The Bonnie Packing Heat
It had become my yearly ritual over the last few years to ride up to the Barber Vintage Festival, in Leeds, Alabama. Other than the first year, when I had ridden over from Maggie Valley, North Carolina, with the Motorcycle Kickstart Classic Ride, the usual procedure was to ride up to Pinetta, Florida, just inside the Florida line, south of Valdosta, Georgia, and meet up friends, Debbie and Luis, who have a bike shop there and also have a swap meet spot at the festival. I would ride the 350 or so miles to Pinetta, stay the night, then in the morning my friends and other local riders would show up, and we would all ride the remaining 325 miles to Barber. As a result, Deb and Luis had a night guard at their booth, and I had a tent camping spot, free of charge. My friends, although they had no obligation to do so, had also generously provided me with my pass into the festival. When we had all said our goodbyes last year, the plan was on to do it all again in the fall of 2013. In the spring, there was another check-in from Debbie to see who was planning to go.
A couple weeks before the 2013 festival, I emailed Deb one last time to find out what the plans were, only to discover that she and Luis friends were not going to make it this time. I had blocked out time for this. It is my usual break after a long summer of being daycare for my kids and before school gets going in earnest. I started scrambling to see what my options were. A check of the Barber Vintage Festival website revealed all camp sites were sold out. My guess was that if they were sold out then any campground any practical distance from the festival would be, too. That left hotels. They were probably going to be full up for a distance around, too, and if I could find a room it would probably mean a long ride in each day to the Barber Motorsports Park. Added to this, I had to consider that my financial situation had been marginal for going to Barbers this year. Now that the cost had increased by the expense of a hotel room for several nights and of a pass for all the days at the festival, not to mention the cost of eating out all the time I would be there, going was too much of a strain on my pocketbook. What to do?
Let me back up here a bit and tell you that for years, when my younger brother, Tim, had lived close by in Florida, we had tried hunting deer together. After year after year of being skunked, with only one exceptional year, when Tim had gotten a small deer and I had shot a deer not much bigger than a greyhound, we had pretty much given up on providing for our families with a supply of venison. Eventually, Tim had moved to South Carolina, and had bought a place in an ideal spot, set back on the edge of a clearing ringed by woods and bordered by a creek. Tim had invited me up to hunt last year on the opening weekend, which happened to coincide with Barber Vintage Festival. I was riding to Barber and so had to miss hunting with Tim on the opening weekend, while he brought in his limit, only yards from his back door. By the time I made it up a month later, the magic was over, with no deer to be found. Now, all that had changed. I could ride up, shotgun strapped across the bike, and take advantage of the opening day and the feeders Tim had installed below the stands, something that was not allowed the year before. I'd only have to spend money for fuel for the Bonneville and a little food on the way up and back. It would cost nothing while at Tim's. I called Tim up, and we hatched a plan.
The day came when I would have left for Barber, but instead it found my headlight pointing northeast on I-4, headed for the promised land of deer and plenty, and plenty of deer. I had considered my options and wanted to make this excursion as short as possible. My wife had changed jobs and was now driving a substantial distance to an office, instead of working from home. She had lost much of her flexibility when it came to picking up and caring for the kids. I made arrangements with my parents to pick up and watch the kids on Friday after school, until Andrea could get there to pick them up after work. All she would have to do Friday morning is get them up and off to school, and then she would be home with the kids for the weekend. I would leave Tim's Sunday evening and be back in Lake Wales before the kids went off to school on Monday morning.
That plan would work, so I considered my options to fine tune my departure. Of course, now was the season for deer becoming mobile, not just in South Carolina, but across Georgia, which happens to be the state with the second highest deer strike rate, coming in just after Pennsylvania. Hitting a deer with a car is a messy thing, and a deer for a hood ornament does not bode well for a car or its occupants, but, on a bike, the same often results in the rider's quick and final goodbye. I decided it would be best to avoid that danger as much as possible by staying on the Interstates during the dark of night. Considering that, as far as Andrea and caring for the kids were concerned, it made no difference if I left in the daylight, which would seriously cut into hunting time, or whether I left the night before, which would get me a full weekend in the tree stands.
