smile froze, and somewhere deep inside, I grimaced. I am solitary by nature. I can smile, and make small talk, and be gregarious when I need to, but I prefer solitude to company most days.
It’s not that I am unfriendly, but some of us tend to keep the world at arm’s length, and we only lower our arms when we’re alone in a place we love and feel comfortable being ourselves. “Alone but not lonely,” I’ve always said in trying to explain my personality to more naturally sociable people.
And beyond that, there was the terrain. The sandhills of Nebraska do not suffer near-invalids gladly. It’s tough for a fit person, much less someone a few months removed from the operating table.
Then there was the issue my dogs — and myself. My dogs are prairie dogs; fast, big-running, ground-eating streaks, and I follow accordingly. I have a reputation for speed in the field that has become a standard joke among friends. I desperately wanted to get my pup on birds, and there was no way in hell I was going to do that with him tagging along.
It was, as they say, a moment. I could have tactfully declined, made up an excuse, begged off. But those words kept pinging in my brain, “I’ve never seen a bird dog run.”
In the end there was really no question.
“Sure,” I said. “I’d love the company.” It was a lie, of course, but sometimes that’s what you do when you know there will ultimately be some good created out of that lie.
The next morning I said my goodbyes to my friends, broke camp, and he followed me to the place where the day before we had gotten into several groups of sharptails. It was an area of tall, rolling sandhills soaring above the horizon. Tough hunting, and even tougher walking.
Internally, I doubted he’d make it up the first hill.
I put a collar on my pup, released her, and we began that first long, slow ascent that I was sure would also be the last.
Funny thing about people, though: They surprise you...
You see, to walk the prairie is to walk with soul exposed in all its shining truth; good, bad, and everything in between. That’s why I keep doing it, with and without dog and gun.
Because space and silence and grass will always take your measure, and they will never lie to you, even when you want them to, or need them to.
And the prairie took the full measure of my guest’s heart that day, and found it way beyond worthy.
Every step I took, he took. Every hill I crested, he crested, and every ragged breath I took atop one of those impossibly tall hills, he took in unison. Slow? Yes. But unwavering and uncomplaining. After an hour I felt ashamed that I had doubted him. After two hours I was in silent awe at his resilience.
We talked of life and other things as we walked, and as we paused atop another endless sandhill to catch our breath, he watched as my pup became a speck far across a wide draw.
“She’s a beautiful dog,” he said. “I never knew they could run like that. She seems to float across the grass.” And in that moment, I realized that sometimes you get more out of sharing a moment with someone, even a stranger, than you do in keeping it to yourself.
I never got that one bird for the pup. There would be no feel-good ending, no golden hour redemption. Just two people sharing a moment and a space, and that, I realized, was more important than birds. There would always be another bird, somewhere, in some other place, but moments of quiet revelation such as this don’t often repeat themselves.
His name escapes me, and I never got a photo, a phone number, or an email, but I won’t forget the look on his face watching my pup fly across the prairie grass, and I won’t forget the effort he made to climb those unyielding sandhills, hands grasped around those two walking sticks as he labored up and down the vertical landscape.
“Thank you,” he said. “I had a wonderful time.”
He limped back to his truck, folded up his walking sticks, heaved himself behind the wheel, and with one last wave he drove off as I sat on the tailgate eating my lunch.
Everyone you meet in life teaches you something. That lesson may be good or bad, funny or sad, sweet or bitter, but you never depart from someone as the same person you met them.
It was a good reminder to me that sometimes, rather than keeping the world at arm’s length, I should extend those arms in a welcome, and embrace the opportunity it provides.
Chad Love is editor of Quail Forever Journal.
This article originally appeared in the Winter Issue of Quail Forever Journal. If you like this content and would like to see more of it, consider supporting Pheasants Forever as an annual member: among many other benefits, you'll receive the Pheasants Forever Journal 5x/year in your mailbox.