There is a rock on a southeastern slope of the Blue Ridge with half the lichens rubbed off where I have sat for days at a time over the years, watching deer and turkeys and birds and squirrels and bugs and, now and then, other hunters.
The slopes that fall away on either side, the trees and grapevines and the so-called river below, are as familiar to me as my back yard. I can, and often do, find my rock in the dark, because if you want to see what's going on in the woods you need to be in place well before first light, to let the disturbance caused by your passage die away. Even though you sit still as a stump it takes about an hour for things to calm down.
Last week I went back to the rock for a couple of days; the excuse was turkey hunting, but the reason was spring.
The rock is on a gentle fold of spur ridge just outside the boundary of Shenandoah National Park. Deer and occasional bears come down out of the park at dusk to raid the crops and apple orchards below. At dawn they slip back up the ridge to spend the day under federal protection. At least two flocks of wild turkeys roam the ridge, scratching through the leaves for a corns and beech and hickory nuts and bugs and berries and tender shoots. Now and then a ruffed grouse explodes from under your feet, and a raven makes morning and evening rounds, stirring the silence with his peculiar wingbeat and croaking a warning to crows and hawks to stay out of his way.
What with shopping for supplies and stopping by to check in with Chicken and Pete, who farm the valley and keep track of who goes up the mountain, it was late afternoon by the time I hiked out on the ridge. Normally the trail is thick with prints and scat and other animal sign, but I saw little. The Virginia Game Commission had predicted a poor mast crop and a bad winter for bird and beast, and it seemed to have been so.
I left the trail and dropped down the ridge, moving as slowly and quietly as I could, headed for my rock. It wasn't there. Or rather, because the spring foliage has changed the appearance of the ground and because my mind was still back at the office, I has missed the rock - which is the size of an elephant - by more than a hundred yards. I found it and sat restlessly for half an hour, saw nothing, and wandered over the ridge for another couple of hours, noticing little but gnats.
I sat up late, reading about the black bear, until the sound of the river at the foot of the ridge overtook me. During the night the rhythm of the water and the wind must have impressed themselves on me, becasuse by dawn I was beginning to see again.
In the half-light the trail were fox scat, tufts of deer hair, a deer hoofprint so broad (3 1/4 inches) I thought at first it was a pony's, turkey tracks and droppings and, so obvious I couldn't believe I had missed it, the broad print black bear that had stood up to investigate a bagworm nest. I know it has been there the day before, because my own foot-print has half-obliterated the bear's other hind track.
I tried to track the bear but lost the faint sign in the leafy litter, and then began to track myself, one long step at a time, learning how to look again, after the months indoors. My trail was easy to follow, I had stepped so carelessly the first time out.
Among the things I had missed were a poacher's blind and the remnants of the carcass of a whitetail yearling he had taken only the hindquarters from; the impression on bare ground, of a shed antler that had been entirely consumed by calcium-hungry mice; afresh turkey feather; and five wild-flowers that were newto me.
I found where I had gone astray on the way to my rock and finally went and sat on it, marveling anew at how perfectly it fit my hips and back. In half an hour things began to move again. The raven passed over, which seemed to upset the female eastern towhee that sat on the branch above me. Two squirrels had either a territorial dispute or game of tag on the slope below and then fled something they perceived but I couldn't.
As the sun rose into view a hen turkey wandered out of a thicket barely 30 yards away and scratched her way across the slope, snapping up bugs and greenery and, surprisingly often, nuts that been over-looked all winter. If she was looking for a tom - as I was - she didn't find him. Backlighted by the sun her feathers seemed carved from coal, with a wash of reddish gold along her neck and back. In the middle of a blink she disappeared; I coun't hear her and had no idea which way she had gone, nor why.
Fifteen minutes later I heard light quick footsteps, looked for a fawn and saw a red fox, traveling in eccentric circles and sniffing the air. Once she stood momentarily on her hind legs as though to catch a scent high above the ground. Whatever she smelled, it wasn't me, because I was downwind and upslope from her.
At 50 feet she saw me, and forze. Then she began to whimper and yip, and to make little rushes toward me, teeth bared. She would close to within about 15 feet and then retreat, dancing backwards stifflegged.
I assumed she was rabid, as foxes in this area often are, but for some reason I did not shoot. Her movements seemed somehow too graceful and calculated for an animal wiht a diseased brain. She was to my right, an awkward position for a seated, right-handed gunner, and I rose to crouch. As I did so I noticed I had been sitting near the mouth of a den beneath a split boulder. Her den, no doublt with kits inside.
I backed across the slope. The moment I was farther from the den than she was, the vixen flashed over the ground and into the hole. I wandered back to the trail, sorry that I had intruded upon her, grateful that I had not killed her in my fear and ignorance. I was beginning to get my mind back in tune with the mountain. CAPTION: Picture, AFTER THE WINTER, IT TAKES EYES, EARS AND MIND SOMETIME TO GET USED TO THE OUTDOORS AGAIN. By James M. Thresher.