Oh, the memories this hat brings to mind. It has kept sun, rain, sleet and snow off my head. Misplaced pellets and many a sharp branch were thwarted. It’s been a fine workmate in the field, performing its job well for over a decade.
Ten years in the sun has erased any evidence of its vaguely military original color, it is now a mottled, wrinkled, generic “dirt.”
It is rumpled, blown off and landing in everything from mud and trout streams, horse apples and plowed earth. Crushed in pickup beds, stranded on airplanes, it soldiered on, patient in the knowledge I would rescue and refurbish it (to the extent I could!). Being kind, it has “character.”
It has seen four different dogs partnered with me in the field, each of whom has drunk from it, grateful for the water. Each left his own mark on that hat, a puppy-bite here, muddy footprint there, a drop of blood. There are memories of good times and special places, made more special for the dogs that shared them.
Sweat might be the most pervasive stain. After ten years of fishing and hunting, there is more of my DNA in its band than all the samples I’ve given laboratories.
Long floats on tumbling trout streams, arduous climbs, marches through corn and milo, solitary walks with old dogs are restored to crystal clarity when I hold this hat.`It has laid alongside me on barstools and barn floors in small towns throughout the west.
The crease was from a tumble in the lava rock chasing chukars. That dent was from a saddle horn it rested on after a soaking. The scrape on the brim came from an alder branch that would have blinded me had it not been for this hat. The original shape is lost to time and weather, adventures and foibles. The wavy brim an accounting of the ups and down of a life spent wading streams and wandering fields behind dogs. There’s pheasant blood, evidence of a close shot and closer fall. Alfalfa, corn, aspen and sage have all imprinted their scent over the years.
The purple stain inside is from blackberries, hot, tart and soft, plucked from thorny vines shading a California trout stream. Some even made it into pies but most were eaten on the spot.
Scientists are now able to pull faint sounds from the past from many materials, ghostly voices of that thing’s past. If they tore a sample from the brim and pressed “play” they’d hear panting dogs, crackling alder leaves, the brush of mountain mahogany and crunch of boot on lava rock. There’d be the boom of 12 gauge and pop of .410, wielded by old-timers and 12-year-olds, exuberant shouts and contemplative whispers about important things. But mainly, they’d hear panting. For like its owner, this hat has shared plenty of “face time” with canine hunting partners. Most are better company than humans who by virtue of carrying a shotgun call themselves “hunters.”
Every dog of mine has rested his muzzle on the crown of this hat, deep sighs and muffled yelps of pleasure washing over it as each dreams remembrance of that day’s hunt. If I inhale deeply enough I can smell Bill, Yankee, Buddy, and now, Manny. Only another dog lover could appreciate the melange of canine scents it holds.
In summer, the band is fleece, holding the flies that just didn’t work that day. They seldom find their way back into a box again, instead reminding me of their potential – maybe – on another stream on another day.
On September 1, the fleece is swapped for bright orange, for we can now roam coverts and fields for something that flies rather than fins in bright waters. Feathers from 17 bird species in 22 states have graced the band. I am grateful for every whispered sneak, the long cold stalks, the trembling points, all the flushes and rushes by our prey, thankful for each life given.
This hat has marked the last known location of dozens of shot birds, in hopes our dogs could work from there toward scent and stilled wings nearby. Sometimes, that’s what happens. Others, something else. Last season, a pointer peed on it.
It wouldn’t survive a cleaning, even if someone would take on the challenge. Not gonna happen: the sights, sounds, smells, the memories might wash away … and who would risk that?
Instead, it occupies a place of honor now, watching, listening, presiding over sleeping dogs whose night-time whimpers and trembling legs bely dreams of past hunts they shared with me, good friends, and that hat.