When I leave the house to go hunting these days, I like to have some idea of where I’m going. But that wasn’t always the case.
When I first arrived in Washington D.C. (actually northern Virginia) to work at the NRA, I was keen to go hunting, but I didn’t know a soul there and certainly didn’t have any place to hunt. One day a co-worker saw my desk adorned with pictures of bucks and bass.
“I’m going deer hunting on Saturday,” said the Pennsylvanian. “Wanna go?”
“Sure!” I said.
“Great,” he said. “I’ll pick you up at 4 a.m.” And with that, I gave him my address and my gratitude for the opportunity.
A few days later found us in his pickup, driving out of town, in the dead of night.
“So where we goin’?” I asked him.
‘“National forest,” he said. “The mountains.”
Awesome, I thought. I’d never hunted mountains.
It was well before dawn when he pulled the truck over on the side of a gravelly county road. He pointed upward, but honestly it was too dark to see further than the headlights.
“Found great sign up’er last year,” he drawled through a heavy pinch of snuff. “Meet you back here at dark.”
“Sweet!” I said as I grabbed by muzzleloader and my lunch. “Good luck!” And with that I headed up the mountain. I didn’t know it at the time, but it was one mountain of many in the 2.5-million-acre George Washington National Forest system.
And oh, it was glorious day afield. The leaves were turning colors and the air was crisp. Although I didn’t shoot a buck, I saw several deer and almost killed one about an hour before dark. I’d followed it down the backside of one mountain and over the next. And now, a few minutes from dark, I realized I’d walked several miles, and it would take me a good while to get back to the road to meet my buddy. So I walked up to the top of the mountain so I could follow my path back down the way I’d come. Only when I got to the top, there was no road below. It was not the same mountain.
Even if I’d had a compass, it wouldn't have even mattered because I hadn’t the foggiest direction I needed to go. So, with it now darker than hell, I trudged through the woods, down one side of a mountain and up another. But I spied no road below, rather, miles of forest. So I kept walking.
An hour later I fired a shot, but I heard nothing in return. So I fired another. Nothing. And that’s when it hit me like a ton of bricks. Not only was I lost, I knew virtually nothing of my surroundings, my orientation or where in the heck I was. I hadn’t even glanced at a map prior to heading out. I was told I was in the national forest, but I didn’t really even know that for sure. All I knew now was that I couldn’t afford to waste any more ammo.
An hour later I was still walking, but I had just about decided to camp on the mountain that night—and I was strangely peaceful with that decision—when I saw headlights miles away. A road!
After another hour and multiple bruises and scratches (I didn’t have a flashlight) the car I’d seen was of course long gone—but at least I was on a real road! So I executed a mental coin flip and chose a direction—left—and began walking. Finally I saw headlights. I flagged the car over.
It was a family of three; a husband, wife and a young child.
I must’ve looked mighty wild-eyed, as I was sweaty, disoriented and nervous from being lost. Plus my face was painted in camo, I had a Rambo knife dangling from my belt and a rifle slung on my back.
“Can I help you?” said the father.
“My name is Jeff, and I am lost.” I said. “That’s about all I know.”
“Well,” said the man, “Where are you going?”
“To my friend’s truck,” I replied.
“Where is that?” he probed.
“I don’t know,” I answered.
“Which direction is it?” he continued, displaying a patience that is remarkable in retrospect.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“Well, where were you hunting?”
“I don’t know,” I replied, beginning to feel a bit like a broken record.
I sensed that he was growing frustrated.
“Well, where did you come from?”
“Washington D.C.,” I said. Evidently that was the wrong answer.
The man’s face contorted and his eye grew suspicious. And with that, he stepped on the gas and drove away. I stood there in disbelief amid a pile of billowing dust and fading taillights. I shifted the rifle to my other shoulder and continued marching to… I don’t know where.
About 20 minutes later, still trudging down the lonesome road, I again saw headlights.
It was the same car, and, mercifully, it pulled over.
“Look,” he said, sticking his head out the window. “We’re good Christian people and we can’t just leave you out here. Hop in front.”
So I jumped in and we drove the backroads until we found my friend. He was sitting on the tailgate of his truck. Waiting. It was hours after dark.
“There you are!” he said. “You got a deer, I presume?”
I just held my head low in shame.
“Well, where’ve you been?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” was all I could muster.
Lead image by Jyrki Salmi