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When the Bootprints Fade

I’m going to be really honest with you here. I was supposed to publish my newest tackle review today and I just wasn’t feeling it; I’ll save it for tomorrow and you can read about it then. I’m going to try something different today.

I’ve had something pulling on my heart for two years and I need to get it out. Maybe this is some sort of odd curse that comes with an admittedly creative mind but either way, I’ve felt like my brain is knocking on my skull telling me to get these thoughts and feelings out. I’m well aware it might sound strange to some but something in my gut tells me that someone reading this needs to hear the words I’m about to type.

I don’t take this lightly. I had an article ready to go for today and I scrapped it. My wife and I won’t be eating dinner on time tonight. She’s probably making herself a sandwich right now as I type this with the door to my office closed. She will probably be asleep by the time I finish this article. This is a late-night audible but I absolutely have to get something off of my mind.

That’s just how my brain works.

Roughly two years ago, my wife’s uncle died unexpectedly. It wasn’t a typical in-law situation where you knew ‘em just because you were married. I knew Ricky Arp for many years before I even knew my wife existed. Without the mundane details, I reckon that’s just how small-town life works sometimes. I looked up to that man more than I let on to folks. He was a big ol’ dude with a big personality to match. You’d be hard-pressed to meet somebody that could take him down; he was just a dude, if that makes sense. He stood up for himself and I always admired that about him.

I thought the world of him and I always looked forward to seeing him at family get togethers because we’d always sneak away, have a cold beer together and talk about fishing and hunting. While I can’t and won’t speak for him, I like to think we both liked that short respite from the chaos that comes from our big, loving family. Sometimes everyone needs to take a few-minute breather. Or at least we did.

When Ricky passed away, it hit our entire family in the gut. When my wife and I went to their house that evening to be with everyone, there’s one thing that stood out to me more than anything.

His old, worn-out boots. I will never, ever forget them.

I walked inside that house he built with his own two hands, I turned to my right and I saw his boots still sitting by the front screen door—the creases still fresh from the previous day of cattle farming, still fresh from the walk from his shop back to the house, still fresh from the bonfire he battled and got pissed off at the night before.

I’m someone who pays very close attention to detail and while the rest of the family was wrapped up in other conversation, I walked over and just stared at those boots as tears welled in my eyes. They still had manure on them. It was like Ricky came in the door, slid his boots off, had supper and got in the shower. It made me feel like he was still there. But he wasn’t.

That empty pair of boots hit me like a damn freight train. Those folds and wrinkles in the old, worn leather were there but he wasn’t; the feet that caused those aforementioned folds and wrinkles weren’t there anymore. I don’t quite understand why it affected me so much but it did. I actually didn’t tell my wife about it until today because I was supposed to be tough about it all. But man, I don’t know what happened. It has made me think about a lot of things lately.

One of my best friends’, who I’d honestly consider a brother more than anything else, dad passed away this year as well. His name was Mike Hammock and I want you to remember that name and remember the following story. He was a good man.

I can remember his voice ringing through the cold, bare hardwood ridges and swamp bottoms yelling “Find ‘em!” to his old squirrel dogs. Those dang dogs would raise all kinds of hell and carry on so loud you couldn’t see straight. Heck, I was just along for the ride and Mike’s two boys were taking the lead, learning everything they could from their old man. My scrawny butt could barely keep up with the crowd. I was just there for the show and to learn from a wily woodsman.

But that man was probably 25 or 30 years older than me and I couldn’t hardly keep up with him. He could walk circles around me if he was chasing his hounds around the woods.

I can also remember eating a chicken biscuit with him on the tailgate of his hunting truck right before he turned the dogs loose. I vividly remember pulling into his ragged gravel driveway to go hop into a deer stand a few hours before dark and that dang rut—right in front of his shop—just about ripping the rear differential out of my old diesel truck. Mike would walk out onto the front porch and holler, “Oh Lord, here comes trouble!”

But gosh, he always had a smile on his face. He was a good man and raised a fine family.

This is going to start coming full-circle now, so hang with me.

I had a conversation with a friend of mine two weeks ago and it made my mind start ticking a little bit in regards to writing this article. We’re just two redneck dudes who love fishing and hunting and we got to talking about the crazy and almost unfathomable regularity of nature. No matter what the heck happens to you, me or anyone between us and the fence post, those dang bass are going to bed every spring. The turkeys are going to strut every spring. The Japanese magnolia trees are going to bloom the second week of every February. The bucks are going to rut every fall.

We could all—every single one of us reading these words—fall off the face of this earth tomorrow and the world is going to keep going just as usual. The wildlife we cherish will keep doing what it always does and memories of us will fade with time.

Ricky Arp’s boots will be empty but the cows still have to be fed.

Mike Hammock’s boots will be empty but the dogs still have to hunt.

Their bootprints might have faded. Those ridges they hunted, those pond banks they fished and the gravel driveways they walked eventually got a bunch of rain. Their prints are gone. But their boots are still there and the stories they entail will never be forgotten.
So as you walk into someone’s house this year, make an effort to look at their boots. The folds, the wear, the scuffs and the mud will tell you a helluva lot about a man.

Our bootprints matter. Never forget that.

Although they may not leave a lasting physical impression over time, their proverbial importance matters more than we can ever imagine.

The bootprints you leave on the shore as you hike to and from your favorite fishing holes.

The bootprints you leave on the trail leading to your favorite deer stand.

The bootprints you leave as you tend to your cattle.

If we live a life well-lived, people will be begging to see and feel our bootprints again. The high tides are going to rise on the beach and heavy rains will come in those hardwood bottoms and pond shores. Our bootprints will eventually wither away and become nothing once again, just as we found it; we’ll be nothing but a memory.

Every single one of us.

I don’t know for sure, but I hope the Good Lord allows our spirits to live in the quiet of those swamp bottoms and in the mayhem of the Saturday-morning bass tournament launches. I hope those who have passed before us, like Mr. Ricky and Mr. Mike, are still there when we give it hell out of the blast-off or turn the dogs loose at daybreak. Surely you’d think that, right? Maybe I’m nuts but I can see my two buddies smiling at me as I just typed that paragraph.

I hope the memories and fun times outlast the temporary bootprints. Gosh, I sure hope we get that blessing.

The creases in our boots, the wrinkles in our shirts, the crusty line on our baitcasters and tall tales we all like to tell… I hope they stick around after our bootprints fade. Please, Lord, grant us this precious gift. I don’t ask you for much, but I’d sure like to think these folks are around us all the time, watching us enjoy what they taught us.

Thank you Lord, Amen.