“Hello, can I help you?”
“Do you guys have gas?” Bob asked. I could hear the woman on the other end laughing.
“Of course we do, we’re a gas station,” she answered. “We’re only open from 8am-5pm.”
“Just checking, we’d hate to drive all that way and find out you didn’t,” he added.
The undulating terrain, headwinds, and just plain bad miscalculations on our part made for terrible gas mileage in our truck camper. We were relieved to reach the gas station by phone because for starters we actually had phone service, and we wouldn’t have to turn around and go back to a gas station we’d stupidly driven past 60 long gravel and washboard miles earlier.
We pulled up to the gas station about 30 miles from where we made the phone call and they were open, just like the woman promised. The pump was one of those old style ones that didn’t take debit cards. A young-looking guy who was loading empty cardboard boxes into the back of his pickup next to the gas station yelled to us, “Round it off to the nearest dollar and go inside to pay!” I couldn’t understand what he said so I asked him to repeat himself. He yelled back “Go inside and pay!”
While the gas was filling, Bob walked over to talk to the guy. I heard Bob ask him, “Do you know if there are any chukar around here?”
“Oh yeah!” he said. “Drive out of town [he pointed in the direction], take the third left, drive down the dirt road for about an hour, and when you get to the cattle guard go right and drive over the pass to the other side. It’s all BLM land and there’s a lot of chukar out there. Most people that come here to hunt go over there but there’s no birds over there,” pointing in the opposite direction. “I’d be surprised if you don’t see chukar running all over the road just driving in.”
We finished refueling and I went in to pay and bought a couple of milkshakes, too. It was an unusually warm November day and for some reason they just sounded good. We sat outside on a couple of chairs eating them and discussed the pros and cons of changing our original plans of heading up into the Steens Mountains that afternoon for sightseeing, or taking the advice of a stranger and driving into the unknown for miles just to look for chukar. Why was this guy so forthcoming, and if he was also a bird hunter why would he give away a spot? Was he just toying with us and sending us to no man’s land?
Feeling fat and disgusted with myself after eating a gigantic strawberry milkshake for lunch and mostly because poor Peat hadn’t had any exercise for two days, I made the decision that it was worth a try for us to go look for those chukar. If the guy was right, how could we pass up this opportunity? We hopped back into the pickup and headed down the road following his directions from memory after leaving the pavement. After about an hour of driving on dusty, dry-as-a-bone and rough roads we didn’t see any cattle guards, a mountain pass, or chukar on the road as we were promised. Bob and I agreed it looked like a place that might have chukar so we pulled over and stopped. After getting out the of truck and walking to the back, we found the back door of the camper wide open; it probably had been that way for miles. Thick layers of dust and dirt covered everything inside. Since this was my birthday trip, Bob said he’d stay and clean everything in the back of the camper while I went hunting with Peat. I quickly got dressed and headed out as he wished me luck.
The terrain in this part the Oregon High Desert was gentle and rolling and flat in some parts, a much different experience and nice break from the steep places we normally hunt. Within minutes Peat went crazy. His little tail fluttered like a hummingbird and he gets this look in his eyes of being half possessed. There was so much bird scent on the ground that he was bouncing back and forth like a steel ball in a pinball machine and spinning circles like a whirling dervish. He then made a beeline up a small rise and went on point. When I got closer to him, I stopped and got into position to fire. I took a couple steps forward and a huge bird busted from the sage about 10 yards away. I held my fire, realizing it was a sage grouse and watched it launch itself away from earth. Then another one busted, followed by another, another, and another. There were probably at least 15 of them. The scent Peat was tracking were those grouse, a totally new scent for him. He’s never smelled sage grouse before or even seen one for that matter, but they must smell like other types of grouse. Funny how the guy didn’t mention that we might find sage grouse out there too. Maybe we weren’t in the right place but it just goes to show you that you need to be prepared for the unexpected and know what you might see so you don’t accidentally shoot a bird you’re not supposed to.
Peat and I continued to hunt, weaving our way through the sage, and we did find a desperate muddy trickle of a spring and a covey of chukar nearby but the birds heard us coming and ran uphill and busted wild before I could get a decent shot.
I couldn’t wait to get back to the camper and tell Bob about my experience of seeing the grouse and finding chukar too. As I was hiking down, Bob was heading up the mountain to join me. I lengthened my hunt to go with him and Peat for a couple more hours, and then watched Bob wander off in another direction following the dog as the sun fell behind the ridge.
We hunted a couple days out there in the High Desert absorbing the warm afternoon sun, watching the evening sunsets over the mountain like a lantern being shut off each night and the brilliant stars in a place with no light pollution which seems is increasingly harder to find.
Winter was coming the next day so we left just before the first snow in this place that will be shut off from the rest of the world until at least next June when the snow’s gone and the roads dry out.
On this day of Thanksgiving, I thank the stranger who led us to this numinous quiet place where we didn’t get lost and nothing bad happened, this wild place of chukar, sage grouse, herds of pronghorn, songbirds, jack rabbits, and hundreds of miles of public land, but mostly because of the deepening calm brought by a landscape millions of years old.