I don’t notice the cold when I step out my front door, pulling it hard behind me. My breath freezes in the glow from a streetlight. Stars glitter in the night sky. Everything is perfectly still.
But the cold cuts quickly through my gloves when I scrape the frost – thick like snow – from my windshield. It’s 4 a.m.; I do not pass another waking soul on the eight-block drive to work, but I know they’re awake behind those doors and windows.
They’re pulling on orange hats and camouflage coats and loading guns and ammo into trucks and slipping handwarmers into pockets and making their way in trucks to state game lands or family property or the close-cut corn fields of their neighbors.
It’s the first day of deer season here in western Pennsylvania, and I’m up with the hunters. Because when you’re in a world that lives for the Monday after Thanksgiving, where businesses close down and some high schools give up and close for the day and half the working community begs off work or calls in sick or simply never shows up, your local newspaper has to acknowledge it somehow.
We pull into the parking lot of a fire department in one of the more rural corners of the county, where the people are born and raised and die just miles away. They’re all locals, the handful of men gathered at tables scored and scratched by generations of diners and bingo-players. None of them feel like talking, barely glancing up from plates of scrambled eggs and greasy sausages.
But when I walk away their conversation picks up.
“What brings you out so early?” One man jabs at another.
“The wife kicked me out,” the old man jokes back, to laughter. “She told me to be quiet when I left, she didn’t have to get up to fix me breakfast this morning so don’t wake her.”
He winks at me. He just got finished inviting me up to his camp to cook for him, then says they just can’t get “young chicks like this one” up there for anything.
We stick around for half an hour, but I don’t get much for my story. I guess I make them nervous, scribbling with my pen when they speak. I regret my scarf, the bright red and green and purple one, one that is decidedly out of place here. I wore jeans and tennis shoes on purpose, afraid this would happen, but I think the scarf undid my efforts.
The only man who really has much to say grins widely and often. He’s 63, been hunting these woods since he was 12. But he, too, peters out. I think I’m asking the wrong questions: Why do they hunt? What do they love most about the season? Any favorite memories from the years? I can’t think of anything else to ask; they don’t seem to understand my questions.
Maybe they’ve never thought about it, this tradition they’ve done since that 12th birthday made them legal, something their fathers and grandfathers did before them.
New ones come in, take their seats; the first ones head out. We do too, stopping at Sheetz for coffee to get us through our early morning. The photographer gets better pictures than I get quotes, but I’ll make it work.
And in a few hours I’ll head home for a much needed nap, about the time the hunters show up in the paper’s parking lot, a buck in their truck bed, knocking on our door asking for someone to take a picture of their catch. Deer pictures will dominate the inside pages for a while.
And I know the old men will gather again, and the antlers will grow longer and more numerous with the telling, and everyone will have at least seen a big one, even if they don’t manage to bring it home. And I wonder if they’d talk to me this time, after the hunt? Or if they’d fall silent again if I walked back into the room.
Next time I’ll wear my husband’s bright-orange hunting coat, and leave the scarf at home. Maybe that will be enough to let me into the club.