Call Of The Mild: Learning To Hunt My Own Dinnerby Lily Raff McCaulou
When Lily Raff McCaulou traded in an indie film production career in New York for a reporting job in central Oregon, she never imagined that she'd find herself picking up a gun and learning to hunt. She'd been raised as a gun-fearing environmentalist and an animal lover, and though a meat-eater, she'd always abided by the principle that harming animals is wrong.… See more details below
When Lily Raff McCaulou traded in an indie film production career in New York for a reporting job in central Oregon, she never imagined that she'd find herself picking up a gun and learning to hunt. She'd been raised as a gun-fearing environmentalist and an animal lover, and though a meat-eater, she'd always abided by the principle that harming animals is wrong. But Raff McCaulou's perspective shifted when she began spending weekends fly-fishing and weekdays interviewing hunters for her articles, realizing that many of them were more thoughtful about animals and the environment than she was.
So she embarked upon the project of learning to hunt from square one. From attending a Hunter Safety course designed for children to field dressing an elk and serving it for dinner, she explores the sport of hunting and all it entails, and tackles the big questions surrounding one of the most misunderstood American practices and pastimes. Not just a personal memoir, this book also explores the role of the hunter in the twenty-first century, the tension (at times artificial) between hunters and environmentalists, and new models of sustainable and ethical food procurement.
The Register Guard (OR)
New York Times
The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)
Fat of the Land
A thoughtful examination of the issues that surround hunting in modern America, an entertaining account of McCaulou's evolution from someone afraid of firearms to an avid hunter, and an inspirational guide for anyone interested in following suit.Mike Stahlberg, The Register Guard (OR)"
[An] excellent memoir. . . Clear, well-crafted prose . . . A book that rewards readers with a wealth of interesting information along the way."The Washington Times "
Combines hunting stories with entreaties to be thoughtful about where dinner comes from and grateful for nature's bounty."Dwight Garner, New York Times"
Will resonate with many readers, female or male, who are trying to reconnect with the natural world, whether via hunting or other outdoor pursuits. . . . It turns out that facing death in its many guises is at the core of McCaulou's memoir, and this stubborn fact of life is explored in some unexpected ways. Not so unexpectedly, the book culminates with a big game hunt, though the patience and detail with which it's recounted will be appreciated by neophyte hunters wondering what this moment of truth might be like."Langdon Cook, Fat of the Land"
Compelling . . . her reporting skills help readers gain a deeper and broader understanding of the complex experience of hunting."Melanie Balog, The Post and Courier (Charleston, SC)"
Eloquent debut memoir about a young woman's transformation from a New York City urbanite into small-town Oregon hunter with a conscience. . . A powerful story in which the author shapes a narrative of personal growth into a symbol of modern humanity's alienation from the natural world."Kirkus Reviews"
If you have always wanted to try your hand at hunting, buying this book is a must. Lily takes you on a journey through the eyes of a novice growing into an experienced hunter, beautifully illustrating the excitement of being able to hunt the food that you eat in a sustainable way."April Bloomfield, chef of The Spotted Pig and author of A Girl and Her Pig"
Lily Raff McCaulou has a good heart and a curious soul, and her story of learning to hunt touches every emotion in the spectrum. Call of the Mild is powerful, well-told, and a great pleasure to read."Ian Frazier, author of Travels in Siberia and Great Plains"
Lily Raff McCaulou has done the hard intellectual work of actually thinking about why she's hunting and what it means. A fascinating work, and a way into a debate often marked by obstinant close-mindedness on every side."Bill McKibben, author of Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet"
Call of the Mild tackles a fascinating and complex subject: the ethics, experience, ecological implications, and, ultimately, importance of American hunting. Lily Raff McCaulou is such good company-articulate, thoughtful, funny, intelligent, fair-minded, and warm-hearted-that I would have stayed with her for many more pages, and then I would have happily gone hunting with her, something I had never once thought of doing. This is a deeply good book in so many ways."Kate Christensen, author of The Epicure's Lament and The Astral
"Call of the Mild puts into words the same kind of transformation from urban consumer to hunter-gatherer that many of us "adult-onset" hunters went through: The excitement, the doubt the fear and ultimately the satisfaction we derive from finding our food the way our ancestors did. Raff McCaulou knows as well as anyone that a meal won by hard work will always taste better than one bought in a store."Hank Shaw, author of Hunt, Gather, Cook: Finding the Forgotten Feast"
In telling the story of how she learned to hunt, Lily Raff McCaulou shares the essential missing elements in the way we eat today: gratitude, joy, and responsibility. Call of the Mild is a compelling and honest work, a truly worthwhile read for anyone who wants to shift their relationship to the food on their plate."Alana Chernila, author of The Homemade Pantry
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Read an Excerpt
Call of the MildLearning to Hunt My Own Dinner
By Raff McCaulou, Lily
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Raff McCaulou, Lily
All right reserved.
