Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Texans: They Like Their Meat

Thanksgiving is a day that, among other things, our entire nation uses as an excuse to gorge ourselves.  It's in that spirit that I write about my most recent visit to the Lone Star State.

After last week's successful deer hunting trip, I met my parents in San Antonio for a brief 24 hours.  On the way from San Antonio to Fredericksburg, we stopped at Rudy's Barbecue, something of a legend in those parts for quality 'cue.  I hadn't eaten there since college (many more years ago than I care to admit), and my memories were fond.

I opted for the "beef" (also called brisket or sliced beef, or any combination thereof).  It was outstanding -- smoky, tender, and not a bit dry.  Wedged between two slices of stick-to-the-roof-of-your-mouth Wonderbread, slathered in sauce, it was heaven.  In my opinion, sliced beef defines Texas barbecue, and you won't get much better than Rudy's.  Appropriately enough, Rudy's is also housed in a convenience store and gas station -- not unlike my K.C. favorite, Oklahoma Joe's.  Coincidence?  I think not.

That evening, my parents and I attended the Gillespie County Wild Game Dinner at the fairgrounds.  And good thing, because I'm sure it attracted well over 500 attendees.  What a hoot!  For 20 bucks, you were entitled to every kind of wild critter under the sun, as well as an open bar that served Pilsner Urquell on tap and Becker Reserve Cabernet.

But the real belle of the ball was the dinner.  It was served buffet style from seven stations, and I had everything from axis venison chili to smoked wild turkey to chicken fried scimitar oryx.  And it was all good (which can't always be said for some wild game feeds).  Most notable?  Not a vegetable in sight!  (Of course, back when I lived in the Lone Star State, I quickly learned that a Texan's idea of vegetables typically includes pinto beans, mashed potatoes, and corn.)

After the dinner, there was a huge live auction that featured tons o' guns, hunting trips, and various assorted Texana.  It was a quick trip, but uniquely Texan nonetheless.

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

We Interrupt This Bird Season To Bring You A Deer Hunt

No prose here, just a couple bragging photos of a big buck I took over the weekend down near Brackettville, Texas on Lindsey Creek Ranch.  He was a nice, large-bodied nine-pointer that showed himself while crossing a sendero about 100 yards from our blind.

Preferring the rush of a covey rise and the thrill of good dog work, I don't think I'll ever be a hard-core deer hunter.  But there's definitely a thrill seeing a big brute like this one come in and show himself within gun range.  And I'm already looking forward to putting that venison to good use.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Quail Unlimited Apparently Isn't.

Shortly after I moved to Kansas City, I was short on hunting buddies.  I don't mind hunting alone now and then (in fact sometimes it's incredibly therapeutic), but it's usually more fun to share it with someone.  So I decided to join a conservation organization, in hopes of finding some like-minded souls to chase tail (of the winged variety).

I probably could have joined any of the various organizations, but I picked Quail Unlimited (Chapter 13, now a fitting name), mainly because it catered to the species of bird I enjoy hunting most.  It was a good experience -- I met some good hunting partners and I was even drafted into a stint on the local Board of Directors.  I got a great deal of satisfaction spending time and money helping to grow the organization -- both nationally and locally.  I even got the rare treat of attending the Celebrity Hunt one year on a south Georgia plantation.

A couple of months ago, I began receiving emails and phone calls from friends and associates that filled me in on the bad juju going on at QU National.  Rocky Evans, one of the founders of QU and longtime President, had resigned under pressure.  Craig Alderman, a PR/marketing hack and career journeyman in the outdoor industry, was elevated to prez.

Accusations of debt, mismanagment, misappropriation, foreclosure, graft, and other skullduggery are rampant.  QU apparently no longer owns its sprawling South Carolina HQ anymore, and I got an email today urging me to join the Quail and Upland Wildlife Federation, the supposed phoenix destined to rise from the QU ashes. 

