I went turkey hunting over Easter weekend with my son and brother in western Kansas and Nebraska. (I didn’t intentionally set it for this weekend, but you know how Easter is: it can’t keep track of it’s own birthday. Evidently, I can’t either.)
It was a guided trip by Mark Beamer; his hunting lodge is located near the state line, which makes a hunt possible in both states. The trip was a full immersion experience in rural America.
The lonely, huge vistas as Steve and I drove across the high plains on US 36 through north east Colorado were beautiful-and sad. Beautiful because they were so lonely. Sad because they were so lonely: rural America is being hollowed out. The legions of men, women and horses that were once required to farm these enormous expanses of land have been replaced by enormous (and enormously expensive) tractors and combines. And other equipment that I couldn’t even identify. Farm houses that sheltered a family now feature broken windows under sagging front porches; farmyards overgrown with weeds shelter coyotes and an occasional pheasant. Towns like Anton, Last Chance, and Joes have dried up and blown away.
We crossed into Kansas and got to Oberlin late in the afternoon. Its red brick streets, even if noisy, are a charming throwback.
While there, I got a call from my son, Byron, who was already at the hunting lodge-he drove over from Omaha. He informed us that we needed to make sure that our Kansas hunting licenses were in order. Mine was; Steve’s wasn’t.
We hustled over to the place where I had first learned about Beamers the summer before on a road trip to Omaha to visit Byron, Dale’s Fish ‘N’ Fun ‘N’ Gun. We got there just as they were locking up, but they opened the doors for us, got on their computer, and printed off the form Steve needed from the Kansas Department of Wildlife. Real small town hospitality; drop in next time you’re turkey hunting near Oberlin.
We got to the lodge as the sun was going down. Along with Byron, our two guides, Mark Beamer and his assistant, another Mark (I’ll call him “Jr.” for clarity, as needed), greeted us on the front porch that stretched the full width of the rustic, but comfortable structure. Stepping inside, two easy chairs and couches were ranged in front of a flat screen TV that, as I soon learned, was always tuned to the Hunting Channel. Apparently concerned that the TV functioned as a sort of 1984 telescreen and that animals on the shows might be able to see us, all the furniture was decked out in full camo. The five of us usually had our camo gear on as well.
Dinner was an extension of the full immersion experience. Our cook, Vanita, laid out a spread of venison burritos, canned green beans swimming in Velveeta sauce, and chopped lettuce surrounded by an array of Kraft bottles. When offered the salad, Mark Jr. declined, saying, “I don’t eat salad; I eat the animals that eat it.”
Breakfast at 4 on Friday morning was Raisin Bran; it was the only fruit I had during the weekend. Byron and I were out in the early morning chill with our guide, Mark Jr., by 5. We were hunting in Kansas today.
It had rained the night before and was still misting. The gumbo roads were greasy as Mark drifted his pickup down roller coaster hills-and up the other side. Gouts of mud flashed through the headlights before thumping on the windshield. Like Mark, I hadn’t buckled up when we left the lodge; discreetly, I did now. And hoped that Byron had done likewise behind me.
Just after a barely visible wooded bottom, the road took a 90° turn to the right. Mark negotiated the corner and switched on the parking lights. “We pull off right up here and walk down to the blind.”
Only discernible because the turn into the pasture on our right was a paler shade of black, Mark parked and put on a headlamp that cast a faint pink glow. Quietly opening his door, he walked forward to open the barbed wire fence. Coming back, he poked in his head and said, “Here’s where we get out. Grab your guns and be quiet.”
We did so and, imitating Mark, held up the handle while we closed the door and then gave it a final shove so the lock engaged with a barely audible click.
Between the double bull blind, the folding camp chairs, and the duffle bags crammed with decoys, Mark was loaded up like a pack animal as we followed his head lamp through the gate and down the the gentle, but uneven grade of the meadow. Without prompting, Byron volunteered to carry both our guns. Walking on a perfectly smooth sidewalk is difficult for me because of NPH; the dark, hummocky pasture was anything but perfect. Despite his burden, Mark’s strong right arm was an invaluable assistance.
It was 6:30 by the time Mark got the blind up, set out the decoys 20 yards to our left, and we were all settled in our chairs peering through the slits of the blind. We put on our camo face masks as the sky turned a paler shade of gray.
From behind us, Mark started talkin’ turkey. Big time.
We listened intently. Nothing came back through the gloom. And didn’t as Mark continued to call with several variations on the same theme for the next forty five minutes.
Then, after the light had revealed the tree line that encircled our pasture 100 yards out, Byron’s low voice came over my right shoulder, “They’re coming in from our left.” My side of the blind.
Three dark, sleek forms, by fits and starts, sauntered towards our decoys. Mark’s now slightly more insistent gobble occasionally came from over our shoulders. “Be quiet,” he whispered, “and don’t move.” Inserting an assortment of semi-circular bits of plastic and cellophane between his teeth, Mark could produce an amazing variety of gobbles, cackles, purrs, yelps and whines. The birds were as helpless as Ulysses before the Sirens.
In a tightly packed flock, the turkeys came to rest among our decoys. My gun was already resting on the slit in the blind to my left; I raised the butt to my shoulder. The safety came off with a metallic click that, to my ears, seemed to thunder through the blind; the birds still appeared clueless. “Wait until they separate,” whispered Mark into my ear, “you only want to get one.”
Finally, one moved further to my right and, craning his neck up to his full four foot height, presented a target that seemed much taller. And too big to miss. Aiming below his head and above the breast, I pulled the trigger.
