Hunter's friend Ty survived war in the Middle East only to succumb to cancer at home. On a quest with his college buddies and Ty's father, Hunter journeys from South Texas into the mountains and desert of West Texas to bury his close friend. During this trek, they'll drink, hunt, party, and encounter unexpected people and enthralling landscapes as Hunter deals with his grief, compounded by his struggle with depression and obsessive-compulsive disorder.
The West Texas Pilgrimage is a love letter to West Texas and the wild culture that defines it. Author M. M. Wolthoff vividly depicts the regional landscape, exploring intriguing stops along the way and the authentic context of music, food, and language integral to this generation of Texans, while frankly and thoughtfully addressing relationships, mourning, and mental illness, with characters as unforgettable as the region itself.
|Publisher:||River Grove Books|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.51(d)|
Read an Excerpt
The West Texas Pilgrimage
By M. M. Wolthoff
River Grove BooksCopyright © 2016 Matt Wolthoff
All rights reserved.
EL MUY GRANDE
It had been a slow afternoon in the blind. The only sign of life had been a two-and-a-half-year-old ten-point chasing a hot doe across the sendero and into the mesquite brush. Although his headgear looked impressive, his lack of caution and underdeveloped body indicated his immaturity. Hunter looked down the dusty trail to the south and beyond the enormous gravity protein feeder that sat a hundred yards from his twelve-foot-high camouflage fiberglass enclosure. Cinco, Hunter's best friend, had corned the sendero all the way to the end when he had dropped Hunter off earlier in the afternoon, but nothing had come out to eat. The rut, that two-week timeframe when whitetail bucks lose all inhibitions in their quest for a breeding doe, was all but over, and the lack of activity confirmed it.
Hunter checked the weather on his iPhone. It was unseasonably hot for early January, even for South Texas, but the forecast called for a norther blowing in by evening. The winds were already picking up from the north, and he could feel the change in temperature, which had already dropped ten degrees in the hour that he had been sitting. When he climbed up into the blind, he had been comfortable in a short-sleeve shirt, but the chill in the air told him it was time to put on his fleece camouflage vest.
The phone vibrated, and a text message from Cinco popped up on the screen. "Anything?"
Hunter typed his reply: "nada mucho. saw a 2.5 yr old 10 pt chasing, you?"
The counter reply was nearly instantaneous: "2 pigs and an 8 point."
Cinco was on the other side of the ranch, sitting in his top-drive three-quarter-ton Ford with a space-age-looking blind in the back, where the bed used to be. It wasn't enough to be able to drive it from on top of the cab; Cinco had to have a blind that could be hydraulically raised twenty feet in the air. Hunter laughed when he thought about the cost of that toy and how deer must react when they see it coming.
He removed his camouflage baseball cap, ran his hands through his shaggy yet thinning dark-brown hair, and put the cap back in place. As he took a long pull from the Cuba libre he'd mixed before the hunt, he surveyed the landscape around him, making sure he wasn't missing anything moving. Normally a beer drinker during the day, he found that a rum and Coke was a good cocktail for the blind. He could sip it, get a good buzz, and not have to get out of the blind to piss like he would after several beers. A big deer would spook from the commotion of climbing out of the blind, and once he caught a whiff of human urine, he wouldn't be back anytime soon.
The slightly dimmed yellows and oranges on the horizon indicated the sun was setting over the White Ranch of Jim Hogg County. The sendero to his west opened up into a hundred-acre pasture that the White family had entered into the US Department of Agriculture Conservation Reserve Program — CRP — several years earlier. The program paid ranchers or farmers to designate land for native grasses and wildlife rather than farming or grazing it. This pasture of tall, brown grasses with a few mesquite trees mixed in had become a quail haven over the last few years, but the drought had nearly wiped out the quail population on the ranch. Hunter and Cinco had only seen two small coveys in the day and a half that they had been there.
