“Hill Country is neither here nor there. It’s the place just over the next rise, that soft pool around the next bend, or that cover you planned to hunt but somehow never did.”

~Gene Hill, “Hill Country” Field & Stream, April 1977

It’s hard to say where a trail ends when it goes into the mountains. Sometimes there is a book covered by a rock at a summit, and hikers log their names in it and say that they have “done” a particular hike. Sometimes a groomed trail narrows into the rocks above tree line. The trails were started by game and reinforced first by hunters and then by visitors. We had left the trail several miles behind us. It was a long morning, and we hadn’t found birds when we headed west into a valley that ended in a rock basin.

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Winchester ran the surface of the rocks where there had been white-tailed ptarmigan before. With the valley wall in front of us I waited to hear my hunting partner’s plan. If I were the one to make plans, it would be to accept as the end the first insurmountable obstacle so long as it appeared in front of me and I was facing east. But, he was usually the one to make plans, and he was already following a creek that ran down the rocks from a bench a few hundred feet above us and to the north.

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The vacancy of the mountains, their stillness, composed of rock and further stifled by cold, wind, and a fresh coat of snow made for a blank canvas in which to find a living creature. The birds we hunted used as their best defense the very silence, shape, and color of the mountain itself. The view beyond my hunting partner’s back promised me nothing but a chance at exhaustion. It was easy to say it was a dead valley, a dead end. I was tired already, and my eyes were scraped raw from the scenery.

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Instead of looking ahead, I looked at the ground. The detail of the lichen and scabbed rocks and snow were a relief from the daunting white landscape. When looking straight down, the minty green lichen plumed on bare rock, rootless and capable of growing on a gravestone. It was interesting at least. And something to muse about.

When I looked up, Winchester had stopped. My partner had readied his gun just a few yards ahead of me. I searched the snow and rocks for birds. The snow on the rocks made every surface appear to be a white-tailed ptarmigan and not a white-tailed ptarmigan until a shot fired and the wings flapped in the snow across the creek. Winchester was pointing yet another bird that had not flushed. If it flushed to the right, I would have a shot.

The little bird sat still, his feathers puffed. Even with three sets of eyes fixed on him, he dared us to see him.

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I stepped in the stream. Part of me wanted to see him elude us. Even as Winchester held his point and had run the mountains until there were spots of blood left in his paw prints and knowing this was the moment that we had all worked the morning to attain and thought about in the off-season, I hesitated. The bird stretched his neck, signaling he would fly. I mounted my gun and watched as he lifted in the opposite direction. If he had flown my way, I might have betrayed us all and missed a shot. My partner fired and the bird dropped in the snow as light as air.

There was no sound, no wind, and no cold. There was just the glory of the dog rushing toward the bird. There was the beauty of it. The kind of beauty that takes a moment and, by taking a moment, it suspends all the senses. There’s a gap in breathing, a gap in everything. Then the senses come slamming back in an exhale. I was rushing toward the bird.

Just above the creek we found a small lake where our trail ended that day. It could have gone on, but it ended there. We rested as the wind blew and broke against the thin layer of ice making a haunting chirping sound.

Before I had hunted birds, my trails had ended in a logical place. They ended where the trail marker said they ended or when there was nothing left to think about and so it made sense to turn back. It wasn’t until my hunting partner, and later both my partner and Winchester, pushed me past a lackluster reason to stop marching onward without a “real” destination, that I learned how to know when the day was over. It wasn’t a single bird, a few birds, or a limit of birds. Every day in the field had its own rhythm of urgency.

A hunting trail doesn’t end anywhere in particular. It is just followed, and my partners were the trail I was following just as they followed the birds they knew were there. Each day I spend afield with them I learn to recognize what is the privilege of a sporting few, and it is this. When we go out in nature as participants rather than observers, as hunters rather than wildlife viewers, we are embarking in a sacred right. It has all the rigors of tradition, the beauty of ritual, and the abundance of human imagination. But it has something even more. We are taking game and depending on it. So where or when does the trail end?

For me, it ends when there is something left for tomorrow.

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