Well, There’s Always Next Season--Maybe

<i> T. Jefferson Parker is a novelist and writer who lives in Orange County. His column appears in OC Live! the first three Thursdays of every month. </i>

The last day of the quail hunting season came and went at the end of the month, a passage duly noted by the handful of Orange Countians still interested in upland game hunting, and, of course, by their bird dogs.

My brother and I loaded up the truck, Cassius the one-eyed Labrador blundered into the back seat, and off we took for quail country, a two-hour drive from Laguna. The sky was a little cloudy at sunup, in apparent contradiction to the weatherman’s prediction of strong Santa Ana winds all day. We were pleased by this, because the birds are extra hard to find on a windy day; dogs have a tough time smelling them, and if you are lucky enough to come across a covey they much prefer to run away--invisibly scurrying through the brush--rather than take to the perilous sky.

At the end of a season, be it skiing, football, autumn or holiday, the enthusiast feels an odd serenity creeping in, a sense of closure, and certainly loss. Time’s big season-hand is just about to cross the 12 again. There you are, faced with one last opportunity to get it right, maybe to atone for all the mistakes you’ve made until now, braid the loose strings of a few month’s time together in a rope that secures something of history, accomplishment, or at least enjoyment.


There’s also that nagging reminder that you won’t necessarily--for reasons often quite outside your direct control--be here by the beginning of next season to begin it all again. “It would be a shame for me to miss this,” you think. You try not to get going too fast in this direction, lest true melancholy set in. It’s poor form to get prematurely elegiac.

But, heading out toward the hunting grounds, I watched the familiar landmarks passing outside the windshield--the fruit stand just south of Temecula, the big oak at the bend of Highway 79 a few miles past it, the pastures already emerald with new grass for the thoroughbreds, the cattle standing fatly by the roadside and viewing me back with profound disinterest--and hoped more than a little to be making this same drive Oct. 15, when the season opens. I vowed to avoid personal tragedy until then, a resolution that, by the definition of tragedy, rarely works.

By the time we got to our first of three huntable areas--secret spots revealed to me by a man who has known me longer than I’ve known myself (he and his wife baby-sat me as an infant)--the wind was strong and our hopes for a good day were blowing away in it. The air was cold enough to sting your hands and face. We surveyed the land with the speculative air of economists, prognosticating where, logically, the birds might be.

But wild things tend to ignore logic in favor of survival, which is why they are still alive, so we simply set off up the hillside, bound for the gentle, cactus-heavy meadows where the birds will sometimes feed. These first few hundred yards, so rich with the possibility of finding birds, always go by as a kind of slow-motion, adrenalin-charged satori in which the potential of the hunt is as vast as the country around you, and as close as the cholla spines brushing past your ankles.

Anything can happen.

By this time we reached the top of the first ridge. Puffing hard, breaking sweat, birdless, it began to dawn on us that this in fact might turn out to be one very long day. We stopped. Cassius, hellbent as usual on getting a bird in his mouth, looked hopefully at me for guidance. Poor dog. It was a high-road/low-road decision. In the spirit of democracy we took a middle course, with Cassius weaving out ahead of us and pausing only occasionally to choke down huge mouthfuls of snow and look back at us with his one great beautiful eye.

We were fast marking the end of Cassius’ fourth full season, a time during which he had retrieved enough birds to qualify, in the eyes of purists, as a “bird dog.” He has made some fine improvements over these years, learning to work in closer, obey hand signals, use his nose instead of his legs to locate his quarry. A few weeks earlier, he had located a downed bird caught eight feet up in a manzanita tree (in a high wind, no less!), a feat of which I will be eternally proud and he has probably already forgotten.


But he has also developed a kind of schizophrenia, during bouts of which he will disappear for minutes at a time to flush birds from impossibly dense cover, ignore the whistle, disdain hand signals and generally make an obnoxious dolt of himself. I’ve noticed that these relapses often coincide with poor outdoorsmanship on my own part--taking bad shots, not taking good ones, working a covey stupidly, watching the sky fill with escaping birds while urinating behind a bush. There is much room for improvement in both of us.

We hiked for two hours and didn’t so much as hear a quail. The wind blasted us into near deafness, which may have had something to do with it. At this point, the mind inevitably begins to wander, an altogether pleasant experience.

I looked out to the distant mountains and nearer hills, noted encroachment of homes and trailers, and realized that by the end of the decade we probably won’t be able to hunt this land any more.

So be it.

I thought about our County of Orange, so plagued of late by violence, catastrophe and confusion. Can consumerism evolve into citizenship? When?

At 40, you suddenly realize that many of the Earth’s people are younger than you are, and how much better they are at doing what you like to do. I thought about watching the boys’ tennis class on Monday nights at the high school, the easy grace, skill and joy they bring to the game. I thought about shooting a round of skeet recently with a young girl who scored a perfect 25, and smiled at me through her braces as she walked off the range and said, “I’m not new to this.” I thought about this other girl I saw riding a horse a few days back, this plump cherub a study in natural harmony upon a 2,000-pound animal. It’s immensely reassuring to know that lots of young people are already more accomplished than you’ll ever be. It has nothing to do with hope, or with the future. They are reality; they are here.

We returned to the truck for food and water. The wind was stronger now, shivering the stout cactus and raising dirt devils on the road. We drove a few minutes to a new spot and commenced our march across the meadow.


Clearly, the season was ending, right before our squinting eyes. For reasons not clear, I thought back to the night before when I’d sat in bed and listened to the wind chimes my sister gave me when my wife died, and remembered the note she’d given me with the chimes, something to the effect that “when you hear these moving in a breeze, know it’s Cat come back for a visit,” and sure enough, that night the chimes sounded and the patio door eased open, then shut again, as if someone had just come in, and though I do not believe in ghosts or in visitations by the dead, I will admit that a calm and a contentment came over me for a while after that and these were not feelings I had had in a long time.

At the end of a season, memories hit hard.

Rounding a dense stand of manzanita, I heard in the distance the telltale whir of bird wings, and saw two quail lifting fast from the scrub. They were out of range for a person of my skill. But I shot anyway, two times, what might be called “prayers,” and prayers is just what they were, gestures directed toward the infinite. The birds swept up and away and safely over the rise.

Heading back to the truck a few minutes later I hoped that those birds would be here next year, and that I would, too. Given the grand scheme of things, neither is guaranteed nor crucial.

The only thing I was sure of is that the end of one season enables the beginning of the next.