“Some men are mere hunters;
others are turkey hunters.”
— Archibald Rutledge
Two days in and the shotgun swings with my body as I straddle the wood fence onto private property. “Don’t worry, it’s my uncle’s place,” Shawn says. “My uncle said he keeps seeing turkeys cutting through to the cornfield across the way.”
This was not the plan, slipping onto private property. We are surrounded by thousands of acres of open land, but the grand wild turkey of south-central Pennsylvania has made itself extremely scarce, which makes perfect sense three weeks before Thanksgiving.
Shawn is of the Dicken clan, born and raised hunting on this mountain, his parents the proprietors of Whispering Hollows Exotic Hunting Preserve. Not wanting the stigma of a gated preserve on my first-timer hunter résumé, I insisted on hunting outside the gates on public land, which Shawn is expert in — when the turkeys do their part.
If Shawn’s uncle actually did see a turkey, he’s the only one within a 30-mile radius that has.
The second my feet drop to the other side of the fence a herd of cattle comes storming out of a small barn inches from the fence ... and my face. I’ve had sex with people with more distance between us. For two days I’ve been tiptoeing around, daintily creeping through the brush so I don’t snap a twig and alert the elusive turkey. Now we’re to assume it’s going to be waiting for us on the other side of this grazing land.
I cling to the fence, watching the dust roll up as the cattle stampede. Why would a turkey hang out in an area where the cattle erupt every 23 minutes like a volcano at a Vegas hotel?
“Don’t worry about them,” Shawn says, marching toward the woods on the horizon.
Thanks for that.
My family back in Florida is counting on me to bring home Thanksgiving dinner. I thought bagging a turkey in the backwoods of this part of the country would be as common and easy as cutting down your own Christmas tree, even though my family scoffed at the whole idea. But they’ll see. They’ll see.
The first day in the wilderness, I was simply in awe. Every step through the woods was a scenic treat: deer frolicking on hillsides, eagles fighting overhead, mist floating through clearings, a tree decorated entirely with Skoal snuff cans. Admittedly, Shawn spitting tobacco and tooting on a turkey-mating-call whistle every nine steps was amusing early on, but now we are desperate hunters, dressed in mismatched camouflage, eating the dust of cattle while being outsmarted by what Benjamin Franklin once called a “vain and silly” bird. The hours are slipping away.
It’s a bit late in the evening as I arrive at Whispering Hollows. Shawn’s parents, Tommy and Debbie Dicken, are sitting at the front of the lodge. The members of the Dicken family have their own homes nearby, but the lodge is the main hangout.
Other than the folks, the place is eerily empty. I drift toward a room in the back and begin unpacking camouflage in the dark.
In the shadows, while emptying my pockets onto a nightstand, I slam my head into the antlers of a deer head hanging right next to the bed. I’m stunned and sitting on the edge of a bed when I hear the dad on his cellphone talking to Shawn, who lives down the road. “Your hunter is here.”
It takes a second to realize he’s referring to me.
In adulthood I’ve come around to the fact that I’m a bit of a coward to not at least step out of my comfort zone, better known as Costco’s organic meat aisle, and need, at least once, to feel what it is like to take part in the killing of what I so easily devour on my plate day in and day out.
Knowing none of my history, Shawn shows up for a meet-and-greet, and everybody sits around talking about DirecTV, which will be the hot topic of conversation for the entirety of my visit.
The hunting theme of the lodge’s decor is literally overkill. Everywhere I turn there is taxidermy squeezed into both the floor and wall space, and they’re extremely overcrowded — taxidermy in a subway car. I count several full-size bears sharing space with a dozen bucks, rams, moose, elk, buffalo ... is that an antelope? I try to ignore the entire menagerie, but the closer to midnight it gets the more I feel their disdain.
Disclosure: A few times in my life, I have been the accidental hunter.
One incident involved a catfish in the canal. My pants rolled up, a plunge, and it was all a blur. Cheers went up from my friends’ dockside. I don’t know why I didn’t drop the fish back in the water immediately, but I didn’t. All anyone at my elementary school reunion would recall is, “He caught a catfish with his bare hands.” Nothing about me twice dropping it off my bicycle as I raced home; naming it Tabitha on the way and placing it in a black drum garbage can — a poor boy’s aquarium — where it died five days later; or being found crying under my father’s Dodge Polara, holding Tabitha, and my dad yelling, “Get outta there! You’re getting oil stains all over your new shorts.”
