The Trophy on My Wall

Creative Nonfiction by Don Alexander

I was sitting on a log behind a makeshift blind I had fashioned out of dead limbs and brush. My Winchester 30/30 was resting on a horizontal limb just in front of me. This deer stand was thirty yards above a heavily used game trail in a little mountain hollow not far from Asheville, North Carolina. This hollow is isolated and hidden from view. I had discovered it the previous summer by accident.

For as long as I can remember, I have loved exploring off the beaten path in these mountains. The thought of stepping where few have stepped before excites my imagination and I am always looking for places on my hikes which are isolated and hard to get to. While driving on the Blue Ridge Parkway, I had noticed a ridge spur branching off the mountain chain along which the Parkway ran. That summer, I had parked at an overlook, walked along the road for a quarter of a mile and then plunged into the brush at the beginning of the ridge spur. I immediately found myself in a jungle of rhododendron. The old mountaineers called these thickets “hells.” They are almost impossible to penetrate upright. My path led zigzagged around, under, over and through the growth and required crawling on all fours at times. I was careful to keep to the ridgeline, knowing people have been lost in these “hells” and have wandered in circles until exhausted.

After about a hundred and fifty yards of the rhododendron, I broke out into an open wooded area covered sparsely with second growth trees. I could see many charred stumps from a long-ago fire and there were numerous game trails leading off the ridge to the right and to the left. The ridge descended to a saddle and then inclined again toward a peak off in the distance. There were more rhododendron covering the ridge in that direction above and away from the flat area of the saddle. In the saddle, a heavily used game trail descended to the right into the little hollow fifty yards below.

The hollow, in my eyes, was a magical place. It was open and almost flat in places. It was cool and moist with ferns growing profusely in many places. Wildflowers such as jack-in-the-pulpit, trillium, mayapple, and bloodroot grew around and among the ferns. There were many large tulip poplars stretching to the sky and providing the shade to cool the hollow far below their crowns. Rays of summer sunshine fell through the canopy and spotlighted the forest floor in places and small pines had found a foothold to begin their own journey to maturity. The silence was broken only by the eerie cry of a far-off pileated woodpecker echoing from the valley below and the drone of a bee visiting a red trillium at my feet. “Truly, paradise on earth,” was the thought coursing through my mind. I sat for a long time just drinking in the tranquility of the place.

Walking around the hollow, seeing the game trails and the open spots in the vegetation, I knew this would be an ideal place to hunt. I found a log about 30 yards slightly above the game trail and began gathering dead limbs to build my blind. I visited the spot four more times before opening day of deer season, each time improving my blind. I blazed a path from the rhododendron directly to my blind so I wouldn’t have to use the game trails. As hunting season approached, I got my Parkway hunter parking permit from the National Park Service and prepared for the hunt.

All the way back to my childhood the fall season and with it the time for hunting has always been special to me. The small farm on which we lived had healthy populations of rabbits and squirrels. At the age of ten, my dad showed me how to fashion box traps for rabbits (we called them rabbit gums) out of scrap pieces of lumber. I made several of these, though not with the same skill as my father. But they were good enough to catch rabbits. Every year when the weather turned cold, I would place these “gums” in the fields of our farm and in the swampy bottom land along the creek and bait them with apples and carrots. In the early mornings before I rode the bus to school, I would throw on my coat and check my traps. I caught rabbits aplenty. My mother would make rabbit stew using the vegetables we had grown in our garden.

At the age of 12, I received my first rifle for Christmas – a Stevens single shot 22. Squirrels were added to our food stream with mom’s squirrel dumplings. There were no deer on our farm, but once I became a teenager and could drive, I purchased my Winchester 30/30 and hunted on national forest lands mostly without success. Into my adult years, my hunting skills improved. But successful or not, each year the Fall season would bring the anticipation of the hunt and the pleasurable memory of those cold mornings of my childhood and the pride of adding to my family’s food supply.

I had walked to my stand while it was still dark. Once I reached it, I took off my pack and set my water canteen within reach beside the log on which I was sitting. The temperature was just below freezing and there was a gentle breeze blowing up the hollow in my face. As light entered the hollow, I could see a misty fog hugging the ground. Conditions for hunting were just right – “a perfect day,” I told myself. I worked the lever action of my rifle and slid a round into the chamber. I then eased the hammer down and waited.