I squint down the long metal cylinder of my shotgun, past the red plastic bump at the tip, and imagine what it will feel like to yank the trigger as a bird soars by. It is not the first time I have envisioned this situation. But it is the first time it could actually come true.
The bits of foam I’ve squished into my ears drown out the faint, usual sounds like rustling leaves. All I can hear is my heart. Each beat thrums my whole body as if I’m standing too close to the bass speakers at a rock concert.
A brown-and-white dog named Tessa stands frozen about ten yards to my left. A few minutes earlier, she sniffed out a male pheasant, her stubby tail wagging faster and faster as she closed in on its trail, nose to the ground, until suddenly she halted, her tail standing straight. She’s still standing there now, which, according to her owner, means her eyes have locked on to the bird’s eyes: a primordial staring contest with extraordinarily high stakes, at least for the bird. Tessa’s owner, Gerry, is behind me, creeping toward the dog.
I rub the gun’s ridged safety switch with my sweaty thumb, hesitating, until finally I shove it forward into the “fire” position, the dangerous one. The rock concert in my chest becomes techno.
“Are you guys ready?” Gerry asks in a flat voice.
“Yes,” says Nancy, another novice hunter standing a few yards beyond Tessa, waiting to shoot the same doomed bird. Nancy hasn’t hunted in decades, but she grew up shooting guns with her father and brothers. Her husband goes bird hunting every fall, and now, with her children grown and out of the house, she wants to join him. It makes sense that Nancy is here. Nancy should be ready.
But not me. My dad never took me shooting; he walked me to the local scoop shop, Lickety Split, or we rode the subway to downtown Washington, DC, and visited a museum. My husband doesn’t hunt, and I only decided about a year ago to give it a try.
Now here I am, on a swampy swath of state-owned land in southern Oregon, with a loaded gun pointed at the sky, waiting for a bird. I’m one of twenty women hunting for pheasants on this foggy Saturday in September. We each paid forty dollars to traipse around with volunteer guides and their well-trained hunting dogs. The pheasants were raised in pens and released one week earlier, for a similar hunt for kids. Our goal is to shoot the birds that the kids missed last week. Years later, I will look back on this event and feel slightly embarrassed by its staged phoniness, as if I went back to the Renaissance fair I attended as a kid and noticed that the women were wearing Nikes under their polyester petticoats. Later, I will hunt for real wildlife, not creatures who have been raised by humans and planted for shooting. I will find myself kneeling before a bull elk, up to my shoulders in blood, as I gut the animal and prepare to pack its meat out of the woods. But for now, here, traipsing through tall grass with a loaded gun for the first time, I feel wild and daring.
The night before the hunt, when I should have been sleeping, I instead compiled a mental list of everything that could go wrong. Around three in the morning, assured that I had exhausted every possible horrible outcome, I began to group and rank them in descending order of tragedy:
My own death. Shot by another member of the hunting party probably, or a mistaken rifle hunter hundreds of yards away, or perhaps, in a particularly cruel swoop of irony, my own careless trigger finger.
The death of someone else, caused by me. I would then endure crushing, paralyzing guilt for the rest of my life, which would probably take me past the age of ninety and involve frequent run-ins with friends and family of the victim. On second thought, maybe this fear should be number one.
Any non-fatal maiming of me or caused by me.
Embarrassing failure in one of its smaller, more familiar forms. Perhaps, when the time came, I would feel too guilty to pull the trigger and the other, braver hunters would wonder what was wrong with me.
At eight in the morning, when I pulled up to the concrete building that was our designated meeting point, I noticed that four or five of the pickup trucks parked there had camouflage-covered crates in their beds. Dogs whined and barked from inside.
“Shit,” I muttered. I hadn’t even thought to worry about the dogs, who would dart close to the birds and in front of my gun and be easier to shoot accidentally than any human.
But by the time I get here, to this point where my weapon is loaded and my safety is switched off and a real, live bird is in my vicinity, I have managed to avoid these disasters for more than five hours. The list, which consumed my thoughts in the early morning, has almost disappeared from my mind completely. Only the last item—good old-fashioned embarrassment—lingers in my mind. As the day lags on, it looks more and more likely that I will return home empty-handed. This once innocuous outcome has already started to morph, unexpectedly, into a new worst-case scenario. I picture all the friends I’ve told about today’s outing. I grit my teeth and practice telling them, one by one, “Nope, I didn’t get one. Thanks for asking.”
Lori and Debra, two of the four women in my group, have already killed a bird each. They are already using the proud, possessive language of real hunters, who speak as if the purchase of a hunting license includes entitlement to one particular specimen. “I got my pheasant!” They are safe and happy, chatting excitedly about what their husbands and children will say when they arrive home triumphant, with a bird in a cooler.
I don’t have my pheasant. I’m tired of hiking through uneven ground in wet socks and boots, tired of carrying this gun that feels twice as heavy as it did in the morning. I’m tired of being on edge, of staying alert in case a bird appears suddenly. Tired of watching Tessa’s tail for the fast-wagging signal that a bird is near. Tired of eyeing where the muzzle of my gun is pointed and where Nancy’s is. I start to dread the two-and-a-half-hour drive back home to my husband—who remains confused by my nascent interest in hunting—without a feathery trophy of my own.
