There are realities about standing over an animal, newly dead, that I am not prepared for. First, to call that bull elk, slumped and emptied of breath, “inanimate” seems a misnomer. There’s the way the muscles, unhusked from hide and already more meat than agent of movement, occasionally and rapidly twitch. Second, one hour post mortem, a release of internal gasses roars so startlingly and without warning from the animal’s mouth that I flinch and duck.
My husband, Dan, and I are hunched over the body of the bull elk I just shot. It is a cloudless October, my first hunting season. Aside from the occasional distant plane overhead, there’s no sign of humans anywhere.
My emotions – a simmer of shock, grief, amazement – cling like a jacket I can’t remove. Yet, I am thankful for the straightforward business of field dressing, tending to the visceral parts and pieces that were the elk’s and are becoming ours. It’s like tantric animal positioning: right hind leg raised over my back while Dan slices meat from bone; left shoulder propped against my hip. The animal’s hooves waver below my face. They smell of osha leaves.
“We couldn’t have asked for better conditions,” Dan fairly sings while unstitching the left hip ball joint from its cupped socket with his knife, “a clean kill, plenty of daylight, a big bull elk.” I can’t help but think the conditions were straight lousy for the animal itself, who two hours ago was raking antlers against spruce saplings, blowing out bugles, broadcasting his virility to any cow elk not yet spoken for. “And, such an exciting hunt,” Dan murmurs. His knife spills blood to the ground.
We awoke at 11,300 feet in the dark cave of morning, Jupiter and Venus outshining the starry masses. By 6 am, layered in camo, rifle loaded, quick calories installed in packs, we’re hiking. Despite restless, nerve-addled sleep and only a few quick sips of forced-down coffee, adrenaline proves to be an excellent motivator.
Before the sun even scales the eastern peaks, we hear bulls bugling in the distance. Their eerie mating songs start in deep tenor and climax in a soprano’s scream, capped with a series of grunts I can only describe as lusty.
“Those are the big boys,” Dan whispers. And just like the posturing, sweaty lead guitarist busting a solo with accompanying crotch grab, each hooved musician responds to the last in an escalation of male prowess. We follow the bugles, which are coming now in rapid succession.
Hunting requires moving through the forest with one’s aperture of focus exquisitely narrowed. Everything in front of you matters: those fresh tracks, that musky smell, the wind’s trajectory, and – whoops – your own stark white hands pointing downslope like a hoisted banner of your humanness. “Hands down,” Dan hisses. We move along a high trail, the rifle an awkward appendage reminding me of what could actually go down today.
A mile further, the bugles wane, but jacked on hope and with no better plan, we continue, now mincing downslope over fallen logs, through thorny current-bush enclaves. Then, above us: the sound of hooves on rock. Across a gulch stands a bull elk at the edge of a talus field, straw-colored coat spotlit in the early sun.
Game on. He disappears into the trees and we creep toward him so excruciatingly slowly – stakes skyrocketing by the second – that I’m paradoxically out of breath. My eyes are saucers on my sober face. We stop 100 yards from where we last saw him and kneel in the duff. Dan issues cow calls, the cervid equivalent of “hey big boy, why don’t you come up and see me sometime,” while I position the rifle on a rest, and wait for the bull to emerge. Each minute is a nerve-wracking eternity. He thrashes saplings with his antlers. We wait. Dan makes cow calls. Repeat. Up until now, everything was theoretical. I had practiced various shots with the 30.06, but slamming bullets into a paper target is like spinning a globe and calling it traveling.
And then this: movement behind trees heading in the direction of the open talus slope. Safety off. Deep breath. Heart banging. Large, tan elk emerges, vitals in perfect view. Crosshairs align. My multi-pronged mental checklist condenses into one swift, decisive action. Two shots later, he drops. I flip the safety on, put the rifle down, and cry.
Half the day is passed dismembering this beast. Four mammoth legs in canvas game bags are stumble-hefted and hung on a spruce limb in the deep shade. The enormous tangle of digestive organs is literally rolled, sloshing, out of the body cavity. I am glad to be present for this, gazing so intimately at this creature: the immense gumdrop-shaped heart, the lungs lacy with alveoli (both tunneled by a killing bullet), the rubbery trachea that once shuttled breath from outside to inside. It hints at our own animal mortality – that underneath our vibrant lives, we too are muscle groups bounded by elastic fascia, blood vessels of all sizes looping like trails throughout our bodies.
