We always wish we were somewhere wilder than we are.
I think that’s almost universally true for anyone who enjoys the outdoors. I often wonder if even guys who live in Alaska wish they lived in a wilder part of Alaska. I think they probably do.
When I was a kid I had to settle for the illusion of wildness, with my imagination doing most of the heavy lifting. I was fortunate enough to grow up in a town where you could still walk down the streets with a shotgun over your shoulder, but it was nowhere near the untouched wilderness I read about and watched in movies.
Fort Calhoun was rural, but in an eastern sense of the word. We were less than 20 miles from the nearest Wal-Mart, which made us city kids by default. It was some weird zone where rich families sat in their multi-million dollar homes in the hills outside town and watched hillbillies with Confederate flag stickers on their bumpers drive by. People from Wyoming or North Dakota would laugh if I described my upbringing as country, but someone from Chicago might scoff at the dirt roads and tailgates aesthetic.
Luckily it was still rural enough to hold a few pockets of timber that were up for grabs for any kid with some .22 shells in his pocket and the guts to ask permission. I didn’t have the guts of course, but Dad helped out in that department and I spent most of my childhood exploring a small piece of ground on the south side of town owned by an old woman named Francis Shepard.
Most of the property was a corn or bean field, depending on the year. There was one good stretch of timber on the east side and an old railroad right of way on the west that had become a sort of overgrown hedgerow. Butting up against the timber on the east was a fairly decent size pasture of native grass and another tiny piece of swampy timber where I once flushed what I now know was a woodcock. At the time I had no clue what it was, only that it’d scared me half to death.
In this tiny patch of land I was able to escape. I hunted rabbits and squirrels, made forts and dug foxholes. Things got really serious when I discovered that a good size flock of turkeys was frequenting the east side timber and I shot my first two toms there when I was 14 and 15.
The entire piece of property totaled maybe 40 acres, a little more if I decided to trespass. Once in a while I’d sneak down to Stratbucker’s pond south of Shepard’s to fish for bluegill or shoot bullfrogs with a shotgun (that one I’m not super proud of).
I learned how to be alone with myself there. How to occupy my mind with passion and curiosity rather than a darkness I found I was naturally inclined to. It was all the timber and wildness I needed, and I was probably never more than 500 yards from someone’s house. (The entire place has since been completely destroyed by a large scale farming operation that bought the property around a decade ago, something I’ve never quite been able to come to terms with.)
As an adult I’ve been able to hunt in what I consider truly wild places. Huge tracts of national forest filled with bear and wolves and the kind of unknown I’ve been searching for all my life. It’s a dream for me to be able to hunt and explore places like that once in a while, but I still spend most of my time outdoors in places I wouldn’t consider wild in the traditional sense.
I’ve been hunting turkey this spring on a piece of public property less than 20 minutes from my house. It looks oddly out of place for Wisconsin and almost reminds me of the western Nebraska sandhills. There’s a kind of sagebrush look to the place and the hillsides are cut with small ravines that were almost certainly made from running cattle on the property at some point in the past.
It’s flanked on either side by a housing subdivision and some kind of concrete manufacturing operation, but if you sit down in just the right spot you can see a great distance without running across any kind of manmade structure. You can see a creek to the west and a stand of hilly timber far off in the distance that reminds you that you are in fact in Western Wisconsin.
I haven’t even come close to shooting a turkey this spring, but I like to spend my time at this spot. It makes me think about sitting up against a tree looking over Francis Shepard’s pasture, pretending I was someplace wilder than I was.