“When I tell Tessa to release, everything is going to happen in a split second,” Gerry whispers. He stops just a couple of feet behind the dog and lets another moment pass before asking, again, “Are you sure you’re ready?”
“Mm-hmm.” Nancy is getting impatient.
“Ready?” Gerry turns to me. The muzzle is heavy in my left hand. My outstretched arm quivers.
“Yes.” I am ready. So ready I can hardly believe it. I cannot wait to kill this thing.
Gerry steps one long stride toward Tessa, who lunges at the bird. I hear a squawk and flapping, thrashing against the grass. I wonder if Tessa has somehow managed to catch the thing in her mouth. Suddenly a dark bird with a long, spiky tail leaps into view. I squeeze my right hand into a fist around the trigger.
You would be hard-pressed to find an unlikelier hunter than me. I’m a woman, and married to a man who does not hunt. I grew up in a city, terrified of guns. I love animals and even entered college on track to become a veterinarian. Yet, at the age of twenty-six, I made the strange decision to pick up a gun and learn to hunt. It was a complicated choice, but it started with one simple thing that almost all of us—hunters and non-hunters, women and men, city dwellers and country bumpkins—have in common: dinner. Not the greens and grains on the sides of the plate, but the hunk of meat in the middle.
Of course, my decision to hunt was also deeply personal. It was a way for me to explore my relationships with animals—the dog for whom I buy Christmas presents, the mice I occasionally trap in my kitchen, the wolves whom I admire in theory but have never met. It made me rethink what it means to be an environmentalist. The experience transformed me from the person I had been just three years earlier. I’ll start there, when I’m a few months shy of twenty-four, and nothing could be farther from my mind than hunting:
I live with a girlfriend in a cramped apartment in Manhattan, where I work part-time as a personal assistant to a movie director and screenwriter. I also freelance as a production assistant on various film and television shoots. Nearly half of my friends from Wesleyan University moved to New York after graduation, so I know fun, artsy people all over the city. At night, I dress up and attend their theater debuts and gallery openings. During the day, I brush elbows with indie film stars.
But for the past couple of months I haven’t been able to shake this feeling that my life in New York has become one big, glitzy distraction. I spend seventy or eighty hours a week working to bring someone else’s vision to the television or movie screen, yet I still haven’t finished the screenplay I started writing two years earlier. I find myself daydreaming about a new job as a journalist. This isn’t entirely out of the blue—I worked on my college newspaper, as a contributing writer up through editor in chief, and I interned at the Hartford Courant for a summer. I know that journalism won’t be as glamorous, but I’ll hear interesting stories and get paid to write every day.
So the night after Christmas in 2003, I flip open my laptop and go to a job site for journalists that I browsed regularly when I was in college and envisioned a post-grad life as Lois Lane. I search for staff writer positions in New York. Forty-some jobs pop up, but each one requires more experience than I can eke out of my résumé, even with the cleverest phrasing. On a whim, I rerun the search, this time for openings in Oregon, Washington, Idaho and Montana, just because the Northwest caught my eye on a road trip one time. Voilà: features reporter in Idaho Falls, Idaho; sports reporter in Columbia Falls, Montana; news reporter in Bend, Oregon. Eleven jobs in all. As I read the descriptions, the hair on my arms perks up. Each job is at a small newspaper in a small town, the kind of modest post I might be able to land with my handful of bylines clipped from the Courant. The exact place doesn’t matter to me at all. I love the idea of a new career in an exotic setting. I stretch out on the floor and start to tap out a catchy, one-size-fits-all cover letter:
Don’t let the address at the top of this letter fool you. I’m not just a city slicker looking for a Western adventure.
But the truth is, that’s exactly who I am and what I’m looking for. As midnight gives way to early morning, and I polish up the letter, I also compile a mental list of reasons why moving to the rural West is not just an exciting idea, but also a smart one. I’ll learn so much about myself by branching out and living on my own. I’ve always loved the idea of being outdoorsy; here’s my chance. It sounds like a movie: spunky city gal becomes country muckraker. I already own two pairs of cowboy boots. A year or two at a small paper will provide the experience I’ll need to get a better reporting job back in New York.
The next day, I walk to the post office and mail out eleven applications.
Seven weeks later, on Valentine’s Day, my friend Larrison and I pack my belongings into a rental truck and head west toward Bend, Oregon, where I have accepted an offer to write news for the local daily, The Bulletin. Larrison has generously taken time off from her job in the writing department of the soap opera As the World Turns to drive with me to Bend before flying home. Somewhere in Wyoming, an honest-to-goodness tumbleweed bounces across I-80 and we squeal. The desiccated shrub looks as if it rolled right off a Western movie set. But this is real life. In the wild.
