I wanted to go back to the old days. I was driving down a back road in Virginia, tired and footsore and feeling sorry for myself. We were hunting turkeys in the spring season, and it was beautiful and awful at the same time.
The morning was bright, the songbirds had started a hallelujah chorus at sunrise and the dogwoods were starting to burst out. The whole spring panorama just made you happy to be alive and in the woods.
The turkeys were having none of it, though, with the gobblers refusing to sound off much. They were tight-lipped and ornery, in a mood like they owed you money. They would offer only a few meager gobbles on the roost, or maybe answer a call just to get your blood racing and then walk away. After a few days, this gets old.
In truth, the turkeys were just doing what turkeys do, and I have seen this behavior a lot over the years. The thing is, when you have been getting up before the chickens every day, driving in the dark and walking the hills all morning, you start to take it personally.
I came around the bend in the washboard road, and there he was, walking at a good pace and slightly stooped over. He had a rusted gas can in hand and his white hair was blazing under a battered fedora. He grinned at me through the open window.
"Need a lift, bud?" I offered.
"Yes sir, young feller!" His voice was light and happy while cracked dry at the same time. He smiled again and bounced into the passenger seat. I could smell wood smoke and marveled at the suit jacket, which appeared to have more days cutting firewood or working on a tractor than at church or social events. The jacket was worn over bib overalls that had seen better days as well. A length of hay-bailing string was tied around his waist; not sure what that was about.
We motored toward the crossroads where he could get some gasoline, and I saw him glance at my head-to-toe camouflage and all the hunting paraphernalia in the back seat: a full camo shotgun, the latest turkey decoy and a hunting vest bulging with way too much stuff.
"Turkey huntin' are ya?" he said with another big grin.
"Trying to," I half mumbled, "The turkeys aren't being very cooperative." That brought a dry cackling laugh.
"They will do that!" he said with a giggle. "Turkeys do what they do, and be danged with ever-body else!" There was that laugh again.
I'm sure I squinted my eyes a little at him. "You a turkey hunter?"
"All my life," he said with a grin. "I have hunted them crazy things around here since I was kid. We went from a time back when they weren't hardly no turkeys, to some years ago we had lots. Now they are down in numbers, but I still chase them spring and fall!"
I looked over and studied him with a new perspective. There was something there, something unseen or not easily recognizable. I thought of a diamond in the rough buried in a coal pile, or some obscure professor who knew the location of more Dead Sea scrolls, but no one had ever bothered to ask him.
He seemed happy to tell me all about his techniques and the area he hunted here in the mountains of Virginia. I kept glancing over at him and thinking he was not the same as the picture I usually painted of the grouchy, withdrawn old turkey hunter who would not share any of his hard-earned experience gained from hunting these birds for so long. He was just as happy to tell me of success in the turkey woods as he was of the many times a big gobbler gave him the slip. Miles and miles of walking these mountains was just an admission ticket you bought to visit the turkeys. Every bit of it was told with a laugh suggesting you not take yourself so seriously. The longer he talked, the more I was getting ashamed of myself.
I saw him glance back at the pile of gear in the truck. "I never had no fancy camouflage and all that stuff," he said, but with not one bit of judgment. "I usually just wore a brown huntin' coat and work pants. I had a camouflage coat my brother brought back from the war, but I wore it slap out." He chuckled at the memory as he seemed to do with most things.
This man was the real deal.
We filled his rusty gas can and got back to his truck way too soon for me. I felt like I still had much to ask him but didn't really know if I would ever see him again, and the thought of that hit me like a slap in the face.
"Before you run off, let me show you something," he said. I watched as he reached behind the seat of his battered Chevy truck and pulled out something wrapped in a ragged old blanket. Before he had it uncovered, I knew what it was: a worn but not abused Model 12 Winchester shotgun. I took one look and immediately wished the gun could talk as well.
"Me and this ol' shotgun has done some things!" he said with a laugh; it was always with a laugh.
As I drove off, the sun seemed a lot brighter and the birds were a lot more in tune. It was spring, and I was free to walk the earth pretty much where I wanted to. I would hunt these turkeys again tomorrow, but I was a lot less concerned about how they would act or what they might or might not say to me. Maybe that is the way to think about people as well.
I drifted on down that old road, wondering where I could find a hat like his.
"The Trail Less Traveled" is written by Larry Case, who lives in Fayette County, W.Va. You can write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.