Men and women come and go, but elk camp lives forever.
[by Robert Ellis]
She’s been replaced by a dark-skinned, mustachioed man who operates the cash register onehanded without looking. Even though the old man quit the habit 20 years ago, he buys a tin of Copenhagen for yesterday’s sake, which affords the opportunity to ask about the girl named Amy. The dark-skinned man shrugs, gobbles up the money and makes lightning change of it. The traveler, face creased from wear rather than emotion, leaves a crumpled 10-dollar bill on the counter for enough gas to get him to his former elk camps.
He shoots through the vacant intersection to Forest Road 255, hearing the gravel road drum a familiar tune on his undercarriage, and he feels the washboard dirt road waltz his pickup into fishtails. Remnants of snowdrifts dot the roadsides. The pinkbottomed clouds issue their warning, but rather than heed it, he is curiously drawn. His first trip had been 54 years ago, a crude young hunter-killer looking for meat to stake him through the winter in a two-room cabin he’d built himself. A young man of 20 escaping a Chicago steel plant heritage and a home broken by alcohol, with two, maybe three paychecks in his pocket, too long ago to remember.
No rifle this year, no point in it. He could no more haul elk quarters from the mountains than drag an iron ore pallet from a ship’s deck to the factory furnace. Back in Butte, where he is caretaker for half a dozen houses and one sputtering resort, he relies on neighbors to provide game meat in exchange for handyman work. It pounds in a measure of humility, living off younger men’s, even women’s, hunting skills. Were he an aged bull elk, the cows would have long ago shunned him from the herd, and he’d be looking for an isolated spot in which to lie down forever. Bartering his meager skills for meat has raised some religion too, getting him looking forward to the Hereafter and a new start with fresh legs and clear eyes. In the meantime, he’s on a Bitterroot Mountain forest road looking for the only piece of heaven he’s ever known.
“Out comes the Copenhagen, one of two things that drew pleasure in his barren life. The other was elk hunting. Both are off-limits now— one on doctor’s orders, the other pretty much physically prohibitive. “
A grassy two-track leads to elk camp ’57, “Oak Branch,” 18 miles from the R&H. He guns the engine up a winding incline to pay his last respects. A mile in, he parks and paces the hallowed ground where his two-piece army surplus tent had stood like a vanguard against a deluge that raged from dark to dawn before giving way to a fairy-tale rainbow and five days of perfect hunting weather. Above him: the massive oak branch that hung his first elk quarters like a gallows.
In a hike jagged with buttonhook rests, he makes it halfway up the side of an aspen-clad mountain, much of it on switchback angles to protect his creaky ankles. He finds the site of his first kill based on a fat hardwood bearing a carved inscription, illegible now. Killed an elk here October 1959 it once read, with his initials. He marvels at the strength he had to transport not only the quarters but ribs, tenderloin, neck, and back straps in three trips with nothing but arms and back. Days when he proudly passed out steaks and roasts instead of sheepishly receiving them. The man takes a reed and blows a seductive cow call, hoping to draw a connection from an ancestor, familial proof that the kill isn’t merely a lifeless mount gathering dust in the dingy halls of his memory, but like him, it still breathes.
Out comes the Copenhagen, one of two things that drew pleasure in his barren life. The other was elk hunting. Both are off-limits now—one on doctor’s orders, the other pretty much physically prohibitive. The first nip in two decades burns his thin gum lining, but he quickly receives a jolt of satisfaction. He stays there, catnapping into late afternoon, a babe curled to mother’s breast, with the vague feeling that leaving will be forever.
Back under the oak gallows, he enjoys one of life’s last remaining pleasures—urinating in the outdoors. Without porcelain, four walls, and a door, or a fan buzzing antiseptic odor, without worry of noise and smell and stain. It lends a certain freedom from society’s strictures that have morphed into the role of a self-conscious cop, one that rules him unmercifully with condemnation and makes his life a misery. “Just let me finish,” the hunter utters to no one, “the pressure ain’t all it used to be.” He grins inwardly at his insolent remark but agrees, yes, it’s time to move on.
It’s dusky now, and he has the goal of sleeping in another camp, a place he found the following years, flat ground at the edge of a small creek bottom. A few minutes up the root-strewn forest road, he recognizes the turnoff between two pines and gingerly pulls between them.
Too late now to pick his way across the ice bag– sized boulders he’d placed across the creek and hike to the places he’d taken bull elk. That’s for tomorrow. Tonight he’s content just to be here, to rest his bones in a sleeping bag on a bed of pine needles next to the truck and strain his ears for bugling elk, maybe taste once again the anticipation of morning.
A couple of hours before sunrise, the man is woken by a vivid dream. His estranged son has returned, and they’re toting rifles in a magical land, himself the guide, leading. He wakes with good feelings, so that for once in his life waking isn’t a bitter experience, and he dwells on the dream until the hard ground and patches of cold on his bones force him to his purpose. Bracing against the truck chassis, he finds the door handle and pulls himself up to an unsteady standing position. Opening the door and receiving the glare of the inside lights, he sits in the cab and laces on his boots. He works his feet into the cold leather with a couple of stomps and unhooks his coat and canteen from the rearview mirror. He leads himself unsteadily by flashlight toward the creek in cold, heavy air, hurling bits of snow.
Though his muscles have atrophied into sinewy jerky, his steps are guided by decades-worn mental pathways and a still uncanny sense of distance and direction. He veers east, his mind’s eye seeing the only approach afforded by a southwestern breeze. He curses himself for each twig that emits a crack, and twice he thinks about aborting the flawed approach altogether, but he knows he’ll never see his spot again if he does, so on he creeps.
Hillside contours and moonlit clues lead him to the very tree he sat against for dozens of hunts. He allows himself rest before sunrise by gently rolling on his side and closing his eyes, but not his ears.
Instinct rolls him up in sections to sitting. Distance with low light and aged eyes make movement more imagined than seen, and now his imagination tells him an animal has entered the woods. He raises his imaginary rifle and braces it on his knees, pointed at a snapping twig. Though no longer able to focus fine lines, his eyes can still detect movement, and soon he sees it linking tree trunks a hundred yards out. A head goes down, now up, listening, a step or two, tugging more animals behind. From the rear lumbers another head, topped with a blurry white fuzz.
Time makes the animals bigger, countable. A bull and four cows carry out nature’s fall ritual, filling their stomachs, approaching steadily into the sights of his imaginary rifle.
Close now, a cow suddenly spots him and fixes a serious stare. The man remains motionless, hoping his gray stocking cap makes him resemble a boulder. Were he a younger man and saw a woman fix this kind of stare on him, no telling what he’d have done. But it never happened that way. His face wasn’t the kind that held any woman’s interest. He sees Amy again; believing she once looked at him like a serious elk. When his courage failed and his lips trembled.
The lead cow, unsure, changes their direction, and the five elk take another angle, hanging out broadside shots like clothesline laundry. He waits an hour for another convoy, but none comes.