Our first stop in Oregon, just across the border from Idaho, is a gas station in a tiny farming town. I start filling the tank while Larrison heads into the store for a soda.
“What are you doing?” A stocky young man in a baseball cap stomps toward me.
I look down to make sure gas hasn’t spilled over the side of the truck. “Uh… filling up?”
“You can’t do that,” he says. “Oregon is full-service only.”
My heart drops. I can’t pump my own gas here? Have I really left my job and all my friends and driven four days straight only to find myself in the New Jersey of the West? I suddenly realize how little I know about my new home. I wonder how much of a hassle it will be to move back to New York in a few months if coming here turns out to be a disaster. I’ll have to find another apartment, not to mention face the embarrassment of telling all my friends and family that my Western Adventure was a bust.
“You must be from out of town, huh?” he asks.
“Yeah, New York City.”
“New York City!” He drawls when he pronounces the name, like one of the dismayed cowboys in that old salsa commercial. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m moving to Bend.”
He nods, as if this makes perfect sense. I’ve heard that Bend’s population is booming, but now I wonder if there’s a steady stream of New Yorkers driving U-Haul trucks into town.
Later that evening, Larrison and I pull into Bend, where we’ve booked a hotel room for the night. It’s just after eight and the traffic lights are already switched off and blinking. The next morning, I check the classified ads and find a one-bedroom apartment on the first floor of a former boardinghouse downtown. It has polished wood floors, a graceful arch leading into the kitchen and built-in dressers in the bedroom and bathroom. Best of all, I have the place to myself. And for just $495 a month—$305 less than my share of the tiny Harlem apartment. Larrison helps me lug my bed, clothes and futon inside. We spend the next couple of days unpacking and taking breaks to browse secondhand stores and people-watch downtown.
At a sandwich shop, we wait in line behind a thirty-something couple wearing head-to-toe spandex. I can’t help but stare past the corporate logos covering their garb to the sculpted curves of their calves and thighs. I look around the restaurant. Everyone here is thin, but not New York–smoker skinny. They’re muscled.
“I’ve never seen so many good-looking people in one place,” Larrison whispers.
“I know,” I say. “Everyone is so fit.”
“You’re lucky.” She arches an eyebrow.
The night before she flies back to New York, we mix Manhattans—an ode to my former home—and sip them from glasses perched on cardboard boxes.
As I hug Larrison good-bye at the airport the next morning, I know that I should feel nervous and sad to see her go. Here I am alone, in a town I barely know, three thousand miles from my family and friends, yet I’m too excited to care. Larrison’s three-day stay has been like training wheels on my new life in Bend. I can’t wait to get started.
The next week, I report to my new job. I was told during my interview a month earlier that the newspaper’s circulation is only about thirty thousand. But The Bulletin is the only daily in the region, and more sophisticated than its size would suggest. It’s housed in a brand-new building on the western edge of town that looks more like a modern ski chalet than a newspaper office. Windows stretch the two-story height of the lobby, with walls of stacked native stone and arched ceilings paneled in stained wood.
The sixty-five-or-so people who work in the newsroom are not locals who learned the business because it was an available job, but professional journalists—mostly city folk like me—who moved here for their careers. Editors came from the Detroit Free Press, Minneapolis Star Tribune and St. Petersburg Times. Reporters moved here from Denver, San Francisco and San Diego. Two news reporters even grew up in the same Maryland county that I did.
I’ve been hired to cover a rural area that stretches hundreds of square miles southeast of Bend. I spend the first day scoping it out from the driver’s seat of a used Ford Ranger pickup truck that I found in the classified ads and purchased the day before.
Bend is almost the geographic center of Oregon. Sagebrush-studded high desert splays out to the east of the city. To the west, ponderosa pine forests creep up the volcanic Cascade Mountains. Unlike the Rockies—steep, tightly stacked peaks that form walls of granite stretching beyond the horizon—these mountains rise gradually, one at a time, like snowcapped sand castles. Together, the Cascades form a sort of sky fortress that traps clouds moving eastward off the Pacific Ocean and clutches them over rainy Portland and Eugene, freeing Bend’s skies for a rumored three hundred days of sunshine a year.
In February, in the dead of central Oregon’s long winter, the landscape looks drab and dreary despite the sun. I drive past gnarled trees, scrubby shrubs and clumps of tall, native grass, dried and yellowed by the cold. Bare, reddish ground peeks between each of these plants. Unlike the wetter climates I’m used to, there is no fast-growing underbrush coating the soil here. A few dirty patches of snow cling to the shadiest spots. The sparse needles of the juniper and pine trees look dusty, more gray than green.
I get on Highway 97, and as soon as I cross Bend’s southern boundary, the exit signs abruptly end, along with any other symbols of civilization. This is not like the East Coast highways I am used to, where one town peters out as another builds steam, with no discernible gap in between. Here, city ends. Country begins. I drive over a steep, craggy mound called Lava Butte. It erupted seven thousand years ago and covered nine square miles with black, porous rock. NASA actually trained astronauts for the moon landing on these desolate lava beds. As I travel south, the elevation rises, and a mat of snow blankets the ground.
