McKean Minute: The Greatest Treasure

I have a couple of heirloom rifles that I wouldn’t sell for all the farms in Iowa. One is a Winchester Model 1892 chambered in .25/20 that my dad took in trade from a Hunkpapa Sioux when he was a ranch hand in South Dakota. Its serial number indicates that it was made in 1899, and I often wonder all the things that rifle has seen: the end of open cattle range, the first generations of reservation life, scabbards on the flanks of dozens of good horses.

The other rifle is a Remington Targetmaster .22, a single-shot bolt action that was my first gun. Before that, it belonged to my grandfather, a red-dirt Mississippi hick who was the smartest kid in his town, so smart that his teachers paid for his first years at Mississippi State, where he got a masters degree in engineering and later a PhD. He worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority, powering the big hydro dams that electrified the Southeast and put wire and lights in his parents’ farmhouse.

But I’d trade both those rifles to have Scott Hamilton riding shotgun again. Scott was one of my oldest and best friends. He died last weekend at his home in Austin, dropped dead in the shower after a strenuous hike.

Though we lived in distant towns and saw each other at most once a year, the accumulated experiences and shared memories were like inertia, pushing us to the next plan. Most of those plans involved some sort of road trip. Outside of my family, I’ve spent more time in pickups and covered more miles of open road with Scott than anyone. It was nothing for us to drive 500 miles for a burger and a beer in some dive bar.

We hunted together every chance we got, and our plans were to meet in northern Wisconsin, where Scott had a cabin, for deer season. I was already savoring our evenings, pulled up to some North Woods bar, a cheeseburger and a frosty Old Style either celebrating the success or soothing the disappointment of the day.

Friends like Scott aren’t gifts, they’re made every day. While there’s nothing greater than meeting a new friend, there’s also nothing like the easy pace and conversation of an old friendship. It’s like the wood on an old rifle: smooth and worn, with a few nicks and scratches earned through honest use, that takes your hand and holds it, ready to lead you on your next adventure.

McKean Minute: The Hourglass Dilemma

The world is evenly divided into those who will nod knowingly at what I’m about to say, and those who will have no idea.

“I hurt in places I didn’t even know I had.”

That’s both a quotation and a statement of reality. It’s a quote from my dad, and his dad before him, an aunt or two, my neighbor, and the clerk at the vet clinic. But it’s also a description of my every waking day, and has been for the past couple years. It’s the best way to declare, without complaining about, all the aches and pains that come with aging.

I’m not over the hill – not by a long shot. But a decade ago I was ignorant of these little physical gripes. Now, they’re part of the landscape. I mention this not to solicit sympathy from you, my dear reader, but to inform my outlook of the year ahead, and the years beyond that. And maybe your approaching years, too.

Every new year is full of resolve, which manifests as resolutions, generally pithy phrases that promise, or at least imply, some sort of improvement. Of lifestyle. Of habit. Or of personal commitments to eat more greens, or to get to know your brother-in-law better, or to stop scratching yourself in public.

My commitment this year is both simpler and far harder to achieve, given the arc of time and its toll on the human body. I resolve to spend more time exploring. I mean that metaphorically, by reading and inquiring more I can explore other worlds without leaving my own. But I also mean that literally. I want to move my feet across places I’ve never walked before. And that gets back to all those little hurts in the unknown places of my body.

One of the certainties of all life is that it dies. One of the certainties of hunters is that we “age out” of the activity that defines us. We’ve seen this represented in statistics that track participation—measured by buying hunting licenses—in the blood sports. Demographers reckon that when the human body reaches about 65 years old, it stops hunting.

I intend to be one of those erratics that skew statistics and confound demographers. I intend to hunt well past age 65. But in order to do that, I intend to explore this year. And the next. I intend to keep my body trained to hike, my eyes peeled to see animals, and my instincts sharpened to react to all the changing variables of a hunt.

But I’m also aware that I’m doing this as a defensive, rather than an offensive, gesture. This is the hourglass dilemma. We will never know how much time we have left, how much sand remains in the top of the hourglass. As long as we’re ignorant of the quantity, we spend it recklessly. But as soon as we’re aware of the grains sifting through the neck and accumulating in the lower bulb, we become cautious, self-conscious, and timid. And sedentary.

I do not intend to be any of those. I intend to hurt, to complain loudly and often about my physical pains, and to beat you to the top of the next hill, if only to have the first view of whatever’s on the other side. With me?