The hardest part is knowing which to do – the hustle to get in there, or the walk — so silent, you can hear the pulse in your own body. The former is spiked with adrenaline; with an anxious wanting and hope. The latter, drenched in adrenaline; an anxious wanting and hope! Hunting is such a mixed bag of emotions.
Through the years, seasons, landscapes and species, highs have reaffirmed for me the gift of being human on Earth. Dismay or grief arise as often, tethered to my failures, or those of humanity.
I came into fourth season rifle almost cocky this past November, having scouted the previous two weeks, predawn to dark on some of those days. Each footstep had carried me further from the grind of COVID, unemployment, and confinement down there in the valleys. Unencumbered, I got to explore mountainsides and meadows, arroyos and ridges, wearing what my daughter Juniper and I call our “wildlife goggles.” I taught her to “wear” them with me driving back roads when she was about 3: old enough to consider the wild animals around us, and the wildness in which she might spot them. Seven years later, her eyes are keen; the elation we share at seeing a creature in wildness… I was hoping for megadoses of this during my hunt.
Opening morning, so much had already come to pass; confidence filled me. So much so, that my first incautious step from the private road onto the gravel shoulder of BLM scattered a small herd of very large ungulates — elk! In my first 15 minutes!
I’d blown it, but was thrilled nonetheless, listening to their bodies ping the barb wire fence over and over, tracing the dispersal of cows and calves as they chirped and called through the dark, relocating one another. The explosion within was exhilarating, having been so close to such glorious and elusive wildness. I spent the next several hours doing “the walk,” so silently, I was able to re-encounter them a multitude of times, feeling through glass lenses and my own beating heart, their caution, fortitude, hunger and connection. It will be a day to remember forever.
The time continuum for pinyons and junipers differs from that of us; we’re frenetic. When I walk in the forest, I am surrounded by seeming stillness, and it’s a balm we all savor, right here on Red Hill, or the Lorax Trail. Beyond just “forest,” though, I participate in the stories of their individual and collectively rooted lives, ever-moving right before me. I pass by lovers entwined, and my heart swells. I see family synchronicity, and warmth fills me. I see the very same striving and senescing we humans experience in different chapters of our lives. The trees and forests are in motion, living much as we do, with hopes, relationships, and most times, with an acceptance of “what is,” I too, hope to achieve in this lifetime.
Hunting is “to look,” not solely to kill. Hunting is primarily everything just prior to that moment, even without that moment, and all of it matters. When I scout or hunt in my wildlife goggles, yet another dimension comes alive, from the expansive down to minutiae. And this is the richest part of hunting. It reminds me that I’m Homo sapiens in a web of life ineffably interconnected to the flora and fauna around me — I’m a part of this, alive. Society has reduced human life to a unit born to produce and consume. Hunting, I become more — whether I succeed or fail. Not so in society
Failure is more often my reality. I’m self taught and don’t know many that hunt. So I go solo. (Did I mention I’m afraid of the dark?)
On the last afternoon of the final day of season four, two and half miles in, I was facing darkness, regardless of success or failure. I had a meadow in mind and had to skirt a dense, dark north slope. Hunting the cloistered deeps freaks me out. Noticeably colder, my body tenses, giving dread an opening. What if I see an elk? A mountain lion? Can I still do it? Will I fail? What if I succeed? Can I handle it, still?
The pressure of silver winter sun fading to gold became unbearable. Saturated in feelings and thoughts, “the walk” soon bordered on “hustle.” Soft eyes sought silent pathways through the very plants I know so intimately as a landscape designer— snowberry, gambel oak, currants— but mostly mountain mahogany, a tenacious species evolved for rocky, thin soil. Mahogany’s prickly, dense nature would be an audible deterrent to most any predator, including me: I could feel elk.
Through millennia, generations of elk and deer had crept through before me — on longer, thinner, more agile legs, seeking known stashes of water, food, cover. Caught in my mind was the question that cycles through endlessly, exhaustingly, from dawn to dusk: where are you now?
Hope hovers tirelessly, too, in hunting. It front loads every curve, bend, shoulder and dip ahead. The alcove where a bull might bed down under snow-cloaked oak and junies holding a late-day ray of sun. On a ledge, guarding his harem up above. In the green grass, accepting its role as fodder when all other plantlife slumbers below ground.
I drew close to a saddle, a strategic crossroads for hunter and hunted. As the sun sank, drawing my hopes with it, I pushed through the mahogany, their tips, short and angry from years of grazing, grabbed at my down coat, windproof leggings, nylon backpack. Synthetic materials hissed in protest; binocs bounced against plastic strap hinges— I could feel myself growing frantic, claustrophobic, kicking myself for being an hour behind. Wrenching my boot lace from another recalcitrant snag, I swore— and there he was.
It happens just like that. From the periphery of an unwatchful eye. I blew it. Hope evaporated. And yet. And yet. There. He. Was.
Loping east, 200 yards away and towering over the sage brush, tawny muscles bunched and shivered beneath a sun-gilded hide. I gasped in joy, raising my binoculars between him and me. Antlers splintered the evening light in a wake down his back. Four hundred yards away, neither sound nor break in stride, he leapt 30-40 yards up a shoulder, ghosting through juniper and pinyons, whose scent I knew. The scent of him, I knew!
He paused several times, the beam of his antlers swinging south — I could feel their weight, the immensity of life within them. From the cover of my daughter’s namesake tree, he peered across the differences between us. Right into me. I felt pinned. Through glass lenses far weaker than those Nature bestowed him, an ancient sun reflected the wisdom of millennia in the gaze he levied my way. I was euphoric, hardly able to breathe.
Revelling in his magnificence, I felt my own as well: we had met on his ground. I had lived and breathed the gift of being an elk at a time in human history when being human was irreconcilable to his reality. ( The reality of most all other creatures on our planet. Across that saddle of silver and rouge, through the golden light closing my season, I was so grateful to be a hunter.