Laughter, Learnt of Friends

mule deer
"Mule Deer," by Tom Beecham (19256-2000) Courtesy of Remington Arms

by Jameson Parker

Pleasures borne of trophies not taken.

I never had a designated trophy room, but for about 15 years I lived in a large house on a small horse ranch in the southern Sierras. It had high, vaulted ceilings that easily accommodated almost all my trophies. I had never had them all together in one place and it took me a little while to realize much of the pleasure of having them came from what was not there, much as a piece of fine lace gets its beauty not so much from what is seen as from the empty spaces that define what is seen.

The deer and elk and pronghorn on the wall gave both pleasure and memories, but the empty spaces provided even more memories of the deer and elk and pronghorn not taken, the ones that stayed out of range, or never offered a clear shot, or simply vanished in the magical way of wild animals.

For a number of years, a group of us pooled our resources and rented a log cabin for the opening week of the Colorado deer season. The cabin was on a landlocked section on the south side of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. One side was private ranch; two sides were BLM land inaccessible from any direction except the landlocked section; the north side was the canyon rim. It was a honey hole.

Four of us were regulars.Two or three others drifted in and out from year to year as finances, jobs and wives permitted, sometimes with familiar hunting partners, sometimes with guests. It was always a lively week.

The section was owned by an elderly lady, probably 20 years younger than I am now, who would stay in a private room and cook for us in exchange for a small stipend.

Not small enough.

I had always thought my mother to be the worst cook in the known world, but this lady stole the title. Her cooking was so atrocious that after the first year we had a spirited debate as to whether or not we should rehire her. The problem was that only one of us was a good enough cook to master a wood- burning stove and satisfy the stomachs of four to six or seven hungry hunters, and that guy selfishly didn’t want to drive 1,500 miles for the sake of cooking for the rest of us during his only hunting trip of the year. So we kept the lady on stipend and lived primarily on beer.

Even so, the outhouse got a lot of business for that first week each year. The first day of the first year, I turned my nose up at a lunch of bologna and mayonnaise on Wonder bread with a Milky Way for desert. I don’t like Milky Ways, either, but by the end of the week, I was not only scarfing down the sandwich, but I had come to regard the chemical taste of Milky Way as haute cuisine. And by comparison, it was.

mule deer tom beecham
Mule Deer 2, by Tom Beecham (1926-2000) Courtesy of Remington Arms

We were all very young and inexperienced hunters and those six or seven years served as a training ground for most of us. One, the most experienced of the regulars, was primarily a bow hunter, though he deigned to carry a rifle in order to be with his friends and, as he and I were the most fit, we usually hunted together, hiking up to the most inaccessible areas overlooking the Black Canyon. I learned a lot about stalking from him and I put those skills to good use on what I still consider my most memorable and successful hunt.

I had spotted a really excellent buck—not especially wide, but high, with massive, heavy main beams and deep forks and too many points to count accurately at that distance—browsing lazily with two forkies and four or five does. I glassed them as they ambled into a stand of junipers and bedded down, and then I made a long circuitous stalk, dropping down wind and out of sight, slowly working my way back up and crawling the last hundred yards or so.

I was well into the junipers before I spotted the rack. He was lying under a tree, with a forkie lying in front of him and several does browsing between us. All I could see was rack. I kept inching forward until I was within 20 yards of the buck, but I still had no shot, courtesy of the does. There was nothing to do but wait.

When you’re young and on fire with excitement and adrenaline is squirting out of your ears, it’s hard to judge the passage of time, so perhaps it wasn’t really multiple millennia. But the only thing that changed as I waited was the doe closest to me stepped directly between us so that I couldn’t even see that spectacular rack any more.

All the stalking skills in the world don’t do you a lick of good if you lose your patience. I lost mine. I reached out and gently touched the doe’s right hind leg with the barrel of my rifle. I had thought it might encourage her to move and it certainly did. She spun around, indignant with surprise and began stamping and snorting. I know she was probably snorting out warnings to her companions, but at that moment it sounded like she was cursing me, my ancestors and all my progeny, born and yet to be. Since they could neither see nor smell me, none of the others proved too terribly concerned, but I watched the massive rack rise up and move off, unhurriedly, but with purpose, and always with a doe between us.

