Life in a Bowl of Gravy

Years later, there was a camp house at the edge of a river swamp. Here Willard shepherded me and various college buddies, Mike among them, through autumn weekends. We brought only staples to camp, counting on our skill as hunters to provide meat. Willard, patient and sympathetic but aware of our limitations, might venture out at dusk to collect an insurance squirrel in case we hunted to our abilities instead of our expectations. By nightfall, the meat would be simmering in a dark brown gravy of wonderful, constant flavor. No food brings a quicker eye-roll to 21st-century foodies than simple gravy made from pan scrapings, flour, and water, brought to life with a sprinkle of salt and pepper; yet it had become a binding agent connecting memorable slices of my still-young life.

In addition to hunting, I read, gravitating to protagonists who left civilization behind and lived a frontiersman’s life in the stamp of Dan’l and Davy. Misled by the title, I struggled cross-eyed through Emerson’s lofty essay “Self-Reliance,” but gained a little traction when I staggered off to Walden Pond with his buddy, and warmed through the successive personas of Cooper’s backwoods hero. In Vardis Fisher’s Mountain Man, I struck placer gold, and when the 1972 film adaptation, Jeremiah Johnson, hit the big screen in square-jawed Technicolor, it was the mother lode. Mesmerized by the harsh, solitary, self-reliant, and hopelessly romantic life of the mountain man, I imagined myself forsaking life here below and living in the high lonesome, coming down only to sell plews and replenish possibles. And in a small way I did—sort of. During semester break, a group of geology professors and students who shared similar mountain man fantasies traveled west to roam the Rocky Mountains. We lived by Kwik Mart and gas station instead of Hawken gun and pack mule, but the mind weaves its own realities, and these mountain interludes kept alive my sputtering dream of living wild and free.

MIKE KILLED HIS FIRST BUCK AT OUR RIVER SWAMP CAMP, emptying his A5 twice before the deer succumbed to the accumulated weight of buckshot. Shooting deer with buckshot was kind of like shooting pigeons with BBs. There was no room for error. As fledgling mountain men, we were not about to call on Willard and his Willys M38 to get our prize back to camp. Instead, we field-dressed the buck with outsized Bowies, then used them to hack down a sizable tree. Absent a rope, we tied the buck to the tree with our belts and poled it out on our shoulders. Mike said he had seen it done that way in a book that we later decided must have been a torturer’s manual. With the swinging weight of the buck and our long wheel base, the tree cut grooves into our shoulders that can still be seen in a certain slant of light. At the end of our ordeal, Willard politely declined our offered Bowies and skinned the buck with his pocketknife, then carved away a backstrap. In the kitchen, he tenderized the sliced meat with a claw hammer and browned it in a dusting of flour. The cabin soon filled with the rich, familiar aroma, and closing my eyes, I was in Louise’s kitchen again over a kettle of succulent meat honorably acquired. The mountain men called it their winter meat. Later, Aldo Leopold would call it his “meat from God.” Sitting in the warm kitchen with Mike and my father, surrounded by woods I already thought of as timeless under the cold swirl of winter stars, everything seemed perfectly right. In Jeremiah’s mountain man speak, “You couldn’t go no better.”

Time eventually took Willard and Mary Virginia, as well as my Rocky Mountain excursions. The river-swamp camp was also long gone, and with my regular day job, wife and new baby, mortgage and two cars, the self-reliant mountain man persona had dwindled to a splinter. I was beginning to see that being a fantasy mountain man was fine because at day’s end, you could return to hearth and family; being a real mountain man must have been very lonely. Maybe I wasn’t cut out for it after all, but I wasn’t ready to turn my ideal completely out to pasture.

I wound up in a camp with Mike, Greg, and David on the out-of-place Black Belt prairies that arc across Central Alabama. There I drew unwanted attention by walking farther than necessary to get to my stands, making meat with self-poured bullets, dragging my deer by stick and rope as four-wheelers buzzed angrily past, and doing my own skinning and butchering. This was in quiet defiance of the camp norm, which was to haul deer from field to processor and get back as quickly as possible to cold libations by the fire. My new friends, except for Mike, viewed these antics as primitive and unnecessary torture. I saw them as the last sputtering embers of my childhood dream.

