‘St. Tom’s Cathedral’ not a typical hunting book


If you do something long enough, eventually you will compile enough material to write a book.

I am wrapping up a project titled “St. Tom’s Cathedral,” which I describe as a cross between “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” and “A River Runs Through It” distilled through the prism of turkey hunting. A year in the making, it is my first full book since 1999, when Out There Press published “Arkansas, A Guide to Backcountry Travel and Adventure.”

It is a personal feat because frankly I didn’t believe I had another book in me. It conquered a suite of insecurities and anxieties that practically gave me hives at the mere thought. I wrote “Arkansas …” — a large and substantial tome — under the extreme duress of a tight deadline and a predatory publishing contract at a time of dire financial hardship. It opened doors for me, but it also inflicted such a heavy personal toll that I swore I’d never put my loved ones through that again.

Writing “St. Tom’s Cathedral,” in contrast, has been pure joy.

It began as a straightforward hunting book starring my most memorable gobblers. By formula, it was also indistinguishable from every other hunting book, and I was not happy with it.

In April, during a turkey hunt at Cross Timbers Wildlife Management Area in Oklahoma, I listened to a live forum on Sirius XM radio with singer/songwriter Billy Joel. He explained how strong bridges are essential to timeless songs. The basic song structure is the main hallway that leads from the front door to the back door, Joel explained. Bridges are the side rooms and closets that contain the nuances of the story behind the story.

Back stories separate art from kitsch, but they were conspicuously absent from initial drafts of “St. Tom’s Cathedral.” That very night I sat down under a lantern and began an extensive rewrite. I changed the style from narrative to lyrical. It morphed from a random collection of hunting stories to something that pulses and breathes.

The story is still built around great turkey hunts, their triumphs and heartbreaks, but it’s also about winning and losing, rebirth, regret, atonement, ecstasy and redemption. The stories embrace the friendships and relationships that contextualize not only hunts, but also the life phases in play at the time, such as how turkey hunting inspired me to fight through a battle with cancer.

I recall the morning of Nov. 8, 2001. Driving to work in Missouri, I passed a field where I often saw turkeys. In the middle of the field on a small rise stood a resplendent gobbler in full display. The wind fluffed his feathers and fan like the sails of a Spanish galleon. The gobbler turned to face me and fixed its gaze on me as I passed.

My best friend at the Oklahoma Department of Wildlife was a kid named Brian Barger, who replaced me when I left for the Missouri Department of Conservation. He was like a little brother, and he was also a turkey hunting mentor.

“How unusual to see a gobbler display in the fall,” I thought. “Man, I wish Barger were here to see this!”

At the office, a new email from a colleague popped up when I turned on my computer. I called him immediately. He told me that Barger, 29, died in his sleep that night.

Of all the gobblers I’ve seen, I remember that one the clearest. I can’t help but believe it was Barger’s spirit saying goodbye.

The turkey hunt that hooked me occurred in Oklahoma with that same colleague. Afterward, still dressed in camo, I stopped at the University of Oklahoma library to pick up a package of photographs for Outdoor Oklahoma magazine. The library hushed like an E.F. Hutton commercial when I walked in the door. Everybody froze except for a few that discreetly ducked behind bookshelves. In a quavering stutter, a librarian approached and asked whether he could help me.

“Thank God!” he gasped when I told him my business. I was not aware that the Columbine massacre was in progress at that very moment. That’s the last time I wore camo in public after a hunt.

Next comes the hard work of publishing. “St. Tom’s Cathedral” might never see the light of day, but by gosh, I proved to myself that I could do it.

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