Hiraeth (n.) (Pronunciation: heer-ath) – A Welsh word that has no direct English translation; implies a longing or homesickness tinged with grief or sadness over the lost or departed, a yearning or nostalgia for a place or a home to which you cannot return, which may in fact never have truly existed
– Definition from The North Country Dictionary (unpublished)
Of thirty-some hunts in the shortgrass prairie country – Nebraska, South Dakota, North Dakota – the best were the ten or twelve trips when we camped. The days spent walking over native grassland preserves of 100,000 acres in pursuit of sharp tail grouse, prairie chickens and Hungarian partridge were a bird hunter’s paradise, but my most cherished recollections of those adventures are memories of times in camp.
I miss hunting camp. The logs burning slow in the fire ring, the meals cooked over a Coleman stove or open flames, the soft glow of autumn evenings, coyotes yelping out on the prairie, the magnificence of a night sky unpolluted by any trace of city lights, cool breezes rustling the last of the leaves on the cottonwood trees around the campsite, sleeping in tents, the too-warm sleeping bags, the snores of dogs and hunting companions, the breakfast coffee percolator bubbling at the fire’s edge.
Six autumns we camped at a place called Beeds Landing on the east side of Merritt Reservoir, adjacent to the Samuel R. McKelvie National Forest near Valentine, Nebraska. There is no forest there, by the way. It is a grassland, established as a federal preserve by naming (misnaming?) it a “national forest.”
Some years there were as many as seven of us in the hunting party, and one year only two. Big group or small, all were great campouts, and most were a good week of bird hunting in the McKelvie. I wish we could go back there this fall to spend a few evenings in friendship, drinking warm beer, smoking cigars, and warming our aging bones by the fire as we tell lies about hunts of the past.
Yes, I remember there were trips when our camp was buried under three inches of snow, tents blown down by forty mile-per-hour winds, equipment and clothing and food soaked by driving rain, water jugs with a half-inch of ice on top on frosty mornings, dog food bags raided by raccoons, and kitchen gear and cookware scattered by ground squirrels and blue jays. I often came home with blisters on my hands, an aching back from sleeping on the ground, jackets and pants speckled with holes burnt by embers blown from the fire, guns and gear coated with fine sand, and needle-spine sandburs clinging to everything.
But the good memories far outweigh the bad. It has been more than ten years since the last hunt from a camp, and sadly the last traces of wood smoke scent have faded from my favorite hunting coat. The shooting vests and hunting pants with grit in the folds and pockets were long ago worn out and discarded. One enduring token: every now and then I still find one of those damned sandburs hiding in an old glove or sock or sweater.
We, the Over the Hill Gang, still plan our annual shortgrass prairie bird hunt, and about every other year we actually go. But now that we are all in our sixties, motels and small-town cafes have become our natural habitat on hunting trips. I keep proposing one more hunt from tent camp, but I don’t get any takers. Camp chores that used to take twenty minutes are now an hour’s labor, and it is dispiriting to force arthritic, worn out body parts to function after a night in a sleeping bag in a tent.
Even if I have to go by myself some October, I’m camping one more time in the Nebraska Sandhills. It is a country that holds onto me and draws me back, a place of spiritual awakening, and I need to renew that every few years.
Like most folks who spend much time in the wilderness, there came a moment I wandered into an ethereal intersection of place, time and consciousness that spun me into a sort of existential vertigo. It was a moment that made me starkly and frighteningly aware I was, paradoxically, physically insignificant in this universe but spiritually connected to everything. For some people this revelation is inspired by the vastness of the night sky, the colossal austerity of a mountain range, or the endless sweep of open sea, but for me it was the Sandhills.
Thereafter, each day of hiking the dunes and flats of that country was a revival of that spiritual awareness and the emotions that wrap around it. If it is possible to love a country, then I love the Nebraska Sandhills. I find sanctity there that I find in no other place, a sense of peace and wonder and excitement.
I wish I could say my Sandhills epiphany has lifted my character and ethos to a higher level, but that is not the case. However, it did let some of the hot air out of my inflated sense of self-importance, inspire me to live more in the moment and less in the past or future, and allow me to savor the simple joys of life more fully and dismiss the disappointments. In camp, those evenings by the campfire with a good beer and good cigar are all the better when your heart, mind and soul are at peace.
Although I do not talk much about this, lest friends think my senility is advancing apace, I want my ashes scattered in the Sandhills after my death in the hope that there is something infinite and universal to connect with. I trust there will be a few more days spent hiking and hunting those hills before that final visit.
Maybe this October.