It’s not often that the Rolling Thunder Express arrives on readers’ doorsteps precisely on Jan. 1 in any given year. This is great for columnists who like to wax eloquent about the past, the present and the future; the premise being that we’ve turned a new page and all will be well and good in the coming year.
I am too much of a realist to gush overmuch about the prospects of the future but I can say that I look forward to January each year simply because that’s when I like to purchase my new hunting, fishing and trapping licenses. I am not a hoarder by any means but I do have all of the licenses and permits I’ve purchased since I turned “legal” in 1967. Every license, tag, duck stamp, special permit and transportation tag I ever bought is in “the book,” a neat little record of a life spent roaming the woods when I should have been doing more responsible things. At least that’s what I’ve heard along the way, but we independent wanderers tend to ignore both praise and criticism as we make our way through life.
I’ve often thought about all the time I’ve “wasted” sitting on a stump in the woods or drifting down a secluded trout stream in my canoe. At minimum wage I’d guess that in the past 50 years I’ve probably squandered enough money to buy the finest house in town, with a nice, new pickup truck in the garage and a brand-new riding mower thrown in for good measure. However, as the U2 song suggests, that’s not what I was looking for. My philosophy since childhood has been unknowingly in line with Far Eastern thinking – seek enlightenment through solitude, contentment and serenity.
For me, the only place I could find such heady delights was outdoors. Whenever I needed to unwind, consider, reconsider, sort through or unravel a dilemma I would head for the woods. Big problems often took several days to rectify, while smaller issues were resolved in just a few minutes. I for one cannot maintain feelings of anger, distress or agitation when surrounded by nature’s calm. Give me a few minutes to meditate beside a lake, river or brook and I can feel the stress begin to drain out of me. It’s not necessary to seek magnificent vistas to achieve the goal of inner peace; I can find the same escape while sitting on any given rock or log no matter how remote it may be. I make it a point to hike into the woods far enough away to eliminate the sounds of human activity, surrounded by nothing more than the wind in the trees, and then let the healing process begin.
Back in the 1950s and 60s the Maine hunting regulations handbook (a mere pamphlet compared to today’s magazine-length tome) contained a telling line that I still have not forgotten: “Nothing in the Maine woods will harm you.” This, of course, was meant to soothe the fears of hunters became lost and feared that a bear or bobcat would come roaring out of the woods to eat them.
During those early years I wandered a bit too far into the woods while deer hunting and ended up spending the night with nothing more than a small birch-bark fire to keep me company. I discovered that it is just as peaceful, quiet and serene in the woods at night as it is during the day, even more so, because the only critters I ever encountered during my overnight stays were deer, raccoons and foxes. Once I learned that, in fact, nothing in the Maine woods would harm me, I became a constant visitor and remain so to this day. Indeed, the Maine woods are the safest place I’ve ever been – “civilization” is not always so civilized. In fact, some city streets can be terrifying, especially at night. Give me the woods any day.
Decades in the woods punctuated by yet another New Year’s Day drives home the fact that I certainly have had more great hunting seasons behind me than I have ahead of me. These days I’m down to just two or three long-time hunting buddies who are actually older than I. We always meet up on the last day of deer season at a certain large boulder where we unload our rifles and shake hands after another safe and enjoyable hunt. Rather than rush back to the warm truck we linger in the woods till legal shooting time officially ends, spending a few minutes enjoying what, we all know, could be our last deer-season sunset. It’s a sobering thought but old-timers tend to make light of such things, and so we find a way to laugh at ourselves as we head out of the woods once more with a cheerful, “See you next year.”
Looking at it from Jan. 1 “next year” is a long way off. My perpetual resolution has been to spend more time in the woods and more time doing what I like to do. This year I’ll spend more time appreciating those gifts, past and present. Truth be told, outdoorsmen live in a fantasy world dominated by dreams of big bucks, big fish and amazing encounters with wildlife. However, there is also a real world to contend with, and that’s what makes our time outside so precious.
I am not one to make predictions for a new year because life is, well, unpredictable. However, I try to think positively and tend to look on the bright side whenever there’s a bright side to consider. I know that whenever I need rejuvenation, restoration and salvation I head for the woods. I will spend part of this first day of the year wandering a forest trail somewhere and, with luck, will continue to do so all year long. The quest for serenity and contentment is a never-ending one but I know that the first step is right outside my back door. If I put myself out there often enough I know that what I’m looking for will find me.
Happy New Year!