By Will Weaver
Most of us have gone places, such as a grandparent's house or a cabin on a lake, where time moves differently. We do a lot of sitting around. At first we might wonder if our watch or cell phone clock has stopped working. We might have a sinking feeling of being stuck there forever. But gradually, something inside our brain slows down too. We start to notice things: how schools of minnows under the dock zig and zag together; how a fallen oak leaf looks like a hand with stubby fingers.
This is that kind of story. It's about being stuck in one place for a whole day when I was 14, a day when hardly anything happened. But I wouldn't have missed that day for the world.
It was the opening morning of deer season. My father and I stepped out of the house into black dark. No stars. He paused to puff out a breath, like a smoker exhaling, into the chilly November air. "South breeze," he said, "perfect for your stand."
I couldn't wait to get going. I had gotten my first deer last year, when I was 13, but this season was different. I had earned the right to hunt by myself. Well, not entirely by myself. But at least I wouldn't have to sit on a stand with my father, who would be just down the trail and over a hill.
We rode in the pickup a mile beyond our farm to my grandfather's big woods. My father extinguished the headlights well before we stopped. Getting out of the truck, I eased shut my door with a muffled click. I carefully uncased my rifle, then shouldered my canvas Duluth pack, which contained lunch for all day.
"Ready?" my father whispered.
I quickly nodded, then followed his blaze-orange shape down the trail.
After 15 minutes, he halted at a fork in the logging trail. He turned to face me. "Well, here we are," he whispered.
"OK! See you!" I replied. I was in a hurry to get to my stand. His teeth gleamed white; he was smiling. "Remember: sunup to sundown. If you can last the whole day on your stand, you'll see a nice buck."
I nodded impatiently.
"Think you can stick it out that long?" he asked. There was faint teasing — and also a challenge in his voice.
"Sure," I said, annoyed.
He put a finger to his lips. "OK. I won't come for you unless I hear you shoot — and I don't expect to see you either."
I quickly headed down the path. In my mind, I was already a mighty hunter. In summer, pesky ground squirrels, the kind that left dangerous holes in my father's cow pasture, disappeared when I showed up with my little .22 rifle. In October, ruffed grouse, or partridge, were fair game behind our farm on the trails among aspen trees. Carrying a sandwich and my stubby 20-gauge shotgun, I ranged for miles across farm fields, around sloughs, and down logging trails. I was always on the move, always alert. Nothing escaped my eyes -- especially deer sign.
My goal this season was to bag a giant buck. I had a great spot — 30 yards from a deer trail, muddy and torn up with use. The "stand" was a ground blind, a tree stump actually, with a half-circle of brush in front to keep me hidden from any passing deer.
Quickly I put down my seat cushion and placed my Duluth pack within reach. Checking the safety on my rifle, I turned to face the blue-black woods.
6 a.m. Not legal shooting time for another half hour. I sat rock still, as did the forest critters: They knew a stranger was in their midst. As long minutes passed, my heartbeat slowed, and the forest gradually came alive. A squirrel's feet skittered on oak bark. An invisible flock of diver ducks arrowed overhead, wings whistling. A partridge thrummed down from his night roost; the thwappity-thwap of his wings marked the path of his invisible glide through small poplars and brush.
6:20 a.m. Blue darkness drained away. I could now see the deer trail, a darker ribbon through the woods. I shifted my boots — and beneath them a twig snapped. A deer crashed away behind me! My heartbeat raced to high speed. The deer had either been there all along — bedded down and listening to me — or else it had been coming along the trail. I couldn't believe my bad luck. In the distance, too far away to be my father's rifle, gunshots boomed here and there.
By the time I got over feeling sorry for myself, the woods began to open its curtains. Rusty-brown color seeped into the oak leaves. The grayness lifted — which meant that best half-hour for hunting was over. Disappointed, I leaned back on my stump.
At 9 a.m. I was shivering cold and had to stand up. The woods were brighter now, and quiet. Even the squirrels had stopped chattering and chasing each other. I drank a cup of hot cocoa.
Every hunter knows that a sure way to call in a target is to eat lunch or take a pee. At 10 a.m. I tried both tricks, but neither worked.
After a snack, my short night of sleep caught up with me. Leaning back against a heavy limb, I blinked and blinked to stay awake. Once, my head slumped. The trail tilted and the oak trees tipped sideways; I shook my head to clear it. Then I let my eyes droop shut for just a second. When I opened them, there was drool on my chin. Several minutes had passed. My heartbeat raced again — but luckily there was no monster buck waving his white tail at me.
By noon I was restless. I considered walking up trail to check for fresh tracks — maybe a buck had passed during my nap — but I fought off the urge. I considered making up some excuse to check on my father. Instead, I occupied myself by doing housekeeping on my ground blind. I made sure that there were no twigs anywhere near my boots. I rearranged its branches just right. This took all of 10 minutes.
At 1 p.m. I stood up to stretch. My seat cushion fell off the stump, which gave me something new to do: count the tree rings. As wide as a kitchen chair, the big pine stump had 83 rings, one for each year. The rings expanded outward, like a galaxy, like a universe. Ring number 12 had a dent — some old injury to the tree — perhaps a buck's scrape when the tree was small. I sat down again and refocused my eyes on the trail.
By 3 p.m. I was stir-crazy. What would it hurt if I got up and did some walking, some sneak hunting? Maybe I could push a deer past my father's stand. How about a quick trek back to the truck to check out the field? Any place had to be better than here. But a promise was a promise. I stood up and did toe-raises until my calves hurt.
A few minutes after 4 p.m., something happened. The light was suddenly flatter, duller. The air felt heavier and still. A chickadee pecked and fluttered behind me, landing on my cap for a moment before moving on. The woods were waking up. A partridge fluttered somewhere close. Squirrels scampered limb to limb. The trees stood straighter, more erect. As the fading light flattened to grays and blues, my hearing expanded. I heard the faintest sounds of a mouse in the grass. What I couldn't see or hear, I felt.
At about 4:30 p.m. (I didn't dare look down at my watch for fear that I'd miss something), I turned my head slowly to the left. A deer materialized, as I knew it would! A small doe nibbled her way along, bobbing her head, twitching her tail. She was too small to take on the first day of the season. And anyway, I wanted to wait for a monster buck. But I was thrilled. It was enough to have been looking in the right direction — to have been ready. Light faded, pushed up the tree trunks and into the graying sky, as darkness gathered at ground level. For a few short minutes — the tipping point between light and dark at day's end — anything felt possible.
The big buck never came. Shooting light was gone. I unloaded my rifle, secured the clip. Only a couple minutes later, my father appeared, a blob of orange moving slowly forward in the grayness. I stood to meet him and waved like a kid, though I no longer felt like one.
SO THAT'S MY STORY of a day in the woods when nothing really happened. Maybe you had to be there — which gives me an idea: What if you tried it? What if you found a favorite spot in the woods, or by a lake or pond, and you stayed there the whole day? You don't have to be a hunter. You could choose your season — even winter if you could stay warm. The key part of my challenge is this: no friends, no cell phone, no text messaging, no iPod, no music — just you and your thoughts, for the whole day, sunrise to sunset. Could you do it?
Attention Young Naturalists! If you spend a day outdoors by yourself, send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org and tell us about your adventure. We'll publish all the stories on a special section of our Web site. Good luck!