A Hunt for Meaning

Matt Hammond

Published in the September/October 2021 Edition of Turkey Call Magazine

I was burnt out! Not your run-of-the-mill, “I-have-a-lot-going-on-at-work” or “My-kids-are-driving-me-nuts” burnout, but the type of deep and utter physical, mental and emotional exhaustion where all you can muster each day is to get up, go through the motions, crash into bed, and repeat. The weight of trying to be a good husband, father, son, brother, friend, and boss had sapped the spirit out of me. This wasn’t a place I arrived at overnight; the past six months had been some of the most difficult of my life. I left a toxic job, was supporting a daughter battling extreme anxiety and wife struggling with the maternal pain of a child hurting and lost my first grandparent while juggling the last year of an MBA program. Though others have experienced worse, I was struggling and found myself needing a break, a breathe, a touch of something I found annually in my pilgrimage to the western New York deer words of my youth. As difficult as life might be, the prospect of November brought the chance to heed the wisdom of John Muir who scribed, “Keep close to Nature's heart...and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean.” 

Hunting and fishing has always been my way to connect with nature. From a tree stand I’ve wrestled with my demons and feel at peace plying the pools of a remote trout stream. Perhaps because it’s one of the few places where I can completely unplug and just be; I’ve always felt most alive and connected to my Creator while in the woods. My wife will tell you I have a different twinkle in my eye when I’m talking about time outdoors. 

As November drew near, I anticipated the respite with relief.  However, for the first time since I was 16, the trip didn’t happen. I continued going through the motions meeting needs of those around me while my own went unattended. Dispirited and discouraged, February found me in dire need of outdoor therapy and a small dose would not do. Soon enough, COVID would disrupt any semblance of normal life that was left.

I began to write the prescription for my ailment with a few criteria in mind: remote mountains, public land and a large empty space on a map. Anything less wouldn’t provide the full dose I so desperately needed. The final script was a three-night solo trip into the Chattahoochee National Forest at the end of turkey season when spring classes wrapped up. Planning out my first solo hunting trip was both exciting and cathartic. I prepared with the zeal of a convert, gathering the equipment and supplies I’d need while learning the history of the area I was about to immerse in. While reading Herb McClure’s stories from Native Turkeys I could close my eyes and imagine the adventure I was to embark upon. 

Three months later I was backing down the driveway before the sun had begun to peak across the horizon. With no expectations for how the hunt would go and a nonchalant approach to filling my tag because it was always secondary to my real reason for seeking out the wilderness. Arriving later that day, I learned that even the remote forests of north Georgia weren’t immune to the realities of COVID as a CLOSED sign met me at the primitive campsite I planned on using. Undeterred, I found a suitable place to set up camp and by dark was settled in to the place I’d call home for the next three days. As I surveyed my temporary home, the solitude I was earnestly seeking was becoming a reality.

Morning brought the typical first day butterflies that alight whether I’m hunting my family’s farm or someplace new. I’d be lying if I said my first time hunting in bear county didn’t add a few more butterflies to the kaleidoscope. My plan for that first morning was to hunt my way down a nearby ridge looking for the offspring of the native gobblers Herb McClure spent a lifetime pursuing. Any time I immerse in nature it takes time for me to shed the worries of suburban life and transition to the peace of a simpler existence. This trip was no different. Working my way down the remote hardwoods ridge the emotional baggage I had been accumulating for the better part of a year slowly began to fall to the forest floor. By afternoon, the untouched beauty around me was beginning to come into focus.

On day two, the medicine was starting to take hold. The crisp mornings, scenic views and ancient oaks were having their intended curative effect. I noticed the beauty of a deep crimson trillium showcased in the dappled sunlight that no other human may ever lay eyes on. I soaked in the damp mist of a cool mountain cascade, taking a front row seat to the virgin beauty carved by the hand of a heavenly artist. At the end of the day, the primal hunger from the adventure was the perfect seasoning to the steak sizzling in the cast-iron skillet. Life had been boiled down to its simplest form; stripped of the excess that gets confused with happiness and distracts from the truly important.

The morning of day three found me waiting for daylight on the same knob I had found two gobblers the first day. As the sun rose over the Blue Ridge Mountains lighting up the new green of the spring turkey woods, I realized that I had found what I had been hunting for all along. A new feeling now welled up inside of me, the need to connect with my family. John of the Mountains was right, I had come to nature seeking healing and was leaving with much more. 

Richard Proenneke described a sadness about packing that comes from not knowing if where you’re going is as good as where you’ve been. Surveying the empty campsite now returned to its native state, I was filled with hope instead of sadness because I knew I was heading someplace better than where I had been. The treatment had been effective, and the prescription calls for many refills within my lifetime.

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