Saturday, August 22, 2009

Life is Good in the Brush! --Outfitted on a Texas Ranch

Life is good in the brush! So proclaims outdoorsman Joe Heidelmeier as we drive through the Texas Hill Country to Hickory Pass Ranch in Joe's well-provisioned 1988 Ford pick-up truck, "Silver."

Joe, who is referred to as an “outfitter” in ranch lingo, will be my guide and mentor during my stay on the 3500 acres of near wilderness that make up Hickory Pass Ranch near Marble Falls.

Being “outfitted” on massive private ranches such as this one makes for an active getaway. In Texas alone there are hundreds of these private ranches, some providing the public with respite from the cacophony and confusion of city life -- and adventure through managed outfitted ranch experiences.

In such a getaway, your private outfitter guides you, supplies you, teaches you, befriends you, corrects you, informs you, protects you, and chastises you -- out in the brush.

Spending a vacation like this feels nothing like taking a Caribbean cruise, bargaining in the markets of Marrakesh, or doing the grand tour of Europe.

Nope. Getting out to one of the many Texas ranches that provide outfitting to the traveling public, your eyes may first be greeted by live oak and mesquite trees on the horizon, quisatche weed and prickly pear on the ground. Hidden, initially, from view but there to be discovered are also -- depending on the ranch -- quail, deer, wild turkey, dove, geese, wild sheep, wild boar, elk, bobcat, an occasional mountain lion. Snakes. lizards, spiders and insects find their place in the wilds of bush country. Your guide instructs you in how to deal with all the critters.

Why go there? What’s to do?

There are several answers. The first and most obvious is to hunt game. For the avid hunter, this is often an experience for a lifetime. But bringing home the game for bragging rights, while a big incentive, doesn’t explain the depth of the experience you get.

What you get besides maybe a “trophy” deer is more subtle to express. But most participants feel it. Want it. Come back for more. One appealing dimension to the experience, not often mentioned, is the mysterious connection that develops between people and nature in a communal setting on a managed Texas ranch.

Here are some of the rewards of time spent in company with other seekers of experience in the wild:

1) Learning -- not only about hunting and bagging the quarry (although that foremost). You may hear a few tips as I did from my guide, Joe, for example, about rattlesnakes. “Never walk in the shade during the day. Walk in the sun. At night, always carry a flashlight outside.” Or for another example, “If you see a skunk or a fox in the bright sun of daylight, shoot it or back off. It will be rabid.”

2) A rare camaraderie especially to be found among men as they encounter the natural world together. What is this? Much -- including a feeling of well-being, connectedness, and personal power few feel in the modern offices and busy chores of city life.

3) A primal relationship between man and beast, and between man and nature, that cannot be found fully in a zoo or even in a state or national park. You experience this in your group even if you hunt only with a camera, as I do.

4) A growing experience of mystery at which I can only hint as these paragraphs unfold. The ranch setting, as well as the growing bonding the group experiences as they are immersed in that setting, provides a substantial contrast to the urban environment.

Consciousness changes. “Being in the brush is good ju-ju,” points out Joe Heidelmeier, using an African expression meaning a combination of luck, magic, and power. “There are people who, if they can’t get out to the brush on a regular basis, they could turn into something like a serial killer.” (It’s clear Joe doesn’t mean that literally. There are many subtle ways to murder a part of someone out of frustration.)

Allen Spence, manager of AC Hunting Ranches in Fort McKavett, Texas, agrees. “I used to come out here as a participant -- 180 miles from Austin -- to hunt for a week. Out here I felt content," Spence continues. “When I started back to the city and my job, my head started buzzing. You worry, what emails will be waiting? What’s happening with office politics?”

AC Hunting Ranches are actually three working ranches, all managed by Allen and his wife, Allison. One is 10,000 acres, the two others 5000 acres each (for a total of 20,000 acres), one of smaller ranches high fenced to contain sizable game like elk. There are several ranch houses, one of them elegant, “as nice as any found at Lakeway" (the sophisticated Austin resort). The accommodations at Texas ranches that outfit vary considerably. Those at AC Hunting Ranches extend from luxurious to a comfortable rustic apartment constructed inside a barn.

Sunrise, Sunset

Days begin with a robust breakfast, such as eggs, bacon and sausage, pancakes, fruit, coffee and the like, and end with a hearty group chowdown, with a chance to replay the tall tales of the day with a repast of such entrees as fajitas, Tex-Mex, steaks, chicken-fried steak and all.

