All good things must come to an end.
Old Gray, my faithful 2006 Ford F-150 pickup, is the best truck I have ever owned. Saying good-bye to this rig that has taken me on hundreds of hunts both near and far was a sad day.
But what better way to end our time together than a final pheasant hunt on familiar ground?
Next week, Old Gray’s duties will be assumed by a Ford Ranger pickup I have tentatively nicknamed Move-Along Rouge. Rouge will not have the career that Gray has enjoyed; I simply do not have that many years of hunting left in me. But it is time for a change, and Rouge will be better suited to tow our Scamp trailer to the warmth of the Southwest states each winter.
It is time for a change. But I’m going to miss this old Ford F-150. A lot.
Gray wasn’t always old, of course. He was a youngster when he became my truck in 2008. That was the year my ’93 GMC pickup, Rugged Red, was clearly ailing and failing and had reached the stage of its mechanical life when I could no longer depend on it to make another journey to the high plains shortgrass prairies for a sharptail grouse hunt.
Rugged Red was a damned good truck, but looking back, it did not measure up to Old Gray’s many years of hard work, long drives, and trouble-free service. This reliable charcoal gray F-150 never gave me much mechanical trouble, except for an exhaust recycling valve on one Nebraska Sandhills hunt (which was easily replaced by the local Ford dealership in Valentine), and a worn-out universal joint in the steering column (which was repaired in one day by the local Ford dealership in my hometown of Decorah).
The pickup’s 4.6-liter Triton V8 engine did everything I asked of it: towing boats and trailers, off-roading in 4WD, firewood hauling, farm work, pulling other vehicles out of ditches, stretching barbed wire for fencing, and traveling highways and byways for more than 130,000 miles on hunting and camping trips. On Old Gray’s final day, that engine was running as smoothly as it did 14 years ago when I drove it off the Ford sales lot.
Old Gray hauled more than 20 field-dressed deer carcasses from our woodlands and hayfields over the years, but more important from my point of view were the countless upland gamebirds that came home packed in coolers and crates from our days of hunts with dog and shotgun: pheasants, quail, sharptail grouse, prairie chickens, ruffed grouse, woodcock, doves, and one unfortunate snipe.
Gray took me on hunting trips all across Iowa and to North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. He rolled along highways in at least eight other states on holiday and vacation trips, usually carrying a birddog or two. The subtle odor of wet dog was part of Old Gray’s ambience. So were feathers and dog hair. And a trace of cigar smoke.
I wish I could say that my final bird hunt with Gray was a perfect day with a bag limit of three roosters, but December pheasant hunts seldom work out that way. My French spaniel Abbey and I parked Gray on the east side of a 150-acre CRP field that was a thick mass of head-high switch grass and did our best to keep track of one another as we plowed our way through. In the course of two hours of hard hunting, we put up six pheasants, three hens and three roosters. I took shots at two of the roosters and knocked one down.
Abbey could not mark the bird down, but when I led her to the place it had fallen and told her “Hunt dead!” she found the bird’s scent and tracked flawlessly. Unfortunately its trail led to a bulldozed pile of trees and brush, a house-size tangle that had once grown in the field’s waterway. Abbey yipped and barked in frustration as she dug at the six-foot-high jumble of tree trunks and branches, trying to squirm her way down through. I unloaded my gun and tried to help by pulling away snarled limbs, but down in the depths of the pile I could see a much twisted and bent 10-inch corrugated steel culvert.
Abbey stuck her head inside the pipe, and her yips became more frantic as she sought to grab what must have been the just-out-of-reach rooster. I called her off, fearing that she would get her head and shoulders wedged and I would be unable to reach her to pull her out.
“Sometime this kind of stuff happens,” I told her. I may have used a harsher word than “stuff.”
“I could have had him!” Abbey complained. But I’m not risking injury to my wonder dog for a rooster that outsmarted us.
So it was that Gray’s final bird hunt produced no birds, as many of them have over his nearly 14 years of the chasser life. Maybe that was a fitting end, a tacit understanding that “There will be other days ahead.”
And I hope there will be more days of bird hunting ahead for this old truck, even though they will not be with me. Good-bye, Old Gray. I’m going to miss you.