The sun rose over that central Kentucky holler and the fog was so thick I could feel its cool, moist presence as we walked past the barn to our destination on the side of a steep ridge overlooking a massive walnut tree. I can vividly remember being so anxious to get there. It felt like eternity going up the side of that small creek. For my birthday my uncles had purchased me a brand new Red Ryder BB gun, and I was absolutely sure it was only a step below a .30-06 in takedown power! Our bushy-tailed adversaries didn’t stand a chance. I really didn’t even think there was a point in my papaw packing that old Savage .22 with him because as far as I was concerned, I was getting ready to shoot every squirrel in those woods.
We found a place to sit down, and he cleared a spot in the leaves for me. As the fog lifted the woods seemed to be breathing; the cool air nipped at my hands gripped tight to the cold, metal frame of my Daisy. I can still see the limbs shaking as the game we were after started to make its way to the walnut tree we were positioned in front of. This was the perfect vantage point. We could see well on up the holler and would be prepared for whatever made its way back down the long creek bed.
I have no idea how many shots I fired that day. I honestly can’t even remember the year. But I can remember, however, the patience Papaw showed when explaining to me just how still we had to be.
I can also remember waking up after taking a nap in his lap: the warm, mid-morning sun shining on my young cheeks before striking out for home, down off the ridge beside that stream and back past the barn to the house. When we arrived back my grandmother was on the verge of hysteria. “Where have you been, Wesley?” she asked my grandfather. “I have been yelling for y’all for two hours!”
Saying she was upset that Papaw hadn’t answered her calls would’ve been an understatement. But with a calm voice I now know only in my dreams, he answered “Well Mildred, the boy was asleep ... I couldn’t yell back and wake him, now could I?”
I can still take you to that spot, and that walnut tree still stands in that holler in Garrard County. I have taken two of my kids on their first hunt on that same piece of ground my papaw took me to that day, and before long, my youngest daughter and I will make the same trek. That Red Ryder is long gone but I now own that old Savage .22, and the memory of that hunt and many more flow through my mind every time I pick it up.
My papaw is gone, too, taken a few years ago now. The lessons he taught me in the woods I use on a regular basis earning my living as a hunting guide. The lessons he taught me about being the type of person that lets actions speak for themselves, well, those are lessons I use much more often.
I was blessed to have been surrounded by men willing to take me into the outdoors at any time. My papaw, my uncles and my dad were always into something, and you can rest assured I wasn’t far behind. I appreciate those things now much more than I did when they were happening. Often I wonder what path life would have taken me down if my background hadn’t been so centered in the outdoors. At other points in my life, hunting took a back seat to athletics, work and, of course, the opposite sex. At any time, though, I could grab a gun and hit the woods and forget about anything that was weighing me down. Hunting was, is and always will be a release for me—a way to slow down and get back to my roots. It is something I share with the people I love because the people that love me shared it with me. It’s a tradition in a way, but it’s so much more. It bonds us all together, whether we’re young or old, male or female, black, white, red or green; if you’re a hunter, you always have a story to tell and someone to share it with.
In the end, the thrill of a hunt is awesome. The excitement of the chase or the moment you accomplish something in the woods you have been working toward is exciting, even addictive to some of us. But in the grand scheme of things, when all is said and done, the real trophies are the memories we create. Those last longer than anything we can hang on a wall.
I miss you, Papaw. Thanks for the gun.
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