The Sights and Smells of Motivation — A Trip to the Traditional Bowhunter’s Expo

Archers line up at the practice range at the 2018 Traditional Bowhunter's Expo.

Eager archer’s line up at the test range to try new bows at the Traditional Bowhunter’s Expo in Kalamazoo, Michigan.

I recently celebrated the New Year and motivation is already the theme. It’s been a month since I’ve navigated this particular piece of the Web, but it feels a great deal longer.

I’ve been working on a book. Some know that. Many don’t. I have been for some time now, which is one of the reasons I’ve been so infrequent. It began as a collection of works cobbled together in chronological order. I had a couple handfuls of material saved in a folder on my desktop — both published and unpublished — and sifted through them until I’d pieced together something that made sense. I then opened them all, gave them a quick read, pasted them into one document, and left them there to marinate.

A week passed and I grew very excited. I couldn’t wait to slap on chapter numbers and send them off for editing, but it didn’t work out that way. Some of those stories hadn’t been read in years and had been penned by someone who thought he knew what he was doing, but obviously didn’t. Unraveling the tapestry of mixed tenses and inconsistent styles required far more labor than anticipated, but I discovered something between the threads that would change my perspective on the process — wonder. This younger Nick was a different man and his writing, while not as polished or experienced, was filled with wonder. He was seeing everything for the first time and with a passion, I had not felt in years. The realization upset me.

Was I falling out of love with the thing that had been the epicenter of my life for nearly a decade?

No. But I needed a reboot.

Fortunately, the Traditional Bowhunter’s Expo would be the kerosene to keep the lantern lit. I had looked forward to the Expo with great anticipation since my first trip. It was a fantastic experience that left me in a state of euphoria several weeks afterward. There were few places in the world offering what the Expo offered; seminars, apparel, literature, arrows, and racks filled with custom bows. If you were a stir-crazy archer in January, you were attending the Expo at the end of the month. Period. Many considered it an archery holiday and would drive across the country to scratch whatever itch they had developed since hunting season.

The St. Joe River Bows booth at the Traditional Bowhunter's Expo

The St. Joe River Bows booth at the Expo is always bustling with activity.

Yet, there I was, less than an hour away and not that excited about attending. My intention was to work and nothing more. I’d promised to volunteer at the Michigan Longbow Association’s youth range and take a shift or two at the Expo’s test range, as well. I knew I’d enjoy both — working with the next generation of longbow enthusiasts in particular — but didn’t feel the way I used to as I crept down 131 South towards Kalamazoo.

A younger Nick would’ve risked a speeding ticket to gain another hour’s worth of thumbing through archery tackle with fellow toxophilites for creative ways to spend his paycheck. Present day Nick was planning to get out of there with a full wallet and didn’t plan on stringing a single bow. Times had changed. I was in a deep funk. A deep funk, indeed.

But something peculiar happened, as I pushed through the Expo Center’s glass doors and caught the familiar scents of wood, wax, leather, and glue. Nostalgia washed over me and my heart beat a touch faster as I navigated rows of vendors setting up their booths for the hustle and bustle of a busy Saturday. The rising heart rate continued, as I arrived at the MLA booth and into the warm embrace of my longbow family. The sound of the popping balloons and happy screeching of the young culprits responsible filled me with a pride too difficult to explain in words.

As the day progressed, I couldn’t help but feel ashamed of my reservations pre-arrival. “How could I have not been excited to be here?” I thought. “Who wouldn’t want to be a part of something like this?”

I carried these thoughts with me throughout the day, which ended with my shift at the practice range. The job responsibilities were simple but of the utmost importance: usher people in and out of the range and make sure they were following the rules at all times. I’ll admit that standing on a line and watching other people shoot bows isn’t what most would consider an “enjoyable” experience but it was something I looked forward to year-after-year. I’ve never been able to figure out why but would guess it had something to do with the sounds of the activity. The gentle “swish” of a released string combined with the soft “thump” of an arrow connecting with foam was very pleasing to the ear and therapeutic when repeated. I was in an enlightened state by the time the 15-minute warning echoed over the loudspeaker. I was back on the highway and somewhere between Gun Lake and Grand Rapids by the time I snapped out of it. I was still calm, but there was a fire in my belly I hadn’t felt in weeks.

I knew then that the funk was over and I couldn’t wait to get home and shoot my longbow.

Have you ever lost interest or burned out on this wonderful sport? If so, what brought you back?

A Disclaimer

SteveStringAutumnWeb

When I try to explain traditional archery to people and exactly what it is that archers “do”, I get the sense they don’t truly grasp it. When I try to explain it further, I get the, “man this guy is really into this and I need to find the nearest exit” look. Neither surprise me. I’ve been doing this long enough to know that both are to be expected. Shooting a longbow is simple enough to wrap your head around, but the passion associated with the activity – not so much.

I’ve developed a saying for this and I offer it as a disclaimer.

“You’ve got to live it to get it.”

I cannot overemphasize how literal the word live is, in regards to this topic. “Traditional archery isn’t something you dabble with.” I tell them. “It is both a life warming and warping pursuit.”

Since I rarely get the chance to elaborate on these statements, I will do so here. Please humor me by pretending you know very little about this whole deal. Or just pass this along to someone who doesn’t and is brave enough to find out.

Life is a journey and traditional archery is the the road less traveled. And by “road” I mean a squiggly path winding off through the trees. The beginning is unmarked and often stumbled upon. The end is the promise of self discovery, eternal happiness, enlightenment, the perfect bow, the buck of a lifetime, optimal arrow flight, and all that good, philosophical stuff the oldest among us blather about if the weather is good and their stomachs are full.

The middle is where it all gets interesting. It is where you’ll spend most of your time and is a mess of stumps, creeks, mud, burs, briars, deadfalls, poison ivy, ticks, chiggers, mosquitoes, and other obstacles to trip over. Not to mention miles of that metallic orange tape that leads straight to the town of Hopelessly Lost if you follow it.

You’ll get tripped up. You’ll get stuck in the mud. You’ll fall off a log. You’ll lose your way. You’ll end up in a pond. An “expert” will give you bad advice. You’ll lose arrows. You’ll break bows. You’ll miss targets. You’ll miss animals. You’ll have passionate disagreements with other archers over the proper “anchor point” and acronyms like “EFOC”. Then you’ll shake hands and shoot a round with them afterwards. Unless its online, of course. I would suggest a “time out” if thats the case.

And therein lies the beauty of it all – the people you share the path with. Generous, intelligent, passionate people who will walk this path with you and make it impossible not to love every minute of it. You’ll shoot with these people. You’ll share a fire with these people. You’ll break bread with these people. You’ll learn with these people. And you’ll learn to love these people.

“So you shoot bows at foam targets and you camp, right?”

– The Average Non-Arrow Slingin’ Joe or Jane

Well…yeah. We do all of that. We eat really well too, but there’s a whole lot more to it.

Just get yourself a bow. Get yourself some arrows. Get yourself to a gathering. Please do all of these things, but understand that when you find your calendar full from March to December and have a room in your house dedicated to wood and feathers, I will be responsible for none of it.

Want to know more about traditional archery or find out more about traditional gatherings? Visit www.michiganlongbow.org.