I was young, maybe five years old. I was sitting on the floor of my grandparents house playing with my Lincoln Logs; I had combined multiple sets of logs to create the type of cabin that only a five year old mind can construct. I waved my grandfather over to me, (I call him PawPaw,) and he climbed out of his recliner to join me on the floor. I point at one of the rooms I’ve built and tell him, “that’s where the deer go.”
That’s it. That’s the earliest memory I have from my childhood.
I grew up in South Carolina, which is a fine place to be born if your family believes in hunting. I say “believes in hunting” because I’m not sure how else I would describe it. Most everything my PawPaw taught me involved a rifle, a fishing pole and a life that would end up on my dinner plate. All of my good memories have him in them.
He taught me how to shoot at an early age. I was given a single shot, Chipmunk .22 LR when I was seven years old for Christmas. It had a simple peep and post. He was adamant that I learn to shoot on irons and a booming squirrel population around their home on Lake Murray provided plenty of opportunity for a young boy learning to shoot. And learn I did. During those lessons nothing was ever wasted; I became quite fond of my grandmother’s squirrel perlo.
As I got older we would still hunt through the hardwoods of Bamberg County and I spent my Saturday mornings in tower stands overlooking poorly tilled turnip plots amidst the pines. I took my first Whitetail deer when I was eleven. Pawpaw was there. The photograph he took of me with that deer sits on my desk as I write this.
We shared a lot of memories when I was young, my grandfather and I. But one thing we never shared was his love for western hunting. There were mule deer skulls on the walls of his shed in the backyard and a particularly magnificent antelope mount that hung in the screened-in porch. I remember the stories he would tell of hunting in Wyoming with his brother; my father also went with him every year. I remember the conversations we had when I was still a boy; “when you’re ready, we’ll go together.” Though vague, the memory of those conversations would impact me more than I knew, and it would take me years before I came to understand why.
As young men often do, I entered my teenage years and found new vices. Mine were traveling soccer teams and a girl named Sarah. I all but gave up hunting for over 10 years. I stuck with soccer and got a scholarship to play in college; I traded Sarah for a list of girls with different names. I did my own thing, often to my own detriment. I rarely visited my family. I was old enough to have lived through the type of shit that happens in families but not old enough to have learned how to forgive them.
I was just out of college when I got the call that PawPaw had died. He was 86. He had deer hunted that very morning, climbing into his tree stand, alive and vibrant as ever. He had a heart attack cooking breakfast at the stove once he got home. No one saw it coming.
I wasn’t ready for him to die. When is anyone ever ready for their favorite grandparent to die? I suppose that’s not how life works.
I didn’t process his death very well. My relationship with my father was pretty well on the rocks at that point and I’d talked myself into believing that my PawPaw was the only good man that had ever been in my life. I started drinking heavily and blew up the relationship I was in. I got fired from my job. I was battling a lot of demons during that time in my life and I needed an escape. A friend from college started to invite me to his family farm to hunt on a regular basis - it was there that I started to put the pieces back together.
In the years following his death I took to the woods for solace. That’s where I would talk to him. In a tree stand or walking the edge of the farm pond, I had the conversations with my PawPaw that I wish we’d had before he died. I was too young and too selfish to have made a point to visit him when I could have actually had those talks. It took a couple years of counseling to forgive myself for that bit.
But to the woods I went, and there I would always find him. Hunting became the lifestyle that grips my spirit and the therapist that heals my wounds.
In the years since I’ve built my life around this passion that my PawPaw instilled in me when I was a boy. I developed a skill set for outdoor media and used that to navigate my life and career Westward, towards the places my PawPaw always told me we would go “when I was ready.”
I hunt now because it’s where I do my best thinking. While I sit behind the glass, my eyes search the opposite slope but my mind searches me. I go into the hills under the guise of looking for meat and antlers, but if I’m honest, I think I go to look for the man that I know I’m supposed to be, but am not. That thought chills me. I wonder what my PawPaw would think of the man I’ve become? I hope he would be proud.
I love hunting for the lessons it provides - even the tough ones. I wrestle with myself on the mountain and I discover more about who I actually am. I am a better man, a better husband, and a better friend for having been exposed to the depths of experience that I have found hunting to bring. So I go, and will go again, to the hills where these lessons lie. There I am my best self, my truest self. I commune with my grandfather in those hills and listen for his instruction. When I descend I take my learnings with me, one pack-out at a time.