Where We Live: Gone but never forgotten
And just like that, the season changed. One day gangs of gnats were trying to enter my ears while mosquitoes set their sights on my arms and back; the next day, trees had nearly lost their leaves and I was hastily pulling the air conditioner from the window.
Life, my friend Chuck says, is like a roll of toilet paper. Yep, quite the philosopher, he is. This is how he reasons it — when you start, it seems like there is plenty, and as it winds down, it goes very fast.
For me, fall arrives with a mix of anticipation and melancholy. It’s time to hunt, and it’s time to miss hunting buddies who have passed. I was doing some remodeling in my house, taking down pictures, and a certain deer painting made me very sad and grateful, causing me to remember a hunting friend long past (who gave me the painting).
Conrid Houghton — A true “houndsman” who finally let me tag along when the gang got together to hunt coyotes with hounds. We became very good friends. He also taught me to shoot a flintlock; I taught him to shoot a bow and arrow.
I’ll always remember hunting in Maine with Conrid and his grandson Troy on a day so cold that the trees were literally popping as they froze, in a sound akin to gunfire. Conrid appeared at my post, but first he had whistled an imitation of a certain birdsong (the white-throated warbler) to alert me to his approach. None of us who ever hunted with him ever pointed out how corny that whistle of his was; it was too precious of a thing. That cold day Conrid, Troy and I squished into the front seat of his old green Ford truck, which bumped side to side coming down the icy road like a luge sled. The windows fogged; we sang along with Randy Travis, “I’m Going to Love You Forever.”
And then Conrid got prostate cancer, which spread to his spine and brain. He kept practicing with the bow I’d found used for him (he was a lefty), but as he weakened, he had to turn down the draw weight poundage. Finally, he decided he wouldn’t be able to archery hunt that fall; he didn’t feel he’d be accurate enough. With his family’s help, he was able to rifle hunt that last season.
Conrid passed away in February, usually Maine’s coldest month. But the day of his funeral dawned sunny, with blue skies. I stepped outside my little cabin to have coffee on the deck, and that’s when I heard it, the corny bird song whistle. Yet the white-throated warblers were long gone from fall migration and wouldn’t return until spring.
I shook my head, listened, but didn’t hear it again. Days later, I was with the family one afternoon, and Conrid’s son Billy told me about something that happened to him on the morning of the funeral.
He said, “Remember that whistle he used to do?” and that’s as far as he got.
“I heard it, too,” I said. I guess Conrid wanted us all to know that he’d be with us, especially when we were outside doing the things we all loved.
One day that winter I took a long walk through the snowy woods. When I retraced my steps, I saw that a deer had shared my trail, walking right in my tracks for a time. It had left perfect tracks on top of mine. It made me remember all the things that are true in the woods, like the trees that barely touch above, while their roots are woven together.
Conrid and his family and friends shared a trail and knew the roots without speaking of them. In the snowy woods that day, I found tracks, beauty, peace and timelessness. And I learned one more thing that’s true in the woods. You don’t have to miss your hunting buddies. They are there.