Hunter S. Sharp was in his element. There was something about sitting in a deer blind by himself that was better than any therapy money could buy. He found a peace in the wild South Texas brush country that the city lights of San Antonio could never bring him. It was peace of mind that Hunter sought so desperately and that seemed to be increasingly hard to find. This was the first time in two months that he could think halfway clearly. When Ty Sanderson, one of his best friends since Hunter and his family had moved to San Antonio from The Valley prior to high school, lost his battle with cancer a month ago, Hunter started to feel his grip on his own well-being slowly slip away. Sleep had been the first thing to go, followed by increasing levels of anxiety that seemed to twist his insides up like a pretzel. Over time, a cloud of darkness had set in, along with a lack of interest in everything: work, relationships, family — anything that truly mattered.
When Robert "Cinco" White V, Hunter's other closest buddy from high school and fraternity brother at the University of Texas, suggested Hunter come down to the ranch before the weekend trip, he jumped at the opportunity. Cinco's family ranch was one of his favorite places, second maybe only to the flats of the Lower Laguna Madre, where he grew up stalking redfish. It would be a getaway before their group of friends said their final good-byes to Ty. In a world that seemed to be ever changing with careers, marriages, and all of the challenging aspects of facing life as an adult, Cinco had been a constant, always there for him. Hunter hoped Cinco's recent engagement wouldn't change their relationship. He'd hardly seen some of their close friends after they got married. He understood that priorities change over time, but all of a sudden, the hunting and fishing trips were less important than weddings, engagement parties, baby showers, and other seemingly endless social events. Cinco, who was already much more heavily connected in the San Antonio social scene than Hunter had ever been or cared to be, would inevitably be sucked in further by his equally well-connected fiancée.
Hunter tucked his hands into the pockets of his fleece vest, folded up his collar, and stared down the sendero while reflecting on how much life had changed. Hunter had graduated from Alamo Heights High School in San Antonio as an all-state linebacker, on his way to greatness at the University of Texas. Football, school, fraternity life, and increasing levels of personal struggle and internal strife had been too much to juggle, so he had decided to focus on partying and having fun. Unlike Ty, he had managed to do just enough to get by in school, which bought him four years of virtually no responsibility.
Beth, his high school girlfriend, had followed him to Austin, but they drifted apart because he couldn't commit to the relationship. At the time, he'd thought staying together meant marriage for sure. Not only was he having too much fun to settle down, but he also didn't want to miss an opportunity for something better. Besides, it wouldn't have worked anyway because her family was weird; they didn't like football, didn't hunt or fish, and probably voted for Obama in '08. At least that's what Hunter told himself when he thought about her, which was often. Beth got married last July and apparently never looked back.
Then there was Ty. He had always been the toughest son of a bitch Hunter had ever met. Ty lived hard and fast. He had also graduated from Alamo Heights with Hunter and Cinco and pledged the same fraternity at UT, but that was where their paths diverged. Ty was never much into school. Hunter wasn't quite sure how Ty got through the first year, but he was absolutely positive that Ty hadn't attended a single class his sophomore year. Austin had a way of creating distractions for an eighteen-year-old. Ty was either planning the next party at the fraternity house, driving back and forth between Austin and his parents' ranch on the Devils River, or chasing women on 6th Street. Hunter couldn't count the times he'd gotten up to go to school to find Ty facedown on their living room floor or, even better, discovered that Ty had brought a new "roommate" home with him from the bars.
Ty certainly got the most of that year and a half, but it wasn't sustainable. When he failed out of school, he tried to stay around Austin for a semester, but his dad, a prominent San Antonio neurosurgeon, wasn't about to support his party lifestyle any longer. Ty enrolled at San Antonio Community College the next semester, but that wasn't for him either. There was a war going on in the Middle East, and Ty had never shied away from a fight. He had been talking about enlisting since he and Hunter had watched the Twin Towers collapse on September 11, 2001. In mid-2003, he enlisted in the army and went Special Forces. He survived two years in Afghanistan, but when he visited Austin on leave, Hunter could tell he'd changed. He still partied hard, maybe even harder, but there was a seriousness — or maybe a lack of ease — that had never been there before. Hunter remembered catching him in the thousand-yard stare that people say is typical of hardened combat veterans.
