exploring the tools we use to get by
My dad showed me how. He said look at your compass. Look at the direction you need to go. Pick out a tree in that direction. Walk to it. Then do that again and again until you’re out of the woods. And in general, if you’re trying to walk in a straight line through a rectangular patch of trees, this is good advice.
But not always.
I was 14 years old one snowy November morning when the whole hunting party, maybe 15 of us, had driven far beyond our normal hunting grounds to some unfamiliar land. All I had to do was wait for the whistle, and walk straight through the woods to the other side. Six or seven of us were quietly walking through, pushing the deer out of their hiding spots and along their well-worn trails. I had hunters moving on parallel routes to my right and left. How easy is that?
When I think of my dad at this time of year, as hunters around Wisconsin pull out their blaze orange jackets and sharpen their knives, I see him heading off into the trees. He doesn’t rush. He’s confident. He doesn’t take long, powerful, athletic strides. He just picks his way through the snow and the leaves.
Not easy enough. It felt like, at some point, the woods had shifted. Maybe the whole forest rotated 90 degrees. Because instead of stumbling out the far end, I stumbled out the side. I’d somehow taken a left turn halfway through. Maybe I was headed north and got confused and started walking west. I have no idea. It was embarrassing. But I got over it.
My dad tried, year after year, to pass along his navigation skills. He’d been in the Navy. He’d been a surveyor. He’d been hunting dozens of different animals for most of his life. It seemed so easy for him. For him, walking through the woods in the right direction was like walking though your house in the dark. He just generally understood where to go.
I tried. But I never developed a solid sense of direction.
When I think of my dad at this time of year, as hunters around Wisconsin pull out their blaze orange jackets and sharpen their knives, I see him heading off into the trees. He doesn’t rush. He’s confident. He doesn’t take long, powerful, athletic strides. He just picks his way through the snow and the leaves. He hoists his heavy boots over dead branches and rotting logs. He’s quiet. He’s happy.
He’s cradling his old .308 in the crook of his left arm – the gun he bought when he was 17 years old. He handles it without effort. It’s a part of him. The shiny varnish on the stock is worn down to the raw wood where it rests against this body. The forestock is held in place with a strip of black electrical tape, but it still rattles. Softly. As he walks.
He always talked about buying a new rifle, a lighter model. But he never did. I guess learning to trust a different gun was just too much trouble.
When I think of my dad at this time of year, I see his compass. The one he kept pinned to his jacket all those years. The face is about he size of a quarter – a black and white disc that wobbles around to point north. The metal case has a dark gold color that’s grown splotchy with time. It says “TRU NORD” on it and “Brainerd Minnesota.”
I only saw him use the compass when we hunted unfamiliar land, and even then it was just a quick glance down before he moved on. He just needed to check his bearings. East, west, north, south ... these were small details to him. For me, they were mysteries. When I was a kid, using a compass made me anxious. I didn’t want to get lost. I didn’t want to screw up and emerge from the woods all by myself.
About six months after he died, I found my dad’s old compass lying in a box of spare bullets, shotgun shells, and old back tags – a kind of hunting license they stopped using a few years back. I held it up to my nose. I breathed in and held my breath.
It smelled sharp. It smelled like hunting knives and gun barrels. The pins he had sunk into the fabric of his jacket had broken off years ago. But it still works. It’s in my pocket. I keep it near me all day long.
Saying my dad’s old compass offers me guidance is a little too obvious. It’s too on the nose. And anyway, it’s not true. It doesn’t offer me guidance.
Just memories. And on hard days, a little peace.