All the firearms classes I can find are geared toward shooting the enemy ... and your neighbors. A lot of tactical instruction, too — often in the dark.
All I want to do is get semi-confident with a shotgun, but I can’t seem to find a simple instructional class that coincides with my philosophical hunting adventure. Respectable, sane people have advised me to “Just go on YouTube. You can learn how to do anything.” I don’t mind learning online how to repair my attic air-conditioning ducts with an expired jar of Vaseline and strips of cut-up greeting cards, or how to make a bicycle out of palm fronds, but I really don’t want to learn the basics to kill on YouTube. But that’s just me.
I finally hit on Shotgun 101 and don’t even read the class description. For all I know, I’m going to be trained by a sniper in the dark.
Two students wander in for the Monday-night training class. Both are named Terry, but that’s where the similarities end. One is horrified that he killed a catfish as a kid, and the other is a field biologist who winces when I mention I might shoot a turkey. He wants to master the shotgun only to pick off wild apocalyptic marauders who may someday come after his stuff. “I’m mostly concerned with being ready when the sh-- hits the fan,” he says.
Will, our firearms instructor, briefly gleans information about each of our plans and then tries to cater to each of our needs simultaneously.
A vet of the British Army who seems to have an Australian accent, Will begins straddling that line between two shotgun novices with different agendas.
“So if you’re going to be using a loaner,” Will says, “the first thing you want to ask about is the pattern of the gun. Is it a tight pattern? Does it go left or right? You might have to adjust quickly.”
Will is giving me his full attention, explaining in detail what I might expect during my hunting expedition. He describes how the guide will probably have me set up in what he calls a “blind” and how it will be sort of a stakeout situation. The guide will have me sitting, probably in a chair.
A chair? I don’t even like it when guitar players perform sitting down.
After we handle and load the guns several times, Will escorts us to the indoor shooting range, which looks like a racquetball court, only the walls are riddled with bullet holes. He runs targets out to a midpoint, and, of course, the targets are of the human form, the body and head blue. I do hate the Blue Man Group, so I don’t really mind. The other Terry is a little more erratic, giving hope to intruders everywhere. His neighbors may want to lie low, perhaps watch TV in beanbag chairs until after the apocalypse dies down to keep out of the line of fire.
During that first session, the butt of the shotgun jumps up and smacks me in the face. I thought the recoil was supposed to bruise your shoulder, not your right cheek. I think it misaligned my jaw and shifted my teeth a little. It put a strain on my expressions, at least. To combat the pain, when I eat a sandwich it’s with a smirk on my face.
“Just go to Gander and load up on camo.”
That’s the advice I keep getting from my advisers. Camo head to toe. “And don’t forget the turkeys have extraordinary vision, so you have to cover the whites of your eyes,” Will says.
Camo is something I was actually looking forward to because I enjoy going unnoticed. Up to this point in life I may have shunned guns and the kill, but I love hiding from people. Anyway, first impressions are everything, and I didn’t want to show up in camo that might allow me to disappear among tree frogs in a rain forest but make me a laughingstock in Pennsylvania.
At Gander Mountain I stick my arm out like a tollbooth gate at the first employee I see. I explain my situation and ask which camouflage is best for fall and winter hunting in south-central Pennsylvania.
“I don’t know.”
He does point me in the direction of all the different styles, and I am stunned by how far camo has come. The details in the design seem a mix of science, tech and nature, creating the perfect abstract blend of wildlife and the environment: pieces of bark and the tips of bird wings, beaks and branches and slivers of antlers intertwined in hundreds of shades of brown and green. It’s art. The more you get lost in the pattern the more you think you see — not Jesus, but is that Yanni?
I have a natural camo that makes me close to invisible in everyday life, and it may work just as well with wild turkeys as it does when I’m trying to get the bartender’s attention at Mulligan’s Beach House Bar & Grill.