Dan hands me a shiny nibble of raw tenderloin; it melts on my tongue, bright and gamey. The grey jays arrive, vanguards plucking red threads of unguarded flesh, their posse whistling from tree boughs. The ravens, aloof, circle overhead, keeping watch.
When our work is complete, I ask Dan to give me a moment alone with the animal. I fling myself to the earth and pray. Gratitude and promises spill forth. This surprises me, and yet, seems the most natural and necessary response I can muster. We hike back to camp with our first load of meat, packs pummeling our shoulders, retracing part of the morning’s route now transformed by more than the sun’s angle.
For the next four days we walk. We walk the same 5-hour roundtrip every day from camp to kill site and back. In: light and loose. Out: packs groaning with the gravity of meat. Landmarks – “tree bridge,” “boy scout camp,” “bear den hill” – become talismans marking our progress.
Every morning, 20 or more ravens are gathered at the carcass, some feasting, others perched nearby, meat-woozy and reveling. A black bear shows up, curious. A golden eagle flees the scene. I like to think of all the unseen others taking their turn: chipmunks gnawing minerals from bone, bacteria dissolving intestines, blood spilling nitrogen for next year’s osha plants.
At first, I can’t shake the sadness, the notion that we duped this wild beast with our human cunning and high-tech tools. And though I’ve participated in slaughtering our chickens, that felt like an agreement: room and board in exchange for eggs until the arrangement was biologically null and void. This bull elk and I had no such prior understanding. Meeting him up close held many surprises: his long, delicate eyelashes, curly ear fur, and his hide’s dusty, earthy scent. And yet, the question, for me, is not about eating meat or not. Rather, it dwells in the muddied depths of taking responsibility for the deaths of the animals I eat; which, at first glance, is infinitely more unpleasant than obliviously placing an anonymous shrink-wrapped cut of meat in my shopping cart.
Carrying this bull elk on our backs becomes the simple rhythm of our days. Life hasn’t felt this straightforward and purposeful since my children were babies and I was nursing them around the clock, literally keeping them alive. I begin to trust the appropriateness of my remorse, while also noticing that the walking loosens grief from my mind, clearing space for gratitude, satisfaction, curiosity and awe. We step slow and labored through the forest, weighted down with the most ancient of tasks, though buoyed with the gifts of purpose, intimacy with our food, and the best meat on this planet. My mind laps up this pace of living. For these four days, I don’t worry, strategize, or brainstorm about my children or livelihood. I don’t think about world news; the news is here. Parts of my brain that have been hyperextended for years simply relax.
Clans of juncos are swept from one fir tree to the next by our approach. The sweet-spicy scent of spruce bark is ignited by the sun. We stop to eat last year’s deer jerky, and in our semi-hallucinatory hunger, we’re both certain it tastes exactly like prime rib au jus, an accompanying crusty French bread somehow layered in the slabs of dry, furrowed meat.
Dan and I talk only a little, quietly, and are treated to continued bugles tearing through the mountain silence. An elk herd appears a couple hundred sheer vertical feet above my kill site.
“What would you do if we were still hunting? What approach would you take?” my hunting coach asks, pointing out the steeply positioned animals.“Pack up and order a half cow from James Ranch.”
We see three young spike bulls jostling through the forest together. They’re old enough to be kicked out by their mothers, but not old enough to mate.
“They’re not even allowed to hang out with the herd?” I wonder aloud. “Not even,” Dan replies.
Each afternoon, I return to camp feeling more a part of this wild place, more entitled to this meat. The game bags hang in the shade of an old spruce tree, chilling overnight, dripping blood mid-day, until the final shuttle is complete.
The (adapted) Bob Dylan lyrics, “after we took from you everything we could steal,” run repeatedly through my mind. We take from this elk: 4 legs, 2 backstraps, 2 tenderloins, liver, heart, ribs, brains, hide, antlers and two teeth.
On our last day, I wake early and sit outside the tent watching dark smudges of timber fade to morning. I savor my view of Jupiter and Venus as if it’s a last meal. We dismantle camp and pack the truck with all the things that spilled out of it five days earlier, plus hundreds of pounds of bull elk. I feel the sense of an ending, returning to my modern life with its multi-pronged demands. The sun inches higher and two Clark’s nutcrackers bomb through camp chasing each other. Soon, there will be stories, butchering, feasting, and celebrating. But for now, I shed my wool and fleece camo, put on my mom uniform, and head back down the mountain.