Ever Find those Mule Deer?
No, but I found some stories. Hancock on hunting.
I know of no formula for contentment or happiness—perhaps both are meant to be in limited portions lest we have too much given us without effort and always expect more.
I was born of outdoorsmen and women. “Out There” is in my blood, the blood of hunters, gatherers and survivors of the millennia. The cackle of a rooster pheasant, an elk bugling or a flock of Sandhill cranes pre-announced by their raspy calling, are sounds from another epoch, unchanged, stirring our quiet places to life.
Hunting, fall and Idaho—to say something profound about autumn seems redundant. So much has been said, so well. I think of Hemingway, his finale tribute to a dear friend; in part it reads: “Leaves yellow on cottonwoods. Leaves floating on trout streams.” Or of my father saying, “smell the sage brush” or “the fresh-cut grain field” with the stubble left as even as a mown lawn, lying in off-color waves of yellow brown as the “combine cuts’ overlaid one another like a boardwalk from horizon to horizon, fence rows breaking the patterns here and there. Pheasant fields, duck ponds and big game hills spread out over beautiful Idaho.
Idaho in the fall, hunting season or any other, is a country I’ve never known how to feel about in total. She can be so feminine in her sunsets and lake mirror images or so masculine in mountain ridges, peaks and granite outcroppings. It’s not politically correct—nor need it be—but in Idaho hunting is a great part of our inherited culture. Adventure and heritage; when I was young that helped feed us. An important part of family well-being over the long, cold months of frozen ground, when venison, duck, pheasant and fish were reminders of what we had put into living.
Falls gave us much of this reward. Hunting gave us life and life well lived for those of us who are hunters. Remembering shotguns like the Winchester model 12 “Heavy Duck” or the Remington 870 (every man’s gun) or when in kneeling reverence you got to hold a L.C. Smith side-by-side 12 gauge and recognize that there is art in gun making. Inglorious common rifles:Winchester 94s, 30-40 Krags, Springfield ‘06s and occasionally something exotic like an 8mm Mauser, all only the implements in hands of honor or misdeed. Nothing more.
Wow! Boys and the excitement of the coming hunting season. At some past Christmas or birthday we had been given the “rite of passage,” a Camp King knife and hatchet combo set, black-handled marvels no less glorious than King Arthur’s Excalibur in the hand of a Knight on the quest for his or her first mighty mule deer. Steel so poor sharpening had no effect on its ability to cut more than a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. The good knives were often made by old millwrights from band or circular saw blades. Dad had an old Western—it did the job admirably.
Transitioning from hunter to successful killer is oft times the undoing of many young deer slayers. Fed on the words of Cooper, Ruark, Hemingway, Roosevelt, countless fathers, grandfathers and other mentors of “the hunt,” learning “the kill” is more than some can bear, and it’s over forever. For some, most maybe, the chase has been fair, the kill clean, and understanding the hunt becomes more clear. To understand life is to understand death...
The philosopher Jose Ortega y Gasset’s outstanding book, “Meditations on Hunting,” speaks of the ecology and anthropology of hunting in an alternative way, worth consideration in today’s world. In hunting, pause to remember place names: creeks, rivers, canyons or mountains that sound like geographical poetry as we speak of them: Birch, Pahsimeroi, Salmon, Slate, Bitch, Rocking Robinson, Rustler’s Roost, Diamond, Panther, Big Horn Crags, Big and Little Lost, Llewelyn, Targhee and Tin Cup. Names hardened in my mind with events of forty years ago as clear as yesterday. We took game; moreover we took time and stored it for the days when happier trails and times were needed.
Red Ray sat on his bar stool, all slicked up in a new denim shirt, pants, polished boots and Silverbelly Stetson. “Went to grade school with Art Linkletter, nicer guy you’ll never meet. Yup, got in touch with him a few years back. Art said “Red, what have you been up to?” “Oh, went ta Idaho huntin’ and then a little cowboyin’ and stayed. Good huntin’, damned hard and lonely cowboyin’.” He sank the eight ball and we settled in for a beer at the Old Railroad Tavern & Café in Leadore. “Ya know kid, two things to remember in life. Never hire a man that rolls his cigarettes or smokes a pipe. They’ll always be rollin’ or lightin’ and another thing, never work for a man with electricity in his barn. He’ll work you to death all day and expect more under electric light at night.” Sound wisdom.
