Loving (and living) the effort
Goodness. Did I leave you hanging? Pregnant dogs, elk hunting and banned books?
The night before we left for hunting, after reading to the kids and turning off their light, I lifted Sunny out of Col’s bed and noticed a translucent sac bulging out of her. Holy Game On. It was like rewinding a movie – the lights flipped on, the kids jumped out of bed, and we all gathered on the couch in the living room whispering like a semi-deaf family, “HEY – WHAT’S HAPPENING NOW?” as Sunny panted and heaved in the cave of her kennel.
The first baby was born immediately. Within minutes Sunny had vanished its amniotic sac, placenta and umbilical cord. “She’s stimulizing it!” Rosie cried proudly about how Sunny was scrubbing that white furry bean vigorously with her tongue. But that didn’t wake her baby up. It had been born dead.
By morning—after broken snatches of sleep, Dan and I meeting in the night-blackened living room with head lamps trying to make sense of things, Dan reporting groggily, “I removed the third puppy, around 1am, born dead,” and my hope sinking, noting, “the second baby hasn’t nursed yet and I’m worried,”—there were two living puppies, two dead puppies, and one yet to be born.
Four hours later, after a whirlwind of packing, decision-making, puppy-snuggling, puppy-fretting, vet-consulting, child-soothing and coffee-dosing, Dan and I drove into the mountains for our hunting trip, leaving Sunny in the care of Erin, who runs the rescue program from where Sunny came.
One of my favorite parts of hunting is walking up the steep road in the pre-dawn. The full moon shines a spotlight on the rock-jumbled path. The rifle doesn’t yet feel as heavy as it will become five hours later. I am filled with the irrepressible hope of a new day, of new effort, of new possibilities (and the fervent wish that someone would develop a bifurcated camelback, one side for water, one for coffee). The moon fades and for a brief moment the stars are thrown like glitter into the sky. Next, the sunrise pinks up the horizon, and it’s like every celestial being is contributing its particular sound to the canvas of the sky.
Then we’re at the top of the pass and the first light of morning pours over gulches and ridges and the view is terrifying and beautiful and everything becomes very real. Real, as in, I’m here to kill an elk, and part of me is horrified to do this, while another part of me is horrified not to.
Here is where I feel for Dan as my partner and coach. There must be a more uncomplicated, stalwart way to approach hunting. Last year I cried because I killed an elk and was heartbroken about duping this wild animal with our human cunning and high-powered weapon. This year I cried because I felt impotent pitted against the super-flexed senses of these same animals whose instincts—whose very existence—is inextricable from the steep gulches and high ridges they haunt. I will always just be a visitor.
From what we call “the phone booth”—where you can look down on town from 10,700 feet and ponder that while you’ve been following the musky scent of elk pee, the rest of your community is continuing on as per usual—I received texts letting me know that Sunny had lost all but one puppy, a boy who was nursing like it was his profession.
Life as per usual.
I didn’t kill an animal. I took the safety off the rifle twice. Once, hide and antlers tornadoed past my scope, my own heartbeat surging. The other time, the sun turned the perfect view of a broadside cow elk to a nebulous glare in my scope.
I was attached to the story that if you put in enough effort you will reach your goal, which is romantic, uplifting and makes for great motivational quotes. But between huffing up to the pass at first light and returning to camp empty-handed save for the cumbersome rifle, I learned something else.
I learned to love the effort, the setting out at dark, the composting of yesterday’s loss into today’s willingness, the outrageous plans we hatched to follow the elk there, the exertion of my own 44-year old body, the spying of coyotes and the sounds of owls, the quest itself.
Ghandi says “Satisfaction lies in the effort, not the attainment. Full victory is full effort.”
Our last morning’s breakfast, a leisurely feast, rather than the gulping of granola in the rushed dark.
There is the gift of meat, and there are other gifts, too. I got to spend three days walking on this wild earth focused on a quest so elemental, stripped of my usual human complexities. And as I packed up on the last morning, wishing I was hefting an elk leg on my back, I thought, “Well, there’s always next year.”
Beni is Sunny’s remaining puppy, which means blessed in French. The duo has been living with Erin, who runs the animal rescue program and stepped in graciously while we were hunting. They’re both doing fabulously.
All the love,