GRAY’S ARCHIVES: Hunting Lessons

It is, in the end, a marvel how little it all takes.

[By Stefani Farris]

THE NOISE IS WHAT WILL STAY WITH ME. The earsplitting crack of the rifle forever married to the image of the young elk in the still meadow, rearing from the force of the shot and turning to crash back into the trees. There is that noise, too—antler and hoof and body colliding violently with living wood, careening, snapping branches, until finally there is a last thunderous crash that sounds out across the meadow. And then the shush of our footsteps through the long grass as we hurry toward the trees.


What did I think it would be like?

Earlier this morning we sat perched on a granite outcrop, peering through binos and sharing a thermos of coffee. From the moment we tiptoed out onto the cold rock and settled our backs against the stillness, I felt certain there must be no better way to spend a day. Had my husband not been telling me so for years?

We watched two bull moose battling on a far hill, heard as though through a hollow tube the clack and smash of antlers. We saw a line of cow elk meandering along the creek. When we got up to move we did it quietly, noting precisely where our feet would fall, noting everything around us, listening, taking it all in, exhaling it silently back out.

I get it, I thought. I get hunting. Hunting just means paying attention. It means bearing witness to the spectacular unfolding of an October day in the mountains.

Well. Sure.

But then a young bull wandered out of the lodgepoles and Tim’s rifle exploded, and now we’re hurrying across a meadow. Observation, it turns out, is not all. I’m stunned by my naivety, not to mention a little chagrined.

Less than a week ago, Tim and I stood together in the vet’s office, burrowing our fingers in the hair of our aged border collie as the doctor injected the pentobarbital. Ten years before, we’d found her abandoned in a Midwestern state park, covered in ticks, her teeth ground to nubs. Never had we expected to spend so long with her.

The drug played its cruel, blessed trick: her yellowed eyes stayed open; her breathing stopped. One minute she was there, and the next she simply wasn’t, and I marveled at how swiftly and imperceptibly that line was crossed.

The ending of a life might be one of the most mundane occurrences on earth, but the acceptance of that ending, the believing in it, is another matter.

“This is the worst part of hunting,” Tim says quietly as he slices open the elk’s belly with the tip of his knife. He means, of course, the killing. I watch him and begin to suspect that my first instincts weren’t entirely off, that somehow the taking of a life is both central to hunting and not at all what hunting is about.

Carefully he lays open the hot cavity of the elk’s thorax, divides the body right up to the chin. He tugs out the rubbery tube of the trachea. An animal of this size doesn’t come apart easily, but Tim is practiced, cautious, and efficient. He drops it, along with the esophagus, into a pile on the ground. The elk’s lungs are shot up and hardly recognizable. Tim draws out the intestines like a rope, then begins to saw through bone.

The bull’s insides are, in fact, now outside, yet the animal still looks as though it might toss back its antlers and huff away. Just as with our collie, my mind marvels and twists and resists. Moments ago this creature stood alert in the grass. That heart pumped blood; those lungs drew air. Its cells quivered complexly. Now all of that has stopped. What has changed?

The ending of a life might be one of the most mundane occurrences on earth, but the acceptance of that ending, the believing in it, is another matter.

It’s the end of October. As I watch my husband field-dress the bull, I don’t know that I’m pregnant with our son. We’ve been told we won’t have children, and so we’ve stopped trying, stopped paying attention at all. I’ve no idea that eight months from now, close to a month earlier than expected, my own belly will be sliced open and from it a tiny, warm creature will be wrenched. I will feel the doctors tugging—yanking—to get that baby out, and I will hear an unsettling urgency in their voices. But I won’t feel pain exactly, and I won’t see the baby. One of his minute lungs will be collapsed and ineffective, so he will be rushed away. Tim will go with him while I will stay on the table, my insides open to the world.

Anesthetized, only vaguely aware, I won’t see that baby for 12 strange hours. I will get updates from Tim, but I will hardly know what he’s talking about. For an entire day, as I struggle up and out of the gauzy anesthesia, as I fight to reconcile my bewildering surroundings with where I’d expected to spend that day (But I have a meeting! At work!), I will simply struggle to believe an actual baby exists.

A baby. My baby.

Yet just a few days from this late October day, the cells and muscle of the massive elk lying open before me will begin to transform into the cells and muscle of a five-pound baby boy who will spend his first week of life in the ICU.

Crouched here in the woods beside my husband and a cooling elk, I have no idea that the baby will turn out fine, or that we will call him Hayden.

It’s getting late. We’re a mile from the truck, which is another mile up a rough two-track from the dirt road back to town. There’s no time tonight to pack out the elk. Tim wedges a thick branch between the opened rib cage, and together we wrestle the carcass’s tremendous weight over a log. There is some worry about scavengers, a greater worry of the meat spoiling.

The sky has grown sullen with clouds. We check our surroundings to be sure we’ve gathered everything—knife, packs, rifle—and start back out of the trees. As we walk, I realize that the silence has returned, and though we move differently now, with less caution, I settle gladly back into it. The snow begins to fall.

In two weeks a young man from our community will set out alone on a hike and not return. By that point I will be queasy every morning and exhausted every night and—ever resistant—not quite able to believe there’s a life growing inside me.

Dogs, deputies, helicopters, National Guardsmen, volunteers from town will comb these mountains for weeks and find nothing. Tim and many of our friends will be among them.

No trace. The man will simply have disappeared.

Impossible. One moment you’re here; the next you’re not.

How can that be? Where do you go?