In the 1850’s, America was swept up in a spirit of adventure and wanderlust better known as the Manifest Destiny.
This stirring of the hearts and minds of Americans bore the phrase “Go west, young man!”. Often credited (although hotly debated) to an article in the New York Tribune written by Horace Greeley in 1851, it acted as a rallying cry for young men on America’s east coast to blaze the trail westward over the fruited plain to the promise of adventure just beyond the sunset. Fast forward one hundred sixty seven years, and the spirit of the phrase still burns deep within the hearts of young men from the east like me. This year, I made my journey to a small Nebraska town in search of whitetails, Merriam’s turkey, and to quench the burning in my soul that bid me to get my gun and “Go West”.
The Thirst for Something More
Since boyhood I’ve dreamt of western adventure. The woods and waters of Maryland had treated me well in my young life, and I had plenty to be thankful for. My twenty three years on this earth has blessed me with some well endowed whitetail bucks, a few jake turkeys and more varmints and fish than I could count. Nevertheless, my heart still desired the vastness and and thirst for adventure that only the west could quench. So in the dark stillness of the morning of November 7th, 2018 I, alongside an old family friend, got into the truck and charted our course; destination North Platte, Nebraska.
The Flattest Place on Earth
A twenty hour journey lay before us, which was to be split over two days of travel. It was nearly noon on day one when we first crossed into uncharted territory at the Indiana border. This was the first time I had ever seen the midwest and I realized for myself that every story I’d ever heard of this place was true; this was the flattest country on earth.
My fiance’ put it best when she told me “it’s miles and miles of miles and miles”. I was still taken aback by the openness and it seemed to me that like the land itself, the opportunity seemed endless. Many hours and many miles later day one concluded with my maiden voyage across the mighty Mississippi, and a soft pillow to rest my head on in Des Moines.
Day two started much like the first and was fairly uneventful until we made it west of Omaha; that’s when the snowstorm hit. The abruptness and fervor in which the snow fell was something I had not been accustomed to, snow doesn’t fall quite like that in the east. It continued snowing for nearly an hour and just as quickly as it began, it was over. We arrived in North Platte early in the afternoon, and after checking into the hotel we headed to the woods in search of turkey. It wasn’t long before we found ourselves amidst plenty of sign so we huddled beneath a pile of brush to await their arrival to roost for the evening. They never came. Disappointed yet not defeated, we returned to the hotel to retire and try again in the morning. Nervous excitement filled me as I laid my head down to rest in anticipation of what the morning would bring.
The Anticipation of Opening Day
We arose well before the dawn and embarked back into the cold, turkeys our principal quarry once again. Due to the events of the night before, we abandoned our first spot and pushed deep into a grove of cottonwood trees, settling on the edge of a meadow inside the woods near the banks of the Platte river. As the sun began to emerge from beneath the horizon we listened intently for any signs of life, but we were left wanting. Soon the cold began to grip us both and we decided to move before we became too painfully stiff. We stalked silently for another hour or two to no avail before deciding to return to the hotel with the promise of a hot meal and steaming cup of coffee.The remainder of the day was spent hanging stands and scouting, for opening day was the next day. As we sat in the truck glassing the fields of ryegrass and alfalfa, my heart was full. Tomorrow couldn’t get here soon enough.
It was brutally cold that saturday but I didn’t much care. I was perched in a lone cottonwood along a barbed wire fence at the mouth of an expansive riverbottom to the south. The alfalfa fields lie to the northeast and a large pasture to my west, from which I determined my quarry would be returning to their beds after a night spent grazing. Behind me to the east was a large, straight opening between two patches of trees I nicknamed “the sendero” due to its resemblance to the Texan pathways. It wasn’t long before my predictions proved true and the deer began to filter back toward me. The does came coming first, then the smaller bucks. Enjoying the show and waiting for a buck of stature to come roving behind the does, I held my fire. Around eight o’ clock a shot rang out. My friend had felled a nice eight point, drawing first blood of the trip. I waited another two hours, hoping to score myself but the right animal never came. We celebrated his trophy over brunch and awaited the afternoon hunt. That afternoon came and went uneventfully, but I was still as hopeful as ever, for the deer movement was lively and the game plentiful. I was certain success laid just moments away.
The Burning Sendero
The Sunday morning air was so cold it burned, attacking and victimizing any part of my body exposed to its mercilessness. However I did my best to pay it no mind as I sat conducting a private worship service to myself in the pre dawn light. This was the Lord’s day, and I made certain not to ignore that. The morning proceeded as the one before it save the introduction of a new character; a buck I named Gimpy. Gimpy was a stout fellow and he favored his left front hoof slightly, stepping on it gingerly as he traversed the pasture. He wore a seven pointed set of antlers which had very thick mass but just barely lacked the height and width that I was looking for. I pondered culling him anyway due to the injury he had sustained, but after observing him for several minutes I determined that his wound was unsubstantial and his suffering minimal. Due to this I guess his name should’ve been lucky because on that day his life was spared. Unfortunately Gimpy was the biggest buck I saw for the remainder of the day, and the sun set on another day that left me wanting. However something deep began to swell inside me and I had a feeling that tomorrow would be the day. I was right.
Monday morning dawned like the others, with the cold biting at my face but softened in mind by the brilliant pinks and oranges that danced across the sunrise. Just as the first of the deer began to return from their midnight buffet I saw the familiar gleam of antler. Following behind a young, slender doe was an eight point buck which I deemed worthy of my bullet. He was a strong looking young buck of stocky build his eight pointed rack extending to the tips of his ears in width and his mouth stood agape as he pursued his lady of the morning. They approached quickly from the northwest which allowed me little time to settle into position to take the shot. He pressed ever closer closing the distance to a mere fifty yards, but a large limb impeded my shot. I held my position resolutely, patiently awaiting him to make a move when seemingly without provocation the doe jumped to a trot, fleeing into the Sendero behind me. The buck followed her smartly, and I swiftly wheeled around in my seat resting my rifle in the crotch of the old cottonwood. The buck bounded across the Sendero, stopping briefly to gather his bearings before disappearing into the riverbottom.
This decision proved to be a fatal one, for at that moment I fixed the crosshairs of my Weatherby .300 win mag on the point of his shoulder and fired. He stumbled only for a moment before descending to his final resting place beneath an island of cottonwoods. Elation, relief, and a thousand other emotions boiled into catharsis within me as I watched his tawny antler shine in the golden morning rays. I had completed the journey the best way I could hope for. As I lay hands on him my heart was full. Although he isn’t the biggest, oldest or most aesthetically pleasing buck i’ve ever killed, I was proud to call him mine. He encapsulated the culmination of a story with a happy ending. The story of the first time I answered the beckon call of my tumbleweed soul when it spoke to me strongly and said “Go west, young man!’”