Back roads

Naiveté is the headwaters
of all rivers of adventure.

Back roads

The Nelson Place. That is where I should go, I’d been told.

I do not remember his first name; maybe Duane. But as promised on the directions hurriedly written on a bar napkin, the Nelson family name was roughly lettered on the bottom rung of a ladder-like stack of thin boards nailed to a sign post, each board painted with the name of a ranch that could be reached only from this two-track road meandering across the treeless Montana prairie.

Each name board included numerals – 3 or 5 ½ or 8 – to warn the unwary how many miles of unmaintained road their vehicle would have to traverse to reach the ranch house. The Nelson sign board displayed a faded red 16. Or maybe it was a wind-worn 18. Eighteen miles over dirt roads that had never been graveled, and were graded by a county maintainer only after two or more feet of snow accumulated in the depths of winter.

A long, treacherous drive for a Midwest farm country boy. I knew from unfortunate experiences that some of those miles would be nearly impassable unless I could shift my pickup into four-wheel-drive to slog through stretches of loose Scobey soil, the sandy loam that had become powder in the ruts of back roads after three years of drought in the Great Plains.

In those days, I did not have a pickup with four-wheel-drive. I had a pickup with rear-wheel-drive, and a shovel, a wagon jack, and several lengths of 2×6 boards rattling around in its box.

Undeterred, I eased off the pavement and began the cross-country trek to the Nelson place. The borders of his wheat fields, I had been told at the bar in Havre, were the best bet for pheasant hunting. The birds were thick along the canals and lateral ditches of the Milk River Irrigation Project that made crop farming possible in this low-rainfall corner of the state.

Pheasants thrive in wheat country. At least they did in that long-ago era.

And pheasants were the Golden Fleece of my October quest, the Siren Song that had enticed me to set out upon an expedition across a foreign and maybe perilous land. It was an adventure, to be sure. I had already survived two-lane blacktops with no speed limits, chicken-fried steak with cream gravy, and an evening as the only shoulder-length-hair hunter in a crew-cut bar, so eighteen miles of questionable road was just another passage in the journey.

Naiveté is the headwaters of all rivers of adventure.

Once off the paved road, this country was open rangeland. There were no fences – not even scraggly strands of barbed wire on wind-bent steel posts – to mark property lines or keep cattle from straying from one grazing allotment to the next. After driving over the first rise in the landscape and dropping down into a thousand-acre expanse of unmarked shortgrass prairie I was in a land that had changed little in the past hundred centuries, except the bison and the elk and the wolves were gone. I half expected a mounted band of Sioux hunters to appear on the horizon, searching for the herds of buffalo that had been wiped out by the incursion of the white man.

What I did see, a half-mile ahead, caused me to brake to a stop and watch at length a curious scene. Four cowboys were rounding up a hundred cows, their calves, and a dozen stubborn bulls, gathering them into a herd they could move to sheltered cattle yards before the first deadly storms of winter came sweeping down from the north. Nothing strange about that; I’d seen it a dozen times in Nebraska and even ridden along on a couple round-ups, pretending that I was helping.

But these cowhands were mounted on Yamaha dirt bikes, not horses, and the yammer of two-stroke engines replaced the familiar “yip-yip-yip” of blue heeler herding dogs and the “h’yah! hey-yah!” cries of men sitting loose and easy in the saddles of disciplined cutting horses. These dirt-bikers were dressed in cowboy garb, wearing snap-button flannel shirts, red bandannas, and mud-spattered jeans tucked into high-shafted, stirrup-heel boots – the trademark attire of horseback wranglers. And atop their heads were wide-brimmed Stetson hats, each a different style, of course, not the more practical and safer helmets of motocross riders.

This surreal juxtaposition of fabled Western tradition and prosaic 20th century mechanization set my world atilt, as if I had stepped unexpecting from a primeval forest onto a manicured lawn and spied a squad of Marines in jungle camo dancing around a maypole to Beethoven’s ‘Ode to Joy.’ I briefly considered turning back, but two of the cowhands gave friendly waves, thanking me for halting and allowing them to push the herd east across the two-track, so I waved back and returned to a certain level of comforting familiarity.

And there remained the promise of pheasants.

When I found it, tucked into the bankside above a struggling creek and the stand of huge cottonwood trees that followed its watercourse, the Nelson ranch house was modest, but not spartan. A roofed porch stretched across the front of the house, and there were dormers on the east and south sides of the pyramid roof, a lean-to over the cellar doors on the west wall, and, most important, a thin wisp of smoke rising from a brick chimney. The siding needed a coat of paint, but the roof had been recently shingled and the chimney tuckpointed.

