Family makes annual pilgrimage to hunt deer and bury the ashes of the patriarch
The winds are supposed to get up to 50 mph. The hunt may be cut short because the high winds confuse the deer, throw their senses for a loop, so they bed down to keep safe. In this case, the deer are smarter than the hunters.
We’re twenty-five feet in the air, suspended between two oaks on a sheet of plywood reinforced by joists braced on either side of both trees. We face each other, our backs against our respective trees, the rifle hung from the hook above Tom’s head. He built this stand, along with his dad, who we are here to bury. It’s been hours since we spoke, and the only thing we’ve heard since daybreak was the mad warbling of turkeys, like a gang of women in the kitchen as holiday guests start to arrive. And the wind.
It roars like a waterfall over the ridges and down the valleys, unimpeded by the thick November woods. The gusts cyclone leaves on the ground back up into the air and when it dies down, you shouldn’t relax. The tree stand rocks like a small boat in a big lake and, earlier in the morning, sleeping off last night’s arrival, I napped in a ball at my friend’s feet, awakened by the sense that I was going to pitch over the side. He’s sitting up against the tree now, nodding off like you’re supposed to, always at the ready. That’s how you do it, even in the extended daydream that can be a slow day of hunting.
It’s day one of the hunting season, a day that’s taken a year to arrive for these guys, in a week fraught with more meaning than in any of the decades preceding the family ritual. I’ve never hunted, don’t have a rifle or a permit, so for now I’m content to observe, eager for getting down to the ground and to the cooler for lunch. We’ll meet up on top of the ridge, with Dave, the son-in-law real estate lawyer whose built like a defensive lineman. We moved his tree stand earlier, and if he wasn’t a relative newcomer I’d think he could hoist the metal store-bought stand by himself. We’ll also meet up with Mike and his teenage daughter. When we picked her up the day before, she emerged from her high school with a boy who quickly peeled away. She wore a mid-thigh skirt, and an unzipped fleece jacket flapping in the wind. Now she’ll be covered in Carhartt camouflage, an orange jacket, and with one of her dad’s rifles, the metamorphosis complete. Mike, the eldest son-in-law, is a picture of zen. He recently sold his flooring business—the knees only last so long—and joined his wife in her home office as a mortgage broker. Like the Dude, he abides, and his easy going manner belies a profound, spiritual intellect that makes him the go-to guy for answers.
I want to get the hell down out of the wind and stretch my legs, meet up with the guys to understand what it is about the northern part of Missouri that attracts them, and what it is about hunting that connects these men in some profound way spiritually, geographically, ecologically, and as a tribe.
The rolling, densely wooded hills known as the Ozarks is a large plateau covering four states, from the southern half of Missouri to the north of Arkansas and a bit of Kansas and Oklahoma. It’s considered to be the western edge of Appalachia, known for endless dells and steep limestone cliffs. On the Northern lip of the Ozarks, an hour south of Jefferson City, Missouri, lies the Lake of the Ozarks. When it was completed in 1931, the damned Osage River became the largest man made lake in the USA and the leader at the time in renewable energy for a significant portion of the state. It’s known as the Magic Dragon because of its aerial shape: the long, serpentining body of water is veined with inlets that branch off like root systems. It has 1,150 miles of habitable shoreline, longer than the California coast. Because it is not a flood-control lake, the water line remains relatively stable, great for water recreation and over 70,000 shoreline homes, many of which are perched on the limestone and dolomite bluffs, accessible to the water by dizzying and breath-sapping stairways.
The sheer supply makes property relatively cheap, and many coves are dwarfed by multi-unit housing with shared docks. Such is the property the patriarch, Bob, bought in the mid-90s to complement his 500 acres of hunting land. Though he and his wife bought the three-bedroom duplex condo and a boat for his family in summertime, the main attraction was for a place for the hunting party to crash, store gear, and not have to worry about planning lodging.
Weeks before the hunt, a pipe burst in the unit above and flooded both floors. It has to be gutted and redecorated, if the matriarch decides she wants to do it. An eight-hour drive from Chicago, and with over 100 steep stairs from the condo to the water, it is not easily accessible from home or from the condo. Putting it on the market, in 2011 and in the midst of a special assessment to repair the stairs and railings, is as dicey as pouring in money to rehab it. Everyone knows this could be the last year.
The rental is spacious but better crafted for a single family than as a barracks with distinct quarters for men to drink, fart, snore, and bitch. We’re finishing up dinner prepared by Ray, a Latvian immigrant and Bob’s best friend. He attracted Bob to the area originally, and though he lives across the lake, he beds down with the party, buys all the food, and prepares the dinners, like his “Mamie’s kraut”, a sweet spicy saurkraut dish made with caraway, jalapeno, carrot and brown sugar. It accompanies pork tenderloins—“tendies”—and roasted halved potatoes. After a day in the woods, and eating only what you can stuff in your pockets or pack, its delicious.
We’re cleaning, clearing a space for poker, the coolers moved inside, the platters of food replaced by handles of booze, and half-a-dozen bottles of blackberry brandy. Don’t ask, its ritual, and this is the shot you toast to. Our faces are windburned, raw, and with the forecast calling for more of the same, our optimism for tomorrow’s hunt is being replaced by the only emotion a group of dispirited men could still enjoy: sarcasm.
“We’re not going to be throwing my dad up in the air,” Tom says. He’s the youngest, and only blood son present. He’s in charge of the burial planned for tomorrow, the defacto representative to report back to his mom on the condition of things.
“That’s Bob saying, ‘Here’s your hunting boys, enjoy the breeze!’” Mike says.
“And fuck you, you’re not staying in my house without me,” another son-in-law, Paul adds.
The eight of us do a shot of blackberry brandy. We take our seats. Ray silently leads all the actions, when its time to eat, when its to gamble, when its time to blackberry brandy. He smokes long cigarettes, with long fingers and a broad mouth, and he gives shit like shit-giver emeritus. If you ask a stupid question he’ll respond, “Do chickens have lips?”
Seated at the extended table beside Tom and Ray are Bob’s three son-in-laws, then there’s Painter, a burly house painter who is currently doing side jobs and being fucked around by his union, and who, after another dozen beers will begin to speak Painter; at the counter, not playing cards and trying not to drink too much is Chairs, who just lost 30lbs back down to his “honeymoon weight” after triple bypass, two neck surgeries, one back surgery and a million dollar real estate business that bellied up, nearly sending him into bankruptcy. He’s doing odd jobs now, but he brought all his gadgets and maps, and is sharpening his Bowie knife with a blinding military-issue headlamp on his head. Downstairs are the two kids, Mike’s teenage daughter and Paul’s tween son. Their presence is accepted, like mine, but it’s they that will have to adjust to the group, not the other way around.
As the night lengthens and the antes increase, details for tomorrows’ service are addressed. “Shit!” Tom says. “Did I bring his ashes in?”
The disbelief is momentary. It is this reason that Tom, who is deferred to regarding issues of land and property, is also ridiculed in loving mockery that only older brothers can do. The ashes were left in the carrier on the roof. “You put Bob on the roof?!” Mike says.
“Where else was I gonna put him?” Tom says.
He will get shit until the ceremony.
This is the first in a three-part series on the hunt and the burial.