Thanks, but I'll keep my hand on my wallet.  I'm pissed off for QU wasting my time, money, and credibility for the better part of a decade.  I'm even more pissed off that the regional directors, wildlife biologists, hunters, and conservationists are left holding the bag for this gross mismanagement by a bunch of selfish assholes that found a profit center in charity.

And mostly, I'm pissed off that the bird that needs it most is once again the ultimate loser.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Kansas Opener: Soggy, But Semi-Successful

Our opening weekend plans were fluid until 48 hours before the season opened. After considering a number of different locations, we finally decided to concentrate our efforts near {location redacted}, an hour or so west of {location redacted}. Jon wisely figured that since most opening day hunters would be chasing after ditch parrots, we'd concentrate our efforts on bobwhites -- the 'ol "if they zig, we'll zag" theory.

Normally, we'd head west on Friday afternoon, but since my daughter had her 12th birthday party that evening, I'd have to delay my plans. (Shame on me for not having the forethought to plan that birthdate a little better.) So my neighbor and I left the house well before sunup, and made it to {location redacted} about four hours later. Water towers are ubiquitous fixtures of small town America, but I give credit to the citizens of {location redacted} for cleverness in naming theirs.

Once we left the city limits for gravel, the roads were littered with trucks bearing tags from Kansas, Missouri, Colorado, Oklahoma, Alabama, and Pennsylvania. Their occupants were scattered from one horizon to the next, clad in newly-purchased hunter orange and chasing mostly overweight and/or clueless dogs, making the most of their once-a-year liberation.

Thankfully for us, Jon's plan was solid. My neighbor Mike and I met up with Jon and Tom, who had camped out the night before, at about 9:30 in the morning. They were each halfway to their daily limit, and we quickly loaded up gear in search of another spot. After a little searching, we put down Ike and Dottie in some particularly good-looking rolling grassland with plum thickets and cedars.

Four hours of tough walking later, we had managed to tag a few more bobs, and best of all, were mostly unbothered by other hunters. On the way back to camp, we help pull a lone hunter driving a Hyundai sedan (with no dog) out of the middle of a sandy road he had unwisely chosen to traverse.

That evening, we wrapped four quail in bacon and jalapenos, and grilled them alongside some smoked St. Louis ribs I had brought with me. We savored our meal around a campfire, and afterwards made the decision to pack up and spend the night in {location redacted}, since the forecast called for rain. That was the second good call of the trip. We woke up to steady showers, and it's still drizzling now, on Monday evening.

For selfish reasons, I'm actually pretty happy that Sunday was a rainout. It definitely kept most hunters out of the fields, and hopefully by the time next weekend rolls around, the once-a-year warriors will be onto something else. I'll be in Texas this weekend chasing whitetails, but hopefully by the Thanksgiving break, I'll be ready to go at it again.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Transcendental Coulee

Jon and I surveyed the massive coulee outside the driver's side window, and came to a stop.  Without even discussing it out loud, we both understood that we'd have to hunt it.  That's how it goes sometimes.  After hunting with someone enough, you tend to anticipate your buddy's thoughts and ideas long before either of you ever need to say a word.  Perhaps it's a latent trait that still manifests itself after thousands of years of man combining his strengths for a successful hunt.

At any rate, it was the first hunt after saying goodbye to JD, his father, and his seriously injured lab, Ruby.  Earlier that morning, we had bid farewell to Allan, an outdoor writer friend whom I had invited up from Helena who had the misfortune of choosing to join us for the worst 24 hours any hunter could imagine.

Now, it was just me and Jon and our seven dogs... and one gargantuan coulee.  I don't recall if it was a conscious decision or fate of the rotation, but we put down our two veteran dogs -- Jon's Sage, a beautiful five-year-old English Setter, and Dottie, my nine-year-old pointer.