I’m wavering when I spot an entire section of pink camouflage. Full winter gear: gloves, heavy jackets, thermals. I can’t see how it would make sense beyond hunting flamingos in a botanical garden.
I decide to go home and think this over. Before leaving, though, I remember I need one more item. Up front, I catch the same employee from earlier and ask where I might find the blinders that cover the whites of your eyes.
As I enter the kitchen, Shawn pulls out a knife and cuts off my camo tags. He makes no sly comments about my wardrobe. He’s mismatched, too. Camo’s cool, but we’d ruin it by discussing it.
Once out the door, we trek through the lengthy pasture adjacent to the lodge and up the hillside.
“You hear that?” Shawn asks.
Every 10 yards, the cold morning air is filled with either the sounds of Shawn sending out a mating call or spitting out a lump of chew. So I’m not sure which he is referring to.
“Listen. That’s a big gobbler. Too far, though.”
Last night I got a text from my wife stating: Probably get a 2nd turkey. Just in case.
So nonchalant with the “probably.” Oh, just in case. In case of what? That I fail, that my turkey sucks?
“No, it just might not be enough,” she answered. “If we have extra people.”
For the holiday, we do often end up with a handful of strays, usually dudes. Not jobless or homeless. Maybe the missus kicked them out or they’re between couches, but that’s between them and whoever fed them last Thanksgiving.
The main thing is, it pretty much defeats the whole purpose of this journey if two turkeys have to die for my Thanksgiving dinner.
Ever the optimist, Shawn asks me if I might want to go for bear on my next hunting trip, sway me into big trophy game. “Yeah, who knows?” I say. Not because I’d ever shoot a bear, but because I pretty much just go along with everything until actually pressed. Saying, “Oh, yeah, sounds cool” to bear hunting is no different than smiling and shaking my head up and down when a neighbor says, “Terry, let’s get a few couples together and all go on a cruise together.”
“Pssst! Over there,” Shawn says. “Look.”
But I gaze in the opposite direction.
Shawn is pounding his boots outside the front door of the lodge, contemplating. “I’ve got a plan for today,” he says. “We’re going to get you a turkey no matter what.”
“Yes!” I say, clenching one of my camouflage mittens into a fist.
We climb high up in an all-terrain buggy that’s sort of a monster golf cart. Reaching a peak, Shawn parks the vehicle and begins scouting the area as I nimbly follow. Our usual routine is to be completely quiet (when we’re not accompanied by a stampede), and then he points to a tree I should sit and lean against and chooses another for himself. But I’m not so quick to take Shawn’s commands when picking out seating arrangements. He may be an expert in tracking creatures, but I’ve been finding comfortable places to sit for decades now. I once read the entirety of “Where’d You Go, Bernadette?” while nestled between three jagged rocks on the coast of Maine.
Shawn points, but I’m still rebelliously looking around, scoping, until I spot the La-Z-Boy of tree trunks. Shawn is a tree or two back on the mezzanine. Once settled, I glance over my shoulder and scan the brush. I’m getting good at picking up flashes of movement and the subtle differences between a wind-swept branch and wildlife on the move.
Suddenly half a dozen or more deer briskly walk past us, as if on the way to a morning seminar on winter dietary needs. The last one gives us sort of a “Too bad we’re out of season, boys,” wink.
The longer I sit the harder it is to keep my focus on the horizon. Anybody sitting idle too long without a smartphone to play with will find their mind taking flight to parts unknown. Wait 44 minutes for a 10-minute oil change and you might daydream about getting two Jet Skis complete with trailer instead of health insurance, but stare into the brush for four hours and before you know it you’re seriously conjuring up a plan to leave your entire family to start up a craft brewery on the Outer Banks with two 26-year-old bearded guys named Nathaniel.
Back at Whispering Hollows, I’m cashing in the only chip I have left.
“What about the preserve?” I blurt out.
I’m sure I can take down a turkey in a preserve.
“People don’t understand,” he says. “The preserve is over 500 acres. It may not be any easier in there. They can fly off at any time. We don’t feed them and have them walk up to you.”
I scoff. I’m in my own battle between shame and disappointment, but at this point I’d be willing to load up and go to a petting zoo to get my turkey.
