Outside the car window, a landscape of oak and cedar replaces the traffic and urban sprawl we left behind in Austin. It is late summer, almost evening, and my husband, Joe, and I have left our desk jobs early to drive 40 miles to the ranch near Florence where I was raised. What awaits us is, for him, a sacred experience: opening day of dove season.
Joe spent much of his time outdoors this summer as he has for several years, pointing his finger at gray blurs flapping jaggedly in the sky and shouting, “Look babe—dove!” as if he just spotted a shooting star. With the annual approach of September, he can be found returning from Academy, beaming with decoys, calls, ammunition and a bucket seat that is even more comfortable than the one he bought 12 months earlier.
It wasn’t always this way. Joe grew up in the suburbs of Dallas, the son of a New Yorker mother and Chicagoan father who never went hunting. We both moved to Austin for college. “So, who is your favorite journalist?” he asked me on our first date. A guy who cared about the profession I had chosen? To top it off, he played guitar in a band, introduced me to Kurt Vonnegut and showed me what true kindness looked like.
But when I took Joe to the ranch, he would withdraw and become timid. The pastureland with which I identified confused him, while the goings-on of my small hometown made him feel lost. Every time I suggested we escape the city for the weekend, he would say, “Um, maybe. Or we could just stay in Austin and go out.” I was deeply disappointed and worried that the disconnect would someday be the end of us.
Then, one fateful day, Joe went on his first dove hunt. “That was actually a lot of fun,” he said upon his return to my parents’ house, where my mom and I had shared time on the front porch. Not long after, he was relaxing on Jeep rides through the brush and enjoying nights on the porch under a canopy of elms. And a few years later, he even wore boots when we wed on the ranch atop a treeless hill at sunset. It was when I realized the timeline of these events that I paused and asked myself, “Do I seriously have dove hunting to thank for my marriage?” This strange possibility inspired me to investigate.
Joe turns our vehicle off State Highway 195, drives down the unlined county road that cuts through Williamson and Bell counties, and parks by the northern tank. Together we trek through bluestem and the knee-high remains of Mexican hats toward the meager shade of a persimmon. He takes a seat on the padded lid of his new deluxe spinning bucket and tilts his head toward the cloudless blue, his expression informed by the hopeful determination that beginnings can bring. Eventually some doves appear overhead, and he pops up and pulls the trigger. No luck. We keep watching and waiting and he misses the few that fly by. “Man, this is the slowest opening day I’ve seen,” he says.
“Yes,” I say, “it does seem rather slow.”
Presented with the lack of action, I decide to study my husband, who passes his days in suits, staring at a glowing screen. Dressed in camo sitting in the middle of a field, he is in a world that barely moves, where concerns of city life have trouble competing with the soft breeze rustling the trees. Where a computer is miles away and noise is almost nonexistent. Removed from the incessant busyness of daily life, he is as light as dust, focused on his singular mission while being too much at peace to take it too seriously.
Soon I see that Joe is standing near the old goat shed. He follows a bird’s uneven flutter with his shotgun and then releases a crisp shot that ripples through the air and is followed by a flurry of feathers. I walk over and congratulate him. He turns to reveal a big smile, the one that still gets me, and says, “As long as I get one.”
Driving back to Austin, the city lights encroaching, I ask him, “Did you have fun?” “It’s better when more birds are flying,” he says. “But it was still awesome. It’s just nice to be out there.”
I imagine Joe on his first dove hunt, loving that the sport was unintimidating. Sit, chat, shoot—easy enough. But I think what really sealed the deal was that he realized he was no longer an outsider, that he might have more in common with this place and its people than he had assumed. He doesn’t ride horses or know how to help my dad fix a tractor, but he feels more alive just looking around at such open space. Sometimes it’s what sounds simple that stirs something more inside.
Lindsay Stafford Mader is a freelance writer and copy editor who lives in Austin.