I have a friend in New Mexico who used to rope off the entire month of September and keep it for nothing but hiking in the mountains, hunting grouse and fishing for trout in the Rio Grande. He was and still is a hard-working writer who chose this vacation month for its natural splendor — changing seasons, cooler temperatures, the river running low and clear. He was religious about his Septembers, about not letting worldly concerns keep him from his earthly communion.
Things have changed in the Southwest. October is now the September of yore and September is more a hot extension of summer. My friend still works every day but stopped shooting grouse several years back. In recent autumns he took to climbing one of the highest peaks in northern New Mexico to hang out in alpine meadows with the bighorn sheep.
The September my oldest son turned 13, 1997, we planned a hunting and fishing trip to New Mexico with my friend as our guide. My son had taken a hunter safety course and was eager to bag a bird. At 13, he was still tiny in stature and had taken some hits for it in the mean halls of middle school. To leave that behind and pal around in the woods with a shotgun was his fondest dream.
That weekend was brilliant, a September for the books. Willows and cottonwoods along the streams below San Luis were turning red and gold and aspen colonies in the Sangres flamed yellow against the rocky ridges. We spent the night at my friend’s house and I watched as the two males bonded over their shotguns, cleaning them meticulously and zipping them into their soft bags for the night.
We set out at dawn for the national forest where we would climb switchback trails high up and watch for grouse on the descent. My friend taught my son to release his shotgun and carry it across the crook of his arm, aiming downward. We walked for hours in the quiet forest and finally turned around to flush out the grouse, camouflaged the color of tree limbs. My son’s concentration at such a moment, when he was doing something he really cared about, was impenetrable. He spotted a number of grouse and both he and my friend took several shots but failed to bring one down. I had hoped we would take at least one home to wrap in bacon and cook for dinner, but no such luck.
We tired as the day stretched out. On a smooth dirt path my friend found an old rusted and dented can and set it up on a tree stump for target practice. My son raised his gun to his shoulder, took a shot and hit it dead-on. My friend set it up again and my son took it down again. They reveled in this for a while, then my son, a budding hoarder, pocketed a handful of still warm shotgun shells and tucked the can into his backpack.
We ate beans and frozen dinners that night and rested for the next day’s adventure — fishing in the deep gorge of the Rio Grande, just north of Taos. Again, we rose at dawn and hiked, this time downward along a narrow rock staircase carved into the canyon walls. September sang and we splashed across rocks in the piercing cold water.
My friend and I were meandering along the banks when we heard a cry and looked back — my son had just hooked the first brown trout of many he would catch and release that day. My friend howled and clapped and railed at his luck. Every time the boy’s line hit the water he pulled in another beauty. Finally, just before noon, time to hike out of the canyon, he hooked the prize catch of the day, a trout that stretched from his shoulder to his hips when he held it up on the line to be photographed. We drove back to Colorado with the cleaned trout on ice and I rolled it in cornmeal and cooked it in a skillet when we got home.
Things have changed. My son died six years ago and when I went through his things looking for the man he had become, I found the rusted can with pellet holes all through it and a pile of spent shotgun shells. I glance over my shoulder now and picture him standing in that silver stream on a September morning, pulling out a thrashing brown trout, the look of determination on his face solid and everlasting.
Kathryn Eastburn is the author of A Sacred Feast: Reflections of Sacred Harp Singing and Dinner on the Ground, and Simon Says: A True Story of Boys, Guns and Murder in the Rocky Mountain West. You can comment and read or listen to this column again at The Big Something at KRCC.org. “The Middle Distance” is published every Friday on The Big Something and airs each Saturday at 1 p.m. right after This American Life.