When Ty got out of the army and announced he was getting married to Jessica Williams from Dallas, a girl they all knew from college, it took everybody by surprise. The courtship could not have been very long, since Ty was constantly deployed. That was Ty: one hundred percent all-in at full speed, even when it came to falling in love.
A year later, in June, when Jessica was expecting Ty Junior, the most shocking news of all came by way of a late-night phone call. Hunter remembered that call vividly, because it was the first time he had ever heard fear in Ty's voice. Ty had been to a physician because he hadn't been feeling well. After several tests, he'd been diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. The prognosis was not good, and Ty was afraid he wouldn't be around to meet his son. Hunter, Cinco, all of their fraternity pledge class, many of Ty's army buddies, and most of the Alamo Heights community prayed for Ty to make it at least until his son was born. Ty Junior arrived in late October, and his daddy got to hold him. Although Ty had looked terrible, he was clearly overjoyed by the arrival of his son. Hunter couldn't help breaking down in tears when Ty asked him to be the boy's godfather.
Ty must have fought hard to get to October, because by mid-November, he was going downhill fast. Cinco and Hunter said their final good-byes in Ty and Jessica's house on Elmwood in Alamo Heights on December fifth. Ty died surrounded by family in the early morning hours of the next day.
Hunter removed his dark-brown-framed Costa Del Mar sunglasses and wiped his welled-up eyes as he thought about that last night with his best friend. It had only been a month ago, and he could still see the look of defeat in Ty's eyes. He had fought to the bitter end, and it was the only battle he had ever lost. Hunter found the bottom of his Stripes forty-four-ounce mug and finished off the last of the rum. He felt he should get his shit together so he could be there for Ty Junior, who was going to need as many father figures as he could get. Thus far, Hunter hadn't been of much help.
The sun was setting, so Cinco would be coming to get him shortly. The low light at dusk required using optics to effectively see anything. Hunter gripped his Steiner binoculars tight and surveyed the sendero to the south. The temperature had dropped even further, and the deer would be on the move.
Deer hunting could be a lot like billfishing in that it could be hours of nothingness, leaving one to get lost in deep thought, which could break into pure pandemonium in a split second. If the hunter or angler wasn't prepared for that second when the big deer showed himself or the billfish knocked down a line, he may not get a second shot.
Something caught his eye on the edge of the sendero, just south of the feeder. He could barely make out heavy horns protruding out of the thick, light-green mesquite and black brush. A big-bodied buck stepped out onto the sandy path and peered back at the deer blind, as if to check whether Hunter was watching. One cautious look to the south and one more step out toward the feeder left the deer's massive body completely exposed. Hunter's heart rate rapidly increased as he tried to examine the buck's headgear through his binoculars. He carefully put down his Steiners and reached for his .270 Weatherby, where it rested against the corner of the blind. His grandfather had given him the rifle at his high school graduation. The Leupold three-by-nine magnification scope mounted on his rifle would certainly give him a better look at the monster now standing under the feeder.
Hunter leveled the wood stock of his rifle on the window ledge of the blind and adjusted the magnification of the scope to full nine power. The buck tilted his head back and buried his long nose in an arm of the gravity feeder, revealing his massive neck and chest. He looked worn out from the rut and had clearly lost weight, as his belly wasn't as low-hanging as Hunter would have expected on a mature buck. He was mature though; Hunter was sure of that. The massive horns, long snout, squinty eyes, and noticeably loose skin around his brisket indicated that he was at least six and a half. From his vantage point, Hunter could see six typical tall points of his left main beam. The G2 and G3 points, the second and third points on the antler up from the brow tines, were at least a foot long.
Hunter intentionally slowed his breathing, although he had no intention of pulling the trigger. He had not even chambered a shell in the rifle. The buck took a breather from eating the protein pellets and turned his massive head north toward the blind, allowing Hunter to see his right side.
"Oh my God," Hunter exclaimed under his breath. The deer was bigger than any he had seen on the hoof. The right antler had six tall typical points equal to the left side, with a drop tine hanging down off of the main beam that was at least six inches long, adding up to thirteen total points. Hunter estimated at least a twenty-five-inch spread between beams; he was as wide as he was tall. He did the math to get a Boone and Crockett score and realized that he was watching a 180-class deer.