I could hear from the far side of the nearby barn the rumble and whine of a tractor’s power takeoff running a buzz saw. Mr. Nelson was cutting and stacking firewood. I waited until he caught sight of me and shut down the saw, then stepped forward and introduced myself. The expression on his face hinted that Nebraska, my home, was a barely acceptable place to live, but he would not let that prejudice his judgement of my character. My long hair and beard he seemed to take in stride.

A rugged-looking man in his fifties, or perhaps his sixties, Mr. Nelson was dressed in bib overalls, scuffed Wellington-style boots, and a straw cowboy hat grayed with age and battered from everyday wear. His hands were knobby and thick with muscle and sinew. He took a bandanna from his hip pocket and wiped the sweat from his head, tanned-leather-brown from his brow to his neckline, snow white on top where a hat always shielded it from the burning sun.

I asked if I might have his permission to hunt pheasants on his land.

“Coffee?” he asked. I accepted.

He removed his boots in the mudroom of the house and washed his hands at a small enamel sink. I followed suit. In the kitchen he prepared a pot of coffee in an old stovetop percolator. The kitchen, I notice, was orderly and spotless.

“Like it strong?” he asked. I said I did.

He waved me to a seat at the kitchen table and watched me closely as the percolator bubbled.

“Dogs?” he asked.

“A pair of springer spaniels, Suzie and Fleck.”

“Good.” He rose and fetched two cups and two small plates from a cupboard. “Pie?”

“Yes, thank you.”

He took a pie pan out of the oven: half a freshly baked apple pie. He cut two generous slices, put them onto the plates, and pushed one across the table to me. He filled both our coffee cups. I took a sip of scalding coffee and a stuffed a forkful of pie into my mouth. It was excellent.

“Your wife’s a good cook,” I complimented.

“Not married,” he said. He drank half his cup of coffee and started in on his pie. “Baked it myself.”

“It’s very good.”

He nodded, took another bite, and seemed to be considering an important piece of information. “Hunt much?” he asked.

“Birds,” I said, slipping into monosyllabic conversation. “Pheasants. Quail.”

“Chickens?” he asked. In Montana hunter vocabulary, this meant prairie chickens.

“Yes. And sharptails. And huns.”

He nodded. “Take the tractor road past the barn, about a mile,” he said. “Drops down into wheat fields. Pheasant and chickens there. Mostly along the ditches.”

“Thank you,” I said. “I’ll try it.”

He pondered giving another piece of advice. “Take a pliers. Your dogs will get into cactus.”

Mr. Nelson was right about the birds and the cactus. In less than two hours I was driving back into his ranch yard, three pheasants and three prairie chickens in the cooler, and two dogs licking sore pads that I had pulled a hundred spines from. I entered the barn and found him working on a baler.

“Shot a limit,” I said. “Would you like some birds?”

After measured thought he said, “One pheasant, one chicken.”

“They’re field-dressed,” I said. “Would you like for me to skin them?”

“No. I pluck them.”

I took two birds from the cooler and handed them to him. “Thank you for letting me hunt,” I said.

“Show me your dogs?” he asked. I opened the travel box, and Suzie and Fleck limped out. They went to him at the tailgate as though he were a long-lost master that had come to reclaim them and take them to canine heaven. He petted each, ran his hands over their bodies, checked their ears and teeth, and clucked in sympathy over their punctured feet. “The bitch is the better bird dog,” he said, matter-of-factly. I agreed.

Thanking him again, I loaded the dogs back into the pickup, the cab this time, and prepared to challenge the eighteen miles of two-track back to the paved road. Shifting the transmission into gear, I saw in the rearview mirror that he was gesturing for me to stop. I shut off the engine, and he came to the window.

“You can hunt here again,” he said.

I thanked him, maybe too profusely, and promised I would, on this very Montana trip.

But of course I didn’t. Not on that trip or any other.

I don’t know why. Some things in life are supposed to happen only once. That’s my best guess, anyway.


More stories about life in the North Country are published in four collections of essays and two novels, all available through Jerry Johnson Author Page

About Jerry Johnson

Curmudgeon. Bird hunter and dog trainer. Retired journalist and college public relations director. Former teacher, coach, mentor. Novelist and short story writer. Husband, father, grandfather.
This entry was posted in Bird Dogs, Bird hunting and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Back roads

  1. Jan Ramming says:

    Those once-in-your-life experiences make the best memories. Nice read, Jerry.

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