We each set out with our dog -- I took the right side of the coulee, Jon the left.  In retrospect, we could have easily hunted each high-low side up and back, but for some reason, we didn't.  No matter.  Over the first several hundred yards, I could feel the stress and anxiety of the last 24 hours start to leave me.  Prior to that time, there was a part of me that simply wanted to pack up and head home to the safety and comfort of my family.  I'm glad I fought that urge.

All of these thoughts were swimming in my head when Dottie began getting birdy, and finally came to a stop at the edge of a drainage, just below the rim of a cut wheat field.  I picked up my pace, and made the wise decision to circle around the brushy draw to afford myself a shot.  I was almost there when the covey of huns exploded.  Most flew straight down the drainage, protected by brush and into the safety of the main coulee.  But one trailer bird gave me a dream shot, and I didn't squander it.

And then I noticed it.  The colors had become brighter, more vivid.  All of my senses were heightened and alive.  I saw Dottie, and noticed she was sharing the same elation that I was feeling.  I picked up the beautiful bird, felt its warm, limp heft in my hand, and realized that I was experiencing something profound.

Sometimes, we need to experience death or near-death to appreciate and understand how blessed and sacred life is.  And I'm convinced that my experience on that coulee was God's undeniable way of letting me know that he was with me.  All I had to do was look around -- in literally any direction -- and there was irrefutable proof that his hand was in everything.  And I knew I was right where I needed to be.

Dottie and I continued our walk, and I let the Montana wind dry the tears on my smiling face.  The feeling of rapture faded, just as it had come on.  We didn't find any more birds in that coulee, but that was beside the point.  I had faced serious injury or death the day before.  I had taken a life moments before in the form of that lone hun.  And I emerged -- feeling thankful, relieved, humble -- and very much alive.

I had been to hell and back in Montana.  But for a few brief minutes, I found heaven.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Beatles Never Broke Up

This is just too good to pass up. What if the Beatles never imploded, and continued to churn out music? Apparently, that's the premise behind The Beatles Never Broke Up, an amusing website that contains a (free) digital version of "a cassette tape containing a Beatles album that was never released."

The whole story is very Alice in Wonderland, but the downloaded album, entitled Everyday Chemistry, is indeed a clever (and fairly talented) contemplation of what might have been. Just go to the website and check it out for yourself.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Sidra Mas Fina

A couple of winters ago, while on a trip to Barcelona, Not Hemingway turned me on to Sidra at Sagardi, a small chain of Basque ciderhouses that feature exotic looking (and tasting) pintxo tapas.

I won't soon forget the experience, and I've been able to approximate at home many of the Spanish delicacies I've experienced on that trip -- but not the sidra. For longtime 8MM readers, you might recall that I somewhat crudely lamented the fact that a guy couldn't find a Spanish cider seemingly anywhere in North America.

Never content with admitting defeat, I set out to make my own. I've never attempted to make homemade beer -- I've always thought that there are plenty of wonderful breweries around making top-notch brews. But never once have I seen sidra on tap -- better known here as hard apple cider.

And sadly, there's very little information available about true Spanish Sidra (at least in English) on the web. So I scoured other websites, studying up on recipes. I found a few that looked promising, so I took the plunge. I visited a nearby homebrew shop (less than a mile from work -- who knew?!?) and picked up a fermentation starter kit for about 20 bucks.

One Saturday morning, the kids and I visited Lewisburg Cider Mill and picked up a gallon or two of freshly-smashed apple cider. The actual "brewing" part of the equation seemed straightforward enough -- sterilize your equipment thoroughly, dissolve a campden tablet and mix in with the cider, and add some proofed vintner's yeast (which was all included in my starter kit). It was fun doing this with the kids, and we both learned a lot about the science behind fermentation (critical knowledge for any grade-schooler).

Two weeks later, my first batch was finished. The result? Meh. It was very cloudy and quite yeasty, but not altogether horrible (although Mrs. Scampwalker would go nowhere near it).