“All right, whenever you’re ready we’ll go to the preserve,” Shawn says. “But I can’t promise any ...”
Turkeys can fly?
Shawn steers the buggy along the edge of a wide path through the preserve. Nothing looks any different from where we’ve been the past few days.
We’re running out of road, reaching a balding area of the hilltop. Instantly, we’re all big sky and steep drop-offs. We wander and wander, repeatedly circling the landscape. Out comes the noisemaker. Shawn has it on repeat, and I’m taking giant steps backward, trying to distance myself when I hear it. The sound is in the same genre as Shawn’s tooter but much more determined ... and active. It’s getting closer.
I’m trying to position myself by sound and take direction from Shawn. I crouch and quickly pop back up to take the safety off. I’m struggling to stabilize a low stance, forcing the human tripod I learned in gun class, but I keep tipping, buckling backward.
And then, oh my God. It’s the towering feathers of a warrior coming up over the horizon. A vision. It’s like seeing a turkey with clothes on, and this one is dressed like a ruffled king.
My heart stops, but time doesn’t. My mind is racing back to every technical tip I’ve absorbed over the past several weeks, but in an instant I’m the shakiest gun in the Northeast, sweating through my thermals. I’m squatting and thrusting back up, then digging my right knee into the dirt.
“At 30 yards, take it,” Shawn had said. I keep stalling. It has to be a clean hit to the neck. The neck or ...
The gun blasts, and my ears are ringing. Shawn’s voice cuts through: “You hit ’em, you hit ’em!” But it’s not enough. This was my nightmare. The turkey is not only still moving, but on the move. I slide down the embankment, pumping and quickly firing again and again. “Too high, you’re aiming too high!”
“The pattern, it’s tight,” Shawn shouts, making a fist. Damn, I forgot about the whole pattern thing.
I pump. The chamber is empty. Shawn has always been at my side, shells ready to load, but now he’s meekly peeking down the embankment.
“I’m out of shells,” Shawn hollers down to me.
Out of shells?
He’s on the radio, racing back to the buggy, telling his pops to meet him at the gate with ammunition. “Don’t lose sight of him,” he shouts over his shoulder. Wheels churn and Shawn’s gone.
But I’ve already lost sight of the turkey. Huge boulders, about a third of the way down, block the view. Then I catch a glimpse of the feathers, slow but steadily moving out of sight. I don’t want to have to tackle a turkey.
I’m ducking and weaving down each embankment. What have I done?
When Shawn returns, he’s already rolling up to the ridgeline, and he doesn’t even get out of the vehicle. I’m beside him — Your hunter is here — hanging out the side, as we rattle over rocks and roots down the incline. I’m like a crazed “Mad Max” character, holding on to the shotgun and the monster cart’s roof handle. The turkey comes into sight, badly hobbled but gallantly, steadily treading down a dirt path. I fire off another blast, which sends the turkey hurtling down the path to stillness. The second I join the stillness I feel nauseated. Nothing in my life ever felt so wrong. There is nothing clean or precise about my kill, nothing to distinguish it from the slow death of a catfish in a garbage can. But Shawn is already in hunting glory mode over a prize kill, a celebration he’s had with so many novice hunters. I want to recoil but gently go along, like I always do.
He wants a photo. “Hold the feathers up,” he says. And I do. I hold the fanned feathers up to see if I feel any of that pride or accomplishment running through my fingertips. I feel none.
The age and size of a gobbler are judged by an odd tuft of bristles extending from its chest that is referred to as the beard. The beard — the life — is several inches long.
Zombie-like, I ride back down the mountain. Shawn parks near the shed used for cleaning and gutting; it’s mainly an enclosed slab of concrete with a drain in the center, an aboveground dungeon. I am cosmically obligated to take part in the butchering. As I fanned the feathers back on the hill I felt nothing, but as I peel back the skin I feel the warmth of the body. Stretching the feathers across the gobbler’s chest, the heat of its life is as real and immeasurable as anything I’ve ever experienced.
