I thought we were just turkey hunting.
After all, that’s why Eddie came to the mountains in the first place. We were wearing camo. Carrying shotguns. Blowing turkey calls. Getting up early and hiking mountain ridges before daylight. That’s par for the course for those few blissful weeks during spring when the mountains of Boone green-up and gobbles echo through the hills and hollers of western North Carolina.
Yeah, we were turkey hunting. With the exception of one small piece of equipment that neither I nor any of my buddies, ever carries in our turkey vest. A notepad. Every now and then, Eddie would dig a small notepad out of his vest and scribble some words on it. When the turkeys weren't cooperating, he’d ask questions, we’d end up chatting about life and work and hunting, and he’d jot more notes down. Eventually, he’d ask some pretty deep stuff, push me to really think about my answers, and expand his notes even further.
Eddie is a writer.
Not just any writer, but a really good one. I’ve worked in the outdoor industry for over a decade now, and while I’m no Hemingway with the pen, I can read. I can tell when somebody has a true gift for bringing story and emotion to life. I can also tell when a writer is just hammering out words for a paycheck, or perhaps worse, free product. Eddie is much the former.
He’s written for some of the best outdoor and lifestyle publications of our time and even authored a book about Bob Timberlake, a household name in art and home decor. When I asked him about this notepad, he said he goes through hundreds of them as he collects material from trips all over the country, and then saves every one of them. Imagine the wealth of stories those things contain, I thought to myself. An entire career of outdoor adventures, interviews with A-listers and story ideas, hand-written by the author himself, spiral-bound and stashed-away in his office.
This particular notepad though was still fresh, as his handwriting on our first day had yet to make it to page three. Eddie was crafting a feature for Garden & Gun, a magazine I had long admired for their layout design (after all, I am an artist with a degree in graphic design) and for their ability to enhance a culture and build a brand. Their reach is a powerful one, extending into live events, restaurants and even real estate.
Garden & Gun is essentially a magazine about Southern culture. And while I was born and raised in the Midwest, I’ve found the South to be much more similar to my own roots than most would ever realize. It’s full of hard working, salt of the earth people. It’s got it’s own traditions, unique landscapes and agriculture. It’s also full of turkeys.
I tried diligently to get us on some birds that weekend, and probably took Eddie on some hikes that both of us would have been better off without. My sole focus was a successful turkey hunt, to show my new coastal Carolina buddy how much fun you can have chasing birds at altitude. Eddie though, seemed more relaxed, noticing dogwood tree species and distant mountain landmarks that I didn’t think twice about, maybe even took for granted. Later, I’d find out he noticed a lot more about our hunt than I ever did.
On the last hour of our last day, in the “let’s just stop here and hit a call one more time” spot, a turkey gobbled as we got out of my truck. A 200-yard sneak job to close the distance, a quick setup, and a few yelps yielded a mountain longbeard at our feet. I had broken the cardinal rule of letting your guest shoot first. But, in my defense, he came in from an angle neither of us expected and ended up in my lap. The second cardinal rule of turkey hunting is never to let a bird getaway, even if that means breaking the first rule.
After pulling the trigger, I felt our story was complete. After all, nearly every story I’ve ever read that involved hunting ended with a successful shot, followed by a “grip and grin” photo to close out the feature. To me, this turkey was the period, if not the exclamation point, that neatly wrapped our story.
It wasn’t until I sat down a year and a half after our hunt, issue in hand, and read the feature that I realized that wasn't the case. Eddie barely mentioned a flopping turkey and the high-fives and adrenaline (and maybe even a selfie) that I felt were the focal point of our time together. Instead, I read a story that only a man with more insight and perspective than I could see. It was a story about myself as an artist, husband, father, and outdoorsman that I couldn’t see as I walked in those shoes each and every day. He saw it though.
The story ends with: “I see Kirby’s finger creeping toward the shotgun safety and then curling around the trigger, and in the next moment it’s over. All but the part where the artist makes it live forever.”
That may be an ending to a 4-page feature story, but it’s just the beginning of a much larger one. In a way, those two sentences summarize my life and career: a life lived for the outdoors, a small part of which is the ending of an animal’s life, but an entire career spent bringing an animal to life on canvas where it can live forever.
I’m not going to ruin the story for you. Go read it for yourself here. I’ll simply end with this: as an artist, I make a living trying to inspire people. But art comes in many forms, and each of us has our own form of art, whether you’re a musician, a plumber, a schoolteacher…or a writer. Eddie Nickens is an artist. His brush is an ink pen and his canvas is a small notepad, tucked neatly beneath the camo of his turkey vest. I’m grateful to know the guy, and even more grateful for the opportunity to be his subject for this feature for Garden & Gun.