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In a touching moment when there are no dry eyes left in the hunting shack, the Exalted Shack Master lowers the flag of deer season, pausing briefly at half-mast, before retiring the tattered symbol of the yearly inherent pursuit of frivolity with guns to its sacred spot on the sacred shelf next to the corkscrews, swizzle sticks, shot and champagne glasses.
Stamped with approval from the United States Dept. of Mirth and Merriment, the old flag has served the crew for many decades and will be passed on to new generations for centuries to come. Groggy after nearly 16 days of living at the shack, the hunters all return home feeling the bitter pang of regret for not getting up at sunrise when the big buck obviously walked by their empty stands. Still, the pleasant memories of shared camaraderie and the constant and doting attention of every hunter’s personal bartender far outweigh mere sour grapes over not shooting the buck of dreams. Sage advice from the elders never grows old. “Go ahead, try a little root beer with your rum.”
The shack was crowded Saturday night as the traditional “Fire of Renewal” was lit, again a little too close to the “Trailer of Remorse” and the “Woodpile of Hope” as it is every year. The old trailer has seen better days and the melting rubber tires always generate a few laughs. The scrambling to quickly move a part of the woodpile nearest the roaring blaze always has the desired effect of building up a hearty appetite and dire thirst, keeping the personal bartenders in high gear to start out the evening’s celebration.
The fire serves as an ancient ritual of cleansing, the time when hunters purge themselves of doubt and uncertainty, when they throw caution to the wind and dive into a new beginning of self awareness. Gone are the old fears and worries. Toss in a chair. Toss in your shoes, the ones that made you plod along like the rest of the crowd, afraid to challenge life and limb, and the uncertain ice of the river crossing under a moonless sky. Burn the remnants of your angst, pursue noble dreams by casting off the weight of prejudice. Drag yourself to the precipice and burn those old thoughts, roll them up like a wad of newspaper and toss in a can or two of cheese whiz for good measure.
The fire beckons. It reaches to the sky where the sparks mingle with the treetops. The cheese whiz goes ka-bang. The drums pound and the dances and trances begin. Time slips into the creek and makes its way to the river, to the lake and the sea. The fire beckons. A favorite hat is burned. Some gloves. A pair of pants. An old car seat. A steering wheel. A watch.
Who needs to carry the clutter and weight of such things any longer? A haunted cupboard, a vehicle of fear and loathing and bad diets, is flung into the flames. The kitchen crew cheers. Now we’re getting somewhere. A trunk load of bad investments goes up like the cheap paper they were made from ... and with that one lone hunter's personal economy is feeling better already. The fire beckons and dubious thoughts and useless old habits fuel the blaze and are turned to ash.
Hours later as the blaze smolders down the hunters wander over to the meat pole to admire what might have been there had we gone out hunting a few more times instead of sitting in the shack and thinking too much about which stand would be perfect given the winds, temperature, barometric pressure and current state of hangovers.
It is always a tough choice, all hunters know that, and the prioritization of stands for the morning hunt can often last well into the night before a decision is made. Some of the hunters prefer the beckoning chair or the fresh air near the fire pit to sleep on their choices. Some simply wander off into the snowy darkness on a personal vision quest, to commune with the spirits until some part of them starts to freeze under the canopy of cold November stars.
As with every end to the deer season, there is a cheery note. For the next 50 weeks, simulated deer season will be in full regalia in the deer camps across Minnesota. And as we all know, the hunting, simulated or real, never really ends at the shack.