by Mark Campbell

This article appears in the May/June 2002 issue of Quail Unlimited Magazine

There is a distinct difference between being a loner and being alone. I'm not exactly certain where that difference ends, but it begins with the fact that is it possible to be alone without being a loner. Each of us stands testament to this, unavoidably spending a few minutes of the day, 365 days a year, in complete solitude. It might be on the morning commute or in an elevator between meetings or in a place you'd never expect like the dentist's waiting room. But it is not a heartfelt desire to shun contact with others altogether, it is more happenstance than resolution, sometimes affection but never affliction.

Jim Harrison once wrote that "Strangely, as you grow older, if you can't hunt with any of two or three friends you'd rather hunt alone." I don't consider myself old, honestly I don't, but I do understand his sentiment. The people I most enjoy hunting with either live out of town or have several young children whose attention requirements restrict their leisure activities. Coordinating with one demands tactical forethought, with the other the deftness to seize a window of opportunity. If I worked the telephones I could find a companion of some description, but the thought of hunting alone is not the least bit appalling and actually appeals to me in a cheat-on-your-diet sort of way. It might not be what you set out to do, but it sure feels good when you're doing it.

My senses get a tremendous workout when hunting alone. I pay more attention to the weeds that sustain the birds during the winter. I stop to look at the uprooted stump of a sweetgum rather than stepping around it. The tree itself appears healthy, most likely a victim of a recent drenching rain followed by a stout wind, leaving the tree to point to others which way it blew. An arrowhead, the tip broken off most likely by a tractor or its implement, stares up from freshly turned dirt and conjures visions of hunters other than myself.

Unknown to the core cadre of free-tongued humans among us, there are sounds equally if not more pleasing than a human voice. Dried leaves crunching under foot, branches raking across a canvas jacket sleeve, crows mocking a man following a dog as if they actually understood what the man and dog were doing. Creeks and streams chant as they weave through grasses and clamber over rocks and fallen logs. These are sounds suffocated by voices.

Conversation with a hunting partner can wander as randomly as a snail's trail on your front porch, touching on subjects as distinctly different as Irish politics and auto repair. Blessed is the gentleman who keeps his cool through a hunt alongside an individual afflicted with diarrhea of the mouth. This is the guy whose tongue operates oblivious to all that surrounds it, who talks as if he were filibustering on the floor of Congress rather than approaching a dog quivering on point. When a dog's nose fills with the aroma of birds, the world collapses to a space extending barely beyond gun range and involving exactly one experience, one chain of brief events linked by cause and effect. Vocabularies shrink to a handful words revolving around the point, the flush, the shot and the outcome. Words from other experiences are merely unwelcome intruders.

If I get an impulse for dialogue, the dog is always willing. Granted it's a bit one-sided, if there is such a thing. He seems agreeable to my thoughts on all manner of subjects, voicing his concurrence by steadily going about the business at hand, never skidding to a stop and turning his head my way sporting the "are you out of your mind?" look. Sometimes an absence of discord tastes better than jellybeans.

There are practical matters to consider, too. It's probably one of those optical illusions, but I swear I shoot better when no one is around. It's not limited to quail hunting either. If I'm off in the far corner of the dove field, I can easily shoot my limit with one box of shells, often dropping four or five birds in a stretch without missing. But put me on a stand with another guy, any guy, and I'll put on a clinic listed in the course handbook as something like "Dove Preservation with a Shotgun" or "Introductory Load Economics - How to Keep the Shell Manufacturers Profitable". Quail hunting differs only in volume.

I'd love to think that I'm as cool as Clint Eastwood with a gun in my hands, and I honestly don't feel pressure in company. But on some subconscious level there is a gnat with a voice reminding me as I shoulder the gun that my compadre is watching, and that I'll look like a hero if I make this shot. And that I'll still have zero for the day if I miss it. I never cared much for gnats, but I never managed to swat many either.

The lack of guests is conducive to letting a few notches out of your worry belt. Not to imply that a hunting partner is a burden, but when I invite someone to join me I want him get home in the evening with the feeling that he chose wisely. I'd rather he didn't have such an awful time that he wished he'd cleaned the gutters instead. All by my lonesome, I can walk with the assurance that I would not rather be doing household chores or much of anything else, and I can guarantee that my dog is equally blind to alternatives.

I don't consider myself a loner. I also don't think people should spend all of their time with other people. Time alone is good medicine. Most of us have days that are filled by the agendas of others; meet with this person, finish a report for that person, call him, e-mail her, take a look at this (when you get a chance, of course) and tell me what you think about it. Save that accidental moment in the elevator or that drive to work when you forgot to turn on your cell phone, someone or something will inevitably encroach upon that one little corner that is reserved for you. Your brain needs a little time to itself, time to forage instead of being fed.

A desire to hunt alone does not make an individual an eccentric or a misfit or a recluse or a freak from whom to shield your children. More than likely it suggests a person who is at ease with himself, who values what his own mind has to say enough to allow it a few hours of unbroken monologue. But be warned: it may be habit-forming.

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