I’ve stopped breathing, but my hands continue to do the work. I have prepared a cooler for the flight home, having checked with airlines on regulations. They’ll permit only a few ounces of dry ice, so I have to fill it in with convenience-store cubes. I methodically pack it, triple-check the seal in case I have to tilt it to fit into the overhead compartment on the plane. I quickly pack my clothes and pay my bill and thank everyone for the hospitality.
On my way out, Pops jumps up. “Hey, where are you going? You almost forgot the beard,” he says, plucking it off the kitchen counter. “People hunt their whole lives for a beard like this.”
“Thanks, thanks,” I say, snatching it out of his hands.
It’s a meandering ride back toward civilization. One eye on the twists of the country road, the other on the sealed turkey. Closing in on the airport, I pull over. People are kayaking on a stretch of water. I have the wispy beard in my hand and nestle it among a bed of leaves. The meat will be eaten, the tale will be told, but there will be no souvenirs, no trophies. Not for this hunter.
When I reach the security checkpoint at Reagan National Airport, I throw my keys, sunglasses and cellphone into the little basket beside my carry-on and take my place on the other side of the conveyor belt. But something is very wrong now, because my turkey, which I put onto the conveyor belt, has disappeared.
Then my newly sensitive peripheral vision zooms in on a lively discussion going on to the far left, lots of shrugging and gathering of more officers. Still, no sign of my cooler. Then ...
“Who belongs to this?” a stout security agent shouts. Later, I will appreciate that distinction. I do belong to this poultry now, not the other way around.
I raise my hand and am directed around to the other side. There are three officers huddled, and when the tallest of the bunch tilts his broad shoulders I see it. Up on the screen, glowing with a golden hue, as if it’s already been cooked to perfection. I start to laugh, but all I’m getting is serious faces. “Sir, can you explain what this is, please?” One agent has now moved behind me.
What else could it possibly be? I guess it’s that thing where if you’re not looking for it, the brain doesn’t go there. But come on!
“It’s a turkey.”
“A turkey?” the agents say, leaving the question hanging in the air as they tilt their heads, even though absolutely no head tilting is necessary.
The seal is broken, the lid lifts and one of the agents takes out what appears to be sterile tongs and begins poking at it.
“Easy,” I say.
“You hunt this yourself?”
I answer, and the agent looks me up and down.
“I’ll be,” she says.
The turkey’s legs are blue.
I was naive to think something I cooked up could ever look as good as it did on an X-ray screen.
There was an initial “Hey, he really did it!” and that-a-boyness to my returning home with a real turkey on ice. But as I’d feared, it immediately started to wane amid talk of how this wiry wild turkey might ruin Thanksgiving. Like Thanksgiving is that great anyway.
“Why are the legs blue?” my daughter says the second I lift the lid off the roaster to display the finished product.
And now my mother-in-law steps in to “save our Thanksgiving.”
While I am busy cleaning leaves out of the gutters, my mother-in-law homes in on a recipe in a blog she’s been following by some guy in Kentucky. She had mentioned that he hangs the turkey up in his barn, and I mumbled, “We don’t have a barn” and went on my way.
My turkey is overflowing with stuffing, but the entire bird is wrapped in bacon now. It looks like a novelty act.
Still, it’s center ring, the main event.
Seconds before we sit down to eat, my mother-in-law brings out a baggie, holds it up and says, “Look what I found.” It’s the buckshot.
“How many times did you shoot this poor turkey?” my daughter asks. But I’m cutting that right off: “This succulent turkey, this bacon-wrapped turkey.” I raise a glass.
“If I get a piece of buckshot stuck in my teeth and then smoke a cigarette will my mouth explode?” my daughter asks.
“That’s a stupid question.”
“Do you think wild turkeys have a wishbone?” I ask to change the subject.
“That’s a stupid question.”
I take a bite of the turkey to savor this adventurous experiment for myself. As I chew, there’s no way for anyone to tell what I think. Delicious or god awful? They can’t judge my expression. Not with this stupid, self-inflicted smirk on my face.
T.M. Shine is a frequent contributor to the
magazine. For additional turkey excerpts and a preview of his new novel, “Dear Sarah,” visit TMShineStreet.blogspot.com.To comment on this essay, email email@example.com or visit washingtonpost.com/magazine.
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