It’s something my dad told me that’s really stuck with me through my entire hunting life. He said, “Son, when you come in from a day’s hunt you take care of your dog, your game, your guns and then yourself—in that order.” Specifically he was talking about taking care of and appreciating the things that made a great day in the field possible. In the big picture he was telling me “take care of your stuff and it will take care of you.”
Okay, it’s my 12th birthday. What does an adventure-loving, outdoor-crazy, 12-year-old need and want for his birthday? His own sleeping bag of course. So for that milestone b-day, that’s what my parents gave me. It was a Coleman model with a light cotton canvas outer in medium brown. The inside was cotton flannel with a print of wild bighorn sheep on it. The insulation was nondescript and not very thick since this bag would be used far more for summer camping and sleepovers than it would for Arctic expeditions. At least my amazingly wise parents knew that even if the imagination of a 12-year-old did not. That sleeping bag was presented to me on May 5, 1974.
Fast forward (if you can call 38 years “fast forward” to May 7, 2012. I and a couple buddies are up at the hunting cabin my wife and I own in South Dakota’s Black Hills. We are spending a few days turkey hunting and just hanging out at this place we call “Writer’s Retreat.” The cabin is wired for a generator and has a gas cook stove. It also has a gas heater if things cool off, but in early May, we don’t even hook up the tank because it shouldn’t drop much below freezing at night.
We have four bunks at the cabin—two lowers with thick, cushy real-bed mattresses and two uppers with camp pad mattresses. I always allow guests to take the lowers, and I take an upper. I bring two sleeping bags and make a luxurious sandwich to sleep in.
The sleeping bag that’s on top in that bunk—at the very moment I’m writing this—is the same one I was presented with 38 years and two days ago! The flannel’s worn through in several spots on the inside, but for that long, it’s in amazingly good condition. Even in these adult years, it gets used a good bit. It has seen a lot of cabins and tents across North America. You can still read the faint “Billy Miller” name printed with studied penmanship in green permanent Sharpie on the white Coleman label.
I guess the bag has lasted so long because I followed the spirit of Dad’s wise advice. I never put it away wet or exceedingly dirty. At the end of any trip it gets hung outside for at least 12 hours in the sunshine and fresh air. Because it was one of my prized possessions as a 12-year-old, I took good care of it even back then.
Today at 50, I still love that bag. And to this day it’s a wonderful tie to my mom and dad and the security they’ve always tried to provide. Another of my dad’s sayings rings in my ears. He brought this one out whenever we were sweating away in the garden or making firewood: “No matter how bad things get, this family will never go hungry and will never go cold.”
America sure could use a lot more of that kind of double-edged wisdom today.