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This article was first published July 5, 2019, at sportingclassicsdaily.com.

Three years ago I killed one of the biggest Rios of my life. In fact, he was big enough to show off so I hauled him across the street where my neighbor was working in his driveway. Bill was duly impressed. But then he ducked in his garage and grabbed the beard from the Eastern he’d shot earlier that spring while on a hunt in Arkansas. That turkey’s beard was so long and thick it could’ve been used as the climbing rope in an elementary school gym class.

Bill had been inviting me to hunt Easterns with him in the Natural State for a couple of years, but there just hadn’t been room for an out of state adventure in the family budget. This year, the memory of that Eastern’s beard and a healthy tax return made the trip possible. At least that’s how I justified it to my wife. The plan was for the two of us to link up with my old friend Andy, an Arkansas resident, and hunt the Ozark National Forest where Bill had previously had great success.

The first tinge of guilt struck just after we crossed the state line and stopped at a Walmart to buy our nonresident tags. It mushroomed as every hour we hunted passed without a gobble, and it was full blown and threatening to drown me by the time we loaded up to head home, empty handed and downhearted.

Why had I come on this trip? Wouldn’t my family have been better off if I’d spent my time and our money with them instead of trudging the turkey-less hills of Arkansas? I could’ve spent that time with my son, fishing for bluegill in the pond behind the house, or I could’ve watched a season or two of Scooby Doo reruns with my youngest daughter. The money I spent on the expired and unpunched nonresident tag burning a hole in my wallet could’ve bought shoes for school or paid registration fees for summer camps. It’s every family man’s dilemma and perhaps the most interesting of ironies that we regularly neglect our families for work, but not for play – not for the time away and the experiences that could actually make us better husbands and fathers.

I was still beating myself up when Andy began to text me some of the photographs he’d taken from our hike through the Ozarks. Swiping through the pictures he’d snapped of flowering dogwoods and limestone ledges, I ran across a photo of the Bearing Tree. We’d followed a two track that morning past an old homestead and ran right into it. Bearing Trees are boundary markers used as corner accessories, their distance and direction from the corner being recorded. I’d never even heard of one, much less seen one, and it had been a brief but welcome distraction from the guilt gnawing away at my gut. In an age where GPS and Google Maps make such things obsolete, the Bearing Tree was a reminder of purer, simpler days. Standing beneath it, for a minute at least, I honestly hadn’t cared that the turkeys weren’t talking.

The picture of that tree sparked a memory from a time in my life when I’d had to work two jobs in order to provide for my family. I’d only been able to hunt two or three Saturdays a season then, and I’d learned just how dependent I’d become on time spent in the outdoors. Like a jealous girlfriend, I’d discovered that my relationship with nature necessitated much more of my time and energy than what it was being given and that neither one of us would be happy until something changed.

I closed my eyes against the setting sun and let the guilt wash over me. I visualized again the beauty of the Ozarks, those flowering dogwoods and limestone ledges. I stretched my legs and felt the ache in office-atrophied muscles. In my mind’s eye, I made my way down that two track once again and took a seat at the base of the Bearing Tree to do some thinking.

Maybe the time and money spent on an out of state hunting trip hadn’t been wasted after all. Maybe I’d needed to be reminded that hunting isn’t a business transaction, that the great outdoors isn’t some kind of wildlife vending machine, that the purchase of a tag isn’t the guarantee of a harvest. The woods have a way of humbling hunters, of seeing through our self-serving motivations and forcing us to reexamine the expectations we have for the time we spend afield. Being reminded of that lesson came at a price, but it wound up being worth every penny.

I may not have killed a bird in Arkansas, but I sure got my bearings.

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