I didn’t hear anything. But, in the early morning gloom, a yellow ball of flame erupted that filled my field of vision. And then-nothing.
Had I missed him?
Then, from behind me, “Good shot!”
Outside, the jake lay crumpled in an awkward heap, his wings and body still spasmodically convulsing. The two other birds stood where they had been when their comrade was cut down.
“Those other two still don’t even know what happened,” said Mark. “Watch. They’ll climb up and start beating on him.”
Sure enough, less than a minute later one of them climbed aboard and started pecking. But he and his buddy took off when we climbed out of the blind to retrieve the now dead bird.
It was 7:30. I was done hunting in Kansas.
Mark and Byron waited for a while before concluding that they would be more likely to be successful leaving the blind behind and stalking birds in another location. Mark loaded up the decoys, Byron took both guns, and they headed back to the truck. I hunkered down in my parka and tried to get comfortable in the camp chair.
Next thing I knew, there was a loud thump on the roof of the blind. “You awake in there?” sang out Mark.
“I am now,” I replied, surfacing from a deep and profoundly satisfying nap. “How did you guys do?”
“Byron got his bird. Let’s head back and get some lunch.”
On the way, Byron and Mark took turns recounting how they had gone to another tree lined creek bottom, took cover in some bushes behind the decoys, and how two toms had, again, succumbed to the siren call. Mark captured the final moments on video here. CAUTION: SOME VIEWERS MAY FIND THESE IMAGES DISTURBING. OR IRRESISTIBLE. OR AMUSING. OR ALL OF THE ABOVE. (Remember, this bird stood a much better chance than the turkey that went through the slaughter house before landing in the frozen meat section for your last Thanksgiving dinner.)
After lunch and another nap, Byron and I drove the 30 miles to Norton, Kansas; I wanted to scout out churches in case I was done hunting in Nebraska by Easter Sunday. Trinity Episcopal Church, a beautiful little structure just north of downtown, looked like it would admirably fill the bill.
That night, the cigar smoke and talk on the front porch got a bit blue for my taste; I went inside to visit with Vanita as she cleaned up after dinner. With a ready smile on a broad, ruddy face, she told me how still lives in the town where she was born, about 30 miles south of the lodge.
When she was scarcely more than an infant, her father had been thrown from his car in a roll over accident; the Kansas highway department had failed to adequately mark a road construction site. Her uncle was one of the EMTs that had responded to the wreck. Her dad was moved without being adequately strapped to the stretcher; he wound up a quadriplegic.
“We never sued anyone. My uncle still feels terrible about that. My mom, who was only a girl at the time, left; she couldn’t handle it. But,” she concluded, “my dad was a great guy.”
Her daughter, Jesse, who helped her mom some with the cooking chores over the weekend, ran track at her high school of about 50 kids. She took first place in the pole vault at the next day’s meet. I understood where Vanita’s deep suntan had come from.
I just realized that I underestimated how much fruit I had over the weekend; I had raisins again Saturday morning. But breakfast was every bit as early. Actually, earlier; it was a longer drive to our set up in Nebraska.
I won’t tell you about the jake I missed that morning at about the same range as the day before-because I can’t. How do you miss a target like that at that range? Simple: buck fever. Except, of course, we weren’t hunting bucks.
Nonetheless, I had my second and last bird by late afternoon.
Despite it being Easter, I confess to to the sin of smugness when I heard the other guys getting ready to head out at 4 the next morning. But it didn’t last long; I promptly rolled over and went back to sleep ’til 7.
After my third serving of fruit (more Raisin Bran), I was on my way to Norton in plenty of time for the 10:30 church service. In fact, I was so early that there was time to stop at the Town and Country Kitchen for a more substantial breakfast of eggs, hash browns, sausage and coffee. The place was loaded with extra help; from what I could tell during my reconnaissance, all 12 churches in town started their services at 10:30. Apparently, it was going to be a mob scene when church let out.
As I walked into Trinity, the priest greeted me warmly. The congregation was small, but the church was snug and beautiful as I took my place in a well worn pew. As is usual with an Episcopalian service, there was audience participation: plenty of up and down and kneeling. And, for me, a difficult time keeping track of what was going between the bulletin, the Book of Common Prayer, and the Hymnal. But it didn’t matter; I was blessed to be in the midst of believers celebrating the risen Lord.
I normally love Episcopalian hymns: they’re theologically and melodically rich. And the little church was trying, but the accompaniment to our frail singing of the traditional hymns was anything but rich; a man in the back, manipulating a lap top, was putting out a thin gruel of synthetic organ sounds that were slightly off key and tempo. When we went forward to the alter for the Lord’s supper, I understood why: a small pump organ, looking like it hadn’t been played for years, sat to our right. A thicket of pipes, some the size of drinking straws, gathered dust.
More technology hollowing out rural America.
At the end of a successful hunt where all of us got our limit, I was excited about two things.
First, that my daughter, Lauren, has expressed an interest in joining her husband, Haden, for next year’s trip. He would make a great firearms instructor for her; he served, with distinction, during two tours in Iraq with the Marines. I can’t wait.
And, second, that my daughter has become a fan of “TheMeatEater” show. I found a great looking recipe on the site the other day for Wild Turkey Scallops, Lemon, and Baby Artichokes. My wife and I will never be able to eat even one of these turkeys ourselves. I am really looking forward to having my daughter’s family and some neighbors in to help us get the job done right.