By Rachel Turiel
This idea blossomed much like many wayward marital brainchildren: my husband cajoled; I laughed and blew him off. The cajoling continued for five years, becoming such a regular seasonal exchange I could have penciled it in each spring. What seemed fraught with obstacles to me seemed perfectly clear to Dan: if I, too, became an elk hunter, we could double the chances of filling our freezer with meat.
Technically, yes. However, roadblocks abounded. Who would watch our two young children for a week while their parents stalked large ungulates? Furthermore, while Dan maintains an athletic physique one friend calls “all gristle” (and prepares for hunting by running up steep hills, repeatedly), I’ve been cultivating a “mom body,” suitable for small people to cushion heads, elbows and other bony parts.
Plus, there’s the reality of snuffing the life of an actual wild creature with an actual rifle. Growing up in the lap of intellectual pacifists in Berkeley, California, I still experience a slight existential twitch at the word “gun.” I have shot a BB gun, in the name of mother-son bonding, though it never held my interest like, say, a good novel.
Finally, there’s the small fact that after a 20-year partnership, there remains polar differences in our approaches. Dan sees most tasks as a matter of precise, step-by-step procedure all the way to the finish line. His packing up of our camping tent produces a perfectly replicable nylon capsule every time. With hunting, every aspect is researched, studied, and evaluated, from footwear to sizzling a steak. I, however, typically attack tasks via whatever angle seems to haphazardly present itself in the moment, with ample doses of over-analyzation.
And yet, I’ve been an encouraging partner to Dan’s hunting. I enjoy the work of home butchering, and hold the taste and nutrition of wild meat in the highest regard. Spending time in the woods rewires my neural circuitry, tamping down my oddball, modern anxieties. In an environment where every living thing has everything it needs, I can glimpse the true nature of my simple, ordinary, satisfied human self, which is to say, my best self.
The big shift happened last fall when I had the opportunity to accompany Dan to his hunting camp. We spent one night at 11,000 feet, without kids, fire crackling like the visual echo of golden aspens, quiet descending like a curtain. “It’s like being people again,” Dan remarked.
Early next morning, the moon the last light bulb in the night sky, we hiked to a pass overlooking a living mural of mountains: grey rock jabbing at the sky, snow settled in deep valleys, swaths of yellow aspens twinkling through layers of dark timber. Our bodies encased in wool, fleece, and hunter’s orange, we took a walking tour of the territory. I began to see the stories etched on Dan’s very person, like a map pointing to something intimate, wild and unusual. “I slept there once or twice,” he pointed to a man-sized grassy depression under a mammoth spruce. “There’s a bear den below that boulder,” he motioned casually. “Chris was sitting right here when he shot his bull last year. The bones are on the edge of that avalanche chute,” he laughed, remembering.
Back in camp, fire warming numbed fingers and snow falling lightly, two ravens circled, observing our mark on their world. “The ravens are the last to come to the kill site. First the grey jays, next the magpies or Clark’s nutcrackers, then, after a few days, the ravens come. Occasionally a golden eagle swoops down,” Dan shared, eyes bright. Sounded like an avian party I didn’t want to miss.
While others follow the subtle changes of human fabrications like the stock market, hunters necessarily immerse themselves in the language of tracks, scat, wind, animal vocalizations and movements. Who’s to say which is the real world? I knew I wanted to experience a small shred of this ancient pursuit of food. All the other details would come together.
First, a hunter safety class. I opted for an online course followed by a one-day in-person class, concluding with shooting a .22 rifle. Having not taken a test outside of Facebook’s “which character from The Breakfast Club are you?” since graduating college 20 years earlier, I took my online studies seriously. For a week, I took notes on the circumference of shotgun barrels, the mechanics of semi-automatic handguns, and markers of good wildlife habitat. I shot my ten-year-old son’s .22.
I was pleased to see that the in-person hunter safety class in Ignacio consisted of almost 50% women. However, these ladies looked like they could fire flawless rounds while riding bareback, all without breaking a lavishly-manicured nail. I kept expecting someone to politely suggest I was in the wrong place, the library being across the street.
As required, I handled five different unloaded firearms, simulating the loading, aiming and firing of each. As I sighted down the handgun, I could feel my late, peace activist grandmother – who served salmon on Thanksgiving – blinking back shock from beyond.
I aced the multiple choice test and drove to the gun range to take ten shots with the .22, a gun used to hunt small game like squirrels, rabbits, grouse, and turkey. It has no kickback, isn’t terribly loud or heavy, and though the motion of raising the rifle to my shoulder hadn’t yet become second nature, like canning tomatoes, I began to understand the satisfaction of hitting your mark precisely.
Despite my historic and childlike reluctance to be taught anything by my husband, Dan proved to be a gentle instructor. He’d shift the expertise outside of our dyad: “They say the best way to pull the trigger is to squeeze slowly” he’d instruct, rather than, “This is how I’ve been doing it successfully for sixteen years.” He also, most diplomatically, told me I’d want to be my lightest weight “not for aesthetic reasons, but for ease of tromping around the mountains.” Ahem. Point taken.
I began riding my clunky 22-year-old mountain bike up hills and engaging in physical therapy exercises to alleviate chronic knee pain. I practiced training binoculars on faraway animals, tawny fur cryptically camouflaged amongst tree trunks. Dan coached me on the clothing needed to emerge from an October tent at 5 am, and how to stifle the sound of a sneeze.
On high mountain hikes, I’d follow Dan’s soft, intentionally-placed footsteps through the thick trees, finding clues pointing to the presence of elk: nibbled down plants, wild sunflower heads chewed off, musky scent, droppings, antler scrapings on trees. We’d spy velvety brown bodies grazing grassy slopes, calves nursing and frolicking. Watching these mammals living out their mysterious and wild lives, I felt no desire to insert a bullet into the scene.
However, our desire for and enjoyment of meat is rarely tied to an urge to actually kill the animal we’re eating. In fact, the thought is repugnant enough that marketing experts have created meat products removed from any essence of the formerly live creature, lest our backyard barbecue be ruined by contemplation of suffering and death. Most hunters don’t enjoy the killing, yet they are willing to take an active, responsible part in procuring the animals they eat. Having experienced the scenes that follow the kill, I was ready to be present for the opening act.
By mid-summer, the last remaining hurdle was shooting the hunting rifle, a high-powered gun that’s heavy, loud and packs a kick known to bruise unprepared shoulders. An earlier, tentative mission to the Bayfield gun range was aborted due to a camo-clad woman firing endless, booming rounds – Charlie’s Angels-style – from a semi-automatic weapon. The sound startled me right back into my car.
A month later, Dan took me to a thistle-infested meadow a half-mile off a local trail to attempt shooting the hunting rifle. We paced out 60 yards through the weeds and set up a target. Dan coached me through setting up a rest on a fallen log, rifle stock to cheek, rifle butt tight against shoulder, don’t forget to breathe. I considered giving up on the whole enterprise, but instead, as they say, pulled the trigger. A moment of utter confusion followed: the explosion of noise, the fierce kickback, the smell of gunpowder, the thump of adrenaline, and then the realization that I took a shot and it was okay. Apparently, if I have a perfect rest lying prone, ten minutes to set up, excellent ear protection, shoulder padding, and an elk waiting patiently 60 yards away with no obstructions, I might be able to make a killing shot.
With a month left until hunting season dawns, I am equal parts nervous, excited, and, as our previous year’s meat dwindles, hungry. Where a big elk in the freezer would be an enormous gift, there is also value in immersion in the wild world, in the humbling nature of being a beginner, and in the preposterous courage of trying something completely new.