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Hunting Isn’t About the Hunt; It’s About Bonding

By Craig J. Heimbuch

I step out of the cab of my uncle’s work-a-day Chevy truck into a bracing early November wind. Holding my nuclear-hot gas station coffee in its Styrofoam cup with a flimsy, brittle plastic lid, I take a moment to see Iowa stretched in every direction around me. Standing on a small rise, I can see 20, 30 miles out. The waving dun of prairie grass stands in sharp contrast to the thick, black Iowa topsoil, like eight inches of pulverized Oreo cookies. The sky above is clear, dark gray along the horizon. I take a careful sip of watery coffee and open the extended cab door for my youngest cousin, Tom, to step out.

His favorite hunting dog, Zeke, a German shorthair mutt he bought at a hillbilly sale as a puppy with the money he earned doing chores, begins to shift nervously in the crate held down in the bed by straps. Eva, a dog owned by a friend of one of my other cousins, Ben, is already running around in the grass, eager to get going for the day. The others were there moments before us, parking their trucks in a semi-circle on the grass that had once been the lawn of this farmstead—long-abandoned and bought by a couple of other uncles for the exact purpose that brings us here this day.

We all shake hands, my Iowa cousins glad to see me, excited to get me out hunting for the first time. My uncle, Mark, takes a few minutes to make fun of my shiny new clothes and gear, my blaze orange vest without a speck of dirt, the tags removed in the predawn preparations I made at his house. There’s talk of work and family. There are eight of us. Tom gets Zeke out and lets the dogs get to know each other. Though they’re the same breed, they look so different—Zeke wiry and thin, Eva muscular and sleek. Dominance is quickly established.

I fumble with the shotgun I’ve practiced putting together and taking apart in anticipation of this moment. I want to look like I know what I’m doing. I want to feel like I’m a part of this—this family, this moment, this place, this hunt. No one seems to notice that I can’t quite get the barrels to seat properly; they’re all talking strategy, the path we’ll walk, where I’ll be in relation to Tom, Mark and Ben—the ones who know this 40-acre plot the best.

It all goes by so quickly—20 minutes of talking, of sharing the anticipation. It’s days later, after several more hunts, that I realize this was my favorite part. Eight men meeting for a singular purpose. The banter, the bond—it's not at all what I expected when I decided to join the family tradition and become a hunter. This is nothing like our family reunions, where the men sip beer and assume the age-based pecking order, with the younger cousins and great-grandkids chasing each other around my grandparents’ old homestead. The dynamic is different somehow; it feels more like a community than a group of men holding guns.

We stop occasionally over a couple more days of hunting. Harsh, wet winters and high corn prices mean there aren’t many pheasant anyway. We find shelter from the wind, which never seems to die down, and talk, our guns broken open and slung over our shoulders or leaned against fence posts. Politics, work, the latest news from other cousins. It only takes a few moments to feel like a part of the group, something else I hadn’t anticipated. I watch Zeke chase starling and noises in the dense grass. I listen to my uncle and cousins discuss the local economy, the local politician with some potential. I don’t understand the details, having driven nearly 12 hours across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois and most of Iowa to get here, but I understand the sentiment. Though I remember my family from the visits of my boyhood, I understand them better now. I understand what hunting is about.

I’ll spend my winter, spring and summer looking forward to getting back here, back to Iowa, to this piece of land, to the nuclear-hot coffee and the front seat of my uncle’s truck. I’ll spend the rest of the year looking forward to getting back to that semi-circle of men, because now I know the magic of hunting is in the company and connection of these men. I’ll spend a year looking forward to getting back here because I finally understand what I never could have before—it’s where I belong.

This is Part 1 in a two-part series on hunting from Craig J. Heimbuch.

The trademarks mentioned in this story are held by their respective owners.

Craig J. Heimbuch is an award-winning journalist and author. His newest book, And Now We Shall Do Manly Things (William Morrow/HarperCollins), traces the year he spent learning to hunt in order to better understand his large, Midwestern family.


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