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Bummer

This article appears in the July/August 2003 issue of Quail Unlimited Magazine

When people begin to spend inordinate amounts of time pursuing what most of us consider a sport or a leisure diversion, an odd shift in priorities is not far away. What began as a hobby soon occupies more and more time, at first eating into home improvement hours on the weekends and then borrowing from the workday, the formerly devoted employee feeling not the slightest bit of remorse over sneaking out early under the pretense of a meeting.

Before long these poor souls find themselves hopelessly consumed. Their part-time interest has become a full-time preoccupation that borders on obsession. A few, possibly at the insistence of a loved one, gain control of their passion and wrestle their priorities back into the old routine, the beguiling activity becoming again merely a hobby. The remainder are not so lucky. As their thoughts narrow to a single focus, almost without knowing they slip into the deep end.

Along the way a split occurs among these deep-enders, with one side attempting to get paid for the chosen activity and the other side scraping and scrambling to get paid for anything at all as long as it affords generous amounts of time to pursue their obsession. The former are commonly referred to as professionals, individuals who have specialized or excelled in an area to the point that they are compensated for doing what others do for pleasure. The latter are known as underachievers or fools by their parents, hedonists, dreamers, or romanticists by their arch-enemy the workaholic, or by the word that slips from the tongue of anyone deeply envious of their situation: bums.

The English language is peppered with modifiers to describe these casual characters, carefree souls like the ski bum who shucks it all to head west in search of powder. I confess that once I walked along the periphery of this "occupation", and would have fallen fully into it were it not for the fact that the season ended and I didn't have the money to relocate to South America, where another season was beginning. I survived by flipping burgers at an outdoor grill for roughly twenty hours a week, a job that carried two very important perks: free food while on the clock and the Holy Grail of any ski town, a full mountain pass for the entire season, also free of charge. Subsistence, not opulence, was the goal. Whatever was required to provide food, shelter, and clothing was justified by the hours spent on the slopes.

There is also the surfer, whose title was likely shortened from "surf bum" but has come to mean essentially the same thing. "I surf" is spoken by someone who gets in the ocean several times a month, usually on weekends. "I'm a surfer" is spoken, often in southern California tones and frequently followed by "dude", by someone who gets out of the ocean to tend such nuisances as eating and sleeping. And of course there are other bums, the rock climbers, the kayakers and mountain bikers, even musicians (most often drummers) fall into this category.

Seeing these happy-go-lucky folks in random places around the country and finding myself wishing more and more often that I were out hunting instead of sitting behind a desk has led me to wonder, Does the quail bum exist somewhere, in some form, the envy of weekend hunters everywhere? Does he gather with other like-minded folk in fields of nirvana, a Moab or Chamonix or North Shore of the bird hunting world?

I'm certain he exists, and I'd wager that he does gather with others from time to time, but I'd imagine his way is more solitary than some of his bum brethren. Quail hunting is on the esoteric side of pastimes, especially where the younger crowd is concerned. And geographically speaking, quail bums tend to be opportunistic. They either chase birds close to their homes or take their homes on the road, hunting wherever they can gain permission from a state or a generous farmer. Hitting the road may sound extravagant but I can assure you it's cheaper than greens fees.

This piece was spawned after reading John Gierach's Trout Bum, a book that I highly recommend to any outdoorsman. Gierach walks the walk, moving between towns and streams searching not for the fish of a lifetime, but simply for a fish. He ties flies late into the evening to help pay for gear and gas. Subsistence is the goal, not opulence.

With the exception of those who subsist on the good graces of a relative or the spoils of years of hard work, all bums must have a trickle of income on which to purchase the necessities. Some get by on menial jobs such as flipping burgers while others perfect the art of the barter system, a lost but not dead form of currency that supplements many an outdoor writer's income. The paying occupation of the quail bum could be anything from a freelance computer programmer (flexibility of schedule being the key) to a third shift maintenance man in a manufacturing facility (days entirely free) to a busboy (the barter system in play). The work itself isn't nearly as important as what it affords.

Like the rest of the population, bums have to eat, have a place to sleep, and have to acquire the essentials of their game, things like shells and hunting licenses and such. Everyone's got to have a way to get around, too, and the quail bum is no exception. He drives a truck or a car or even an SUV that may or may not be ancient but is definitely paid for. Car payments are a real burden to a bum. There is dried mud on the seats, usually laced with stray dog hair. Leather upholstery is cracked and has a few gouges in it. Cloth upholstery is worn slick in places. Vinyl upholstery is so old that its seams have split and the whole seat has been covered with a polyester slip-on from the auto parts store. The floorboard is littered with empty fast food cups, wrappers, and french fry holders, a few flattened shotgun shell boxes, maybe a dog-eared roadmap, and an unused kitchen trash bag from the time the owner was going to clean the thing out but got sidetracked. Vehicles you're not likely to find a quail bum behind the wheel of include designer SUVs, two-seat convertibles, and anything engineered for the autobahn.

The trademark of any bum, and keep this in mind the next time you visit a ski resort or find yourself in the parking lot at a trailhead, is well-worn gear. I'm not talking about stuff that looks good on its owner. I'm talking about faded, torn clothing repaired with Frankenstein-like sutures or duct tape, stained in random spots and frayed on a few edges. I'm talking about noticeably scratched, dented or dinged equipment that still works just fine in every practical sense. Don't be fooled by its appearance - this gear is the good stuff. It has to be, because it has to last through day after day of hard living. Bums may pinch pennies on food, living quarters, or transportation, but never on something as vital as gear.

The owner rarely looks at the signatures of wear and tear on these pieces as "character" even though this is the first thing that comes to an outsider's mind. If character is the sum of stories and experiences from a multitude of days in the field, then this gear is as extroverted as any you will find. Character to an outsider is consequence to the owner, a by-product of indulging his passion on such a high level.

Just about every bum eventually runs up against the harsh reality known as the end of the season, and the only virtue in having a season end is the certainty that there will be a season opener to look forward to. This is small consolation for the bum who must get creative to pass the coming months. The most industrious of the lot will use the time to work, the better to finance next season's adventures. Those with less focus find an activity closely related to hunting, possibly training their dogs or working a piece of land or two. Habitat management can while away weeks at a time and as anyone with experience will tell you, time in a tractor seat is good medicine.

While many quail bums keep a kennel of dogs, each must have one dog that is just a little more special than the rest. This is the one that sleeps in the bed, has a spot on the couch, eats leftovers from the dinner table and rides in the front seat smearing slobber on the passenger side windows. This dog regularly gets away with things that no average pet could hope to, things like digging up bushes in the yard or chewing the cuffs of a favorite jacket. He's a partner in the field, a buddy around the house, a confidante when times get tough, and he has a personality that somehow meshes perfectly with his owner's. And he understands, without ever having had it explained to him, the single-mindedness that consumes a bum. Nothing excites him like the smell of brush pants or the sight of a gun case being shuttled to the truck. Save bird hunting, little else takes priority over eating well and sleeping late.

Most bums won't admit to you that they are in fact bums, figuring I suppose that if it's not readily apparent that you wouldn't understand anyway. And there's the requisite trace of denial that feeds self-respect when conscience starves it. If confronted point-blank, you're likely to get an answer along the lines of "I've found a way to spend more time doing what I like," which sounds crafted by a politician but is terribly difficult to argue with. Bums live in a world of intangibles, of sentiments that are difficult to describe with words or pictures. They feed on pleasure while at best tolerating things that they consider secondary in importance, things that many of us struggle with every day.

So now that you know what to look for, tell me, is there such a thing as a quail bum? The thought is more tempting than a dessert cart.




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