I grew up in the middle of Pennsylvania—Montour County to be exact. Deer hunting was a tradition that came with the snow in this tiny spot in the northcentral part of the state. Some years would go unscathed by winter storms, but more often than not, the blaze-orange would be framed in white snow. My mom grew up in the middle of the woods a few counties over, in a house my grandparents built 60 years ago when they were young.
That home, nestled between a hill and a creek, was the site of my first—and only—hunting trip and the first trips for countless men and women in my family, dating at least back to the time when this area was the frontier. Through childhood, my grandparents’ house was as close to a magical place as I knew. Countless forts had been built, bows and arrows fired, and ponds skated upon by the time I was 13. That’s the age when it had become clear that I was the only one of three grandchildren who took enough of an interest in hunting to go with my grandparents into the open space that was just out their back door. I attended hunter-trapper education classes at the 9-1-1 call center. My mom went with me.
Despite the terribly awkward image in your head, it wasn’t really too bad to have your mom there, even as a teenage boy. There were 10 hours of training, including a terrible video about not drinking. Also a no-no: pressuring people into letting you hunt on their property. The first year was marred by the worst kind of tragedy for a kid who just sat through so many classes: My dad had waited too long to buy the license and I was left without a few freezing hours in the woods for another year. But the next year, with the foil-covered license on my back, I went to my grandparents ready to meet the same rite of passage as many of my friends.
While my grandmother Olive and I stood ready on the back porch, guns in hand, blaze orange vests and hats pulled down, my grandfather sorted through his various hunting supplies in the house, looking for a different orange hat than the one he had on. I don’t think he ever found it, but we waited and waited until our breath was ushering forth like two dragons. When he was done getting ready, granddad’s attire was more that of a gentleman with his broad-brimmed hat than a sniper in camouflage.
While he searched, my grandma decided it would be a good idea to reinforce a few ideas about safety. We were talking casually about the safeties on my Winchester and her Remington when, with a quick flick of her finger, her gun went off, firing a bullet away from me and through the garage a few feet away.
She was mortified and so was my grandfather when he stuck his head out the door and yelled an extremely infrequent curse word. Though the incident was shrugged off as an accident, it was—it remains—a lesson in safety that my mom’s family still remembers.
The accident didn’t deter us that day. We made our way to the tree stand in the middle of their woods. A short ladder led to the wooden platform, foliage only lightly hanging in the trees. We waited. And waited. And waited some more as my grandmother stood below and my grandfather stalked the woods like a spirit in the trees—like his great great great grandfather had on the same ground 200 years before.
Grandad performed what’s known as the drive, making only enough noise to herd the white tails in a path towards grandma and me at the tree stand. Though we had moved deeper in the woods, the drone of Interstate 80 was still above, only dampened by the slow moan of the wind around us.
Finally, we heard a shot. Perhaps another hunter, my grandmother thought, but it soon generated a few deer hurtling toward the stand from the west. I quickly aimed my gun, but the doe were too far away, covered in the dense foliage of a dry creek bed.
My grandmother stayed her shot as well and within a few minutes my grandfather appeared, claiming the gunshot as his own (though even he knew it hadn’t hit its intended target). With that failed drive, we called it a day.
After unloading our rifles and taking off our blaze orange, we went on the most traditional of Tannersville post-hunting outings—a trip to the locally famous Snydersville Diner. Served by tenured waitresses wearing nurses smocks in an old rail car, my grandparents both ordered a cup of coffee while I asked for a hot chocolate with whipped cream on top. Even as I sipped the hot brew, I could see the old trees that shaded the parking lot and had to wonder if there was a deer watching me. I haven’t been hunting since then. My grandparents were aging and I was busy with school. But it was a day in the grand cathedral of my ancestors that will always be dear to me.