Heaven’s roads are gravel and sand
When the Apostle John wrote the Book of Revelations at age 92, a prisoner of Rome on the island of Patmos, his vision of heaven was said to have been divinely inspired. Maybe so, but I think he was mistaken about the streets being made of gold.
The streets of heaven are country roads of gravel and sand.
Everyone is entitled to his own vision of heaven. Let me tell you mine.
Heaven is a country with air so clean it almost hurts to take a deep breath in the pale light at sunrise. Every morning is early fall – except for occasional days of Indian summer – and when you awake you have that “opening day of bird season” feeling of excitement and anticipation. You walk out onto the dew-wetted deck with a cup of coffee in hand and listen to the quiet. Heaven is peacefully quiet, a place far away from the automobile, the telephone, the radio, the computer.
There are rolling hills in my part of heaven, broken by woods, hay fields, and quite a few sections of weedy cropland. Crisp-leaved autumn corn and heavy headed wheat are trimmed with icy-white frost in morning, and the cattle crowded in the tree-sheltered corner of your pasture steam in the cool air with that heavy sweet smell. The oaks in the woodlot hold onto the last of their brown-gold leaves, and the limbs of the walnut and maple trees are already winter-black and bare.
Wander down into the woods and lean again a rough tree trunk, still and silent, and you will hear the rustle and chatter of squirrels caching their winter store of acorns and walnuts. An indistinct murmuring sound, like the faraway laughter of children, makes you look up through the branches to see a straggling V of geese or a gaggle of sandhill cranes flying south, a mile high.
Heaven is a small house almost invisible in a cluster of trees at the base of a hill. It’s more of a cabin, really, with a big stone chimney and a steeply peaked roof over the upstairs bedroom loft. Outside is a huge stack of firewood to feed the Franklin stove in the parlor and the cook stove in the kitchen.
On the east side are the high-fenced kennel runs, and when the cabin’s front door creaks open a tall graceful setter, a bouncing springer spaniel, and a square-headed Chesapeake Bay retriever all look up in anticipation. They see you are wearing your shooting coat and boots and carrying a gun in the crook of your elbow. What will it be today, they wonder?
Heaven is strictly for trim and beautiful double guns, by the way, automatics and pumps being the inventions of the devil.
About an hour’s walk north brings you to a fresh water marsh, formed by a fast flowing creek spreading out into a dozen finger rivulets through the flood plain of a slow-flowing river. A broken down duck blind on the bank is covered with brittle cattails many years old, and inside is a mesh bag of decoys that need to be set out just-so in the backwater slough where the mallards like to come after their morning feed in the cornfields. The decoys need painting, badly. But no matter: the ducks here always swarm into the blocks, even if the noise you make with a pin oak call is not the best rendition of the “kank-kank-kank” greeting call.
You won’t shoot waterfowl any better in heaven than you do in your mortal life, but your Chessie will never fail to make a retrieve, or hard-mouth a bird. At least mine doesn’t.
Go east from the cabin a few miles and you will find a flatter country with thick aspen stands, cut by broad draws. This used to be hard scrabble farm land, but it has been abandoned and has been taken over by clumps of birch, aspen, wild plum, and service berry, and thickets of wild raspberry, gooseberry, and stunted cedars. At the bottoms of the draws you’ll slog from island to island through mushy bogs ringed by alders and small oaks. Take the setter on this trip. Bell him, because he’ll work almost silently across the soft ground. When the bell stops, he’ll be locked on point over a ground-hugging woodcock in the thickets or a pair of ruffed grouse under a tangle of wild plum.
Sadly, you will still miss a lot of shots in the aspens, even here in heaven, and the soupy black water of the bogs will still be just an inch or two higher than the tops of your boots. But on the walk home you can always wander through the old orchard to find a few apples, wrinkly and cider sweet, that have escaped the first frosts.
Head south the next morning into the country of grain fields and weedy ditches for a day of pheasant and quail hunting. If there is a more exciting minute in the bird hunting field than watching a hyperactive spring spaniel work a rooster pheasant out of a brush pile at the end of a drainage ditch, well I haven’t experienced it. The bird finally has to explode out of the cover into the bright sunlight in a burst of green and red and gold, the gun comes up without your even thinking about it, and the springer races out into the corn stubble to bring this trophy rooster to hand, its tail feathers three feet long, or so it seems.
As you place the bird gently in the game pouch of your vest, you see the setter on point over a covey of quail a hundred yards away. Springers always “hup” and “heel” immediately on command in heaven, and they never bust a covey in front of a pointing dog, so you can take your time walking over there and enjoy the beauty of your setter’s picture perfect point. Remember to reload the gun before you flush the birds.
A longer journey west from the cabin will take you into open range, the shortgrass prairie and the sandhills. This no-trees country is full or birds – sharptail grouse, prairie chickens, and a few coveys of gray partridge on the edges of wheat fields. Let the setter run big and keep the springer and the Chessie in close. Walk with the wind – trust me on this; that’s the way to hunt these birds – and as you top each rise or ridge your heart will be in your throat with the expectation that a pod of a dozen grouse or chickens will burst out of the wild-rose-studded grass or a sandy hillside blowout where they have been dusting, making that raucous “tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk-tuk” alarm call and looking too squat and blunt to fly far. But they do. Very far.
You’ll know where to find some stock ponds, none bigger than an acre or two, covered with ducks. Short-leash the Chessie to your belt as you crawl over the dam, and make him lie flat on his belly while you jump to you feet and holler, “Hey, ducks!” They will go up all in a cloud with a roar of wings that sounds like canvas ripping, and that big open Western sky will be full of flash and color. If you can stay calm and pick out just one or two to shoot, your dog will be swimming back with bird in mouth before the flock high overhead has made its second wide circle around you, looking for a safer, hidden pond.
There will be plenty of unexpected encounters in heaven, too. The day your springer flushes a covey of chukars, the morning those big black-footed Canada geese drop right down on top of your blind, the long-bearded turkey that goes thundering out of the woodlot corner from under your setter’s nose. Almost every time afield you’ll see whitetail deer, mule deer, pronghorns, coyotes, maybe even a timber wolf or a black bear. The woods are full of squirrels, cottontails, fox, raccoons, woodchucks, badgers, and a hundred species of songbirds and raptors. But there are no grizzlies, and if heaven doesn’t have any skunks I’d be okay with that.
At twilight, come home to the warm house and the smell of baking bread. Bring the dogs into the mud room to clean them up, and then let them lie in front of the wood stove to get warm and dry before you feed them and put them up for the night.
As you walk them out to their kennels, look up into the ink-black sky and gaze at the stars, each one clear and big and bright. Pull your jacket close about you so you can stand silently in the cold and watch the moonrise, listening to the yip and howl of coyotes as they start their nighttime hunt.
A dinner of roast pheasant, wrapped in strips of bacon, with the summer’s last cucumbers and onions, is followed by a mug of ale and maybe a cigar. Before you drop off to sleep under a too-warm down comforter you savor the scents of the cabin: wood smoke, fresh split pine and elm, coffee, soap, waxed cloth, oiled leather, gun solvent and oil, still a trace of wet dog.
That’s my vision of heaven. No streets of gold for me. I’ll walk those country roads of gravel and sand.
If you enjoy reading about bird hunting and bird dogs, you make like my novel, Hunting Birds, available in paperback and Kindle editions at Amazon.com