Tavern’s gone now of course. So is Red. Later that same evening he left. “Got me a date up in Salmon.” Ah, the reason for the “dress up” duds. I wandered in to the café part of the establishment and had, truthfully, the greatest plate of steak, potatoes and “fixins” of my life. A woman, worn as an old boot, kept bringing more to my friend and me. Then PIE!
The next morning, antelope everywhere as I sat up in my Oldsmobile, head the size of a watermelon, throbbing, recalling way too much “who hit John” (rot gut whiskey) from later cowboys. That afternoon, fresh from his Salmon date, Red asked, “Ever find those mule deer?”
“No, but I found some stories.”
Red was a horseman. Along with my dear friend Tim he instilled in me a love of horses. Red could turn a bronchy old range horse into winged Pegasus with honorable behavior, simply by touch of hand and calming words. I’ve always envisioned Red riding off into the sunset of some magical canyon like Mahogany and “cashing in,” putting his back to a Lodgepole pine and watching the sun go down over his grazing pony’s back. The dark blue, twilight sky back-lighting the scene, he closes his eyes. His horse returns to the barn. The hired “hands” stand in solemn respect as the empty saddle passes by. No words spoken. Years later, in the movie “Comes a Horseman,” Richard Farnsworth has a similar, Westerner end.
In hunting “being there” is much of the allure, seeing and feeling the pure naturalness as it grows from the ground or walks the trails, adapted in perfect form for life in that landscape. From the sublime we move to the absurd, one of the many humorous snapshots of what hunting is about. Case in point.
Low range, low gear, grinding up a Diamond Creek Mountain, bordered by Wyoming, beaver ponds and BLM land—we were in Paradise. Muleys, spotted with field glasses on a far hill, our approach was uncertain. Serious ground! Inclines as steep as a horse’s face. Up, up, over and around the old vintage Jeep rattled on. As we approached our final destination we spotted it: I don’t believe it, a damned V.W. Beetle! Had I discovered the Zen of hunting? Germanys’ original off-road Safari machine. For years my brother, his International Scout and I encountered that pariah of engineering at the tip top of mountains, chained up plowing snow over the hood. I found solace in knowing the V.W. hunting party was freezing outside and had no hope of warming on the way home, V.W. heaters being what they were.
Idaho has a untold miles of “high lonesome,” country where a breeze can carry pipe tobacco smell for miles and bring images of Darwin smoking Latakia while working on his seminal treatise about all this. The high country gives the best sunsets and range for elk, deer, moose, sage and sharp-tailed grouse and grandeur on an unmatched scale.
A hunter’s life can be blessed with the gift of unforgettable, indelible moments.
My brother “Shorty,” a mountain of a man, had carried me in his arms from boulder to boulder, down Porcupine Ridge overlooking a little ravine below. Polio had altered my ability to get there on my own. Dark, cold and quiet surrounded me. I shrank back and huddled into my old Sears parka. Damn, it was cold! Perhaps after sunrise phantom elk would pass before me. My beloved nephew, Kent, his first year with rifle, sat nearby. We waited. The first lumens of pink light were foreshadowed with black; the lighter it became more black, like a wall in front of me. Maps, locations and my brain have always worked in unison. The TETONS! As the light gained, my breath became less visible, my heart raced. I was seeing the definition of splendor taking shape, filling with color at the tip of a plate-sized sun coming up. I respectfully borrow the line: “Nothing had prepared me for this!” Overwhelmed, awestruck, rapturous, ascendant to God and Glory, inadequate words for a once-in-a-lifetime bit of heaven in an unequaled western landscape.
This is hunting as much as anything, perhaps more; the Tetons as I had never in my thousand viewings seen them. Idaho, these rewards are without equal. A morning opera of profound nature as real as Pavarotti on stage, singing “Nessun Dorma.” Amen.