On Friday morning, the morning I
should have been hunting Cape buffalo with a double rifle, we drove up into the mountains.
Eileen writes game cookbooks, and this year shed been assigned one on upland birds.
Supposedly we drove up high to look for forest grouse, and indeed we found one. We parked
near a stand of quaking aspens at the base of a long ridge, unloaded the dog and loaded
our shotguns and began meandering around the trees. Soon a ruffed grouse whirred up from
the edge of the aspens, into the blue shadows beneath tall spruce, and the right barrel of
my 16-gauge double brought it down. The dog ran over and brought it to us, and Eileen
stroked the warm bird, its feathers colored like the muted hues of the forest: gray and
black and a rich red-brown. I dont think she even thought about anything while
touching the bird. I know I did not. Instead we just felt.
Driving back down the mountain, I
remembered the airport in Salt Lake City, how as everything finally sunk into our
collective travellers consciousness an odd calm came over everybody. There were long
lines to stand in, none of the car agencies would rent a one-way to anybody, and most of
us were far from home or anyplace else we wanted to be. Yet no self-important businessman
threw a fit, nobody tried to push his way to the head of the line, and everybody said
please and thank you. While walking down to the baggage area I saw somebody hang up a pay
phone. I stepped over and had just picked up the receiver when it became apparent a nearby
woman had been waiting for the phone. Sorry, I said, and handed it to her. She
smiled - quite sadly, but she smiled. It was unlike any airport Ive been in, and Ive
been in more than a few.
I remembered another airport, the
central European hub in Frankfurt, Germany. Eileen and I landed there a few years ago, on
our way to a hunt in the Czech Republic, not long after Germany unified and a terrorists
bomb had gone off in the Frankfurt airport. That airport felt vaguely like the one in Salt
Lake. The fright was there, but not the caring. Instead we were cattle to be prodded and
patted down and shoved from one gate to another. Soldiers with automatic
rifles at the ready stood in every concourse, in every restaurant, near
every line. You did not step away from your luggage, even to pick up a salt shaker at the
next table. People did not smile, even sadly. It was so different from America.
Or at least the America we knew
before September 11. America has always seen itself as moving ever upward, despite the
constant problems of all of humanity. This constant upward striving is so good in many
ways. Its brought us comforts and medicine and freedoms unknown to much of the rest
of the world, and a generosity to the rest of that world. No other country gives so much
of its material wealth to other countries or volunteers to help when disasters and wars
strike beyond our borders.
But this generous America also
suffers from the other side of wealth: greed and selfishness. During the past 20-odd years
weve come to expect more and more for ourselves: bigger houses, more cars, personal
computers, giant TVs.
The hunting world is not immune.
During the boom of the 1990s, many of us acquired more and fancier hunting rifles and went
on more expensive and high-status hunting trips. During the 90s the price of an average
Dall sheep hunt in Alaska nearly doubled, to almost $10,000, and my part of Montana was
invaded by yuppie refugees, whose main worry seems to be how nice an English shotgun they
Im as guilty - or free - as
anyone. My own collection of sporting arms would seem enormous to the hunting friends Ive
made in places like the Czech Republic, Namibia and even Norway, which has the second
highest standard of living in Europe. And yet my own hunting guns are far fewer and much
cheaper than those of some of my friends.
All this well-being eventually
seemed to divide America, rather than make us grateful. We started calling each other
names, started dividing up the spoils into ours and theirs. Again,
hunters were not immune. Some of us started thinking ourselves superior humans because of
the rifles we bought or trophies we shot.
All that seems pretty trivial now. Ive
had two separate Cape buffalo hunts fall apart in the past few years, both due to
circumstances beyond my control. Would I like to hunt Cape buffalo someday? Yes. Will my
life be incomplete if it never happens? No. Ive seen enough of the rest of the
planet to know that Americans are the luckiest people on earth. Even if our lives shrink
somewhat because of what happened on September 11, we will still be the luckiest people on
earth and perhaps a trifle more united and polite. Which is why a ruffed grouse seemed an
entirely adequate substitution for a Cape buffalo. Maybe even better.