The Road Traveled


Imagine it’s two o’clock in the morning and you’re somewhere on the east side of Kansas City heading west. Road exhaustion has taken over your incessant ingestion of caffeinated drinks, lowering you into such a somnambulistic state that the thought of the world behind is only a distant memory; the lights of the city linger in your eyes like the trail of a satellite entering the atmosphere. But there is still hope because some kind of not-too-distant future lies just beyond the myriad of bright city lights. Then you finally pass through the quiet city into Nebraska, anticipating a chance at a Merriam’s by sunrise, and perhaps a Rio or maybe a mixture of the two.

I’ve never figured out why we tend to drive through the night. It’s the same thing every year: rush hour in Nashville, first cup of coffee in St. Louis, cussing ourselves by Kansas City. This series of events accompanies not only our trip in the spring, but also our trip to the Dakotas in the fall. Yet the general and obvious notion of taking two days to get there when you can drive straight through has never occurred to me. Why waste valuable time and money on a hotel room when the sleeping bag in the back has always provided the same comfort?

And it’s never the same route or the quickest. How about I-70 on to Hays, Kansas, and then north on two lanes from there? Or maybe get off of this damn I-80 to Burchard, Nebraska, and see if that old school house where we used to stay is still there? The back roads are always a good idea until after the decision is made and we should have arrived hours ago. When you’re in the car for more than a day, you start to get testy.

On the other hand, what is the point of being in a hurry when you have 10 days to get there, hunt, and then head home? One of your best friends rides shotgun and the other is waiting at the end of his driveway for your arrival. The balmy air has been your tailwind for hundreds of miles and will undoubtedly meet the flinty chill still lingering in the Midwest. It’s surefire tornado weather, and there’s the possibility of some hot birds responding to the call.

On into Kearney we coast on fumes. A stop for gas, beer, and ice and then thankfully the last long mile to the house on the dirt road that will be home base for the next week and a half. And just in time, too, as the speedometer has ceased to work and the right front tire seems a bit splashy. The anticipation of a joyful reunion is always just as exhilarating as the broad fan and a throaty gobble that you can feel in your chest. Hunting with good friends, especially turkey hunting with friends, has become a catalyst for my strong desire to chase these weary creatures. Way past boredom and frustration, my proclivity to turkey hunt is almost too strong. My good intentions fall like a house of cards when I hear a distant gobble or see a tom strut through the field outside of my office window. It is my good and bad luck to spend the majority of the spring on a farm in southern Tennessee.

For now, my mind’s eye will carry me the 900 or so miles and the inevitable 16 hours to the bottoms of the Republican River in Harlan County. A few years back we encountered the hottest gobbler in the state of Nebraska, hell maybe the Midwestern United States. A hundred times or more he must have gobbled until he rounded a small hill 10 steps in front of us—not the best setup. The pattern on an extra-full choke doesn’t have much of a chance at that distance. Of course, what you’re shooting at doesn’t either if you only make minimal contact. The report of Lyle’s Mossberg sent that turkey running, the flying, then running again for miles and miles. You can see forever in those parts. That tugged on our heartstrings like the distant tornadoes that ripped up the dried cornfields. Even at a range of 20 miles, the pull of the storm in the swirling air was enough to make you consider the strength of Mother Nature.

And like the finicky birds they are, the turkeys have a tendency to slink off into nothingness where they’ll never be found by the most experienced hunter. All you can ever do is try.

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