Not too many seasons ago, when everyone showed up the night before the September dove opener, I had a Dutch oven of venison steak and gravy ready to ladle over hot biscuits. Mike alone knew the history behind the meal and launched into a soliloquy of our early days at the river-swamp camp, of his first deer, and how the backstrap gravy Willard had made for us was the best thing he had ever eaten. And that night the old tradition was born anew on the Alabama prairie. Every bird season since has kicked off with a feast of last year’s venison, steeped in gravy. Next day, we unlimbered our shotguns and set about accumulating enough birds for a season-ending repeat over a cauldron of doves.

Though I sometimes roam the old mountain coverts in my imagination, they now seem cold and remote, far removed from the things I hold close. Our cozy home is infinitely preferable to a snow-bound cabin surrounded by wind and grizz, and family is the bright center of a universe that still seems pretty entropic. Solitude is now a tonic taken in very small doses. The books have piled high with the years, and I continue to seek like minds between their covers. In Faulkner’s Big Woods stories, I found the river swamp and the prairie perfectly rendered. He described such places as “the kind of world God would have created to live and walk in if He had been a man.” And sometimes like minds appeared in surprising places.

Martin Buber, an Israeli philosopher who lived and wrote in the first half of the 20th century, wasn’t a hunter and, I think, harbored no mountain man inclinations. He did, however, treasure solitude and reading early on, but late in life he would write, and I paraphrase, “I do indeed close my door at times and succumb to a book . . . but only because I can open it again and see a human being looking at me . . . and I shall die without books but with another human hand in my own.” Even Jeremiah was happiest when his solitary life was tempered by a wife and son. Truth comes at you slow, then fast.

THE SUN DECLINED TOWARD ANOTHER SEPTEMBER, and I sat at the edge of Greg’s dove field under a cobalt sky. Wisps of cirrus streaked the western horizon, accented by twin sun dogs. The new wheat and cedars shone lime and emerald, and the hardwoods flashed in Poe’s “autumn tint of gold.” Brueghel painted timeless sunsets and Bierstadt shining mountains, but seeing Alabama’s shouldn’t-be-there prairie blazing in autumn’s last bloom under the watchful gaze of the sun dogs, I felt I had the best of it. Easing my stool back into the tall grass, I slipped a pair of pressure-appropriate shells into my old double’s chambers. Willard, I think, would have considered the Parker as extravagant as my stag-handled Bowie, but I never tire of its engraved receiver, the enigmatic spiral of its twist barrels, and the coffee and cream roils in the stock. In my imagination I can see the old craftsman who composed it at his bench, refining its steel and walnut into an extension of a bird hunter’s soul. That the gun left the Meriden factory in the 1890s, a time when a few grizzled mountain men still roamed the Rockies, doesn’t hurt either.

Nothing for a while except the sun dogs and a few lonely jet trails. Then came a whistle of wings, and the season’s first dove was in a flat spin, trailing feathers as it helicoptered into the wheat, much like that first head-shot pigeon had spun out of an eave and into Old Louise’s stewpot those vanished decades ago.

At the shot, an armada of doves erupted from a stand of cedars along the far end of Greg’s field. As a younger man, he had enjoyed many adventures and, I think, hadn’t squandered any time reading Voltaire. It seemed to me that Greg, like Candide at the end of his adventures, had found his garden and enjoyed its tending. Wearing serenity’s smile and with the wind ruffling his gray curls, he kept the summer grass in check around camp and lovingly tilled in the seeds that kept the local doves content. Judging from the whistling wings, he had cultivated his garden well this year. Picking up my bird, I felt the last of my would-be mountain man fantasies slip beneath the waves, and I nudged the tortoise forward into a new season that, I hoped, would be awash in gravy.

Rusty lives with his family in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, near the foothills of the once mighty Appalachians.