Marietta, Minn. It's all over now. Our three days of pheasant hunting out here on the burnished prairies are behind us.
We have eight birds to clean from the morning hunt, and then we must start packing. It is so hard, this leaving.
It is always this way, of course. Leaving deer camp. Leaving the farm friends where you hunt ducks in North Dakota. Leaving the cabin anytime.
For three days on this opening weekend, we have conducted our lives on hunting time. Our days were measured by sunrises and sunsets. We watched nuthatches at the feeder, stopped pheasant hunting to gawk at southbound Canada geese, noticed the subtle changes in humidity and wind direction.
We fed our dogs and checked their feet. We wore the same clothes until they looked like we were in them whether we were or not. Mostly, we walked. We walked behind our dogs, across the fields of switchgrass and bluestem and Indian grass. We stumbled over gopher mounds. We fell when we stepped in foxholes. We stood bent over, gasping for breath, after long pheasant chases.
We knew it would be this way. Knew how we would slow down out here. Knew how the land and the sky would become the dominant elements in our lives. Knew that we would become attuned again to the calling of a great horned owl, the bawling of cattle and the cackling of pheasants.
All of that knowledge was inside us as we drove west and south across this big state. And with it the anticipation of the hunt. The forecasts for pheasant hunting had been good. Now we would see for ourselves. Would it really be as good as '91?
We had moved into the little red farmhouse, rolled out sleeping bags on the beds, made our little nests of clothes in the corners. And we had found the birds. Plenty of them. As many as '91? Pretty close. We made some good shots and missed some that were easier. The Labs made us look good, just as they always have. We walked and walked and walked those lovely fields.
Now, after the last morning's hunt, we must commit to departing. We clean birds. Someone heats up leftover stew for lunch. We stuff our sleeping bags and pack our nests of clothing into old Duluth packs. Someone does dishes for the last time, and the others sweep and shake rugs and haul the recycling to the trucks.
Already, we can feel the hurry creeping into our lives. We're sliding inexorably back into the pace we tried to leave behind. Silently, we begin setting goals again. What time will we get on the road? What time does that put us home? What's waiting for me at work in the morning?
The dogs know something's up. They lie by the trucks to make sure we don't overlook them in the loading.
Finally, it's time. We load Ziploc bags of birds in our coolers, shake hands all around and drive out the two-track lane. The traffic on the highway seems to be moving awfully fast.