Walkabout

Squirrel, by Bob Kuhn (courtesy of Remington Arms)

Squirrels on the brain. With Brimstone and Redemption on each shoulder.

[by Rusty Ward]

WALKABOUT. The word comes to us shrouded in Aboriginal mysticism that, for materialistic westerners, remains obscure. Credit Crocodile Dundee for giving us a version that cut straight into my psyche with the keenness of a good Hemingway line. Dundee’s take, adapted from the online Urban Dictionary, goes something like this: “A spontaneous journey through the wilderness of one’s choosing . . . a need to be elsewhere . . . you can’t quite touch it, so you have to go find it because you just know it’s there . . . or maybe it just feels good to go walking around.” And with a mischievous wink that won the heart of his blond costar in the movie and in real life, Dundee closes with “Yeah. It’s walkabout.”

I’d been doing this all my life. Professionally, I’d logged a thousand miles walking Alabama’s back country, refining geologic maps. But that wasn’t enough, and when summer heat closed out the mapping season, I headed to our hunting lease on Limestone Creek with field guides and binoculars.

By worldly standards I gained little from these excursions, but by my own accounting the treasures piled up. I learned the trees by leaf and bark, and watched the seasonal progression of wildflowers carpet the floodplain. I knew which butterflies emerged first, from the solitary mourning cloaks to the early explosion of falcate orangetips that moved over the forest floor in waves one day and were gone the next. Colorful orb weavers, repairing webs torn by night-fluttering moths, taught me quiet patience. Once, after waiting out a summer storm, I saw a patch of dappled sunlight stand and wobble nervously through the electrified mist. Ahead, the dappled fawn’s mother waited in the shadows, unseen until an ear twitched. Everyone seemed to approve of my adventures, but I knew no one else who went to the woods just to go, and I had no name for it until I first heard Crocodile Dundee say “walkabout.”

The very best walkabouts began in October and extended through February, and always involved rifles. Because I’d have a better chance of outrunning a cheetah than sneaking up on a deer, walkabout hunting meant one thing: tiptoeing—pussyfooting, as my dad used to call it—through the squirrel woods.

The February sun was high when I pulled off the dirt track overlooking Limestone Creek. Shrugging into my vest, I dumped a box of Long Rifle hollow points into an empty pocket, then slid free my favorite walkabout rifle, an old Marlin Mountie. For those too young to remember, the Mountie was a variation of Marlin’s long-lived Model 39 series of lever-action .22s. It wears a stiff 20-inch barrel, a straight-grip stock, and a slender fore-end. I bought it in the late 1980s, justifying it to my wife (who knew better) as the perfect beginner’s gun for our daughter. She did actually shoot it a few times before deciding she had better things to do, and I offered to keep it for her until she wanted it back. Liking its iron-sighted carry, I replaced the gold bead with the smallest white bead I could see in the dark woods and screwed an old Redfield aperture sight to the receiver. When declining vision forced a scope, I attached an ancient Lyman Alaskan to preserve the rifle’s slim profile before settling on a Leupold 1–4X variable as a better compromise between handiness and precise aiming. Barely a yard long, but with enough heft for steady holding, the Marlin hangs unnoticed from my shoulder until I need it.

I entered the woods at 10 in the morning, blasphemy for a squirrel hunter, but if I were really squirrel hunting, I’d have been there at dawn, carrying my Kimber bolt gun, which can arc a .22 into a squirrel at eye-popping distances. But this was walkabout, a spontaneous journey through a wilderness of one’s own choosing, and it was the choosing part that got me into trouble.

All sin begins with temptation. Standing on the property line idly scanning the far trees, I spotted a squirrel watching me from the forbidden zone. I gaffed the angel off my right shoulder and embraced the tempter on the left; using the property line tree as a rest, my walkabout turned a shade darker.

Stiff from the ride down, I teetered into the woods and was surprised to see a late-rising fox squirrel sunning on a cypress limb. He hadn’t seen me, and was close enough for an offhand shot, but a rifle-prop tree a few steps away would make it a sure thing. Moving at a slow drip, I made the tree only to find the cypress limb empty and the squirrel tearing downstream in a scatter of flying leaves. It was a small misjudgment, but it planted the twin seeds of regret and desire, having blown my chance to kick off the squirrel hunt that my walkabout was becoming with a trophy fox squirrel.

Moving down the creek, I came a little too quickly to the edge of our property. The adjacent owner had selectively cut his strip of woods, leaving a scattering of seed oaks towering above new-growth understory—catnip, to squirrels. Many times I had leaned against the boundary tree listening to squirrels by the thousands mewl and chirr on the other side, but property lines are property lines, and I always turned back. Once, I arranged to meet the squirrel palace’s landlord to request one-time walkabout rights during the spring bird migration. A model of southern graciousness, he granted permission with a smile and a flourish.

All sin begins with temptation. Standing on the property line idly scanning the far trees, I spotted a squirrel watching me from the forbidden zone. I gaffed the angel off my right shoulder and embraced the tempter on the left; using the property line tree as a rest, my walkabout turned a shade darker. My retrieve took me 30 steps into our neighbor’s property, and my heart raced with the thrill of illicit adventure. On cue, another squirrel scampered up a tree farther in. A quick shot, and I had good reason to advance 30 more yards when another squirrel hopped onto the trunk of a sentinel oak, lashing and scolding. Excited, I sent the shot wide. The squirrel held its ground, and with a flick of the Marlin’s lever and a steadier aim, squirrel number 3 joined number 2, banishing all thoughts of property lines and propriety.

Sometimes the choices we make are rooted more deeply than we like to think. Having just struggled through The Divine Comedy, one of the most inspired literary walkabouts ever, I must have been predisposed to see parallels, especially regarding the choices we make and their consequences.