Today was my birthday. It was also the day I decided to get my first weapon. It began like many other days here in rural southern Vermont: cold, gray and also gold from sporadic sun, with a powdered-sugar dusting of snow that was just enough to freshen up what was already on the ground, covering everything with a new white coat.
The turkeys visited again this morning – the same gang of 11 from yesterday. With chestnut-colored feathers and long legs they scratch at the ground in unison, or to my delight, hop up with a few wing-flaps to snap at the stubborn, low-hanging berries lingering on the suet feeder tree. Sometimes they flutter dramatically into the tree and tightrope-walk on the spindly branches.
They look young; they’re smallish and they have some fuzz on their heads. They make soft little noises as they jump, and sometimes call to one another from across the yard. They look picturesque with snow silvering their backs. Watching them is amazing – through the big window they can’t see in and they come right up to the glass.
It’s surreal to think that in May I’ll be looking at turkeys differently – as game animals; prey. If all goes well. I’ve never hunted before, but I’ve wanted to since I was a child. I was talked out of it by relatives and as I grew older, my conscience got the better of me. I was a vegetarian for a number of my teenage years, appalled and disgusted by poor animal treatment in the meat industry.
That was then. Now I know it is possible to eat meat that has been humanely raised and harvested. I stopped buying commercial and feedlot meat and started buying from farms. I started eating nose-to-tail instead of just going for steaks. I’m much more hands-on than I used to be, cooking nearly every day and making things like soups with leftover poultry carcasses and rendering my own fats.
But as satisfying as these pursuits are, they still use ingredients that have been purchased from someone else, others who did all the work. I want more involvement and accountability. Until I own my own property and can try raising animals for food (another dream), I believe hunting is the ultimate mental, physical, and spiritual experience for a food scholar like me. But the best possible outcome of the endeavor will have to result in an animal’s death, and I will have to become a killer.
But to do so – humanely and cleanly – will require great skill, and I must hone my marksmanship skills and understand firearm safety first. Practice and preparation are what I need. Next will be education – classes and a formal hunter education course. I can get my license in May, once I’m a resident. Otherwise I can seek out a mentor hunter. I hope to be licensed in time for spring turkey season, and with any luck, I’ll be gracing my plate and freezer with one of these beautiful creatures I’ve had the pleasure of watching every morning.
But back to today. My sole birthday wish was to go to a gun store for the first time. I have shot guns twice before and have never owned one. But I know I like a pump action shotgun and believe it would be a sound choice for a first hunting weapon. So I located the only store around open late and off we went. I had butterflies in my stomach by the time we got close. We were running dangerously low on gas and we began to suspect our phone’s GPS was leading us to backwoods doom.
It was literally off the beaten path, down a dark, heavily wooded road marked only by small yellow signs with red arrows. Every time we rounded a bend, a sign would direct us down another. At last we arrived. The shop was in a converted garage of a home. As soon as we opened the doors, a giant old German Shepard thrust his head into us.
Inside, it wasn’t scary at all and my anxiety evaporated. It was warm and friendly, with colorful walls of bullets. I was immediately drawn to a secondhand Savage pump action shotgun. The ancient metal had a handsome patina and the wood was worn smooth by another’s hands from long years of use. It was heavy and masculine, and felt as if it had a soul and a story to tell. I fell stupidly in love with hot pink ear muffs and pictured myself looking adorable at the range in them.
We told the owner, who was very kind and patient with my naivete, that I planned to get into hunting and asked him for his recommendations. I held 12 gauges and 20 gauges, stared down barrels and through scopes – including one on a semi-automatic monster that had a glowing green dot. I shouldered a matte black pump action as big as I was before wisely returning to the owner’s initial suggestion – a small, lightweight 20 gauge. It had a short barrel and it felt right, like something I could handle. The only thing that kept me from purchasing my first firearm tonight was the fact that the gun was camoflauge, and I would prefer black. It comes in black but needs to be ordered.
I could have brought home a gun tonight. I could have gotten my first weapon for my birthday as I had hoped. But this is my first gun. My first implement purchased with intent to hunt. To kill. This is a serious decision, and not something I will leave to impulse. I might wind up bringing home my little black shotgun from the gun shop at the end of the dark and twisted road. Regardless, I know tonight was just the first step in what will be a very interesting journey.