When I was a kid, I couldn’t get enough of the outdoors. I was raised in a city in upstate New York and entertained myself for hours by lying on the sidewalk and feeding bread crumbs to ants, watching them grab the morsels and drag them into their ant house. And then there were the spiders that lived in the hedge. I fed them insects and watched them grow. A highlight of my bug mania was a pet praying mantis that I kept in a big cage and fed grasshoppers. And then, of course, there were the snakes. The men of my family were outdoorsmen. I followed them around as we chased rabbits with Grandpa Corbo’s beagle hounds, fished local waters, searched for wild mushrooms, and, when I was old enough, became a Boy Scout when my Dad was Scoutmaster.
I wasn’t into little league sports because it took too much time away from my hunting and fishing. An exception was speed skating, since the first guy to the tipup when we were ice fishing caught the fish. During lunchtime in the fall and winter, I checked my traps in the woods behind the high school instead of chasing girls and running hot rods, though I did plenty of that when there wasn’t anything going on in the outdoors.
I wasn’t a great student in high school. I didn’t apply myself much, content to be average, because my attention span was short since I was continually thinking about opening day of trout or squirrel season, or a new fishing reel I needed to have, or another outdoor thought.
An exception was English class. I loved to read, and devoured every book I could find in the school library on animals. I subscribed to outdoor magazines, and once thought I wanted to be an outdoor writer. On one occasion I submitted a manuscript to Miss Fink, my English teacher. When she graded it, she wrote on the top, “you should be a writer.” I shrugged it off, and didn’t think much about it.
Fast forward to Paul Smith's College, a small junior college in the Adirondack mountains close to the Canadian border. I took the terminal course which offered a degree that qualified us to work in the woods when we graduated. I took courses in dynamiting, logging, sawmilling, surveying, and other basic courses, even one called SUGARBUSH 101 where we made our own maple syrup.
As is typical in many local hunting lores, a tale circulated about Old Joe, a big old whitetail buck who lived in the swamps and outwitted every hunter who pursued him. One day I was crawling through a black spruce swamp, holding my .30/30 Winchester Model 94 tightly as I squeezed between two logs. At that moment a huge buck crashed out of a blowdown, and immediately disappeared. I was so intrigued at the thought that I might have actually stumbled upon Old Joe, that I decided to write a story about the grand buck. I sent it to the college newspaper that might have had a circulation of 500 (at the time, the school had a total student body of 402.) When the article appeared, I was overwhelmed with pride. I kept staring at my byline, and looked at it a hundred different times.
With my two year degree in hand, in 1960, I decided I wanted to be a game warden or forester. My degree wasn’t enough — I needed a Bachelor’s. I looked at several schools and decided on Utah State University. Tuition was reasonable, the school had an excellent rating, and it was in the Rockies. The latter was important. When I was growing up I lamented the fact that I wasn’t born in the west, on a ranch, where I could be a cowboy. I watched all the western cowboy heroes on TV — Roy Rogers, The Lone Ranger, Hopalong Cassidy, Gene Autrey, and everyone else. I promised myself that someday I’d live in the west where the cowboys lived.
My first trip to Utah State was on a bus. I distinctly remember the long 75 hour ride across US 30 before the Interstates were built. After seeing what seemed like thousands of miles of corn, I looked out the bus window just as it was breaking dawn and saw a desert, sandy buttes, and strange looking animals. Suddenly I realized they were antelope! I couldn’t believe it. I was finally in the west, in Wyoming. At that moment I decided I’d one day live in Wyoming.
Soon after I started school I met a classmate who worked on the university newspaper. We chatted over a card game one night, and I told him about my “Old Joe” article that I’d written. He asked if I’d be interested in trying an article for Student Life, the USU paper, and I agreed. The editors asked me to write a column about the upcoming deer season. I did, they liked it, and asked if I’d be interested in writing a regular weekly column on the outdoors. I agreed, and so began my pathway to a writing career, though it was an uphill journey with many obstacles in the way.
One evening in 1962, our forestry college held a social event in a large cabin in a nearby canyon near the Utah State campus. It was called a Paul Bunyan party. There were about 40 of us including professors, and we were enjoying the food and libations and friendly camaraderie. A bathtub full of iced-down beer was a most popular destination. At one point, a professor walked up to me and teased me about my weekly outdoor column. “If you were a real writer,” he said, “you’d sell a story to a magazine instead of just piddling around with that silly column.” I wasn’t really offended, because I knew he was as tipsy as I was, and told him he was full of it. Then he made a wager, suggesting he’d buy me a case of Lucky Lager beer if I sold a story to a magazine. I took him up on it.
To be continued in Part 2.