Undeterred, I put another two gallons down prior to my trip to Montana. This time, I used a champagne yeast, and added about a half cup of dissolved sugar to the mix, hoping to get a clearer batch through higher alcohol content. I also kept it fermenting for three weeks.

Last night, we racked the new batch. What a difference! While still cloudy (I've been told pretty much any "real" cider is going to be that way), it was less so than the first batch. It was also much less yeasty, and had a slight but pleasing natural carbonation to it.

I'm drinking a half-gallon right away, and putting two other carboys into secondary fermentation to see what that does.  Hopefully, I can replicate the recipe again. It'll be a fun holiday treat to serve to guests -- whether they want it or not.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Quick Spins: What I'm Listening To, November 2009

I know this space has been filled with hunting, hunting, and more hunting, but I'm no one trick pony, even this time of year.  With all the miles I've put on traveling to various hunting destinations, I've had the chance to listen to a lot of great new music.  Here are a few recommendations.

Black Joe Lewis and the Honeybears -- This cat was born 30 or 40 years too late.  He wails real-deal soul music that sounds straight out of James Brown-era Motown.  And while Black Joe has the pipes to wail, the real stars are the Honeybears.  Unlike most of today's music, in which the guitar is the star, the bassline carries the bulk of the melody.  And the horn section?  They play fat and frenzied, teetering on the border of becoming entirely unhinged.  My only complaint is that his debut full length album, Tell 'Em What Your Name Is! only clocks in at 30 minutes or so.  But what a thrill it is.  Call it blues, soul, R&B, or funk -- just get it.  (I'm also terribly pissed I missed them swing through KC last week -- their live shows are apparently legendary)

The Bottle Rockets -- Lean Forward is probably my favorite Bottle Rockets album since the Brooklyn Side.  From the moment you press play, it blows through four or five of the best tracks of the album -- perfect for a keeping you awake and alert during a long drive to western Kansas.  Or Minnesota.  Or Montana.  Or at the office.  And they can do thoughtful, too -- "Kid Next Door" is a sad tale of a kid with a bright future that never made it back home from the Mideast.  These guys are alt-country stalwarts, and I don't think they've ever received the credit they're due.  Check out this album and you'll see why.

The Band of Heathens -- This band formed when Gordy Quist, Ed Jurdi, and Colin Brooks realized that there was strength in numbers.  All three played individual sets at Momo's, the legendary club in downtown Austin.  Soon, they started collaborating, and the Heathens were born.  With all three sharing vocal duties, they blend rock, roots and soul, and I can't help but compare them to The Band.  Their latest, One Foot In the Ether, is the first studio album by them that I've owned.  And it's definitely more polished than Live at Momo's or Live at Antone's, but in a good way.  It's obvious they're stretching their chops, and "L.A. County Blues" even feels like it could belong on mainstream radio.

Robert Earl Keen -- Does this guy know how to put out a crappy album?  Maybe it's his songwriting, maybe it's his incredible supporting band, but REK knows how to make music, and The Rose Hotel is no different.  It's got all the Robert Earl hallmarks, including storytelling ("The Rose Hotel") wittiness ("Wireless in Heaven" and "Village Inn") and a nod to the masters (Townes Van Zandt's "Flyin' Shoes").  In fact, over the past 20 years, Robert Earl Keen has become a master in his own right.  It's been fun to follow his trajectory over that time.

Drive-By Truckers -- I've always been somewhat ambivalent about these guys.  I liked their sound, but too often, it felt like their songwriting took the easy road, with stereotypical lyrics about the seedy side of southern life (uplifting stuff like unemployment, abuse, alcoholism, crystal meth and such).  And to a degree, I still think I'm right.  But their chops have grown, and Blessing and a Curse and Brighter than Creation's Dark are proof.  Even their latest b-sides compilation The Fine Print is worth a listen.  And that's caused me to take another listen to some tracks in their earlier catalog.  Give "18 Wheels of Love" off of Alabama Ass Whuppin' a spin, and you'll understand.  Or you won't.