I am winding down an unlined road toward a tiny regional airport when suddenly, in the middle of the asphalt in front of me, I see a gray, fluffy, dog-like animal. It’s lying down but alert, with its head up, facing me. I brake and lean closer to the windshield for a better look. It’s too big to be a fox. A wolf, maybe? I gasp at the possibility. As my truck rolls closer, the animal gets up and trots off the road, its tail floating perfectly straight behind it, parallel to the ground. It stares at me with pale, intense eyes as I drive past. Then I watch in my rearview mirror as it flops itself back down on the sun-soaked asphalt.
When I return to the newsroom, I run up to the environmental reporter and recount what I’ve seen.
“A wolf?” She laughs. “I doubt it. There are wolves in Idaho, and they may be starting to move into Oregon, but not this far west. It was probably a coyote.”
Of course. A coyote, not a wolf. But I’m not disappointed. I’m in awe. A coyote is a real wild animal, infinitely more exciting than a tumbleweed. The Western Adventure has officially begun.
My life here is a distant cousin to the one I led in New York. There are no gallery openings to speak of, no theater debuts. I have to remind myself each morning to dress more casually than I’m accustomed to, so I don’t stand out too much. My high-heeled shoes are getting ruined anyway, chewed up by the gravel that covers so many parking lots and paths.
Co-workers invite me to parties, where I quickly grow tired of Bend’s unofficial winter greeting: “What did you ski today?” I’ve tried the sport a few times but don’t consider myself a skier. Each time I’m offered this opening line, its speaker is so taken aback by my answer—I don’t ski—that he immediately looks away and repeats the question to someone else. Someone more… Bend. I eavesdrop as other, fitter partygoers recap their mountain conquests, and I’m surprised by the level of detail in their answers. There are two official ski areas here: Hoodoo and Mount Bachelor. People also cross-country ski on trails through nearby forests. They travel all over the West to ride different lifts for a weekend. And they backcountry ski, which involves hiking up a mountain and then skiing down it.
When a Bendite explains what she skied today, she doesn’t simply name a location. Just as the Inuit supposedly have a hundred words for snow, so, it turns out, do ski bums and snowboard dudes in Bend. There’s powder (dry, fine snow), breakable crust (an icy layer that skis sometimes fall through), dust on crust (a thin layer of fresh snow atop breakable crust), boilerplate (ridged ice), ball bearings (loose ice pellets), wind pack (crust formed by wind, not sun), mashed potatoes (wet, creamy snow), death cookies (hunks of ice hidden beneath smooth-looking snow), corn (hard, old snow that sunshine has softened into grains), Cascade cement (ultra-thick snow that grabs your skis), slush (even non-skiers know this one) and many more.
Of course, not everyone in Bend is my age. Young families are moving here, and retirees, too. Most come from California, to escape the traffic jams of Los Angeles or the skyrocketing housing prices of San Francisco. Outdoor recreation is what draws most of them—they ski, golf or mountain bike. Or they simply appreciate having so many sunny days in which to walk along the river and gaze at the mountains. Construction workers flock here, too, to help meet the growing demand for homes. I find myself in the minority not because of where I come from but because of what led me here: a job. In an office, no less. Unlike all of these outdoorsy folks, I’m not sure what to do in my spare time.
I yearn for friends to discuss books with, lazy friends, friends who consider two o’clock a reasonable hour for brunch. Friends who want to unwind at the end of a long week with a movie and a bottle of wine, not a sixty-mile bike ride. Friends with loud political opinions. Desperate for an indoor activity, I enroll in a pottery class Tuesday evenings at the community college. Hunting is still farther from my mind than just about anything. But it is about to move a big step closer.
The morning after my twenty-fourth birthday, a Friday, I stop at a coffee shop on my way to work. You can’t drive two blocks in Bend without passing a coffee shop. One intersection actually has drive-through espresso huts on three of its four corners. I don’t usually drink the stuff but I’ve got a slight hangover from the mint juleps I downed with some co-workers last night, and I figure, what the hell, I’m trying to go local anyway. As I hand my money to the cashier, I hear my name.
A tall, fit woman in her sixties waves and starts walking over from the other side of the store. She’s in my pottery class, but I can’t remember her name. I can’t believe she knows mine.
“Hi! How are you?” I rack my brain for names. Barb? No, Barb has longer hair. Is it Ann? Or Annie?
“Oh, I’m so glad I ran into you,” she says, as if we’re old friends. “I need your phone number because I’m fixing you up with someone.”
What? In New York, some co-workers offered to set me up on blind dates a few times, but unlike this woman they asked me first. I always declined. And how does she know I’m single, anyway?
“One of your business cards would be fine,” she adds.