I heard the deer trotting in the leaves to my left. There were small yearling pines in that direction obscuring my view. I heard the deer stop. Had he caught my scent? The wind was still in my face so unless the ridge caused my odor to swirl back overhead and down again to the trail, I suspected he was just being cautious before he entered the open area to my front. I knew there may not be much time to fire so I pulled back the hammer and aimed at a spot where I thought he would step out into the open. The deer walked a little way and stopped again. After what seemed an unusually long time, there was rustling in the leaves and then the buck stepped out from behind the pines. I couldn’t believe my eyes. There stood the largest buck I had ever seen in the wild. He had ten thick tines almost perfectly balanced with a hefty spread between the sides. I had never seen a better rack in Western North Carolina in the forty years I had been hiking and hunting in the mountains. I had never seen a better rack on the wall of any friend or relative. It was the buck of a lifetime. I was aiming just behind the shoulder.

For the uninitiated, deer hunting as it’s practiced in the mountains, is more than walking into the woods, finding a deer, and shooting. Getting a buck of this caliber in your sights takes countless days in the woods. You try to find where the deer feed and where they bed down during the day. You look for trails they use between these two points. You check wind direction, and you search for a good place to put a tree stand or build a natural blind near an open spot in the vegetation. A few weeks before opening day you look for buck sign such as horned bushes or scrapes. You do dry runs sitting on your stand before hunting season to gage how much activity is taking place. You go to the shooting range and sight-in your rifle to ensure shot accuracy. You buy your license, big game tags, and game land permit in preparation. Long hours are spent reading books and magazine articles written by the experts learning the habits of deer. Trophy bucks are smart. Outwitting them on their own turf takes study, skill, and in most cases a lot of luck. You do all this year after year hoping that one day there will be a payoff of a trophy in your sights.

The buck stood staring straight at me. He could sense something was not quite right. He was only thirty yards away; so close, I could have hit him with a rock. Motionless, I sat looking down the sights. The muscles in the buck’s thighs quivered ready to spring. I could clearly see his nostrils flaring trying to catch my scent. A cold shiver went down my own spine from the excitement of the moment. Thirty seconds, a minute, an eternity – I don’t know how long we faced each other. All I know is I was caught in a time/space warp; the earth stopped spinning and the scene imprinted on my mind the same as if I had spent hours studying the brush strokes of some museum masterpiece. Being a lifelong hunter, this was the moment I had dreamed about for as long as I could remember. And yet, I did not fire. Finally, I saw the tension leave the deer’s legs. He looked to his left, back at me, then down the trail. He walked a few steps, picked up the pace to a trot and disappeared in some brush.

 I moved my thumb to the hammer of the Winchester. I squeezed the trigger and eased the hammer down. I lowered the rifle and placed it across my knees. I sat there, turning over in my mind, the real-life Christmas card I had just witnessed and the magic of the scene. Another shiver from the cold and from the sensation of the moment went down my spine.

The average hunter gets maybe one or two chances at a monster buck during his lifetime. To this day I don’t know exactly why I didn’t shoot, but I know it was the right decision. Perhaps, instinctively I knew it would be a crime to destroy such a magnificent animal. Perhaps I remembered the peace of the hollow on my initial visit the summer before. All I really know is the emotion of the moment overwhelmed me and left me with a feeling of serenity. I hope the big guy survived that season and for many years after. Now, after much time has passed, I know it’s unlikely he’s still out there. But when I drive on the Blue Ridge Parkway and look out over the azure carpet of trees and thickets, I’m sure his sons, daughters and grandchildren still haunt the cool dark hollows.

Oh yes, the trophy on my wall? In my den, just to the right of my gun rack, is a bare place on the wall. Every time I look up at that spot, the forever image seared into my brain on that frosty fall morning comes flooding back and leaves me with a smile on my face.

Don Alexander

Don Alexander is a native and resident of Asheville, N. C. He writes memoirs and short fiction. Much of his work centers on mountain farm life in the 1950’s and 1960’s and the transition from rural life to more modern living.

14 responses to “The Trophy on My Wall”

  1. Enjoyed this story very much. Glad you left him… Just seeing him was enough.. Thank you

  2. Don is a friend. He has a masterful way of describing events. I, too, am from these mountains and have experienced their majesty and magic. He breathes life into his words.

  3. Beautiful story and I’m glad he let the buck live. A good read. I could see the scene come to life as I read. A great story, Don Alexander.

  4. Beautiful story, Don! I could just see the rhododendron and that majestic buck as I read! What a great memory!

  5. What a beautiful story! I can only imagine looking at that beautiful deer and letting him walk away! I wish my Daddy was here for you to share your story with! I hope you continue to write your stories of our beautiful mountains! I have so many good memories and fun times that our families spend together as we were growing up!

  6. What a beautiful writing! Don, you captured the memory and drew the readers into it so expressively! I could feel the crisp air on my neck as well as see the frosty breath of that magnificent animal! You have a beautiful gift! I can imagine that spot on your wall takes you back there every time! The perfect Trophy!