Deer hunting is a tradition in my family, something we do in the fall and winter that’s part of the holidays and how me and my dad and uncles and cousins spend time together. I got my first rifle when I was 10. It was a .22 caliber—Dad called it a pea shooter—but it was also something else, a key to that world of men he belonged to, and I knew that owning a gun meant being responsible in an adult way. I always enjoyed hunting trips with my dad and looked forward to them all, but none as much as the trip for my 16th birthday. I didn’t realize it would be one of the worst trips of my life. However, I learned something important. After the hunting trip for my 16th birthday, I learned the difference between sustenance and survival and how to appreciate what I was doing even if things didn’t go my way.
I got a new rifle, a .30-06 Remington Mauser 98 with a brown burnished stock and barrel shiny like Christmas. I was so excited about the trip I stayed awake all night, counting down the hours until we left. Uncle Todd stayed over. He was driving us to the deer lodge outside of Monroe, Louisiana - where poison ivy and threats from tick-borne Lyme Disease awaited in the woods. He had a new pickup with a hardtop cover for the bed where we could sleep. He and Dad had been planning the trip for a couple of months, and it’s all we talked about. They both told me I was growing up and would kill a deer, hopefully a 16-point buck because I was 16. After dinner on the nights Uncle Todd would come over, he and my dad would sit at the old wooden kitchen table and drink beer and talk about the trip. I stayed up late, listening to them talk and watching the yellow light burn over the table, like we were all generals making plans for our historic battle. I was going to lead the charge and win the battle.
The lodge where we stayed was cedar and plywood, with electricity coming in through black wires hanging like snakes along the wall. The toilet and shower were outside, also made from plywood and primitive. Water was pumped from a well and it was like living in the past. We made a fire outside and cooked steaks and peppers and onions. Uncle Todd played his harmonica, but it sounded like a dying peacock half the time, and Dad told him to be quiet. We listened to the radio from Uncle Todd’s truck, and it was a perfect evening until the rain started falling. By the next morning, the rain was coming down steady. I paced the lodge like a hungry tiger. I wanted to get out and hunt, but Dad and Uncle Todd said it wouldn’t be any good. We played cards and cooked more steaks on the camp stove. When it was time to go to bed I don’t think I was ever more disappointed in my life.
We had to pack up that evening and had stayed longer than we intended because we had hoped to get in some hunting. The road out from the lodge was dirt and had become mud during the rainstorm. The truck got stuck in a soft patch, and Dad and me rocked the truck while Uncle Todd revved it. Of course I got splattered with mud, and Dad and Uncle Todd laughed. My mood became as black as the storm clouds. I didn’t talk for the rest of the drive, and when we stopped to eat at a restaurant Dad had heard about, I said I wasn’t hungry and climbed into the back of the truck. I could smell the mud on my clothes, and it was stuffy but also cold in the truck and I remember my stomach growling and me feeling hungry and dumb. When Dad and Uncle Todd came out of the restaurant, they told me that I missed the best pecan pie in the world. I thought they were saying that to make me mad again. In my head I had written this trip off as the worst of my life.
When I woke up, we were home. The sun was just rising, and it was a cool morning and fog drifted in the air, making everything feel even quieter. Dad opened a Styrofoam container and set it on the kitchen table with a glass of milk. It was a piece of pecan pie, gooey and sweet, a mix of toasted pecans and sugar and molasses and honey. Dad was right. It was the best pie I ever ate in my life. Dad apologized for building up my expectations about the trip, and I apologized for acting badly. I realized I missed out on having fun because I was disappointed. When we go hunting now, and especially if nobody shoots anything, we try to find a place to have a meal and spend time together.