Laughter rang out as eight women from all walks of life posed for a last picture together. Jokes no one else would understand about sweet persimmons, sexy magic, unnamed songs, British accents and strange wake up dances flowed through the lodge until every bit of their existence vanished, as if they had never been there. Hugs and love yous flowed as freely as the wine days prior, separated and silenced only by the slamming of a car door, the slow crunch of gravel beneath a tire orchestra.
A lone turkey, taken moments prior to the final picture took center stage, held by my huntress twin, silently proclaimed to all the last tag had been filled, it was time to go.
Just hours before, tears flowed as I raised the white flag and emptied the Super Nova, signaling to the turkeys of Texas they had won. The tricky, tasty rios had thwarted my every advance. I wanted to keep chasing but an invisible lasso was pulling me back to the lodge, back to real life. I had never hunted so hard for anything in my life: walking away empty-handed was easy to accept, I had given it all I could but I didn't want to leave, didn't want the magic that took place March 14-18, 2014 to end.
I warned my Double B Outfitter, Greg, "You tell anyone I cried and I kill you." He laughed, knowing me by then, assured me he wouldn't. He offered to carry my gun the rest of the way to the truck, knowing full well I'd refuse his chivalry which I did. He chose that moment to do exactly what I needed: nothing. The nothingness continued, interrupted every so often by a sniffle, a quick tear wipe away until we were approaching the lodge. Greg, who must have noticed my valiant effort to put the pieces of myself back together reminded me simply, "keep the memories".
During the ten minutes it took to climb the road to camp, I amassed what I could.
Three of us rolled out of our beds early that morning to take part in a hell run. The last minute- mere hours before the flight leaves- hunt was our final go round, a final flip on the grill-- sizzling, screaming "It's done!"
Dapper Dick and his frightened bovine friend.A sunset the evening before was heralded in by a family of cows who were so terrified by Dapper Dick, they mooed loudly at him until they were satisfied he had been mooed sufficiently, causing Greg, Benelli's own Cristie Gates and me to laugh, despite the absence of true gobblers the mooers could have mooed at.
That morning, half of Team Sweet Persimmon was set up perfectly while the other wasn't. The latter, one Kirstie of Prois Hunting and Field Apparel apologized profusely as soon as I saw the stunning rio, saying, "I know you had the first shot but I had to! He was eight yards away!" Or at least that's what I assumed she was saying over my screams of congratulations.
What seemed like moments prior, the team gathered at the truck and said a few words about our last morning hunt as #TeamSweetPersimmon. The words will stay unwritten, as they were said to one another and the wind, blown away to float about Texas and in our hearts until we can no longer recall them, disappearing forever.
As our guides propelled their weary bodies towards the front door of the lodge that morning, they were not greeted by 8 smiling, eager faces but with tampons strewn about the floor, hair curlers and dyers hung to every surface.
I awoke that morning to the sight of a cell phone dancing in midair, expelling a groovy wake up call which I momentarily jammed out to while encouraging Natalie of Girls Guide to Guns to join in. She pulled her pillow over her head and mumbled something that sounded like, "Seriously..is it 5:00 already?"
Sunday ended with a triple-bearded gobbler giving us the slip while mere yards away Barbara of the Women's Outdoor News, scored with her first kill of the trip.
The day's beginning was windy. Kirstie, Greg, and I hadn't seen much of anything by the time we started to amuse ourselves by falling asleep next to trees and naming our decoy Dapper Dick for his excellent hen wooing skills.
Our first day at the lodge ended as the rest would unfold, with mouthwatering food crafted by the hands of a trio of ladies whose hospitality knew no bounds. Guides joked with their hunters as well all told tales of the day, the swings, the misses, the hilarity therein.
As we closed the book on our first hunting day, before navigating the winding roads to the lodge, we waited for one of the guides, Mike, to join our convoy. When he did, all we heard was, "Regina got a..." before we sprinted from our truck to his to survey her first kill ever--an absolutely stunning rio. We had to hear the story along with each infinitesimal detail while night fell around us like a heavy, cactus-spine blanket.
Midway through Saturday, Kirstie and I pointed to a plant and asked Greg, "what's that?" He gave us a look which I recognized as the one I used to reserve for only the hopeless of my students and drawled, "sweet persimmons." This we found absolutely hilarious. We began using it in every way imaginable and thus, our team name was born.
Pre-Team-Sweet-Persimmons, we army crawled, shimmied, and ran to the gobble of the nearest turkey. The first one we saw that morning was so hot for Greg's call he began sprinting in our direction. Only 20 minutes into the hunt, I was so unprepared and overly excited as the gobbler advanced, I began to shake. By the time he was within shooting range, my head decided to battle my heart for contention as the reigning champion of the "World's Loudest Organ" competition. Greg whispered from behind, "I've got to get next to her, she's gonna have a heart attack!"
I couldn't sleep the night before our opening day. My heart pounded all night in anticipation for the hunt, a tattoo I'd come to keenly know each time I'd spot a turkey during the #BenelliTexasTurkeyAdventure.
The night before opening day saw our group seated in a long row, rocking back and forth, back and forth, listening to the rules of camp, who would hunt with who, and what would unfold during the trip. Fun goodies were distributed then--turkey vests, calls, and t-shirts, bringing Christmas in March to our small corner of Texas.
