For his 13th birthday, my oldest son's most pressing urge was to shoot something. His father and I, both unfamiliar with the rituals of blood sport, felt it best if we gave him the chance to pursue his driving passion, and my friend John agreed to be his guide.
So, on a crisp September weekend, I drove my boy to New Mexico -- hunter safety card, hunting license, orange vest, shotgun and shells in tow. The night before we entered the forest, John taught him how to carry his weapon, how to take it apart, admonishing him to never let the barrel point at any part of a human body. I steeled myself for the blood letting.
We entered the forest the next morning in search of grouse. John repeatedly warned us that we might hike for hours and not see a single bird. Patches of deep red wild geranium and Virginia creeper colored our path along overgrown logging roads. John pointed out wild rose hips -- a favorite food of bears -- and identified bird songs as we climbed higher. Nuthatch, chickadee, raven. My son jumped at the sight of a large gray-blue bird swooping across our path. Not a grouse, John assured him, it was a jay. I gathered the seed pods of wild iris and pocketed them.
About two hours into our climb, John showed us the dried carcass of a field mouse in the middle of the road. He had noticed it a few weeks earlier on another foray into the woods and remembered its exact location. Soon after, we flushed our first grouse but lost it before either hunter could take a shot.
The farther we climbed, the more we learned. We buried our noses in the rough brown bark of the ponderosa pine and discovered the sweet scent of vanilla. We discussed the shared root system of a glade of golden aspen, observed bent saplings snapped by elk rubbing their antlers. We trained our eyes on the soft mat of pine needles and clover beneath our feet, looking for grouse droppings -- the size, shape and color of a cigarette filter, John told us.
We crossed a large meadow, flushed another grouse from the treetops but, again, didn't get a shot. We passed areas John named for us -- Leaning Aspen Corner, Ten-anthill Clearing. We climbed for almost four hours before turning around. John showed us a half-eaten pine cone abandoned by a squirrel, its pointed bristles carefully removed like the leaves of an artichoke.
We found a rusted can and set it up for target practice. My son took aim from 30 feet back and blew it away. Once, twice, three times. John commented on his good aim and stuffed the can in his knapsack.
Heading down, we criss-crossed through the forest, taking new roads, covering more territory. John led us back to the spot where the tiny mouse carcass lay. We moved it off to the side of the trail and covered it with pine needles. Another mile or so down, another grouse flushed; again, no shot.
My son was tired but invigorated. We jumped from rock to rock across a cool, clear river and emerged from the forest onto the road. We ate cheese and tomato sandwiches and sucked down Diet Cokes.
The hunt turned out to be exactly what the word promised it would be -- a quest, a search, a wild-goose chase, an exploration. The hunters would have liked to top off the day with the cleaning of a fresh-killed grouse, but their disappointment was tempered by the day's discoveries. It was enough to know the birds were there. We had seen them. We had heard the flutter and rushed upsweep of their wings. We had watched them glide out of sight.
The battered can was my son's only trophy; his newfound knowledge of the grouse's forest home, his just reward.
-- First published in September of 1997