I headed out on Thursday night at eleven, with a plan to ride northeast through Orlando on I-4—something I would do anything to avoid any other time of day. By the time I got to the city it would be midnight, and most of the vehicles that make I-4 a nightmare at rush hour would be snoozing in driveways or garages across Central Florida. It should be a breeze, and it was. I sped northeastward through the night toward my eventual connection with I-95, upon which I would hurtle north, escaping Florida, and the other city bottleneck, Jacksonville, before daylight. Florida is not known as a high incidence state for deer strikes, but it still pays to be vigilant, and the Interstates gave me the best chance for avoiding hazards of the antlered variety. Expecting to be at Brunswick be daylight, I hurried north into Georgia, the road all but to myself.
If you take Interstates all the way to Tim's, it means I-4 northeast, to I-95 north-northeast, curving to northeast along the coast, to I-26, just inland from Charleston for the final run northwest to Inman, where the deer awaited. While you can maintain good speed on this route, Inman happens to be almost due north from Lake Wales, where I live, so the Interstate route means a huge detour out of the a rhumb line course. At Brunswick, Georgia, the route had only wandered east by a insignificant amount, but after that, I-95 would swerve more eastward with every mile. Brunswick looked to be the perfect jumping off point to head cross-country across east Georgia and South Carolina to Inman. This cut off the dog leg and I would rejoin I-26 just thirty miles short of my destination. With any luck, the sun would be coming up then, and heading north on small roads in the daylight would pose the least risk of encountering road-hogging deer. It turned out, I made such good time on the Interstate, I arrived at Brunswick at about 4:30—still dark as pitch. I had planned on stopping for a decent breakfast anyway, so I pulled into a Waffle House, with the intent to kill some time while the sun made more progress.
I had been going non-stop, other than quick fuel ups. There was a chill in the air, and, in spite of my warm clothing, a bit of the cold had seeped in while my hunger had grown, so the restaurant was a welcome stop. The diner also happened for be pretty close to the halfway point of my northward trudge. I filled up on scrambled eggs, hash browns, and coffee, while the feeling started to return to my fingers. When I had cleaned my plate, paid, and made my farewell bathroom pit stop, the world outside was still in darkness. I started north on US 25, grateful for my foresight to have installed my two LED auxiliary lights, which each threw out 1,500 lumens into the Georgia darkness. (I bought these from advmonster.com They are Model 30 spots and one of the best motorcycling investments I have made, especially considering the anemic headlight on the Bonnie that shines on the ground ten feet ahead on “Low,” and hit the bottom of the leafy boughs of trees on “High.”) I took my time, kept my speed down, and watched the roadside, ahead and to either side, like a mouse watching for a low sweeping hawk.
It became even chillier as sunrise slowly came on, and, as it curiously always seems to do just after daylight, it got colder still. As I rode northward through the familiar east Georgia countryside, details appeared slowly while the sun made its way over the top of the passing trees. Off the highways, I could smell the pleasant balsam scent I have grown to love in this part of the country. Soon, the scenery was bathed in full light and the cold withdrew. US 25 shot north-northwest, away from the coast, then turned north toward Augusta, and across the Savannah River into South Carolina. I peeled off US 25 onto SC 121, and by mid-morning I was at Saluda and was shedding my windproof liner. From there I took SC 39 to Clinton, where SC 56 connected to I-26, just south of the I-385 and I-26 split.
I was on the final stretch and barreled north on 26, passing between Spartanburg, on my right, and Greenville, on my left. Soon, I was at Exit 15 and US 176, fifteen miles short of the North Carolina border. It was then just a couple more turns, a right across a field on a dirt path, over the railroad tracks, and down the other side and into the woods, finally entering the wood-encompassed clearing and Tim's place, tuck neatly on the far side, in a tree-lined nook.
I had arrived just about noon, thirteen hours after I had left home. I grabbed my bags, installed them in my room, and pulled on my camo. Then it was a quick lunch of venison on bread, from Tim's hunt last year. Energy renewed, we exited the house. I assembled the two halves of my Winchester, loaded it with buckshot, and we walked into the woods, each taking different paths to our deer stands.
I wearily climbed the tree to my deer stand, nailed between three trunks of a hickory. By now I had been up since 6:30 am the previous day, a tiring twenty-nine and a half hours earlier, but the excitement and anticipation of the hunt kept my eyes and ears open. I sat in the still of the woods, in view of the gurgling creek, but, by the time night had fallen, no deer had taken our invitation, and I sauntered back up the hill, out of the woods, and to the house.
