Deer Camp–Part I

There’s no better way to kick off a project than by hanging out with deer hunters, right? And that’s exactly what I did this past weekend. Based off a tip to head up to North Creek Campground in Jefferson National Forest (just north of Roanoke in Botetourt county), I packed up my notebook, camera, and bright red jacket (no, I do not want to be shot, thank you) and headed up I-81. The afternoon was gorgeous–73 degrees and sunny with high, wispy clouds–and, although I was terrified at the prospect of showing up in a hunting camp with no contacts, only my smiling, very alone single woman face, I was in high spirits, and ready to get this show on the road.

Pulling off the expressway into Jefferson Forest provided the perfect natural shift I needed to feel right at home. While the view from the highway is nice–rolling fields, mountains in the distance–I much prefer the shade of trees and the cool gurgling of clear mountain streams. Although, after the torrential downpour this week, the James River and tributaries were a bit more than gurgling, more like roaring and rushing, but beautiful nonetheless.

As I turned off to the campground’s road, I looked in my rearview mirror and noticed a large, red pickup behind me. Oh my lord, I’m really doing this–hunters behind me, hunters before me. The campground was just as I’d been told it would be–packed with families or groups of men, several huge canvas tents set up making it obvious that these folk were here for the long haul, and plenty of woodsmoke swirling up from fires. Show time.

I lucked out. The first group of people I walked up to–two men and two women sitting around a campfire drinking beer–were the exact folks I needed to find. Dennis and Sam were more than happy to sit down with me and talk about their experience of growing up hunting–“I’ve been hunting 50 out of 58 years. Killed my first when I was 11, still remember it.”–the way that hunting has begun to disappear from the region–“It’s a dying tradition, kids have got too much else to do”–and the food they love to prepare–“Favorite way to eat venison? Fry up the backstrap. You haven’t anything like it.” And what’s more, they are the folks who set up the huge canvas tents–Dennis and Sam set up camp the day before Halloween and stay until the end of rifle season, November 21 this year.

For all of my worries–what the heck am I doing driving up into a hunting camp when I don’t have any contacts and don’t know anything about hunting and probably have nothing in common with these people–I was pleasantly surprised. Dennis and Sam and their wives and friends are the kindest, most open people I think I’ve ever met. Not only were they happy to give me an hour or so of their time, they also invited me back for Sunday breakfast (they don’t hunt on Sundays).

Yup, that’s right. I ate a full-on Appalachian hunting camp breakfast: scrambled eggs, biscuits and sawmill gravy, Dennis’ mother’s strawberry preserves, homemade apple butter, and country ham.

My first taste of meat in the past three years was a slice of good ol’ country ham. And you know what? It didn’t feel weird eating it like I expected it to, and it just tasted like ham. Most people who decide to live a vegetarian or vegan lifestyle end up craving meat for awhile–I never had that happen to me. For the past three years I haven’t craved meat (still don’t) and haven’t ever wanted to eat it simply because vegetables are so darn delicious. Even the smell of meat never grossed me out, I just didn’t eat it. So here I sat, somewhere in the middle of nowhere Virginia, with a plate piled high with foods I haven’t eaten in a long time–eggs???–been awhile since those–and a forkful of pig, and I ate it. And it tasted good.

Sure, it was just ham from Walmart, but the guys told me stories about how they grew up boiling a fresh pig for Thanksgiving and how it tastes like nothing else on this good earth, and even for the factory farm element of the summer ham, I ate without guilt or qualms or fears. If it’s good enough for them, then it’s good enough for me.

And that’s my philosophy for this whole project. Dennis was sweet and said I didn’t have to eat the ham just because they were (I told him that it was my first taste of meat after I’d eaten a slice and a half), which was extraordinarily nice of him, but that’s the point: I don’t have to, but I believe there’s something intrinsically worth knowing and saving in this region that I now call home. I’m not just some MFA student passing through–I want a reason to stay because I can’t get over how blessed I am to be here in a landscape that makes me cry at its sunrises over the ridge every time I wake up in the morning, to be in a region where folks wave hello and it’s normal, to be somewhere where I’m able to fully immerse myself in the food I’m eating. This place is my home and I’m so glad for it to be that.

Oh, and don’t worry, I baked a nice autumn apple buckle to bring for breakfast. It was a hit–a fact I love since it was vegan and all. (smile) The autumn apple buckle recipe can be found over on my other blog, Cupcake Punk

Looking forward, I’ve got an invitation to come back this upcoming Saturday and check out the deer they’ll have shot by then, and I’ll interview them a little more. Until then, I’ve got a chapter to write and more interviews to plan. But thank god I’ve got the hard part down–walking into a place where I know no one and finding the right people to talk to. I think I can really do this project, and I think it’s going to be more amazing than I can imagine.

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