From as early as I can remember, I have been drawn to the natural world. It wasn’t until I was 13 though that I really had the chance to indulge and develop the skills and respect for nature that has led to this period in my life.
In 1969, my family moved from California to Owasso, Oklahoma. I had an aunt and uncle living within bicycle distance to our house and they had several acres of pecan trees I could roam at will. During that time, I also got a paper route and saved enough money for my first firearm…a .22 cal Marlin semi-auto rifle! That little rifle held 18 rounds and was super accurate. It became an almost constant companion in the years to come.
We only stayed in Oklahoma for a year then in 1970, moved to the Ozark mountains of Arkansas. My dad owned 160 acres at the head of the Little Red River. Closest towns were Leslie, Clinton, and Marshall. To me, this was literally heaven on earth! An uncle of mine called it “the jumping off place” because if you ever wanted to jump off the civilized world and get lost, that was the place to do it.
Wildlife abounded in that part of the mountains. Whitetail deer, cottontail rabbits, red and gray squirrels, turkey, quail…the list is almost endless. Hunting became more than a hobby, it became a great obsession to me. My dad taught me the basic morals of hunting but pretty much left me on my own to figure out the “how”. It was tough going for an impatient young teenager!
Living in a small trailer along the dirt road into our place was an old man with a huge pack of dogs. The story of this man’s life was well known in those parts. Apparently, he had successfully doged the draft during WWII and evaded all law enforcement attempts at tracking him down. His name was Everett.
I met Everett in a “round about” way one summer day while I was out exploring. In fact, I met his pack of dogs first. I was pretty much just wandering when about a dozen wild and mean sounding dogs came running at me and backed me against a tree. While I was trying to get my composure back and figure out just what to do about all these dogs, I heard a loud voice yelling “how come none of them dogs is dead yet?!”. I replied to the voice, “I don’t know who they belong to.” Well, Everett came walking up and said, “those are my dogs and the next time they do that, start shooting!”
That was my introduction to Everett. From that day on, he kind of took me under his wing and began to teach me the ways of the wild. I guess it is more accurate to say he allowed me to discover the ways of the wild while he made sure I didn’t get hurt. Sure there was a bit of teaching on his part but not a huge amount by any means!
One of the first sets of “lessons” had to do with not getting lost. Everett’s method was simple and effective. He would come by the house early in the morning and offer to take me hunting or digging ginseng roots. From my house, we would start walking. At first, I didn’t know enough to pay much attention to where we were going but that soon changed. About half way through the day, Everett would announce that it was time to go home and then he would put me in charge of leading. Everett had no time limits and wasn’t in any hurry. He let me make as many mistakes as required only occasionally dropping a hint about our direction. We always go to my house before dark and as the months and years went by, I found that somehow, I had gained an ability to always find my way no matter what kind of wilderness I found myself in.
Another major deal in my outdoors education was patience! In order to hunt successfully, a person must be willing to do nothing more than wait and sit still with little or no motion. This is a particularly difficult lesson for a teen! Just sitting for hours at a time is much more difficult than you may think but it pays off! Everett led the way here. He would find a good squirrel hunting spot and show me the signs that he had looked for. Then he would point out good trees for us to sit up against. I had made up my mind to emulate Everett’s methods so as long as he sat, I did too.
Much of my outdoors education simply came from spending so much time in the woods. You tend to learn what works ad what doesn’t simply by trying things. For instance, I actually have tried building a fire from “rubbing two sticks together”. Yep, a “fire drill” does the job…eventually and at about the time you think your arms are gonna fall off is when you get your little ember. Take if from me, carry a lighter!
In the Ozarks, I learned to keep a close eye on the ground as well. It is on the ground where you will see the signs of wildlife you really don’t want to miss. You know, the little things like shredded nuts that tell you there are squirrels in the area, tracks of deer, and that rattlesnake laying just on the other side of the log you are stepping over.
It was by experimenting that I found out that some rocks just are not suitable for building a fire ring. It seems many of the rocks in the Ozarks have a lot of air in them. When those rocks are heated by your fire, the explode! I learned to examine my fire ring stones very carefully after getting hit by flying rock shards a couple of times.
I guess the short of this is that you have to get out there. Doing your reading and research is all well and good and I encourage you to do that but to really drive home the things you learn from the books, you have to get out there. For the complete novice, go out with someone with a lot of experience! If you can, join the scouts! As a very last resort, if you absolutely have no other way, prepare according to the books as best you can then venture out in very small outings near civilization. Try not to take chances with you life. As you gain real experience, you will begin to feel more at home in the wilderness. Nature is to be respected and if you have learned your way, that respect will keep you as safe a possible.
I haven’t been back to the Ozarks in a very long time and Everett is long gone. What remains though are the lessons learned and the memories of the people who helped me learn them. Those memories are precious to me and I hope they remain for what ever time I have left on this earth.
I am not sure why I wrote this. I guess I was just feeling nostalgic and wanted to share some of my fondest memories. I hope you enjoyed it!