The Finer Things

Driving through the mountains.

(As published in STICKTALK magazine, April 2018)

The road was wet and the fog had rolled in by the time we entered the Smokey Mountains. I was at the wheel with narrowed eyes, navigating the weather. To my left and needing little introduction was the Ol’ Archer, watching the landscape switch from rock face to rolling hills. We were headed Southeast by mutual friend invitation and would be testing our prowess on feral hogs in a matter of hours.

We’d hit the road the night before, and after an overnight stop somewhere in Kentucky, were back at it bright and early. The conversation was as fluid as the windshield rain despite the early morning hours. It was my turn to drive. My compatriot had started the morning but required sustenance a couple hours in.

“I find it best to travel in short spurts.” He mused, staring out the window. “Makes the time go faster and the driver more aware.”

I didn’t disagree. The old man was a bit of an Eeyore sans his soda and snacks and I knew we’d make better time with me behind the wheel. Not that he approved of my speeding. He did not and took no issue expressing his opinion on the matter — though not directly. My father would have told me to “slow my ass down”. The archer wasn’t so bold or obvious.

“Ya know…those out of state cops will take your money.”

While I wish I could credit the old man with the phrase, it wouldn’t have done the author the justice he deserved. Andrew, our dear friend and founder of the feast, had coined the phrase earlier that morning whilst calling to check on our progress.

“Slow down boys.” He said. “Those southern cops love Yankee money. They’ll be happy to take it from ya.” For the sake of comedy, the archer paraphrased and claimed it as his own through Tennessee.

“You see that cop up there?” He’d ask.

“Sure do.” I’d reply with a roll of the eyes.

“You know what he’ll do, don’t ya?”

“Take my money?”

“You know he will!” He’d howl. “You better believe he will.”

It was a running gag that spanned the remainder of the state and into North Carolina. When he wasn’t trying his hand at comedy he passed the time drinking soda, eating trail mix, and telling me about the way things used to be when the longbow, as we knew it, was still somewhat new. I enjoyed these stories the most. They never flowed in a straight line. They twisted, turned, arched and climbed like the southern road beneath the wheels of my Caravan. It didn’t take much to send him off course and on tangent — a single question would usually do the trick, especially if longbow related.

The Archer appreciated hand-crafted archery equipment. He had it stuffed in every nook, cranny, crevice, and corner of the old farmhouse he frequented between the various shoots and gatherings of the year. There were some wonderful pieces in this collection and I loved hearing how he came about them. But the old man, it seems, wasn’t satisfied with the accumulation. He always wanted more. In fact, he carried cash on him in case he ever ran across something he fancied at a price he could haggle over. (I cannot stress the latter part of this statement enough.) He was frugal to say the least, which made this particular conversation so interesting.

“Just once I’d like to own something really nice.” He said.

I couldn’t help but scoff at the statement. “You own an entire bedroom full of beautiful sticks of all varieties. You have one-of-a-kind knives in cases, leather quivers hanging from anything with a hook, and buckets of arrows. You know what some would call that? An affliction.”

He chuckled and shot me a “you’ve got a lot to learn” grin. “You might be right.” He said. “I have a lot of stuff. Some of it is good. Some of it might even be great. It might get the job done, but I wouldn’t consider any of it fine.”

“What do you mean…fine?” I asked.

He fished a couple sodas out of the cooler at his side, handed me one, cracked the other, and wetted his throat in preparation for the explanation. I could tell, by the length of the drink, it was fixing to last us awhile and decided to follow suit.

“There comes a time in an old man’s life when he begins to crave the things he wanted when he was a younger man but could never justify buying for himself. Could be a longbow, rifle, guitar, boat, motorcycle, exotic hunting trip…it doesn’t matter. We all want something at some point and that something doesn’t go away as time progresses. We just get older.”

He took another long drag of his soda, swished the remainder around in the bottom of the can, and stared long and hard at the dreary, wet highway in front of him. “I’ve been putting stuff off most of my life.” He said, finishing off the can. “There ain’t much left now.”

The Archer always spoke of his demise, as if it were a package arriving in the mail. I got used to it but could never figure out if he was depressed or just being funny. I always assumed it was the latter, if only to make the situation less awkward. It seemed different this time — too “matter of fact” for my liking and there seemed to be heaviness behind the words that wasn’t there before.

