Deer Camp

It always sounded like a good thing... deer camp. Genie, a friend and colleague at our office had been telling us about it for years. Every November, she came back from the banks of the Big Piney River loaded up with gourmet deer sausage and enough good feelings to last all winter.

Steven and I had never been invited to deer camp. Why? We don't hunt. We canoe, backpack, cross country ski, bicycle and fish. It's not that we disapprove of hunting. Steven hunted quail with Brittanies back in the 60s, and when I was a girl, I helped Dad put up his deer stand every October; but that was before either of us farmed.

Still, every November, the mystery of deer camp intrigued me. So last year, I asked if Steven and I could go... not to hunt deer, but to hunt for answers. Why was a rendezvous in the Ozark woods during the dreariest month of the year so important to 20 friends that they would keep coming back for nearly two decades?

When Steven and I arrived at the campground late that November afternoon, low clouds draped the hills like a winding sheet, and a raw wind stole the last of the leaves from the trees. But as we got out of the car, I heard a cheerful sound. The Big Piney River, oblivious to the aging year, sang beneath its high banks.

Most of the crew were still out hunting but we were greeted by Robert Sooter, the one they call "the old man." Robert wasn't much over 50, but he'd lived in the Ozarks all his life, and his gray hair and beard seemed to imply he'd learned a lot in those five decades. He'd come in early to fire up the chuck wagon and start the evening meal. As he welcomed us into his outdoor kitchen, we were greeted with an ingenious layout that included two cook tops, two deep fryers, a gas refrigerator, gas lighting and rows of drawers and shelves for over 100 pieces of silverware, utensils, dishes and pots.

While we were talking, Genie came from her trailer where she'd been reading a book. Robert continued to fill us in, tallying the number of deer that had been taken so far and predicting the next day's weather.

Everybody was in by dark, shucking off layers, kicking off boots and complaining good naturedly about wobbly tree stands, disappearing white