MORRIS, MINN. – This town in the west-central part of the state was platted in 1869 to merge the common interests of farmers and railroaders.
Charles A.F. Morris of Excelsior was a civil engineer, and it was Morris' handiwork constructing tracks from St. Paul to Breckenridge, Minn., that earned him the right to name a whistle stop along the way after himself.
Exactly a century later, in 1969, I arrived in Morris, not by train but at the wheel of a '57 Buick Special, a couple of duffels and a Model 12 Winchester tossed into the roadster's voluminous back seat.
In this snazzy getup I was hoping to gain a post-secondary education at the University of Minnesota Morris (UMM).
I couldn't know it at the time, but other prospective students, some driving beaters similarly held together by Bondo, were also vectoring toward Morris, their bags packed and hunting guns in tow, most of them pumps, the majority hand-me-down 870s.
Among these was Dan Gahlon, who was a year older than me and who like a lot of us had yawned his way through numerous recitations about UMM's academic credentials.
His interest instead was playing football at a college where he could also hunt ducks and pheasants. The classwork, he figured, would take care of itself.
"I lived in Morris when I was a kid, before our family moved to White Bear Lake," Dan said. "My dad, Warren, edited the Morris paper, and I remember in fall he'd come home at noon, pick me up and we'd road hunt for pheasants. This was in the 1950s. He'd usually get his limit before heading back to work."
While living in Morris, Warren Gahlon befriended a kindred spirit: Ed LaFave, a local banker.
Ed also knew something about bird hunting, and about the advantages, too, of ringing up farmer clients in October and November, ostensibly to chitchat about the progress of their harvests, before addressing the important business of the day.
"Any birds on your place?" he would ask. "Seeing any ducks or pheasants?"
Ed also counted among his many self-assigned duties finding jobs for students, athletes especially.
One of these was a friend of Dan's and mine, a basketball player who showed up at noon every day at Morris High School, where for an hour he dealt slices of white bread to wise-cracking students shuffling through the school's lunch line.
The job paid the going wage, Ed made sure of that. And perhaps more.
"We called the bread guy 'Bread Man Bruce,' " said Joe LaFave, Ed's son, who is a few years younger than Dan and me, and who, following in his dad's footsteps, is a bird hunter.
Now a lawyer who lives in St. Paul, Joe contacted Dan and me a while back, asking if we wanted to tramp some of our old pheasant hunting grounds near Morris.
December pheasant hunting, the three of us knew, possesses its own special charm, assuming you have the clothes and boots for it.
Long-spurred roosters that are still alive at this time of year, and intending to remain so through winter, often, like coveys of quail, hold tight in the thickest cover before exploding in feathery medleys of greens, browns, whites, reds and purples.
Enveloped by snowy farmlands, and often backlit by cobalt skies, these scenes are movable feasts.
"Sure," Dan said. "I'll be there."
I also tossed my hat into the ring.
• • •
The wind was blowing a hundred, or so it seemed.
This was Monday morning a couple weeks back, and Dan, Joe and I had gathered at the LaFave family cabin on Lake Minnewaska, not far from Morris.
Joe attended college in Omaha, at Creighton, but in his first 18 years, as a resident of Morris, he grew well accustomed to western Minnesota winds.
Having spent our college careers walking across campus leaning forward or back 20 degrees, Dan and I were wind-tossed veterans, too.
But at 30 miles per hour, gusting to 40 and more, this morning's gale, together with a temperature of minus 3 degrees, had us reaching for long johns, balaclavas and handwarmers.
Working in front of us would be Joe's Chesapeake Bay retriever, Beatrice, and Dan's Labrador, Tide.
"I actually prefer hunting in late season," Joe said. "On the October pheasant opener it's typically too warm for the dogs and even for me, and a lot of crops are still in the field. Cold and wind can be factors in December, but they're usually manageable."
We worked a shelterbelt first, with no luck, then pushed a long line of spruce trees, rousting a couple of florid cock birds but getting no shots.
At our next spot I distinguished myself by breaking through marsh ice and soaking my socks, boots and feet. This was accomplished in a sort-of slow-motion pirouette, simultaneous with which seven roosters vaulted from the same snow-covered wetland whose soft ice had fooled me.
The birds escaped unscathed.
At times like these, beelining for the comforts of hearth and home is one option.
Our decision instead was to keep walking, relishing as we did the opportunity once again to immerse ourselves in a part of the state whose flat lands and wild birds had taught us so much so many autumns ago, and which in the intervening years had inspired us to conserve as many of each as possible.
Soon enough, Beatrice put to wing a long-tailed rooster whose brief, afterburner-fueled flight was cut short by Joe and Dan.
A short while later, Tide flushed a second rooster that Dan dropped with a long shot that tested the range of his 12-gauge.
Soon enough, in Dan's truck, which he had parked on a snow-covered, straight-as-an-arrow gravel road, lunchtime came and went.
Then it was afternoon. The wind still blew. But the temperature had warmed to 5 degrees.
Settling in, we walked one field, then another and another.
Finally, the sun set and the cold night sky cleared.
We had seen an encouraging number of birds. But we had in hand only the two roosters and no more.
Returning to Joe's cabin, we intersected a stretch of two-lane blacktop where eons ago my '57 Buick's hope-and-a-prayer Dynaflow tranny finally spun its last revolution.
I kept a screwdriver in the glove compartment for just such an occasion.
Pulling the plates, I walked back to Charles A.F. Morris' namesake whistle stop, keeping an eye peeled for pheasants as I did.
Those were the days.