At best it was a simple domicile. The primary piece of architecture was a trailer that had undoubtedly been saved from the junkyard. Built onto the wreckage was a ten-by-twelve room that added space enough for a table and chairs and provided adequate room for a woodstove.
If one happened upon the calamity in the spring or summer it might easily have been mistaken for abandoned. There was no yard to speak of, the aluminum siding and wood boards exposed to the elements were in desperate need of a coat of paint and the downwind outhouse looked to have last been used years ago – maybe decades.
A visit to that same building in the fall, however, would provide an impression that was vastly different. The golden glow of hickory and oak turned the demeanor from glum to cheery and the pickups parked outside cured the air of abandonment and provided the building an obvious sense of purpose. Even the couldn’t-possibly-still-be-in-use outhouse came to life each time the spring squeaked and the door slammed.
In the cold of winter under freshly fallen snow, the gray smoke from the chimney pipe and the warm orangey glow in the windows made it a magical place. However it might be perceived at other times of the year, the only suitable way to describe it in December was “the cabin”.
Though very likely the most poorly maintained, least safe and just plain dirty place I’ve ever laid my head to rest; it was also a place that left me with some of the fondest memories of my formative years.
The cabin itself certainly has a permanent spot in my memory, the remote valley in which the cabin was nestled will also never be forgotten and the experiences I had chasing the squirrels and deer that roamed the mountains will be preserved forever in the stories I just can’t stop telling. But what I remember the most, what I cherish above all else, is the time I spent with the man I considered to be king of deer camp.
Harry Shirley was remarkable for many reasons. He smiled more than any man I’ve ever met and always had time for a conversation – or to help get the cows back where they belonged, or to cut you a load of firewood, or to do just about anything that might help a person.
He was a legend in my county as a hunter and trapper and would mentor almost anyone who wanted to learn. You could count on pictures in the paper every few years of he and his brothers in some western state having harvested animals that can’t be found in West Virginia.
Most remarkable, however, was that he did more than most could think of doing with a pig valve in his heart. I followed Harry in the woods, hardly able to keep up, wishing the doctor had chosen a less energetic pig. Were it not for the scar across his chest, I never would have believed he had a valve replaced.
As a boy I wished my hands could be as hard as his, that my face had his character, that I could see deer like he saw them and hold the cross hairs as steady as he was able. Today my hands and face are more weathered than I wish they were, I spot deer that never see me and on the rare occasion I decide to pull the trigger the crosshairs stay steady. These days I find myself hoping I can have the heart that Harry had; for his was bigger and stronger than any I’ve known.
When that valve quit working I found that I couldn’t return to deer camp; at least not that one. I tried one time, but never left sight of the cabin. Though nothing had changed, everything was different.
I now hunt from a different deer camp, in a different county and spend time with different faces. The cabin, though simple, is a virtual Ritz when compared to the cabin of my youth. The county has more hills and fewer mountains, but squirrels and deer abound just the same.
Though the faces have changed, the men remain the same. They gather in the fall and winter to celebrate freedom and independence through the tradition of hunting; the tradition of deer camp. They smile a lot and laugh aplenty. They surround the cabin with pickups under the same golden glow of hickory and oak and huddle inside the warm orangey glow when the mercury drops and the snow falls. Most importantly they understand the value of passing the heritage of hunting to the young men in camp, and do so enthusiastically.
They are honest and honorable and they are the type of men I still find myself trying to become. More importantly, they are the type of men I try to help my young son to become. They are, in fact, the type of men that are hard to find outside of deer camp.
This month I’ll return to my deer camp to claim my spot in the bunkhouse and my rocking chair around the fire. I’ll impart what knowledge I can to the young men in camp and make sure they understand why they are there. I’ll wander the hills in the crisp November air hoping I can spot my buck before he spots me. And once again I’ll marvel at the men who assemble, for they are the heart of deer camp.