"The couch is just asking for it. I mean, look at that thing! How many years of abuse has it taken? There's enough DNA splattered across it to put Monica’s entire wardrobe to shame. Go put it out of its misery.” These were the words of instigation I chose to spew from my mouth to coerce Little Steve into setting her ablaze. He agreed and the fire was lit; to think we would both be graduating a few short months later. Twelve years later and I’ve heard nothing from Little Steve. Last I knew, he had left school to pursue a new career in aviation. Seemed like a smart move, except for the facts that this guy had never even flown on a plane and it was now the post-9/11 era. Ballsy. I remember he liked to shoot ducks, so maybe that gave him enough insight into flying to make this life changing decision.
If there is one thing I can respect in a person, it’s the ability to barrel, head-first, towards a goal while throwing the middle finger to all the nay-sayers hiding in the background, playing it safe. Most people abhor a go-getter; it makes them look a little too deeply into their own lives for comfort. This guy needs to go elk hunting with me.
Through the thick wall of negativity that Facebook emits in our lives, there are a few rays of hope. An old friendship was rekindled and Little Steve and I decided to meet up for an elk hunt here on my stomping grounds in Colorado.
“What should I expect out there?”
“Rain, cold, thunder-snow, and worn-through boot leather. I’m not going to lie to you buddy; the elevation is going to be an ass kicker.”
"So the asthma isn’t going to help my situation, huh?”
“We’re going to be camping above tree line, so you’re lungs are pretty much F’d. That landfill you call a mountain in Delaware doesn't count as above treeline either. More than likely you are going to die out here.”
Steve starts to worry, further egging on my prodding. His training schedule sounds intense enough though, so I figure he’ll only be halfway F'd. Keeping him on edge, every few months I send him a photo of the territory we're going to be roaming. I debate Photoshopping a few climbing harnesses on the elk I see back there, but I figure he has enough to worry about without me harassing him.
"Alright, plane ticket is booked, I cleared out half of Sitka’s warehouse and the wife is knee deep in the kid’s poopy diapers, let's go hunt some deer!"
"We call them elk out here, but alright, let's go hunt some deer."
Back at my home; We dig in 5 miles the first day, taking our time to allow the ocean air to escape Steve's lungs. It does so violently, as he develops a cough that would last the trip. Although, I'm surprised as I watch him out of the corner of my eye. He's keeping up, and what's more he's not complaining about it.
We see some human traffic in the valley, but figure we will escape it in the clouds.
"Where the air thins, so do the people." I tell him with a smirk on my mug. This sagely crock I keep throwing at him is wearing thin on me, I can't imagine what it is doing to him. He takes it in stride, which I figure is only because I am his only way out. Once he figures that he just needs to head downhill to get back to civilization, my cute quips are only going to be heard by the ptarmigans.
We post up at my regular spot. It's really only good for mulies, but on either side of us a few miles out are great lines on avalanche chutes that usually hold elk. We hunker in as the prescribed thunder-snow punishes us for being arrogant enough to sit on top of it's mountain.
"Those nice new clothes of yours are about to get a workout" I tell Steve.
"I was going to wear them while mowing so they wouldn’t look like they came fresh out of the box." he replies shyly.
"Good thinking, nothing says I'm a hardcore backcountry hunter like fresh grass stains on your finely pressed camo."
I think Steve is feeling the pressure of holding up his end of the bargain. In my own way, I’m feeling the same thing. His is to keep up, mine to show him that elk actually live in this land. He's spent a lot of money to be here and I want to make sure he enjoys it. I don't have kids yet, but I can imagine what it's like to have a wife at home with two little terrors filling up diapers while her husband is out playing neanderthal in the woods with his old college cohort. He must have a secret I don’t know about.
We take a beating the day before the opener, but it happens. The golden hour arrives to elk in both afore mentioned spots on our peripherals. A full 35 by my count up on the “Football Field” to the left and two nice sized bulls out to the right in the avalanche shoots.
“Tomorrow we can chase whichever you want.” I say tell him, thinking the decision should be his.
“I’m here because you invited me. If we were in a duck blind in Delaware, I would tell you when, where and most importantly how to shoot. I’d even let you know not to slide the brass end in first. But we’re not in Delaware. I’m a stranger in a strange land and you’re the captain, so it’s on you."
Damn. Solid point. Guess there is no weaseling out of this one, where later I could throw in the quick, “I told you so!” of his terrible, nay laughable choice of location. Sidestepping wasn’t an option, time to man up.
