Thursday, November 15, 2012

The Fields of Fall

    I did not spend Veteran's Day with my father as is my tradition.  The day happened to fall on a Monday, a week after election day.  The kids needed to be in school, work needed us back to the grind.  However, the week prior was Fall Recess for the kids and we had taken vacation to be off with the kids.  Our vacation would be spent at the farm, hunting and preparing for the coming winter season.  It's not as glamorous as it sounds but it is a stress reliever, away from the regular grind of petty dramas at my workplace.  It is fresh air and smelling the wet earth, surrounded by clucking chickens and nibbling goats.  It is dirt roads and wooded trails and the smell of woodsmoke.  Most times it is just chores with a beer or two and showing the kids how to drive a tractor or an ATV, or maybe how to change a tire or the oil.  It is a slow-down-and-enjoy-a-slow-cooked-dinner vacation.
       But this time, the kids wanted at least one day if not two to pursue their new hobby, geocaching.  It is a game of treasure hunting using a GPS and downloaded coordinates.  Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts, as well as other outdoor-oriented groups and people, both hide and try to discover hidden caches strewn about the world.  Most are hidden in plain sight in local parks and points of interest.  The old caches are usually hidden on some hiking trail off in the woods leading to a scenic overlook or a particularly nice campsite.  Near our farm there are some harder, more remote caches to search for.  These are usually a good hike with an old ammo can at the end of the trail filled with little knick-knacks to trade.  It is a great excuse to get out and go for a walk, and an even better excuse to get Mom and Grandpa to take a break from the everyday chores around the homestead.
       We disguised our mission to Grandpa as a small game hunting trip over on the state game lands.  Mom thought we were going for a short walk in the woods.  Neither knew we were going after an antique cache placed ten years ago about a mile off the old dirt road running through a local hunting grounds.  For me, it was a two-pronged mission, enjoy the day out with the family hiking and being able to carry my favorite single-shot shotgun in the hopes of kicking up a stray pheasant or dashing rabbit with my dad.  The kids loved the idea of fitting two activities into one trip and they hopped into their hiking boots and filled the truck before I could fill a water bottle.  The road was muddy and lonely and perfect.  We caught a glimpse of a six-point buck as we bounced down the trail.  The excitement grew in the backseat.
        When we finally piled out of the truck, the morning fog still had not burnt off and the frost was heavy on the tall grass.  The air made the skin feel alive, with a little bite against the cheeks.  We explored the woods.  The kids initially walked timidly among the wooded trails, cautiously stepping through the grass, expecting something, anything to burst out at any moment.  Half a morning later we were within 500 yards of our goal, according to the kid holding the GPS, and it was all up hill.  My wife, holding her burning back (still toughing out a couple of herniated discs), tied her jacket about her waist, put her head down, and leaned into the mountain, not to be denied and not allowing her children to see her quit.  My oldest set a good pace up through the fields, Grandpa in tow.  My little one kept her mom company, enjoying being out in the hunting woods.  I climbed through the briars and methodically worked the inside edge of the field's woodrow, hoping to flush a bird toward the group, increasing the excitement.
        Leaving the fields and entering the bordering hardwoods, as we neared our final destination, the trees began to exhibit the wrath of the recent weather.  Hurricane Sandy left a path of twisted blow-downs.  The higher we climbed the more the woods looked like a big pile of pick-up-sticks.  The last yards were a hard won battle to the coordinates.  And then, nothing.  We couldn't find the cache, described as a large ammo can hidden at the base of tree in the middle of the pile.  We searched.  We dug.  We moved leaves.  We organized a true grid search.  We sat stunned, out of breath, on a log and sipped water.  We prepared to hike back down the mountain.  I would not quit.  I would not leave without one more good look.  And right there, under an old blow down was our goal.  It was partially buried by run off from the recent storms, looking like a pirate's treasure lost in the woods.  Grandpa grabbed an improvised rock shovel and extracted the can from its hidey hole.  There were smiles and laughter.  We signed the log inside the box, noting that we had been there, left a little memento and stuffed the box back under the tree.
        The hike back to the truck was a bit faster, downhill.  Grandpa was able to force a grouse out into the fall sky.  Everyone enjoyed the sun as we flowed down through the giant field, pointing out deer sign and bear scat to each other.  Veteran's day, for me, came a little early.  I guess nowadays you have to make your own holidays.  And it looks as if a new tradition has been made from an old one.  We hope to do this again next year.  Maybe we will visit this old box every year now.  It gave us more than the little treasures hidden inside.  Before we even opened that box it had given us a little bit of woods magic, if you believe in that sort of thing.  By the end it had given us a perfect fall day.  That box in the woods will hold our memories and in our memories will be an old ammo can.  An ammo can in the woods for a replacement Veteran's Day spent with a veteran surrounded with family.  It sounds almost too perfect.  Maybe there really is such a thing as woods magic.

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