All was not lost. This was only our first attempt. We had hardly started, and today's hunt had been in the afternoon. We talked about hunting, over more venison on the grill for dinner, and Tim made sure to point out that, in all the years he had hunted deer, here and in Florida and Virginia, where he had lived previously and had brilliant success, he didn't recall getting a deer in the afternoon. These were “morning deer” we kept telling ourselves. Tim and his wife, Pam, and I chatted on the deck until fatigue finally overtook me, and I said my goodnights about 11 pm, after forty and a half hours of being awake. After the long ride and the day in the trees, I could not find the energy to shower. I undressed and fell in a heap on the waiting bed.
Five o'clock came early, much earlier than my body wanted to accept, but I clawed my way out of bed and into my camo, once again. In the kitchen the critically necessary black coffee was already ready, and I poured myself cup after cup. Tim busied himself at the stove, fixing (what else?) venison sausage and gravy over biscuits. Suitably reinforced, we headed outside and into the woods, being careful to break as few twigs as possible as we walked out to the stands. I chose the same stand I had been in the day before and ascended to the platform and settled in, waiting for daylight and the “morning deer.”
Morning grew to midday, but with no sign of deer. It had gotten quite warm and was bordering on hot when we came in for a lunch break and more venison, of course. After lunch, Tim took me around the woods, and, as we quietly tread through the fallen leaves, he showed me where the third stand was and where he had scored his deer last year.
We separated again, and this time I chose a stand further from the house, to the southwest in the woods. This was near the edge of a swampy area, which abounded in deer tracks, buck tracks no less, around the feeder. I had only barely recovered from the ride up, and, as the afternoon wore on, my eyes began to droop. From time to time I would close my eyes, leaving only my ears to detect movement in the surrounding brush. On a couple occasions, I dropped off completely, awaking with a start, followed by a quick assessment of what I might have missed in my brief moment of drowsing off. Eventually, the sun sank again, and the woods was filled with darkness. I drug myself back along the path to the house in the darkness, shining my meager flashlight ahead of me in search of the reflective markers Tim had attached to various branches and stumps. After losing the path several times, I finally found the treeline and the house.
For a change, beef tenderloins were on the grill, which sufficiently woke me up for the remainder of the evening. We all caught up on old times and family news and gradually wandered off to bed, vowing tomorrow would be The Day. After all, we had only been hunting one morning, and as we well knew these were “morning deer.” One morning was not enough, tomorrow our fortunes would surely change.
Another five o'clock awakening, more venison for breakfast, and gulps of hot coffee, and, once again, we were off into the woods for a meeting with our “morning deer.” Finally recovered from the sleepless day on the way up, I managed to find the stand by the swamp in the darkness, without cracking too many limbs and announcing to the forest dwellers Man's presence in their home. Dark grew to gray, and, while the colors returned to the leafy canopy and low lying brush, I kept my eyes and ears tuned to the shapes and sounds of forest creatures that had the potential to fill our freezers. Hours passed. I quietly sat and watched the squirrels playing in nearby boughs, and mice and chipmunks compete for the corn scattered at the foot of the feeder, while they watched nervously overhead for the presence of an owl or a hawk. They would dash out from hiding and grab a couple kernels, chewing them on the spot, until another of their kind would approach and demand their share, followed by a chattering and a scrambling of the losing party off into the underbrush, while the victor gnawed and watched for danger. First the chipmunks did this dance, then the squirrels, and occasionally a tiny, flitting bird. But the “morning deer” ignored the corn. As the morning dissolved into noon, not a single deer had showed the least interest in our breakfast offerings. I finally climbed down and, with a discouraged gait, walked out to meet up with Tim.
Perhaps we needed to change our strategy. Tim and I had a quick conversation and decided to walk, he from his side of the woods and me from the other. So, off we traipsed, walking quietly through the woods, hoping that if the deer would not come to us we might come to the deer. We took a route to circle around the woods, that likewise circled the house and clearing, and which would meet up at the road that ran briefly along the railroad tracks before entering the woods on its way back to the house. I had one excited moment when, upon entering a thicket in a wet area, to my right, in the thickest of brush and tangles, I heard something big bound off toward the tracks. I had walked though the center, following an animal trail the best I could. I made my way out of the thicket as quietly as possible, but no more sounds returned to my ears, and I was not rewarded with even the sight a tuft of a white tail bouncing off into the woods.