Still struggling for a response, I reach into my purse and pull out a card. The moment she snatches it, I realize that it’s too late to say no to the setup. The card was my consent. I stare at it, in her hand, and I fumble for a polite way to ask for it back.
“Thanks. Well, his name is Scott, and he’s just so sweet.” She draws out those last two words as if she’s describing a puppy. Not a good sign.
Shit. The Western Adventure has taken an awkward turn. I climb into my truck and pretty soon the whole incident slips my mind completely. Monday, I get to the office and check my voice mail.
“Hi, Lily, this is Scott. I work with Janet Windman.”
Janet. I wasn’t even close.
“Anyway, Janet gave me your phone number and told me that you’re new to town, and so I figured, if you’d ever like to grab a cup of coffee or a beer or something, just give me a call.”
The high-pressure date suddenly deflates into a casual chance for a new friendship. I write down his phone number. That night, we make plans to meet Thursday at Deschutes Brewery, a local pub.
After work on Thursday, I hop on my bicycle—still trying to go native—and pedal the five blocks to the brewery. As I crouch down to lock up my bike, I scan the front of the restaurant. A few groups of people in their thirties and forties stand in loose circles on the sidewalk, waiting for tables inside. Only one man in his twenties leans against the wall near the front door. He’s wearing sunglasses, jeans and a red fleece vest over a white button-up shirt with the sleeves rolled up a few inches. He’s about six feet tall, with thick brown hair and a slight suntan.
“Scott?” I try not to sound too hopeful.
“Yeah. Hi, nice to meet you.” We shake hands and walk inside, where Scott puts his name on the list for a table. We each order a pint and sit down near the bar.
“I liked your story in today’s paper,” he says, referring to an article I wrote about a local toad population that has made an unexpected rebound.
“Thanks. It was fun mucking around in ponds for a day. What did you do today?”
“Actually, I got audited.”
We both laugh.
“Yeah, really. It’s over, though.”
“Well, cheers to that.”
We clink glasses.
It turns out Scott and Janet work for a small nonprofit that collaborates with local farmers and ranchers to restore the Deschutes River, the main branch of which runs through downtown Bend. Every summer, 97 percent of the river’s flow gets diverted into canals for irrigation. Janet volunteers in the office. Scott runs programs: helping farmers switch to newer irrigation systems that use less water, piping canals to reduce the amount of water that leaks into the ground, and buying and leasing water rights to put back in-stream. The job gives Scott an interesting window into fish and wildlife populations, which I will appreciate later.
Scott grew up in the Willamette River Valley, which I immediately recognize from a computer game that I played in elementary school, The Oregon Trail. To win, you have to make it to Oregon’s Willamette Valley, on the other side of the mountains from Bend. I am startled when Scott pronounces the name of the valley will-AM-it. It sounds harsher than the way I always pronounced it, willa-MET.
Both sides of Scott’s family came to Oregon on the wagon trail. His parents were high school sweethearts who grew up in a small town not far from Bend and moved to Portland just after their wedding. They owned a small chain of clothing stores in the Portland area, but Scott spent his summer vacations and as many weekends as possible visiting his grandparents in eastern Oregon. This—the sunny high desert, with air that smells of juniper and sagebrush—is his home. He still spends his weekends exploring it, on skis in the winter and in waders with a fly rod in hand during the summer.
When our table is ready, we sit down and order burgers and more beer and keep talking. I tell him about my own childhood, in Takoma Park, Maryland, a city of seventeen thousand that hugs the northeastern edge of Washington, DC. Sometimes called the People’s Republic of Takoma Park, or Berkeley East, its social hub is a Sunday farmers’ market that straddles the DC-Maryland boundary, just two short blocks from the bungalow where I—like my brother, Nathan, before me and my sister, Gretchen, after me—was born. (Yes, we’re the products of home births, midwives and all.)
Takoma Park is famous for its quirky residents, including Motor Cat, a tabby feline who wore a custom-made helmet and rode on his owner’s motorcycle by digging his claws into a thick patch of Berber installed in front of the driver’s seat. Years before it became hip to raise backyard chickens for eggs, a wild rooster appeared in Takoma Park. Residents named him Roscoe. He migrated between pocket parks and postage-stamp yards. Sometimes he even strutted down busy sidewalks. This went on for years before Roscoe was discovered early one morning, flattened, in the middle of Takoma Park’s main drag. Angry mourners blamed the hit-and-run on a gas-guzzling SUV, probably driven by a Republican. A statue was erected in the bird’s honor, and a pizza parlor adopted Roscoe’s name.
But throughout my childhood, Takoma Park faded into the background while I transported myself to Green Gables, Narnia or a secret garden. Books sustained me at least as much as food did. In fact, no week was complete without a few walks to our local library. My favorite books were Laura Ingalls Wilder’s Little House on the Prairie series, which perhaps foretold my eventual journey west. At first I loved the details of life on the frontier: how they churned butter, cured meats and built a sod house. As I got older, I reveled in the emotional undercurrents, such as Ma’s desire for a stable home pitted against Pa’s wanderlust.
