Autumn’s Most Sacred Outdoors Tradition

I’ve hunted in North Dakota my entire life. Every fall, at least one of my sons and I make the almost 900-mile drive from Chicago to North Dakota for opening day of pheasant season.

The tradition started years ago, before I had kids, before I was married. Every fall, my brother and I figured out a way to truck back to our stomping grounds, even though that meant skipping classes while in college, graduate school, and, for my brother, even medical school.

Each October, we tromp the grasslands and cornfields of central and western North Dakota with our father and his aging friends. There are hundreds of crazy stories to tell, many of them apocryphal. We struggle to assign a specific year to a story. The years merge together like a hundred streams that flow into a single river.

The Great Grandma Excuse

When my oldest son was four, I buckled him to a car seat and endured 900 miles of potty stops and McDonald’s Happy Meals from Chicago to North Dakota for a few days of guy time. When we arrived, Grandma babysat Christian while my father, brother, and I cavorted with my father’s friends for four days in the Dakota outdoors. At 7 years old, Christian abandoned grandma and piled in the truck with the guys to hunt. He hung around the truck while we walked the fields. At 10, he tagged along with us up and down the corn rows and the draws and ravines. He was a great bird dog. At 11, he shot his first pheasant.

As the years went by, sports (more specifically, football) began to encroach on our tradition.

During Christian’s middle school years, we needed a good reason for him to miss almost a week of football, including a game. (We never fretted about missing school, though probably we should have.) Opening day of pheasant season was always the second Saturday of October – in the dead of football season. In Wheaton, there is god and one god only: football.

We needed an excuse. A really good excuse. So, starting when Christian was in sixth grade, I alerted his football coach a few days before we were to leave, “Christian’s great grandmother is dying, and we need to see her before she passes. This might be the last time he sees her alive.”

At the time, Christian’s great grandma was 94. No coach dared to say, “Well, do it and I’ll bench you.”

Was great grandma actually dying?

Well, not exactly.

Was she old? Yes.

Could she die? And could this be the last time Christian might see her? Absolutely.

Every year in middle school, there was a new coach. And every year, the excuse worked beautifully. It stopped working its magic for Christian during his freshman year in high school, however. When we returned from six memorable days in North Dakota, Christian got benched. And he never regained his position the rest of the season.

That was Christian’s last year in North Dakota for hunting. Football trumped our tradition. I wasn’t happy, but some things in life you simply can’t fight. By the way, the excuse still worked for my youngest son while he played football in middle school. He was never benched.

Great grandma, though, is still alive and now 102.

Now that Cory, my youngest son, will play football at Wheaton North as a freshman, we face another crack in the tradition. High school coaches show no quarter. We’re now considering changing the tradition, delaying the trip until the end of October, after football is over, though we still haven’t figured out what to do if his team makes the playoffs.

Sacred Outdoors Tradition

My oldest still plays in college, but it won’t be long until he’ll be back with us in North Dakota.

Football ends, our tradition lives on.

I’ve reminded my oldest that the disappointments and dreariness of football (getting hurt, not starting, getting benched, the quirky injuries, months of mindless drills and weight-lifting, and third-rate coaching from men who never grew up) are mostly preparation for the end of football. Some day, it will all be over. So accept the disappointment as a harbinger of how you will feel the last time you don your helmet for game day. For most players, football is mostly about learning to deal with the death of your over-blown expectations.

But our hunting tradition persists, even if next fall, only my brother and I and a couple of his kids make the trip. The tradition continues.

Grandpa and grandma are now 81. Great-grandma, as I mentioned, is 102.

My father rarely walks a field anymore, but drives the truck and still reaches for his wallet first to pay for gas and lunch. Last fall, my father walked a mile-long ravine with us one late morning in early October, determined not merely to be road support. It was a slow walk in thick grass and brush, but we kicked up a couple birds and guffawed when we all missed.

You’d think we’d be better shots after all these years.

Through the years, our tradition has created an outdoor space to laugh, to joke, to drink lukewarm coffee, to eat third-rate food at the Chat-n-Chew cafe, and to weather a couple years where we didn’t have much to say to each other, because how hurt we felt with how each of us had responded to a family conflict.

Autumn gave us reason to be together, even when we did not understand each other.

My brother and I fret about the day when the hunting party grows quiet, when the laughter of my dad and his friends no longer fills the early morning as we put out goose decoys in the dark and shiver by the rock pile waiting for the sun and the geese to arrive. It’s inevitable. Something wonderful is passing, and we can’t hold on to it.

We can only say thanks for autumn’s most holy tradition. And prepare to become the elders of our tribe, the guys who drive the truck and pay for our kids and grandkids’ lunch at the Chat-n-Chew.