“So what sort of things are you looking for?” I asked, attempting to change the subject and lighten the mood. “You just bought that brand new (to you) Black Widow and you never shoot the damn thing.”

“Because it’s a touch heavier than I’m used to!” He shot back. “I’ll adjust. It’s too nice a bow to leave on the rack, collecting dust.”

“Well, if it ain’t a bow, what is it you’re so smitten over?”

He pulled a package of trail mix out of the cooler and teethed it open. Half of it was gone before he replied and he seemed to be in better spirits.

“I’ve always wanted an engraved, leather hip quiver with a matching belt. And I mean a real nice one with some kind of extravagant hunting seen on it — a buck or something of the like.”

Out of all the items I’d imagined he would name, this would be the last on a lengthy list. He made his own quivers and had for years. Each were simple, yet charming in their own way. I asked him to make me one several times, in fact. He always had the same response.

“C’mon over and we’ll build it together.” He’d say. I always assumed it meant he didn’t want to do it himself. He knew full-well I lived several hours away (and not round trip). Still, the fact he wanted me to build my own made his wanting to buy something someone else made his statement a touch ironic. But the Archer was a lot of things and quirky was one of them.

“Well, does it matter who the maker is?” I asked. “I know a guy that builds a nice quiv…”

“Yes!” He interrupted. “It does indeed. I want a guy by the name of Art Vincent to build me one. Cedar Ridge Leatherworks. He builds some of the finest quivers you’ll ever see.”

Now I knew he wasn’t joking. The leather goods of mention were a work of art. And not the kind of “functional art” someone might label their favorite blue jeans or wool shirt. Art’s were the kind you could hang on the mantle and stare at or brag about when not in use. You didn’t see them on the ranges often. When you did see one, it usually hung from the hip of an old timer who had put his bow through the proper paces time-and-again and lived to be happy with the results. A quiver by this particular maker was a right-of-passage purchase and priced accordingly.

“So why haven’t you bought one, yet?” I goaded.

“Oh, I was hoping my wonderful wife would buy me one for my birthday or some other special occasion.”

“Well, does she know you want one?”

“No. Well…she might suspect. I’ve mentioned wanting one a few times, but I’ve mentioned wanting a lot of things a few times.”

“Those things are fairly personalized, aren’t they? Does she know what you want? I mean, you wanted the buck, what if she gets you one with a turkey on it instead?”

“She wouldn’t do such a foolish thing.” He laughed. “That woman knows me. I ain’t ever shot know turkey with no longbow.”

“Well, then how in the heck is she supposed to know what to get you if she doesn’t know what you want?”

“She’ll figure it out, I suspect. Always does, that wife of mine. Always does.”

I couldn’t figure out why he had danced around the purchase of something he wanted so badly. At least, not at first. He could have bought that quiver himself. He had the money and he knew what he wanted. Then, somewhere near the South Carolina border, it hit me — wanting had little to do with it. The old man wanted it to be a gift. Buying it for himself felt incorrect in his odd way of thinking. It seemed self-serving, or even gaudy to buy such a thing. A gift, however, had meaning. A gift was earned.

What I suspected the old man didn’t know, was that he had already earned it, in every way possible. His quiver was bought and paid for with the lifetime of integrity, commitment, passion, and joy he dedicated to the bow and those he shared it with. No level of payment could ever be awarded for such things. The engraving he selected, no matter how fine, would tell his tale proper. Or maybe he did know, and just didn’t agree. Maybe, in his mind, you never stopped earning it. Archery was an art of challenge and repetition, after all. Something you could work your entire life to master and be humbled the day after. It took a special type of person to understand that and keep at it for so long and the Archer was a shining example.

I knew then, that people like him where the gems of our beloved pastime. People like him where the “finer things” and I was proud to have recognized it and have something special to aspire to.

“I’d slow down if I were you. I think I saw an SC cop back there a spell.”

“Ya know, maybe it’s not that I drive too fast. You just drive too damn slow.”

“That maybe the case my boy…” the Archer laughed, “but they’ll take your money. You better believe they will.”

The End

This story was featured in the Spring edition of STICKTALK magazine. STICKTALK is the quarterly publication of the Michigan Longbow Association and every issue is a fantastic read. All you have to do is be a member, which will cost you $20 annually.

 

 

 

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?