My regard for beauty had fallen into a desperate state. The simple act of going out to bird hunt in the mountains to get away was now an act of going toward a certain thing. The thing was not so much adventure as a chance to see a show that had played out hundreds of times, and it played as a favorite song on repeat. As much as my body could bear it, the same images and sensations drew me back to the same places. I watched a black and white English setter in a wide-open run, his coat more feathers than fur, and lit by the morning sun. It was opera and fashion in a place that had neither. It was a wild mountain filled with the sophistication of good breeding, and Winchester appeared like a man on the run from his wedding day, his bow tie loosened around his collar, grinning. When he went on point, it was the high mark of beauty. And, I lost my taste for anything less than his mastery of a time and place.
One of his pups, Hugo, carried the gene. He had the same athletic body and a similar carriage. His enthusiasm made me remember Winchester’s puppy days when he would overrun birds. The differences were all shades of the similar. Instead of a black and white coat, Hugo was all the colors of a sunset in dappled oranges and whites. Or, these were the dim thoughts I had about the vision of him as he ran ahead of me. I’d point out a similarity or a difference as if the only thing I knew for sure was the standard. “He runs on his toes like Winchester,” I’d say. I said this in the obvious and uninteresting way someone says, “Look, look,” as if the act of pointing was an act of creation.
Hugo grew up on wild birds, but they were faint-scented alpine birds that held for a point. White-tailed ptarmigan and even the sub-alpine willow ptarmigan, belonged to another world. It was the world you found when you went over the last false summit, and the sounds from below were audibly silenced. The birds he hunted were native birds who feared hawks and falcons. Hugo’s wild energy met them with the force of an invisible other world. While his legs stretched out, my mind stretched after him to the things I knew he would encounter, and then, somewhere in the distance there was a gap for both of us. There were places neither of us had been.
He was just over two years old when we loaded him into a crate at the Anchorage airport. He was born in my living room and had grown accustomed to hunting in alpine air scraped empty over slate, raked by lichen, and still cold in summer from last season’s snow. He was used to a yard he shared with his littermates, Winchester’s mountains, and birds he knew how to hunt.
When he jumped out of the rental car in southern Idaho, he had plummeted to a world of parched basalt rock and the overwhelming scent of sagebrush. But he didn’t hesitate to run ahead of us the same as he did in the mountains. We hunted mostly chukar and found ourselves telegraphing our presence to birds who in turn echoed calls across the canyon. Hugo worked frantically to find birds that moved along the ground and left scent and sound everywhere. My thoughts followed him as he ran to the edges of cliffs and stopped, not to point but to ponder the same thing I did. Where are they? Everywhere and nowhere.
We came across deer hunters taking a break from dragging a deer. Hugo seemed uninterested in meeting them or the deer. His single focus was reaching a pitch. He ran through thickets along a creek bed as if he were running down hallways deep in his mind, before memory. He was in a world of his own, searching for something he could only recall in his blood, a bird he had never seen. And suddenly he knew something I didn’t. He angled into a thorn thicket throbbing with life at the bottom of a canyon. Quail ran along the ground ahead of him and hopped onto low branches, but he didn’t relocate his point.
His solid point and certitude slowed time before the flush and my two shots stole a moment from my memory. There was a gap lost to time. The birds were on the ground, and I was on my knees picking up the male. The sharply-dressed bird was as colorful as the country, his breast was the color of juniper berries, his flank pintucked with a chaparral tweed, and his plume fell forward of a tiny beak and closed eyes. Holding the warm body, I realized my hands were shaking. Hugo was already on to the next bird. We had both found a part of ourselves un-met before. But, I was holding on and couldn’t look away or move just yet.
I picked up the other bird and held them both. It’s never easy to kill a bird. How do I reconcile the urge to hunt, which is part curiosity, part wonder, and part adventure, with the resulting birds in my hand? Hugo is on point again, and I settle on acceptance. The birds are part of me, part of life, and the newly discovered quickly becomes what is left behind. No matter if we are at home in our own mountains or in another place, there is always a gap. And it moves like flight ahead of us. Sometimes it is far beyond and we never get to it, sometimes we chase and it escapes, and sometimes it stays inside us and all we can do is try to cure it.