Hunter focused the crosshairs in his scope on the buck's shoulder and imagined pulling the trigger. The biggest deer he had ever shot was an eight-point management buck on the White Ranch that scored in the high 140s.
This is your lucky day, brother. You can make it one more year, Hunter thought.
The buck must have sensed danger or got his fill of protein, because just as stealthily as the monster had appeared in the sendero from the west, he disappeared through the brush to the east. Deer like that never stick around long.
Something about watching the deer lifted Hunter's spirits and gave him some hope that things would get better. He took it as a sign from God to remain faithful. Although self-admittedly not a model Christian and despite relatively little actual knowledge of the Bible, Hunter believed in God. His faith may have been due to his surroundings growing up and the influence of friends with strong faith, or maybe it was because the alternative to God's existence was too scary a scenario. He said a quick prayer of thanks under his breath and reached again for his phone.
He texted Cinco again: "BIG deer at the feeder ... you on your way? Need rum."
Cinco's reply came in seconds: "packing up and heading your way."
It was completely dark now, and the cloud cover hid the normally bright stars over the South Texas brush country. It was also considerably colder than it had been hours earlier, and Hunter's fleece vest wasn't doing the trick.
Cinco pulled up to the blind about fifteen minutes later. Hunter could see the headlights of the truck coming from across the CRP field to the west. He closed the windows, shouldered his rifle, and backed his way out of the blind and down the twelve-foot ladder, which was no small feat for his six-foot-one, 245-pound frame. When he opened the passenger's door to the truck, Hunter was relieved that Cinco was blasting the heater.
"What did you see, bud?" Cinco, a wiry five-foot-ten, leaned back in the driver's seat, reached out his right hand to grab Hunter's rifle, and positioned it between the passenger's seat and the center console, the barrel down toward the floorboard.
"Man, el muy grande." Hunter opened the rear door of the crew cab to find his bottle of Bacardi. "Biggest deer I've ever seen on the hoof," he said. "Thirteen pointer with a big drop tine, every bit one-eighty. Probably six and a half years old." He grabbed some ice from the cooler, halfway filled his Stripes mug with rum, popped open a Diet Coke to mix, and squeezed half of a lime into his Cuba.
Excerpted from The West Texas Pilgrimage by M. M. Wolthoff. Copyright © 2016 Matt Wolthoff. Excerpted by permission of River Grove Books.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I have mixed feelings on this book. If you can get past the amount of alcohol that the characters are drinking and that they are driving while drinking, the underlying story is actually a good one. The story centers around 4 friends getting together to put a 5th friend, Ty, to rest that lost a battle to cancer. Most of them knew each other growing up, but a few were added during college. So after Ty was cremated, his father gathers the friends and they make a journey to West Texas and Big Bend National Park to say their final farewells to Ty and remember the man he was to each of them. But in getting to that part of the story (which is about 75% of the way into the book), there is a personal journey for Hunter. He is dealing with depression, and like most people, feels like he cannot discuss it with any of his friends and walks a fine line between drinking a lot or taking a pill to help him sleep. He is hiding a pain that goes deep for him, and perhaps he felt some shame in his diagnosis. He finally talks to his buddy Cinco, but not until Cinco practically drags it out of him near the end of the book. Until that point he just drinks a lot to keep his buzz going. I think many people could relate to Hunter and what he was going through in his life. I thought the author did a good job describing West Texas and the small towns and what you might expect to see if you visit those areas. It is a part of Texas my husband and I want to visit, so I liked getting a view into what I could expect to find when we visit that part of the state. Overall the book is somewhat depressing and I was surprised no one else died behind the wheel or from the excessive drinking. It could easily have happened considering how much each person drank in the few days this story spans. The only sane person was the father, Dr Sanderson, but I chalk that up to age. But at the same time, the reason for the gathering was touching and my favorite part of the book is when they were on a summit at San Isabel Peak saying goodbye to Ty and they each brought a memento that reminded them of their time with him or what represented his life. I actually had tears in my eyes reading song lyrics one friend wrote. The words were very touching and I could see it being made into a song. We give it 3 paws up and worth reading!