Note: A preview from my upcoming autobiography, Life’s Too Short to Smoke Cheap Cigars (Or to Drink Cheap Whiskey.)
Along the Road
Back in the day…
One man’s ditch might be a nine-year old boy’s treasure.
Ditches in farm country provide havens for wildlife as well as a safe spot for native plants to grow. As a young boy, I spent many a summer day wandering through these roadside wonderlands.
Everyone should be nine at least once, and able to lay at grasshopper’s eye height in the weeds of a ditch without fear of embarrassment. The wonders of life among the grass blades and weed stems is amazing, and it’s best appreciated at mouse height.
Northeast Iowa’s expansive Yellow River State Forest had the kinds of ditches I liked best. The gravel roads that wandered through the hills and followed the valleys along Paint Creek had nice wide shoulders, and wide, deep ditches on both sides. Where the road wandered along the edge of a bluff, the ditch would narrow to a few feet with a wall of limestone facing the road. The ditches along the roads entertained me on many a happy afternoon as my parents fished for trout in the pools of Paint Creek.
To the nine-year old boy lost in the world of the roadside, the limestone face would be a giant castle, or a vast mountainside; imaginary battles with mounted knights would rage across the turrets and ramparts, or perhaps a larger, imaginary version of my nine-year old self would pursue mountain goats or Dall sheep across the windswept face of the rock. With a spool of thread, I would lash together platforms of twigs on which whole villages would perch on the cliff face, and walkways of weed stems would wind from platform to platform, down to rock ledges that grew crops of moss.
But the greatest adventures were often found in the wide, weed-filled ditch on the other side of the graveled road.
The denizens of Northeast Iowa’s roadsides ranged from grasshoppers to woodchucks, from ants to badgers, from chipping sparrows to pheasants, and all of them fascinating to a nine-year old.
As a young boy I was frequently sent into pastures and weed-covered ditches searching grasshoppers for fishing bait. Trout and bass favor grasshoppers as food; therefore, it follows that trout and bass fishermen, like my father, favor grasshoppers as bait. At the tender age of nine, I was an accomplished grasshopper hunter. Mason jar in hand, I’d spend an hour catching big brown hoppers, little green hoppers, medium-sized speckled hoppers, and stashing them carefully under the jar’s perforated lid.
Catching grasshoppers for bait is delicate work. You have to catch the hoppers alive and unharmed, or they won’t give the right action to entice a hungry trout. This requires stalking skill that would do Davy Crockett proud.
The careful hopper hunter always proceeds into the sun, to keep from casting shadows on the wary insects. Squinting against the glare, I’d slip through the tall grass, watching for the flush of a hopper. The rattle of wings would accompany the flash of a startled hopper’s flight; if not pressed, they’d flutter only a few feet on the first hop, and settle down in the grasses again. Smaller, immature hoppers without fully developed wings would ping off the ground or grass stem, and land prepared to hop again. This, this not-too-spooked-yet first hop, was where the hopper hunter’s skill was to be called on.
Moving so slowly so as not to seem to be moving at all was the key. If I slipped up on the hopper slowly enough to keep it from spooking into a second hop, I could reach forward, slowly, slowly, ever so slowly, and carefully grab the hopper right where the wings joined the thorax. If I missed this all-important grab, the hopper would take off on a spooked second flight that would last twenty or thirty yards, usually into tall grasses; the flightless hoppers would take off on a series of leaps that would end up somewhere out of sight among the weeds.
More often than not, though, I was successful. Even at nine I was an experienced and savvy hopper hunter. The grabbed hopper would kick his muscular hind legs and spit tobacco juice to no avail; into the Mason jar he’d go, with several of his fellows, to see eventual service as bait.
Often on my rambles for grasshoppers I’d enter portions of the roadside where chunks of rocks broke through the soil; Northeast Iowa’s unpredictable karst terrain frequently left blocks of limestone seemingly at random, bursting through the soil in clumps. These areas were frequently where woodchucks, the sentinels of the Iowa roadside, built their burrows.
Woodchucks had the advantage of being tender and tasty like rabbits, while a full-grown adult would be three times as large. Furthermore, Iowa’s woodchuck season opened on June 15th each year, to give farmers a chance to legally pot the pasture-excavating pests; as the fat marmots were a favored meal of my Mom’s, I spent a lot of time prowling ditches with a .22 rifle, stalking the wily chucks.
