My father stopped in the middle of the road one day, growled at his grandsons, and pointed at a patch of willows as thick as the hair on a dog’s back.
“We lost your dad one time, when he was knee-high to a grasshopper, and we finally found him way back in that patch of willows.”
He drove on. Joe and Jake looked at me, and looked at their grandpa, and looked at each other.
“We lost that kid all the damn time,” Grandpa shook his head. “If you weren’t watching him, he was off in the creek or the chicken house or the meadow, but mostly, he was in the damn willows.
“Your grandmother would go apeshit. Grammy would grab her shotgun and head in one direction, and we would scour the place, but it was like looking for a damn needle in a haystack. He was only about three feet high, but he could run like a dang jackrabbit.”
“How old was he?” one of the boys asked, looking at me like he had just found an arrowhead.
“Three or four,” Grandpa said, “but it was the same when he was seven, or ten or twenty. We quit looking for him when he got to be about eight.”
The willows were heaven then, and they remain that today. Sometimes, the lure was a frog that hopped and swam through the dozens of streams and ponds that flowed from beaver dams, muskrat holes, springs, and seeps. It may have been a bright yellow bird, or an owl, or maybe a rabbit that would never go in a hole. One time, it was a bobcat that snuck from the chicken house with a pullet in its mouth, then ran like hell. I followed the feathers until I could watch the bobcat eat the chicken, crunching the bones and shaking its head at the feathers. I wandered home, caught hell, and ate fried chicken. I said nothing about the bobcat.
Most of the time, the things I followed through the willows were deer. In the early 1960s, there was only one kind of deer on the creek—elegant, serene, silky-gray mule deer. The sight of a mule deer doe with fawns was, and remains, enough to decelerate the heartbeat and bring a smile. Maybe it was their huge ears, black eyes, or unique gait when they ran.
More likely, it was their graceful motion and their incredible, absolute grayness that evaporated into any landscape.
In the early morning, there were hundreds of them outside my window. They were in the yard, the meadows, and the road. They were in the sagebrush and the willows. Their breaths would puff as if they smoked cigarettes. By the time breakfast was over and the dishes were done, they were gone.
They were ghosts.
I had to know what they did all day. I wanted to sneak as ably and silently as they did through the willows, and touch them while they slept. I wanted to be invisible in sagebrush or willow. I wanted to jump six feet straight up into the air, disappear in an instant, then reappear behind myself, wind to my advantage.
I wanted to be a ghost.
It took some trying, but I got to the point where I could follow a doe and fawns as quietly as any human. My goal was to follow them until they chose a place to lie down for the day, and get back in time for breakfast, or maybe lunch. It helped to be knee-high to a grasshopper; I could slide under the willow branches with the deer and hide in the tall grass when they got nervous. Creek crossings were harder, sometimes too deep, but mostly too noisy. Before long, logs and rocks stationed in the creek allowed me to skip over the water in silence. By then, I knew most of the does by sight, and I could almost take a long circle and be waiting for them to bed down in their favorite places.
Now that I was a ghost, it really wasn’t that much fun. It was perplexing, though. I could see groups of big buck deer in the morning, but I rarely found them in the willows. Once in a while, I would chase up a little buck, or a couple of them, but the really big deer seemed to be in the meadows early, then gone. Maybe I hadn’t become a ghost at all.
“One time he walked about five miles,” my dad told the boys. “He told his mother to get him up early so he could go out and follow the deer. He left the house and never came back for breakfast, or lunch. We sent out search parties and called the sheriff. He just disappeared.”
“Where did you find him?” they asked.
“Aunt Pearl brought him home,” Grandpa laughed. “He was about as dirty a kid as I ever saw, but he had a grin on his face from ear to ear.”
The boys looked at me like they were the parent and I was the child.
“I just followed a group of buck deer to see where they went in the daytime,” I shrugged.
There had been seven of them. Four were classic fourpoint bucks. Two were obviously younger, with three points on each side, but the last was the most spectacular deer I had ever seen. He was nearly the size of an elk it seemed, and his antlers spread beyond his shoulders. His muley ears looked small, and when he turned, I could see long, straight spikes over his eyes.
They grazed at the edge of the willows early, then began to disappear one at a time. One of the smaller bucks left the meadow first, followed quickly by one of the larger bucks, then another. It seemed like an eternity before the big buck left, head down, each step deliberate and strong. Within seconds of his cue, they all disappeared into the willows.
The herd worked their way upstream, never a sound, always within the cover of the taller brush. They left the willows and walked within twenty yards of my great-grandmother’s window, then faded into sagebrush higher than a man’s head. They stayed there for quite a while, and I had to follow them by watching under the tall sage for their legs. All at once, they jumped the fence and crossed the county road in a flash, into another patch of willows, where they followed an old streambed for at least a mile. It was clear to me now, they were headed to Dead Indian Dome, a long island of eroded sandstone about as barren and desolate as any part of the countryside.
I followed them to the base of the ridge, picking ticks off my arms and out of my hair, letting the flies bite without slapping. They didn’t hurry, but there was no way I could keep up with the pace. I knew now that they had seen me, or smelled me, and they would hasten to cover, or leave the country all together. No problem. I knew where to find them.
