At the end of this month, I’ll set forth on my annual road trip from Bismarck, North Dakota to Monroeville, Alabama—a trip I’ve made every year since my senior year of high school. In Minneapolis, I’ll pick up my high school friend Mike, after which we’ll hit Interstate 94 early Saturday morning, passing through Wisconsin (where we’ll stop for cheese curds), down into Illinois (where I hope Mike doesn’t blow the toll stop this time), through Kentucky (where the snow starts to disappear), then Tennessee (where we’ll dodge Nashville’s rush hour), and eventually find ourselves cruising south on I-65 through Alabama early Sunday morning.
Back in 2000, my father discovered a magical secret the southerners hide from us Yankees: the sheer awesomeness of their whitetail deer season. When I grew up in Minnesota, deer hunting was a major part of my life, and I still make it back to the north-woods every November so I can freeze to death while sitting in a tiny chair twenty feet above the ground. But what if one could also hunt deer in February, in a place where the temperature is sixty-five degrees and the deer population is fifty percent larger than that of both Minnesota and North Dakota combined? Such a scenario is possible in Alabama, and my parents now live down there half the year.
Each February I make it down there to visit. The road trip is an adventure in itself—we’ve had our share of wrong turns, lost wallets, and the aforementioned toll booth fiasco. But the real fun is to be had hunting in the woods itself. I’ve been surprised by gators in ravines and hogs in the underbrush. I once had a flying squirrel make a kamikaze run at my head; on another occasion, a bull chased me from its field. I’ve sat in food plots after sunset, feeling my blood freeze as coyotes began their nighttime vigil in the dark. Every experience is an essential—and unforgettable—part of the adventure.
But this is more than just a hunting trip. I’ve often found we lead lives that are far too busy: rushing to work early, staying late, grabbing half a sandwich for lunch, making evening commitments, and then crashing to bed in time for the cycle to begin anew the next day. And there’s nothing wrong with being committed to one’s job or engaged in one’s community—but sometimes we need to remember to just unplug from it all. That’s what Alabama does for me. It’s an opportunity to get up early, sip a warm cup of coffee, and climb into a stand to watch the sun rise. During the morning, the air is soft and the breezes are cool. In the afternoon, I’ll sit in a food plot with a book in hand, sometimes reading, sometimes napping, but always content. There are no computers humming, no phones ringing, no people talking, and no noise from the highway. It’s a time where I can close my eyes, relax, and enjoy the moment.
At other times, it’s hard work. I’ve tracked deer a mile through briars and brambles, sloshed through water that comes dangerously close to filling my boots, and cussed out a climber stand that just won’t cooperate on its way up the tree. I’ve walked into the thick of poison ivy and regretted it for weeks. But with this comes a sense of fulfillment, for I’ve often noted that I have never once in my life purchased ground beef from a grocery store. Every single ounce of ground burger I’ve ever used for dinner has been pure venison from a deer I harvested (or one of my dad’s, but let’s face it—he misses the shot way more than I do). It’s the hardest meal I’ve ever earned, and it tastes ten times better because of it.
This is more than a hunting trip, and more than a vacation. It’s a way to make memories. Memories of adventures in the woods. Memories of road trip mis-haps and intellectual debates along the way. Memories of the mist hanging low to the ground as I walk to the stand in the morning. Memories of tense excitement as a giant buck makes his way into the food plot in the evening. Memories of sleeping near the Gulf of Mexico with my window open, smelling the sea air and listening to the surf breaking on the shore.
If you haven’t “unplugged” recently, I urge you to try it—and it doesn’t require an extravagant vacation or an exotic destination. Simply find a moment to catch your breath and forget about commitments or worries. Life is too short to spend every moment anticipating the next deadline. No, life is instead about memories.
So go out and make them.