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My heart raced like a hummingbird, face flushed hot and red with adrenaline as I slinked through the open utility right-of-way, serrated with jagged limestone. The report of the rifle ringing in my ears and the events that had previously unfolded plucked my cognizant abilities, tossing them candidly into the crisp November dusk. I felt as though I were strolling through a Pink Floyd tune, my body operating on autopilot as my mind replayed a thousand frames per second, scouring the details of the past 120 seconds.
It was our first fall in the new house and the rut was in full swing. We owned a couple acres of woodlot adjoining a patchwork of farm fields and a variety of timbered and brushy, early successional forest plots wrought with whitetails. The utility right-of-way that sliced through a neighboring pasture riddled with bushy and fragrant easter red cedar served as my hunting grounds. Save for a small herd of black angus and the occasional red fox, the pasture and thickets were a largely unperturbed safe haven for a healthy whitetail herd.
It was a spectacular Thanksgiving evening; clear, crisp, golden with the rich warmth of the autumn sun. And my mother had planned her usual family feast. I can hear her angry cries echo through the timber like it was just last evening as I sat defiantly in silence against a lichen-stained limestone outcrop.
The final shreds of amber glow cast across the Shenandoah Range as I stood to retreat to the warmth of home, family and feast, when two blond-coated whitetails appeared, hovering ghostly up the right-of-way. In utter panic, I froze solid, caught in the open, gazing wildly in fear of detection as the pair closed the distance with purpose.
As the duo stepped to within 30 yards, I struggled to put the crosshairs from the 1970-something Weaver scope on the little spike buck leading a doe. In my experience, Weaver is responsible for the “hairs” in crosshairs, as they were so thin, I could barely see them at high noon, much less the final seconds of legal shooting light. An instant eternity passed before the crosshairs shown faintly against the buck’s chest.
Quaking like an autumn aspen leaf in a stiff wind, I jerked the maddeningly tight trigger on my heirloom Remington Model 700 .243, keeping a close eye as the two bounded for cover. The buck stopped broadside about 80 yards out, prompting another round and anchoring him to the impenetrable red clay soil.
In utter disbelief, I peered at the silhouette, ensuring the buck expired before proceeding to claim the immortally special first deer. Kneeling in the frosty autumn grass, a hunter’s subconscious tradition of soaking in every glorious detail of the animal was born. Trembling hands stroked the oddly light-colored hide for late November, inspected the strangely-shaped, minuscule antlers, and taking note of the eyelashes, fur thickness and hoof characteristics.
Elated with success, my brother Berkly, home for the holiday, heightened the significance of the moment. Our father passed away when I was eight, Berkly 13. Grandpa had suffered a massive stroke not two years prior. He and I hunted deer once, but I was a restless child not fit for the task, particularly on public lands, competing for geography among the cluster of orange vests. The solo-hunting career of a chubby, inexperienced teenager had already begun.
Berkly is my perfect opposite being the city mouse, yet graciously assisted with a flashlight and even held a leg or two as I field-dressed. Better yet, he helped drag the buck up the rocky incline to the house and hang it in a tree out back with my step-brother’s deer before seeking the holiday celebration indoors.
My mother set aside her prior dissatisfaction to congratulate me on the harvest. Grandpa was there too, and insisted on seeing the buck. With an insulated flannel draped over his withering shoulders, he grabbed his cane and slippers, and shuffled carefully across the back deck to get a strained look through the soft yellow glow of the porch light. His crooked smile and nod of approval spoke volumes.
That evening spent indulging in my mother’s delectable holiday feast, and reliving the short but eventful story of the hunt with so many excited family members, a deer hunter was born, as was a Thanksgiving tradition that I continued with my closest friends in the Shenandoah Valley. A tradition which they uphold to this day while I reside 2,700 miles west, keeping the spirit of the Thanksgiving hunt alive chasing pheasant and wild turkey solo, and remembering the days afield with loved ones.
May you enjoy Thanksgiving 2020 among loved ones, revel in the successes, and craft new memories of the hunt!