Days more often than not end with a sunset in a signature Texas burnt-orange blaze. What follows is a night sky so black you can see burning debris streaking through earth’s atmosphere, the Milky Way laid out beyond as a light-show backdrop almost every night.

About the mystical experience. “An adrenaline rush” is how Allen Spence describes it.

Picture it like this: Your guide takes you through the brush to a “deer blind” -- an elevated, camouflaged lookout with horizontal rectangles for sighting a camera or rifle. You are quiet. You are still. You begin your look-out just when the sun comes up or goes down over the horizon at sunset.

This is the time of day Joe calls “the magic moment.” Creatures stir. You look out over the Texas land -- wooded with live oak, cedar, mesquite with meadows of quisatche, algerita bushes, prickly pear cacti, and grasses of all sorts.

It is quiet. The air is cool. You hear only the snapping of twigs and swishing of the brush as hidden creatures begin to stir. For a while you don’t care what happens. The silence, broken only by these soft sounds, is all-absorbing.

Time stands still. You watch. You wait. Then in a moment, out of the brush, a creature appears. As it comes into range, the guide coaches you through the shot. It is a dramatic moment in a mighty and intimate relationship between two animals: one human and one wild.

It is at this moment that many hunters suffer what Allen calls "buck fever." The guy begins to shake, quake, and quiver,” Allen reports. “He quivers like he is freezing even if the temperature is 100 degrees.”

It is an ancient rite. There is protocol, even courtesy, to the death -- little different from the priestly sacrifices on the temple altar described in the Bible. This is the moment of the “adrenaline rush,” “buck fever,” and awe before the creation we inhabit. “When I make my harvest and pick up the animal,” Joe confides, “I feel a twinge of regret. A spirit is gone and I feel sad about its passing."

Adrenaline Rush; Buck Fever

As to learning proper manners and protocol, Joe, my guide, explains, "There is a difference between a shooter and a hunter. First of all, many of these ‘shooters’ don’t know how to use a rifle. Second, they shoot deer in the body, through the internal organs. That wounds the quarry," Joe continues, "and the animal flees, the adrenaline flowing through its body. The animal suffers and the taste of the meat is ruined."

"What you need to do," says Joe, "is reach out and touch the animal. You need to target the animal right through the brain. We’re not shooters of animals. We harvest them when they are over-populated. And we do it in an organized, managed way."

Joe describes how he guts a deer with only a penknife. "Anything you harvest, you must eat, share with your friends, or give away."

In contrast, Allen offers a ghastly example of this civilized code of ”eat your prey.” Narrating the story of a U.S. Marine sniper, who when the time came to kill his deer, began to shiver and shake in a classic case of buck fever despite his competent and dedicated years in the killing fields of war.

“Did you shake too in Iraq when you shot a man?” No, said the Marine. “That’s a job. I’m ordered to do that. I don’t even have to pick the man up once he’s down. Here I have a different experience. I pick up the animal up and help to clean it."

Men these days tend to be isolated from each other in the work-a-day world of civilian life. Women somehow seem to have a blessing, deserved, of meeting in groups to share their special problems and experiences.A place where they can experience a distinctive feminine community.

Allen, though, welcomes women as participants in the groups. The encounter with the wild is available to all.

How to Find Your Ranch; What Are Typical Terms?

There is little if any packaged travel to most of the ranches like the one described here. To get to AC Hunting Ranches, it is recommended that out-of-the region participants fly to either Austin or San Antonio. From there, they can rent a car and drive the 180 miles to Fort McKavett. An extra option is that the ranch will send a corporate plane to either airport to pick up participants and fly them to an air strip close by the ranch, where Allen will pick them up by van.

Group sizes at AC Hunting Ranches are six people and six guides for special game; ten to eleven people with accompanying guides for deer and hog hunting. Most hunts are three days in length. Prices range from about $800 to $3500. The price includes room and board, personal guides, and game handling. Specific details about AC Hunting Ranches may be found at:

For information on other game-managed Texas ranches, the following directory provides a starting place :

© Russ Barnes 2009. All rights reserved including text and owned photo indicated as copyrighted. Reproduction or re-transmission of material available upon request. Links to this posted article are welcome and encouraged.

NOTE: Hickory Pass Ranch mentioned in this post does not offer nor solicits outfitted hunting and is used here for illustration purposes only.

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