I’m quite sure I knew by that time that I was the subject of the countywide search and rescue mission, so I made my way out of the sagebrush hills toward the safest place in the valley— Aunt Pearl’s house. The problem with the trip was the changes in scenery. I found a pond full of pollywogs and captured enough to fill the bottom fold of my shirt, then analyzed them to see that some had begun to lose their gills, others displaying tiny little legs.
From the pond, I caught the tiniest glimpse of a sage chicken, scurrying to keep all her chicks within cackling distance. I figured I could catch one of the chicks and look it over, and I was right, but it took me in the opposite direction from Aunt Pearl’s, so I let the chick go and made my return to the safety behind my great-aunt’s apron. Curiosity wouldn’t kill me, but my mother might.
“What did Grandma do?” the boys both asked, as if on cue.
Grandpa laughed, a little chattering sound unique to him, and shook his head.
“Beats the hell outta’ me,” he said, “but, it didn’t do any good.”
He was right. I was obsessed with the detail I found in the thickets and bogs, incredible things completely unseen from only feet away. I could sit by the road, nearly touching the cars, and no one could see me. I waded into the muck in the summer, pulling out handfuls of freshwater shrimp. I found ways to shinny up a willow, to get a peek inside a hummingbird nest, and learned that when a cow moose comes after you, the best place to be is in the middle of the biggest willow. One day, my grandfather took me into the depths of the willows and showed me a wild rose with fifteen petals instead of five.
“Don’t know why it’s there,” he said, “but it’s pretty special, I think.”
Pretty special, indeed. In retrospect, my forays into the depths of the willows was a gift, the honing of an ability to see the elegant intricacies of that world at a level beyond what I could find in books or see from the road. I could actually see differences between plants, habitats, and patterns of use by animals. Not until much, much later would those things be explained academically, sometimes not even then. At the time, it was osmotic, an absorption of my surroundings in a manner that continues today. I was learning to see a landscape as a living thing, the sum of many parts.
I graduated from the closeness of the thickets to another view as my own legs grew. By the time I was in my teens, I found myself drawn to the sandhill down the creek. From that vista, I could see the valley as a completely different creature, one made up of thousands of deer, hundreds of bogholes, and a gazillion pollywogs. I would try to imagine the folds and rises of the landscape, then walk into each to test what my eyes and brain told me was true.
I was always wrong.
Flatlands were, in reality, hummocked quagmires. Willow thickets were a series of individual lines, and between them were unseen patches of meadow and bog. Cottonwood forests were but stands of tall trees surrounded by sagebrush. Early light led to one conclusion. Evening glow led to another. And, in the dark of night, the willows were a completely different world, magical and frightening, a realm where my ears trumped my eyes.
Every season brought change, most subtle, but some sublime. The latter came mostly in the spring, when raging waters burst from the mountains and spread across the land. I would watch from the sandhill and launch myself into the valley below to see if I could find the subtleties, and explain the sublime. I had become a part of the landscape, if only as fickle as the songbirds that bred, fledged, and left every year, only to return when the sun and the water were high.
“How far did you walk?” Joe asked.
The question brought me back to the here and now, the part where I noticed a big grove of cottonwoods had fallen down. I determined to see if there were replacements coming back, or if that was the logical end of a remnant.
“I’m not sure,” I said. “I just walked.”
“It’s about twelve miles from the sandhill to the Rathburn Place,” Grandpa said, “if you draw a straight line.”
He pulled up to the gate at the bottom of the sandhill, and I got out to pull it open. If the distance from there to the upper Rathburn was twelve miles as the crow flies, I must have walked a thousand miles as the weasel darts.
We crossed the creek and worked our way up the narrow road to the top of the hill, staring straight west into the setting sun, four sets of eyes fixed on the valley below. We knew for certain there were elk down there, somewhere, and we had four licenses.
Jake stared into his binoculars. Joe fingered the trigger of his rifle. Grandpa peered through a spotting scope fixed to his window. I sat in the sand, likely in one of my own buttprints, and scanned the terrain below us. I could feel a tick working its way up my leg, but I could get to him later.
The fallen cottonwoods would not be replaced. The creek had moved to the south, and rabbitbrush was slowly expanding onto the former stream bank below the old trees. A group of does and fawns were working their way into Cotton’s meadow, and a beaver was cruising down the creek with dam material in its mouth. There was a porcupine so high in a willow that he was causing it to buck like a bronc. A cow moose and her calf crossed the creek behind the Beck House, and browsed on the willows. I followed the creek upstream with my eyes, and named the places in my mind, nearly every one of them named for a family long gone. Beck, Hughes, Muir, Lewis, Noble, Ott, Chrisman, Rathburn, Edwards, Guthrie, Fredell, another Rathburn. Twelve miles on a line. Maybe thirty if you followed the creek.
“See anything?” Grandpa whispered. Elk were on his mind, and the sun was falling like a stone. He was in no mood to hear about porcupines and muskrats. Dinner was waiting.
“No elk,” I said.
We walked back to the truck and slid our rifles into their scabbards. Grandpa looked at his watch. I stared at the creek bottom. Joe and Jake looked at me.
“Tell Mom we’ll be late for dinner,” I said, and the boys and I headed down the sandhill, into the willows.
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