Friday, November 18, 2011

The Big Game

Autumn in the high country. And for me, that means some long, full days of fall-gorgeous, super-slow, well-outfitted, and heavily-armed walks in the woods.

And another year of leaving those woods with less meat in the cooler than I went in with.

I'm going to come out of the gun closet here and make a brutally humbling confession: I've been hunting since I was a teen, but I've yet to kill anything more than a six pack around the fire at night.

My dad hunted every year. And I was raised versed in the view that to hunt was to be most Human -- that hunting, and the land we hunted upon, were the two sides of the mould that shaped our ancestors. And us. He lived through the other 50 weeks of his work year in anticipation of that annual pilgrimage to northern New England to put that humanness to use. All I know was that as a kid, those fantastic Fall days following my father across those ancient, worn mountains fed me in a way that had little to do with meat.

I first carried my own weapon into the woods when I was 16. It was a recurve bow (you wouldn't catch my dad, a two-time Massachusetts bare-bow archery state champion, buying his kid one of them damned compound bows), and with that simple weapon, in that first year, I was presented the gift of opportunity. It was a broadside shot at a whitetail at 15 yards. I took that shot, but buck fever took my form, and I was lucky my off-target arrow hit the side of the mountain we were on.

Still, it was a shot, and it was profoundly, primordially exhilarating.

Who knew that, with such a promising beginning, my hunting career would unfold like a redneck version of quarterback Dan Marino's, both of us in our first full seasons on (or in) the field getting our one shot at the Big Game. (Even if mine had four legs.)

Since then, aside from a few years distracted by chasing two-legged does, and another few herding a litter of human fawns, I have mostly been a devoted, determined, persistent -- and utterly unsuccessful -- predator. The reality is, I could be a hunting guide for PETA. Don't worry, folks. No critters will be dying today ...

You'd think, maybe, I'd take a hint: That here is a game -- like, say, professional football -- I am perhaps just fated to play only as spectator. But, like Dan Marino, who played for 16 more years with never returning to the Super Bowl, each Fall, like this Fall, there I am: Rising in the biting pre-dawn cold, bundling in clothes I'll end up hauling around in a pack most of the day, and scrambling for eight or ten hours up, down, and across hillsides, ravines, draws, thickets, and meadows whilst toting a loaded .308 rifle.

For me, "hunting" means basically hiking with a Winchester.

Except … hunting is not like hiking. Or like anything else.

Hunting -- in contrast to hiking, biking, skiing, four-wheeling, or however else we usually commune with the backcountry -- requires a uniquely rich and distinctively demanding moving across the land. It is richly sensuous. And deliberate -- painfully deliberate, in a way that is both exhausting and richly invigorating. It engages every aspect of your being -- body and senses and thinking, as well as the non-thinking, intuitive mind. And it employs those in unison, in collaboration, over long periods of slow, precise movement interspersed with long periods of thorough stillness.

Hunting is absolute and unrelenting attention to the immediate. For hours. And hours. With a presence that is charged -- and challenged -- by the extreme physical demands of both moving quietly across a rugged landscape and just sitting silently, seeking to become just another still part of that still landscape.

And all that time, the ancient art of stalking prey fires the intake valves of the senses and the data-processing center of the brain -- for which they were created -- so they hum in steady synchronization, finding a shared rhythm that is rarely, if ever, achieved in the sense-sucking, attention-atrophying, distraction-driven, news-infusing landscapes of our modern-day lives.

So … maybe I continue to return to the field each Fall, in the face of repeated failure, to get what my ancestors needed from hunting, and because of my success in getting what I need from hunting here in the 21st century: Less news, more knows. Maybe, like the Hall of Famer Marino, who every Fall got back on the football field despite year after year of watching the Big Game from the stands, I just love to play game.

Still … a freezer full of elk wouldn't suck.

Read or share this on the Durango Telegraph's site here.

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