Mule Deer 3, by Tom Beecham (1926-2000) Courtesy of Remington Arms

One year I saw another excellent buck stroll into heavy timber on the edge of the canyon rim and I determined to track him. The tracks were easy to follow at first, but as I got farther into denser brush and trees, it required more careful standing and looking and less forward movement. And so it was that I looked up and found myself staring at the back end of a massive elk perhaps 30 feet in front of me. As if he knew he was being watched, he slowly swung his head and one eye gazed at me, calmly, contemplatively.

I had an elk tag, so I considered my options. A Texas heart shot would have done the trick, but there was far too much brush, too many tree limbs, for that. His head was a better option, but there too I would have had to thread the needle, and it’s always the branch you don’t see that deflects your bullet, and I had no desire to wound him.

We gazed at each other. Time passed. And then, having accurately assessed my level of potential threat, he swung his head gently around and in three languid, stately strides vanished into the trees.

But it’s not just the hunting moments that fill those empty spaces on walls all across the country. It’s also the ancillary incidents that only hunters ever witness, the little things that connect us to the wild, that keep us going out, year after year.

A large male coyote with a lovely winter coat, running on three legs, who stopped directly in front of where I was hunkered down in some boulders. The wind was in my favor and he was busy surveying the slope below us, head, ears and nose all scanning his terrain. Our hostess was a rancher’s daughter with a cattleman’s very natural prejudices and the only request she had made was that we kill any porcupines or coyotes we saw. I was gazing at the coyote, thinking about that, and decided that since he had a bum leg, I would honor our hostess’s request.

That was all. I just thought it. I didn’t move or shift my position. I didn’t even take my hands out of my coat pockets, let alone reach for my rifle, but as if the thought had transmitted itself to the coyote via a loudspeaker system, his head snapped around and for a moment we stared at each other. And then he was gone. The sometime bow hunter and I were walking side by side down a logging trail when we came to a little stream. We both jumped it and then I froze. “Hey!”

I pointed at the print of an enormous bear right by my boot and as we watched, the print slowly filled with water. Without either of us speaking, we turned away from each other and stood, back to back, scanning the area around us.

There was nothing. We finally exhaled and laughed nervously, then took two steps forward before a bush by the side of the trail exploded in a blur of sound and movement. We were both black- belts in karate, though he was a far better martial artist than I, and liked to think of ourselves as hairy-chested, two-fisted, manly men, so I would like to tell you how we both calmly but quickly shouldered our rifles, slammed a round into the chamber, and did what had to be done.

Instead, he grabbed me, I grabbed him, and we both screamed like prepubescent girls at a rock concert. The grouse flew to a nearby tree limb where it perched and contemplated the two biggest cowardly fools in Colorado that day.

My friend reached down and picked up a rock. “You little bastard!”

He wasn’t throwing the rock at the grouse so much as he was throwing it at his own fear, but he made a million-to-one shot and hit the grouse square in the breast, killing it instantly.

While my mother was a nauseating cook, she could, inexplicably, make light and airy popovers and a first-rate blueberry pie. Go figure. Our hostess, for all her murderous passion for bologna and mayonnaise on sawdust, could actually perform wonders with venison, and there was always a lot of pressure on us for someone, anyone, to for God’s sake take a buck as quickly as possible so we could have something digestible to eat. She also did an excellent job with the grouse that evening.

But more than the wild, the unexpected, the delightful and—occasionally—the ridiculous of the hunting and its ancillary encounters, trimming it all like the embroidered selvage on a lace mantilla, were those little moments that had nothing to do with hunting or unseen bears or sorry, overused outhouses.

There was the comforting smell of wood smoke, the way the cabin lights beckoned us home at the end of the day and, above all, the shabby, untidy room with old worn chairs between the fireplace and the stove, warm and snug, where old friends and kindred spirits could laugh together, safe from the freezing night, safe from the harsh and inexplicable troubles of distant cities and a turbulent world, safe in a brief and carefree moment to be recalled decades later by blank spaces on the wall.

Jameson Parker has been a house painter, dishwasher, busboy, waiter, gardener, taxi driver, security guard, actor and writer.