3:54 Am. Monday, December 27th.
Darkness on the highway.
I start up my Toyota Tacoma 4x4 and I set off on the 150 mile trip from South Jersey to some land on the Eastern Shore of Maryland that I bought a few years ago. Its 31 acres of marsh land on a small river that is filled with ducks and geese and bald eagles and Sika deer and it is a damn nice place. I am not in a hurry. I always enjoy this ride. Early morning driving is my favorite time to clear my head. With hot coffee in my thermos and my favorite country music playlist on the stereo , I am happy.
With my son sleeping in the back with the old dog and the young dog in the passenger seat next to me, everyone is asleep and from the looks of it, very content.
All in the truck understand the routine: Dad gets us into the car, we sleep for a few hours and when we awake, it is time to hunt.
I am responsible for all of them and their faith in me is something that I take very seriously. This thought hits me hard when I am driving and I feel a sense of pride that they all love me and trust me so much. I get emotional about only a few things, family and dogs being two of them. And when some sad country music is playing and its dark outside and the highway lights are illuminating this lonely road, and I look at them all sleeping, this realization never fails to make me tear up.
I turn off of highway 95 onto Route One and into the beginning of Delaware’s Eastern Shore.
To the right and left, massive farms are brightened by the full moon, farms that grow corn and soybean and hay. This time of year, though, many of the farms are ready for goose hunting, a big deal in these parts. Hunters pay upwards of 5,000 dollars a season to rent a blind on some of these farms.
In the daylight, one can see the blinds in the middle of the fields, many of them underground “pit blinds” where the hunters hide until the geese get close enough to shoot.
I come upon small towns where the speed limit drops off to 25 awfully fast so that the police in these towns can fill their ticket quotas. I have to admit that I do take some kind of perverse joy when a fancy car that sped by me a ways back gets pulled over when they are unaware of the speed traps. Serves him right, I say to no one in particular.
The highway is dotted with other signs that you have now entered a different place, an era that is gone from most of the rest of the country. Convenience stores with neon signs advertising cheap cigarettes at the “lowest allowed by law”, prices.
Single wide trailers and small houses, some with lights on inside, some completely dark, some with television sets on, visible through the front window. Cars and trucks parked on the front lawn, broken down swing sets and overturned buckets by the front door for sitting on. A few honky tonk bars with neon signs , some only halfway lit up. Some guys and girls standing outside one of those bars, smoking. Their night is ending, my day is just beginning. After many nights like those in my life, I am glad to be going hunting, not waking up feeling hungover from drinking and lack of sleep. Hell, hunting keeps me on the straight and narrow.
How many years have I taken part in this ritual that I love so much? Over thirty years, and it never gets old. Each year when hunting season rolls around, I am like an excited child on Christmas Eve, anticipating the next morning’s presents.
I pull into a convenience store to get gas and coffee. The coffee here is not half bad, I have been here many times over the years. This is around the halfway point of my trip and is also usually the point where my bladder is feeling like it will explode from all the coffee that I have consumed and I feel an urgent need to stop.
This store sells pretty much all that I need in life: ammo, guns, bait, Copenhagen snuff, coffee and it even has a deli. The sign outside actually reads, “Guns, Bait, Ice Cold Beer, Ammo”, and I am delighted that places such as these still exist.
I smile at the young girl making the fresh pot of coffee as I wait with my small silver travel thermos in my hand. The girl is around five foot three, slightly overweight. Her brown hair has a streak of purple running through it and she has it pulled back in a pony tail. There is a tattoo of a rose on her left forearm and another tattoo behind her right ear with some writing on it that I can’t quite make out. I notice her fingernails. They have chipped purple polish on them and they look as though they could use a new coating. She is dressed in a blue and white uniform and the shirt has a name tag on her left breast pocket that reads “Jennifer”. She looks happy, and in my head, I am guessing that her age is around eighteen. Smiling back at me, she asks if I am going hunting and when I answer yes, asks what I am going for today. I say ducks and she tells me how her father loved duck hunting and always talked about how he was going to take her with him when she got old enough, but he died last summer and he never did get to take her. I feel tremendously sad when she tells me this, and I really don’t know what to say back to her. Finally, I say I am so sorry. Thanks, she says, and then after a brief moment where we look at each other in silence, I nod at her awkwardly and move along.
As I am screwing the lid back on my cup, I wonder what her life is like, what her house is like, what she does everyday besides working here. I imagine her standing outside of a small house on the roadside just getting off of work, smoking a cigarette and watching the cars pass by.
I exit the store and glance at my truck, parked at the gas pump where I was filling up. The young dog is sitting in the driver’s seat and is looking my way. Most likely she has been watching the store to catch a glimpse of me, making sure that I am okay, feeling though I am her responsibility. I can tell when she notices that it is me, her head rises a few inches in recognition and her tail slaps against the steering wheel with excitement.
I open the door to the truck and tell her to move over. She is content now that I have returned to her, and she circles one time in place and lies down. The dogs worry about me, They believe that they must take care of me, not the other way around.
I begin to pull away to resume my journey but before I do, I look into the store at Jennifer. She is watching me, also. I wave at her and smile and she waves back and smiles and then I get back onto the highway.