Scott listens to all of this and suggests a book that I might like as an adult: Angle of Repose, by Wallace Stegner, one of his favorite authors. As he summarizes it for me, I can’t help but smile. Here we are, in Bend, discussing books.
It’s nearing midnight, so we split the bill and walk outside. We unlock our bikes—Scott rode his to the brewery, too—and stroll with them toward my apartment. We arrive at my doorstep too soon, despite my efforts to walk at a fraction of my usual pace. We shake hands good-bye and make plans to meet up on Saturday, when, it turns out, we have both been invited to a barbecue at the home of one of my co-workers.
That night I toss and turn, unable to stop thinking about Scott long enough to give in to sleep. He seems both outdoorsy and indoorsy, funny and serious, smart and kind. When he spoke of his grandparents, his love for them was so real I could almost touch it. He made me laugh out loud when he admitted that he has accidentally joined several parades. (In one, he and his brother took a wrong turn and found themselves driving between floats in a gay pride parade. “What did you do?” I asked. “We smiled and waved.”) Our blind date replays in my head on a continuous loop. I can’t wait until Saturday. I want to learn everything about him.
Exhausted, I drag myself through work the next day. When I arrive home, a paperback book is leaning against my door. Angle of Repose. It is inscribed: TO LILY, HAPPY BIRTHDAY AND HAPPY READING! SCOTT.
I call to thank him but he’s not home, so I leave a message. As soon as I hang up, I phone Larrison to recount the date and analyze the gift.
“I think he likes me,” I conclude. “If he just wanted to be friends, he would have lent me his copy of the book, not bought me a new one.”
On Saturday, Scott swings by my apartment in his twelve-year-old red Toyota pickup and drives me to the party. Afterward, we go to his house, where I meet his giant white dog, Bob. Bob barely swishes his tail at me before lunging toward his leash. He wants a walk, and we oblige. We walk down dark streets and through empty city parks. We walk over footbridges that span the black, swirling Deschutes River. We walk past lit windows framing families washing dishes and winding down for bed. We walk slowly, to let Bob sniff around and, mostly, to savor each other’s questions, stories and jokes.
For the next week, I come home from work each evening and fix myself a quick dinner, then go to Scott’s house. Together, we walk Bob all over town. We talk and laugh and listen. And then for some reason, when bedtime beckons and it’s finally time to say good night, shyness overcomes us. Nine days pass by—countless hours spent talking about everything we can think of—before we work up the nerve for one kiss. Don’t get me wrong, the kiss is slow and sexy and loaded with sweet promise. It’s just not enough.
The next night, Scott has tickets to hear an author, David James Duncan, give a reading. I’ve never read any of his work, but Scott’s a fan. As we walk to the Tower Theater, an old art deco building, Scott tells me about The River Why, Duncan’s philosophical novel about fly-fishing. Instead of bait or lures, fly-fishermen try to attract their prey using pieces of fur and feathers tied to a fishhook to mimic a real, juicy bug. Many fly-fishermen, including Scott, catch a fish for the thrill of it, then let it go. Fishing is a passion of Scott’s, and apparently many others in Bend share it, too, because the theater is packed when we arrive. We settle into our seats, and I make sure our arms are touching on the armrest.
Before one reading, Duncan explains that one of his students was recently bothered by the practice of catch-and-release. She told him that it amounts to taunting fish since it serves no practical purpose like, say, harvesting food. So Duncan responded with this humorous essay from the fish’s perspective. It opens with a fish feeding on insects as usual until one particularly ferocious bug bites back, piercing the fish’s lip. The fish panics as the vicious fly refuses to let go. Suddenly, a benevolent angler steps out of nowhere, finally offering relief from the evil bug. Then the angler, the hero, sends the fish on its way.
As Scott walks me home, our arms linked, I ask him to take me fly-fishing sometime. But by the time we get to my apartment, I’ve forgotten all about fishing.
“Want to come in?”
“Sure.” Scott smiles.
I unlock the door and rack my brain for what to say next. Something witty. Something about how much I like him. Without a hint of desperation or overthinking. The door closes behind us. We look at each other.
I don’t need a line. I need him.
We collide like two black holes. Lips. Arms. Tongues. Legs. Teeth. There’s no time to build sensibly from delicate pecking. We’ve wasted so much time already, with our stupid talking and walking. We rush to uncover the physical facts that have been ignored during this otherwise thorough courtship.
Summer arrives, and the days get longer but never long enough. The nights are also too short. On weekends, we spend every minute together. Some days we sleep late and walk downtown for brunch at eleven—it’s two o’clock in New York, I tell myself. When the snow is melted off Black Butte, per a local rule of thumb, we plant a garden in Scott’s backyard. And then one weekend, he takes me fishing. Fly-fishing will turn out to be my gateway drug to hunting.
