Hunting season, then and now
Used to be, rifle season was this vast and mysterious stretch of time. Dan would haul to camp nine days worth of meticulously parceled bags of dried food, the clunky tome “Guide to Field Dressing Game Animals,” and enough wool and down garments for a side jaunt to The Yukon. He wouldn’t return until he killed an animal, packed it out, and then helped his buddies do the same. (And unlike many hunters, he packs out the hide, ribs, lower legs, hooves and organ meats). Things are different these days; now he rolls like a dad with a 9 to 5, and time equals both money and my sanity slowly ticking away.
These days the books and extra layers stay home with the camp stove. For eats Dan hefts in a package of cooked bacon, chocolate bars and about 50,000 calories worth of pb & j sandwiches (sometimes consumed together on one big happy sandwich). The other big change is that cell phone rattling around the bottom of his pack. This year I got the call that a cow elk was down before Dan even made the first cut into her still-warm body. Maybe someday he’ll Twitter from Redtail Pass “Cow down. Meet at the truck to help pack meat out.”
Though I like the play-by-play hunting info that the cell phone allows, especially now that we’ve got kids, that old suspense of staring into the autumn-yellow mountains from town and wondering what is happening up there, has been lost to the convenience of not having to wonder. Of course our conversations are brief and crackly and meanwhile unspoken hunting stories pile up like the kid-sized dishes in my sink. There’s the heart-thumping stalking and the wind turning like a traitor and coyote howls ripping the seams of quiet nights and ghosting through the frosty pre-dawn and the killing shot and hefting meat for days and bloody hands and the first bite of fire-cooked meat and a bear making off with a backstrap and receiving the most tangible, ancient paycheck for good, hard, human work. These stories come later.
That first hunting season, ten years ago, we were practically vegetarians. We had both recently—and separately—arrived in Durango after growing up in progressive, coastal cities and receiving college degrees which have since collected dust and student loan interest. Living in the mountain west, we began to unpack our over-stuffed suitcase of beliefs that guns were only for killing people and red meat stole a body’s health.
We were clumsy carnivores at first. Dan’s friend from the steamy restaurant kitchen where he toiled three nights/week, gave us several packages of beef from his family ranch. We took the package labeled “stew meat”—best suited for a slow, juicy simmer—and pan-fried it like a steak. We proudly brought it to our friend’s fondue party, jammed with hippies in her turn-of-the-century, slanted-floor rental and chewed our way through the party, teeth packed with tough, stringy strands of meat.
This was 1999. We had vaguely heard of the internet, though didn’t yet have e-mail addresses. Cell phones were for world leaders and a few Wall Street execs…but weren’t they called pagers then? A blog was slang for the blood left on a log after draping a fresh, ropy backstrap on it.
While Dan was on that first hunt, I trolled the local bookstores for a butchering manual, one that explained where the rump roast resided, how to remove it from the animal’s rear and how to cook that hunk of meat. I bought saran wrap, butcher paper and freezer tape and stared up at the mountain yin yang of dark spruce and yellow aspen, wondering what was happening up there.
I was out (probably at Gardenschwartz hunting store making an employee cringe by eagerly and naively asking if the prized and tender elk backstraps would be good for stewing) when four bloodstained game bags were deposited into our freezer. I came home to a cryptic note from Dan on the kitchen table saying the cow elk he shot should be “pretty good eating” and that he was going back into the woods to help his buddy Dave get an elk. Holy hell! The stories lodged in those two sentences nagged at me for the next three days until Dan returned with dried blood in the cracks of his hands and spruce sap gummed up in his hair.
That first elk turned out to be much more than “pretty good eating.” Our butchering of her was tentative and slow yet developed into an empowering learn-as-you-go task, much like parenting, so that as we approached the last leg with our knives, we felt sort of expertly. We whittled muscle from bone, located that rump roast—gaudy with garnet-colored meat—and piled white packages in the freezer, giddy with celebration and gratitude for this gift of meat, of sustenance, of life. That part certainly hasn’t changed.