Most hunters learn to hunt as kids. Their fathers or grandfathers teach them. I didn't start hunting until I was 31. Blame Santa Monica. It's not exactly a hunter's paradise. Or my family, who had no interest in meat outside of the grocery store. Sure, I'd shot a .22 at some paper in Boy Scouts and even had a crazy 8th grade science teacher that took me and a friend out to the desert with an arsenal of weapons to I guess, uh, learn about physics, but hunters always seemed like hicks. Now I'm a hick too.
My hunting journey began when I took a job out of college writing for a business-to-business magazine in Chicago about the meat industry. I saw firsthand that meat came from real live animals and didn't just come into being fully formed as a slab of protein on a styrofoam tray. Later I read Michael Pollan's "Omnivore's Dilemma" and realized that despite my job I didn't really know much about meat at all. I decided that if I wanted to eat it, I'd have to be ok killing the animal that it came from.
My aunt married a man who is a hunter. One year I convinced him to teach me to shoot a shotgun, breaking clays at a shooting range in north LA. Soon enough, he invited me on a hunting trip he'd been doing with friends for more than a decade, traveling from western Nevada to eastern Nebraska to hunt pheasants on a farm there. I've been making the trip for the past four years now -- the last two with my very own (not well-trained) bird dog.
The first year, everything (even beyond the hunting) seemed new to me. I didn't know what a pivot was. I knew nothing about growing or selling cash crops like corn and soybeans. I had never spent meaningful time in a small, rural town. I had never seen so many sunrises in a row. I started to not just see, but experience and know the "other" America.
Now, there's an incredible, reassuring rhythm to the trip. We stop at the same stations to put fuel in the trucks, the same fields where we air the dogs out. We stay at the same motels and chat with the same bartenders. We get into slightly drunken political arguments at the same big game steakhouse. We talk about how the weather was on this stretch of I-80 last year (or was it the year before?) and whether the corn seems taller or not. We see the same farmer and his wife and kids and watch them grow up and grow old. That rhythm and camaraderie, with its ever-so-slight permutations each year, is what keeps me dreaming about leaving for the next trip as soon as we get home.