A family of ancient volcanic obelisks stands in opposition to the sunrise as I work my way north alone in the snow. They've taken their stand just a few miles to my west and I stand also, still, as silent as they. Wolves hidden in the forest to my east are calling to to each other as though they were reconnecting after some time apart. I am the foreigner here. I've slipped into this plain and now silently consume their song.
I wait, holding fast the small ridge I have labored to for the last hour. I clear my thoughts and let loose the grip of time. The rushed and hurried conventions polluting my mind are scrubbed away. My heart pursues an uncontaminated understanding of the world around me.
This mysterious and beautiful land is known to most as Wyoming now. I had arrived mid day the night before and crash landed the family in a Homewood Suites to settle in and set up base camp. Chelsea has opted to stay behind with my trio of boys, keeping a weary and exhausted eye on them.
In reality, this is my first time hunting. I had grown up in a home with only a shotgun, which was primarily used to shoot cans and horse apples. Any reference to hunting was usually followed by the utterance of the name ‘Bambi.' It was not necessarily shunned, but was definitely not an activity given a second thought. Food came from the store and no sum of energy or effort was put into the understanding of its production or origin.
After about 25 years of life, what could cause such a change? Honestly, I believe it was mix of exhaustion, irritation, and a desire to seek understanding and accountability. I had spent five years studying – and avoiding class – at UCLA and had experienced my fill of people with “the right ideas” and “one and only plans to solve the world's problems”. The joke about first year college students coming home to their families as the smartest people in the world was definitely rooted in truth. The daily stroll down Bruin Walk would lead you by just about every advocacy group imaginable (mostly on the liberal side).
It was interesting for a year or two but eventually got exhausting. The constant badgering of naive mercenaries for a social cause truly took its toll as I eventually found my opinion of their “justice” only marred by their lack of total understanding and most likely unforeseen hypocrisy. “Coke kills…boycott Coke!” three students shouted as they peddled the leaflets of their newfound ideology. I could not hold myself back any longer. I inquired further about their devotion to corporation exploitation of Chinese laborers…as they stood there in Nike shoes.
I was tired of hearing the cacophony of ideals. Many liked the idea of exploring new ways of thinking and branching out to a sort of self discovery. I however just found myself mired in the noise distracting me from clearly seeing who I really was. This became irritating. And, this irritation is was pushed me to seek an understanding of the real world I lived in.
Some time later, I watched a show on the travel channel called “The Wild Within” where the host, Steven Rinella, made a statement which I found profound as it resonated inside my head. “Everyone wants bacon, but no one wants to stab the pig.” Rinella stalked through a rainforest armed with a bowie knife in search of wild boar. I found it interesting that this resident of New York City would travel to distant lands to hunt, which he described as knowing where his food came from and being personally responsible. I eat my share of ribs, burgers and steak but never put myself in the actual position to appreciate and be responsible for what I ate. I consumed what others killed and never understood the weight of it.
And so, I decided to hunt. Not everyday or to stock my fridge, but to take a place in the natural order of someone who eats meat. “If you can't stab the pig, you shouldn't eat meat,” I told myself. “You would be a hypocrite and a coward.”
My first “hunt” was of rabbit on my family farm in northern San Diego. I set out with my brother, a pellet gun and our Great Dane Loki as a retriever. I found myself in a strange state of mind. This was not something I had done. It was not simple. I mean, I knew my way around the pellet gun and could hit a root beer can from about thirty yards. But, the can was never alive. Being conscious of this made pulling the trigger harder. But, pull the trigger I did and a rabbit Loki retrieved.
Then came another phase of my learning. Field dressing an animal. This is when it got personal. I mean, there was no way around it. I had to learn how to take the petting zoo to the butcher shelf…myself. Thanks, YouTube. I never felt nauseous or anything, but my brother did find it odd when he heard me mutter “sorry” on a few occasions while wielding my knife. “It's dead,” he reminded me. Of course, this all crescendoed in the kitchen when I prepared, cooked and then ate my work. And, oh, how great is home cooked wild rabbit? Actually, I learned the term “gamy” next. And the legs sort of weirded me out a bit as my mind struggled to reconcile the fact that this fried critter was not a chicken. I could actually taste the grass it regularly ate. But, I didn't give up as I simply asked around and learned a few tricks to rid the gamy taste (marinate in milk…yes, milk).
The snow crunches under the soles of my boots as I walk and I realize it was so cold that the flakes of snow never really compact together. It is a fine, crystaline cold powder. As I hike and climb, the air stings my lungs and the drastic and sudden increase in elevation as I walk manifests itself as a burning sensation in my legs. And I am in love.
I look down and notice my path is the same as that of a grizzly bear and not more than a day newer. I'm suddenly reminded that the drive to town is about forty-five minutes. The thought is compounded by the fact that the hike to my truck (even mostly downhill) is more than two hours. There is no real help for me here. Caution takes the captain's seat in my mind but the love and wonder of this isolated world is first mate.
My connection to what I am doing strengthens with every visit from the locals. Ravens inspect me overhead as they take breaks from their feast of a carcass on a distant ridge ahead. A lone wolf winds his way through the vast open plain below on a path, however invisible to me, as clear as the 405 in Los Angeles to him. A small group of bull moose ignore me completely as they graze. A massive herd of mythic buffalo traverse the fields in front of me, stopping only to gaze at me for just a brief moment. I am both happy and sad as I realize they are but a fraction of what they once were but have seemed to recover to a recognizable herd.
No elk to be seen. The sky is clear and the air is cold. It is also the time of the full moon, which I later come to learn is poor weather for a hunter. I realize I have no advantage, aside from generally not knowing what I am doing. Three cow elk make their escape from hunters lower in the valley in the morning in front of me just two hundred meters away. They keep their bodies below my horizon and their heads pop over like whales coming up for air. This is the closest and only time I get to see or be near elk. And they're gone. The north embraces them and they are welcomed into the trees before I can make any attempt to take one.
My hunting trip is not a failure. It's part of a larger journey for me. An education and lifestyle that must be learned and personally understood. I will be back. To watch the herds, the loners, the illusive and the unfazed. But for now, I leave with just a little bit more to pass on to my sons. I've come just a little bit closer to finding the hunter.