Tennessee, Tennessee, there ain’t no place I’d rather be,
Baby won’t you carry me back to Tennessee.
My family owns a small farm in south-central Tennessee. It’s the doctor of my soul, the healer of my spirit, and the inspiration for many of the life experiences and memories I put on paper. It is my little piece of heaven.
I have, for better and worse, lived away from home for the majority of the past decade. School took me away once, then a calling to see the West, school again, and then a full-time career that wasn’t located close to Tennessee. But the miles apart and the enduring love of the road have never dimmed the flame of fall and a long-standing tradition–that of the Rocky Top Dove Hunt.
Each year friends and family gather at our little isolated haven to celebrate everlasting camaraderie and a glance into autumn’s long-awaited dominion. We usually have a good shoot, yes, but that is only one pixel in the whole photograph.
It all begins when my tires touch gravel to what is the entranceway to the property. Like checking your guns at the door or wiping your muddy feet, I leave all concerns, problems and stress on the hard top. They dissipate with the dust in my wake as feelings of what it’s like to be a boy again begin to arise from deep within. My heart rate increases a couple of clicks, my mind is at ease, and I drive a little faster and play my music a little louder just for the hell of it.
As I turn on to the driveway that leads to the house I pull back on the reigns a bit. My parents’ four Brittany spaniels are apt to meet a vehicle halfway down, jumping at the car window to get a better look at the driver. Even now, I see my mother’s silhouette in the floodlight, hands on her hips, yelling for the dogs to heel. But I know they won’t, so I creep along, the need to hurry long gone.
My best friend Lyle is there too, along with my uncle who has driven down from Kentucky, and of course my dad.
“It’s about time, Jeremiah,” he says as I nearly stumble from my truck onto locked knees.
“I done my best to get here, Dale Gue,” I say wryly.
And then I am surrounded by the warmth and love and the culmination of years away is forever extinguished, if only for a week. It’s the wake before the storm that is always my favorite–the quiet I spend with those I hold so dearly before the big hunt on Sunday. For now, for this Friday night, I will drink in every moment.
College football kicks off on Saturday. More friends begin to trickle in and we alter our positions between the TV, the skeet thrower, and the coolness of the Elk River. Ever sat in a cold river with a fishing pole on a hot day?
Saturday evening, as the heat begins to break with the setting sun, we approach the climax of the whole event–putting the pig on the smoker. By now a fair crowd has gathered as we layer the embers of a smoldering fire evenly in the bottom of the pit. We say a few words, secure the top and a shot glass, and toast our fortune with a sip of Tennessee’s finest. Hues of orange and grapefruit-pink linger in the sky as we challenge each other to stay up all night with the pig to ensure its timely deliverance to the supper table the following evening.
But by sunrise, the day of the hunt, two of us remain–Lyle and myself. Others have come and gone throughout the night, my dad consistently on the hour. And I can hardly get down another sip of coffee as the three of us ride up to the dove field.
We sit on the hillside above the field, the sun masked through a dense thicket of fog. Birds begin to filter down to the wheat-laden earth in droves. My excitement may seem subdued at the prospect of a limit of doves, but it’s their presence that actually calms me, knowing our guests will have a good shoot. It’s funny how, overnight, they can make or break a hunt. I guess that’s the habit of migratory birds.
Next thing I know it’s afternoon and everyone has arrived. As many as 100 people stand around socializing–that’s what a dove hunt in the South really is, a social event. Of course, not every person in attendance will hunt. I will go to the field, but will walk from stand to stand, chatting with friends and acquaintances, shooting a bird here and there, but generally just making sure everyone is having a good time. Like I said, I’m home for a week and a new batch of these migratory birds are liable to appear at any given time.
After the hunt, we all congregate back at the house. I cannot begin to tell you, dear reader, of the spread of food laid out on picnic tables. The pig has been moved off the smoker and rests on an old door that lies across two sawhorses. Smoked chickens are on the table beside it and every Southern comfort dish next to that. My mother is still directing various other items to be set where she sees fit. Green bean casserole here, macaroni and cheese there, Please leave the banana pudding in the refrigerator just a big longer.
Grace is said and the women and children dive in first. I drift to the front porch with Lyle and we sit quietly, waiting for the line to clear and enjoying a few minutes of down time. Heat waves dance off the hill into the valley floor where they’ll lie until morning when the fog will carry them back up. The sun is setting on another good year, another great day, as Lyle and I continue to sit, just watching, listening, reminiscing, the moon rising beyond great body of the Cumberland Plateau lying just to the east… This, my friend, is the stuff of life.