Sunday morning, I sat on the edge of Vivi’s bed to wake her up.
“Hey, Vivi! Today’s Cowtail Day. You get to learn how to shoot your new bow!”
Her eyes flew open and she chirped, “Huck gets to be a REAL DOG…all day long!” She threw back her covers to reveal some ratty blue sweats with a hole in the knee and an old t-shirt from Brasil. “I slept in this so I could wear it to Cowtail today! I’m ready to go!”
Cowtail is our family’s hunting camp–100 acres of forest land that has been in my grandfather’s family for over a hundred years. When I say “hunting camp,” I am not being coy. I once overheard my stepdaughter telling one of her friends that we were “going to Ashley’s family ranch for the weekend” and I corrected her by saying, “Ranch? Sweetie, it’s some woods with a shack and an outhouse. Let’s not blow things out of proportion.”
For decades, the land was leased to some strangers for the hunting rights. Then it dawned on the six of us cousins, Pop’s grandchildren, that we could pay the taxes ourselves and keep the place in the family. But the real reason is that Cowtail gives us a place to get our kids dirty. Our kids are growing up on cul de sacs in tidy little neighborhoods. That is NOT the way we grew up. I still remember the Christmas when we got machetes (and a casual admonition to “be careful”) for playing in the woods. We’d build a fort one weekend in the pine woods around our house then by the next weekend forget where it was and build another one. Our same pack of six cousins rode our bikes miles into town, wandered around the cow pastures in search of arrowheads or built a dam over the creek just for something to do. My mom says I called dams “water makin’ machines.”
Now we’re all polished up and living in The City. Our dogs take baths, wear collars and mind their manners. At home, Huck has a nice yard but he has to peek out at the rest of the world through a hole in the fence. He’s only allowed to woof about five times in a row before he gets called back into the house. There’s a fence between him and the river.
Huck loves going to Cowtail. For the first 10 minutes of our car trip, we kept hearing this strange sound like a church bell inside the car. Turned out it was Huck’s happy tail thumping against Carlos’ little metal shovel. We had to stop the car and rearrange the stuff to make the ding-dong stop. At Cowtail, he gets to roam free. He woofs at stuff. He chases squealing kids on four-wheelers down the muddy trails, never losing sight of them. He eats a lot of sandwiches and cookies that drop from little hands. His coat gets pieces of roasted marshmallow stuck in it when the kids use him like a napkin. He wanders across the archery range and eight kids yell, “Hu-uck!” in unison. He gets to be a real dog, all day long.
In the last five years, the boy cousins have made some serious improvements to the shack at Cowtail. It’s got windows and a rain barrel shower and built-in bunks. They called in a couple of favors and got some ‘lectricity strung up. There’s a firepit and a tire swing. This year, Joe added a trampoline some neighbors threw out. The outhouse even has a seat now! They’s even a radio that plays both kinds of music–country AND western!
My kids get so delightfully dirty there. They play in the rain and the mud and the leaves. When Vivi finds a smooth piece of old blue glass, it’s probably from a medicine jar that her great grandmother threw in a trash pile when Teddy Roosevelt was president. Here’s Vivi trying to get marshmallow out of her eyebrow.
Just like Huck, I love going to Cowtail because I get to be real, all day long. Wear my ratty sweats. Shoot arrows at a target without worrying that I might be breaking an ordinance. Pee in an outhouse while a mockingbird yammers at me to get out of her space. Laugh with the same cousins I’ve been laughing with my whole life. Throw logs on the fire. Push the kids up towards the sky on a tractor tire until they scream. Eat sandwiches and roast marshmallows and wipe my hands on my pants. Drink wine out of a cup with my name written on it in Sharpie. Hoot. Holler. Woof at stuff.
Then we load the kids and the dog and the dirty shoes and the leftovers and the leaf collection and the special rocks and the bows and arrows and shovels and really nice sticks. We hug a bunch of necks and talk about when we’re going to do it again. By sundown, we drive a slow mile on a dirt road then bump up onto the paved county road so we can make our way back to The City.
Carlos played so hard this Sunday that this was him FIVE MILES away from Cowtail. That boy done wore hisself plumb out! That’s Huck right behind him in the back of the car. Can’t see him? Yeah, that’s because he was dog tired, too.