Our shoulders were bruised then as we had just completed patterning our shotguns. Everyone, sans Natalie and my future Sweet Persimmon who hadn't arrived yet, took aim with their chosen gun. Before long, paper turkeys began falling to their deaths, crumpled when faced with an upcoming shot only to look valiantly on as a new target took its place. It was about this time that the jokes began to cause laughter, and, at least in Britney Southpaw Shooting Starr and my case, tears. I hadn't laughed that hard in longer than I could recall; my soul felt happy and fuzzy, which I attributed to a noxious combination of gunpowder, steel, and the contagious glee of everyone present.
We had only been at the lodge for two minutes before we were instructed to throw our belongings in either one of the rooms and head back out for patterning time. In those few minutes, I was able to introduce myself to the lodge which already felt a little like home with gorgeous mounts flanking each wall, tasteful to the point of art.
A smiling man, who we eventually knew as Tony, was the one who welcomed us to the gate as we finally pulled into Double B Outfitters. As we drew near, his black cowboy hat and permanent smile told us everything we needed to know about the jolly guide. When we first met the owner, Greg, he was all business, as he told me later, he didn't know what to expect from an all-female hunt and didn't want to start off on the wrong foot. Later, he joked the guys thought us ladies would be all about, "tampons and hair-curlers", which, as we've seen, wasn't far from the truth.
The ride to Double B should've been a calm, collected affair. However, it was anything but, especially for Britney Southpaw Shooting Starr and I, much to the abundant joy of our driver and future havalina killer, Laura. We shared stories the entire drive, laughed about stupid things the only way we can and speculated about the lodge, the hunt, what it would all bring.
When I first spotted Britney in the airport terminal, I wanted to knock every passenger over and run to her in a field of daisies like every sappy romantic comedy. However, we chose another route and simply hugged one another tightly while stamping our feet in unison. Our friendship had been four years in the making, a long distance affair, that made this hunt all the more special--we never thought we'd be able to hunt with one another and here were were, in the middle of Texas at an airport with an outside baggage claim-- we couldn't believe our luck.
A couple hours and hundreds of miles away, I finally landed in Dallas. With minutes to spare, I found my gate. Focused on the prospect of being able to rest my weary, cowboy booted feet, I grabbed the nearest seat. I texted my husband, told him I had made it, and was quick to eavesdrop on a conversation occurring to my right. I heard the words, "turkey hunt", "Double B", and "Benelli." Assuming these ladies would be my hunting companions, I scooted on over and introduced myself. Smiles beamed as we all got the awkward introductions out of the way, almost complete strangers, us five.
We soon became six, then seven, and because of Natalie's late arrival that night, many hours later, we were eight. But I didn't know that when I set off from Minot's chilly airport in the early hours of Friday morning. On the drive, my sleepy husband endured 45 minutes of my speculation. I talked endlessly about the kind of bird I wanted to shoot, about how it had been six long years sans a bagged wild turkey and how badly I wanted this to end the drought. How my gun would shoot, if I could shoot, how the hunt would go and if we'd mount the tom if I bagged one.
Which is all the more ironic now. I've surveyed every photograph I took during the trip and only a handful contain a dead bird. When I arrived home, the stories I told my husband wee into the morning hours had nothing--and yet everything--to do with turkeys. He didn't grasp the extent of the hilarity of the night we stayed up until one in the morning because the girls from the other room decided it was a great night to bid us good sleep in British accents and then proceed to use their hen calls while camouflaged behind our bunk bed ladders. Or the time Natalie realized, out loud, that penguins do in fact eat fish. Or when Regina, after killing her first bird, was listening to her guide, Mike, and couldn't take her eyes of her prize. Or when Jay, guide to the #BenelliTexasTurkeyAdventure stars, laughed so hard at my jacakalope hunting, he could barely breathe. And every moment in between, ones I'll never forget, the ones that made us a family.
I expected a lot of things during this hunt but what never even crossed my mind was the formation of a sisterhood. At times, I expected the roof to blow off the lodge with the amount of laughter, love, and excitement brewing within; filling my soul to the brim with a wholeness I haven't felt in months.
It's safe to say my heart hasn't completely healed since he passed. My hunting family, which I only realized I was a part moments after his gentle shove, took a blow that terrible day. It was ripped wide open after he made his leave from this life and entered the happy duck hunting grounds up above. He taught me everything he knew. I don't know if he somehow knew last fall he wouldn't make it to next season but he took every opportunity to show me the best duck holes, introduce me to the owners, to tell me his life story; the kinds of things I'm pretty sure no one else knows.
To borrow a line from Cristie, this experience left turkey prints on my heart forever, which now mingle with the waterfowl ones already there, left by a family that never would have been had I never chosen to be a hunter.
*This hunt never would have been able to be possible if it wasn't for the generosity of the Benelli Family of Arms. Sending many thanks to them, as well as Cristie and Keryn, for putting on this successful, life changing hunt.
*Double B Outfitters acted as the first home this hunting family knew and for that, I'll be forever grateful. Be sure to check them out, as their facilities are sublime, food amazing, and service second-to-none. The guides are pretty okay too, especially for enduring our insanity for four long days. Greg, Mike, Jay, and Tony all deserve standing ovations for their hard work, dedication, and sense of humor which I'm now performing, and will continue to perform as long as you're reading this. Sure, my arms will get tired but they deserve it, they really do.
*To the fellow members of the Sisterhood of the Spur: Kirstie, Brit, Cristie, Laura, Regina, Natalie, and Barb-- thank you for the memories, for the laughs, and for allowing me to keenly understand what it means to be a hunting family.