We drive north along the Deschutes River, following the water downstream for a little over an hour, until we get to the head of a desert canyon. We park and Scott pulls out two pairs of overall-style waders. The pants and bibs are made from the stuff of raincoats. The feet are neoprene, similar to the fabric used in wet suits. My waders are way too big, and I joke that I belong on a lobster boat. We hike into the canyon, each of us carrying a fishing rod so lightweight that it might as well be a dried reed.
In fly-fishing, Scott tells me, you try to give the fish every possible advantage without totally sinking things in its favor. This will be more complicated than the kind of fishing I tried a few times as a child: Spear a worm on a hook, dangle it in the water, wait. And wait.
Scott chooses a fly for me and ties it onto my line. On a trail overlooking the river, he helps me decide where to cast. A deep pool, perhaps, where fish seek refuge from the hot sun. Or a fast-moving riffle, where they gorge themselves on insects caught in the current. A submerged fallen tree makes a good hiding spot for fish, he tells me, but it can be a deadly trap for a fishing line.
To get my fly to this perfect piece of water, I will have to cast it. Picturing Brad Pitt in A River Runs Through It, I request a demonstration. Scott wades a few feet into the water and flings out yard after yard of graceful, looping line. It careers in front of him, then behind him, then in front again. With each toss, the flex of his fishing rod pulls out more line. When he has released enough line to reach a particular spot on the river, he lays it down in one smooth wave across the water, so the fly at the end lands without a splash.
“Now it’s your turn,” he says, reeling in his line.
“Uh, I’m not sure I can do that.”
“You’ll work your way up to it. Trust me.”
I step into the water and feel the cold river swirl against my legs. It’s a strange sensation, wading into a river without actually getting wet. Scott stands behind me, the length of his body pressed against mine, his arms wrapped around my arms. I feel his breath on my neck as he swings me through the motions of a perfect cast. I feel graceful, as if his fishing know-how is becoming mine through osmosis. It’s easy. It’s natural. I should have been fly-fishing all my life.
Then Scott steps away so I can try on my own. I let out just six feet or so of line, and flick my rod backward, then forward. The line plops in a depressing coil in front of my legs.
“That’s good! Next time, try to keep your wrist straight.”
When I finally do manage to launch my fly and keep my line straight, I puff with pride until I notice that the fly is so close to me, any fish who can see it can also see my legs.
I cast again and watch the fly drift past me downstream.
“Eat it!” I whisper.
“If you cast twice in one place and nothing bites,” Scott pipes in, “take a step downstream before you cast again. There’s no point in casting to the same spot over and over.”
“But aren’t they swimming back and forth down there?” I imagine that my fly lands like a neon billboard atop a fish superhighway. Sure, one picky commuter might swim by. But any second now, another will be tempted to stop and take a bite.
Scott stares at me. Apparently he has a different vision of underwater life.
“Uh, yeah,” he starts slowly, “they’re swimming. But not everywhere, all the time. The more water you cover, the more fish will see your fly.”
On my next cast, the hook snags on a branch behind me. Scott hurries up to it and picks it off the shrub. Soon, satisfied that my casting is improving even though it still feels nothing but awkward to me, he wades downstream to start fishing himself.
“You’re doing great,” he says, his eyes locked on to a promising riffle. “Yell if you need me.”
A few casts later, my hook grabs onto a thorny wild rose and won’t let go. Scott is too far downstream, casting what looks like a quarter mile of line, to reach it for me. Branches scrape my arm as I reach for my fly. The line is not only hooked, it’s actually wrapped around the tip of a branch.
After an hour or so, my right arm is tired, even though the rod I’ve borrowed from Scott weighs less than a pound. Something—I’m not sure what—keeps pulling back my arm for one more cast. Then one more after that.
“Fly-fishing is a sport for optimists,” I remember Scott saying.
I haven’t seen a single fish, but Scott has told me to trust that they’re there. And if I ever stopped to think about it, I’d believe him. But I don’t stop to think. I’m so caught up in my own actions—perfecting the motions of my arm, trying to let out a little more line, scanning the river for other promising spots—that I forget all about the fish.
As my fly drifts past me, I try to memorize Scott’s pointers: Cast from the elbow and shoulder, not the wrist. Lift as much line off the water as you can before flinging the fly upstream. Give the line time to unfold in the air before jerking it in another direction. Keep your fly on the water as long as possible—you can’t catch a fish if your fly is in the air.
I’m so wrapped up in all of this that I barely notice when the fluorescent bit of foam that is stuck to my fishing line pops below the surface of the water. I see it, and even feel a little tug on my rod, but I don’t think anything of it. In fact, Scott notices before I do.
“Hey, you’ve got a fish!” He hurries upstream toward me.
Fish! I’d forgotten about fish. Adrenaline floods my veins.
“Keep your rod tip up,” Scott says calmly. “And keep your line tight. When the fish pulls against you, let it take as much line as it wants. As soon as it stops, reel it in.”
Excerpted from Call of the Mild by Raff McCaulou, Lily Copyright © 2012 by Raff McCaulou, Lily. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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