This One Time:
It was on just such an afternoon that a fateful meeting took place, in a ditch bordering the old horse barn meadow in the Yellow River State Forest. As I worked my was stealthily along the ditch, watching intently for the brown-furred form of a woodchuck, a skinny figure coming the other way caught my eye. As I plowed closer through the tall grass, I got a good look at my fellow ‘chuck hunter, who was carrying a battered old .22 of his own. The skinny lad was a year or so older than I, with a shock of brown hair standing straight up on his head, a t-shirt that had apparently once been blue, hickory bib overalls with a moth-eaten squirrel tail tied to the hammer loop, and badly worn tennis shoes that had been white at some point in ancient history. We came face to face in the shadow of a small box-elder tree that hung over the ditch from the side of the field.
“Hey.” I said, by way of greeting.
“Hey” the other boy replied. “My name’s Jon. You huntin’ woodchucks?”
“Yeah.” I gave him my name. “I’m supposed to bring one back for supper.”
“Me too. They’s some holes up that hillside in some rocks.” He pointed to the top of the big hill that stood overlooking the road. “Want we should go have us a look?”
Thus, was an alliance formed that would become the stuff of legend.
Unfortunately, the woodchuck hunt was something less than the stuff of legend.
We proceeded up the hill. Yellow River State Forest is just that, a forest, and the big hills are liberally covered with hardwood timber, but most are capped with open meadows and the occasional rock outcrops. We wandered up through the red oaks and shagbark hickories, arriving at the meadow after about an hour of climbing that took a bit of the wind out of even our youthful sails.
A bit higher, at the crest of the ridge, stood a big outcrop of white limestone. From our spot about a hundred yards away, we could see some dug-up dirt scattered around at the base of the rocks.
“I’ll go around to the left,” Jon said. “You go right. We’ll come on from either side. Figure one of us will get a shot.”
“All right,” I agreed. We split up and started our stalk, with all of the stealth that farm-country nine-year-olds can muster. Swinging wide around the rocks, I went all the way to the top of the ridge and, gripping my heavy old Mossberg bolt-action .22, crept the last few yards in to a spot where I could see the holes. There was a flash of brown fur… I brought up the .22 and aimed.
Then I spotted the distinct pattern of black and white on the animal’s head. Not a woodchuck – a badger. “Careful,” I called to Jon, who was presumably approaching from the other direction. “There’s a badger there by the holes.”
But I was too late. Jon came around a slight bend in the rock face and came face-to-face with the squat mustelid at the range of about ten feet.
The badger, amazingly, leaped about two feet in the air, changing direction as it did so, and landed poised to spring, an angry snarl twisting its muzzle. Jon raised his .22 pump-gun, but in the penultimate moments of what was otherwise a well-planned and well-executed stalk, he had neglected to chamber a round, and the hammer clicked home on an empty chamber.
The badger charged. Jon fumbled his .22 and dropped it. He turned to run, squealing in alarm – an angry badger rates high on the “don’t mess with” list of any critters native to Allamakee County, nine-year-old boys being no exception.
But badgers aren’t very fast. At their most motivated, a fully-grown buck badger like the one we had encountered can manage a shuffle. Any nine-year-old country boy should be able to outrun one. Jon took off down the hill, the badger in pursuit. I trotted after them, stopping to pick up Jon’s .22 along the way.
I found Jon at the edge of the trees, holding off the annoyed badger with a stick. “Want your .22?” I asked.
Jon responded with a string of oaths that would have been surprising from one so young, at least if one weren’t familiar with northeastern Iowa farm kids in the early Seventies. “No,” Jon concluded, “I’d rather just poke at him with this stick a while longer.”
“OK,” I agreed. “Meet you back down on the road when you’re done.”
Jon eventually disentangled himself from the badger, and after retrieving his .22, which I had thoughtfully carried back down the hill, we hunted the roadside ditches for a couple more hours without finding any woodchucks. I suspect that Jon, like me, ended up with leftovers rather than woodchuck casserole for supper, but that wasn’t that unusual when your meal depends on hunter’s fortune.
I’ve never really outgrown my interest in roadsides. Roadside ditches may hold wild berries or asparagus as well as furry critters suitable for turning into casseroles. In many places walking along the ditch in spring or early summer will get you dive-bombed by red-winged blackbirds who favor those locales for nesting. In winter, snowmobile owners ride the ditches for miles, an activity I’ve never quite caught on with but one that’s very popular to this day in the upper Midwest.
A quiet country road in nice weather is a nice place for a walk no matter your age.