Tim and I met up at the tracks. Sure enough, fresh tracks led up and across the tracks that had to have been made only minutes before. Alas, those were the last “morning deer” of which we were to see fresh signs. We followed the railroad tracks toward the creek and then followed a power line cut off to the right, and then another to the left, ending at the creek, where it was obvious many deer had crossed, and beaver had been at work. We started along a game trail that meandered away from the creek, through a tangle of brambles, and through some shallow, wet areas back into the woods. After thoroughly wetting our feet, we emerged at the game trail leading to the deer stand where I had been stationed the last two hunts. Deer tracks were showing along the muddy trail, but none had made it to the feeder.
It was back into the stands for another try, me staying on this one and Tim moving on to the ground stand he had been in earlier in the day. As light faded on this final day of hunting, I had lost hope of seeing a deer and was just filling the remaining time in the stand, hoping on the off chance that one of the “morning deer” who was not paying attention to time might accidentally wander by. As I sat, I was thinking of my ride back. The strategy of staying out of deer territory in the dark, as I was now leaving in the middle of it, made a night departure not profitable. I would have to take I-26, and even on that, in this area, would not be the relatively safe passage I had on the Interstate in Florida, where the chances of hitting deer are a distant third on the list behind alligators and wild boar. The Interstate here would only be marginally safer in that respect than country roads, and it would take me far out of the way, east of a straight north-south route. I have never been a fan of Interstates anyway, and the memory of that long, hard ride north made me reconsider returning directly after the hunt.
Arriving back at the house, after our final and disappointing hunt, we discussed what had happened. One thing was sure and that was that someone had turned the thermostat way up in South Carolina, and the needed cold snap to set the deer into rut, making them just careless enough to fall for our feeders in the daylight, had never happened. When the cold snap does occur, I will be six hundred miles away.
At the house after dinner, I made a call to Andrea. If I left in the morning, I could head cross country in the daylight. All we would have to do is call in one more favor from my folks and have them pick up the kids from school on Monday, and then Andrea could get them after work, like before. I resisted furthering the burden on her and my parents, but the thought of the danger and resultant exhaustion from a ride through the dark countryside outweighed that. I resolved to leave early in the morning before light, peeling off I-26 at Clinton to retrace my steps south. By Clinton the sun should be up. With luck I would be home before six in the evening. After gaining Andrea's approval of the plan, I loaded the bike with all but the essential stuff I would need in the morning and went off to bed for one last night. In the morning I could just hop out of bed, throw on my clothes, and ride away.
Tim rode his Star Stratoliner to work that morning, and we rode together until he rolled onto the exit for I-85, as I continued south, giving him a wave and toot of my horn. The eastern sky was just beginning to lighten as I left the Interstate at Clinton, where I stopped for a bite and some black coffee. By the time I had finished my breakfast, the sky was light, and I headed off onto the South Carolina country roads, bound for Augusta. Not long after my stop in Clinton, I came around a wide, sweeping curve and, lo and behold, there, crossing the road directly in front of me, was a deer. I slowed, and, by the time I passed where it had crossed, it was gone. I finally had to admit they are, indeed, “morning deer.”
By midday, I had zipped through the fragrant Georgia countryside and had made the Florida state line, where I stopped to eat and call home with my status report. Florida was hot, as usual, and I followed an old, and what I thought was a familiar, route in order to avoid Jacksonville, but I slipped up somewhere and ended up back on Interstate 95. At least I had Jacksonville behind me, so I settled into the Interstate rhythm and watched for signs of FL 40, at Ormond Beach, where I could leave the highway and head west to US 19, in the Ocala National Forest. That would get me south, avoiding Orlando and bringing me to one of my favorite roads in Central Florida, CR 561. Winding and rolling on 561 through the Sugarloaf Mountain area put me, finally, on US 27, which goes all the way into Lake Wales. By six, I was in the drive at home. Soon after, I was in my own bed, sleeping the sleep that only comes after hours on the road.
I missed that chance at getting a deer, but we are taking the entire family up for Thanksgiving to share the holiday with Tim, Pam, and his daughter, son, and son-in-law. I've been watching the weather reports. The cold has made it to Inman. Once there, I'll get up early and maybe this will be my chance to put some “morning deer” in our freezer.
"Ride Your Own Ride"