If I didn’t make poor decisions, then I’d never make one. I choose the football field. After seeing Mexican sized family of them the day before, more is better right? Gotta be better odds. They clear out just as the starting whistle for the season begins. We see a few here and there over the next few days but fail to put on a respectable stalk. I know this is the way of west, but I’m not sure Steve is seeing it the same way. With unlimited deer allowed to be taken in his home hunting grounds, he has his selective choice of what animal he wants to take down and which he gives a ‘get out of jail free’ pass. If I can see the hairy ass of an elk throughout the season, I’m in my glory. Different expectations of what determines a successful hunt have ruined hunting partners for many, and I wasn’t sure if we were headed down the same path. My worries are alleviated with Steve’s incessant grins. He is happy just experiencing what this land has to offer, no preconceived notions of walking out of the woods with a state record. Just true happiness with his present situation. I’m remembering why I liked this guy to begin with.
Time moves on and we are getting close to leaving. My neurotic obsession starts to take hold of me. I know that the experience is really what we’re after, but lets face it, “just the experience” can have a bitter taste, at least in the short term. Besides ‘the experience’ involves giving a hurricane sized effort. The last morning Steve gets a good dose of the 100 mph Fred.
“We’re moving. Grab your shit and lets go.”
We’re headed 4 miles further into the deep. I can see his hesitation. We have a chance at two bulls we had seen in the wee hours and it’s time to make a move. Eyes on the prize and let nothing get in the way. We lay out a strategy that would have General Patton giving us a fist bump. I head up the edge of an avey shoot meaning to push into the trail the elk strolled into a few hours ago. Steve would lay ambush on the other side. They were stuck in the timber and we had them pinned.
I tried to keep my sweat to a minimum while grinding up the black diamond ski slope these animals use as their sidewalk. How the hell a 600lb beast can make this look like an easy stroll through a mid-west strip mall, I will never figure out.
I knock an arrow, twist my peep so it aligns just right and take my first step in to the black tunnel of the timber forest. I let my eyes adjust for a minute. One second the sun is promising to burn holes in my retina, the next, it’s a black as a steerstutkis on a moonless night. I let the darkness seep in.
I’ve been creeping through the forest like a thief in the night for the past five days, but this time it is different. Everything goes 3rd person on me, like I’m a fly in the tree looking down at this intruder entering his forest. My ears ring and I’m layered with a thick helping of goose bumps. He’s in here, and he is watching me.
I watch my feet and remember to step with the heel first, then follow through to the toes. All my teenage years of sneaking out of the house finally pay off. Silence: check. Wind: check. Two more steps forward, and oh shit! He’s been there the whole time watching me.
I look up to what should by all rights be a mythological creature. I shot an elk once before, but that was with a rifle. No intimacy, we didn’t look each other in the eye. I wasn’t able to understand the magnitude of this creature at the time. I was in his domain, I was the intruder and I felt it to my core.
Christ! I was terrified. Not that I was going to get hurt, but I knew at that moment that he knew what I was and what I intended to do. And what twisted me up was that he accepted it. How is that for noble? The knowledge of that acceptance was staggering. We both knew our rolls in this chance meeting. There was no guilt for my participation, but I can damn well tell you there was respect.
We acknowledged each other for roughly 450 heart beats… and then he turned. He knew it was time. One last look back at me as I watched my 3 degree helical vanes spiral towards his life support system.
Bone. Lung. Heart. He was gone.
I approached him laying there in the woods. Steve soon followed with a papa bear hug that would have snapped my neck had I not been tensed up from the adrenaline.
“I’m not sure I want to take any pictures of him. It just kind of seems like a dick move.” I said sheepishly.
Little Steve understood the meaning of hunting more than any person I ever met.
“You’re paying your respect by doing it.” was his meaningful reply. I’ve seen and heard this in various iterations over cheesy Facebook posts and magazine articles, but coming from someone I respected and who had dedicated a good part of his life to hunting, it sank home.
Emotions faded as the mechanical work took over of removing the animal from it’s environment and putting it into ours.
"I hope you’re ready for the two hardest days of your life” I grin.
“Every day that I’ve been here has turned into the hardest day of my life, why change it now.” was his only reply.
There was no more scaring him with tales of backbreaking work in the backcountry. Maybe it was time to drop the “Little” from the Little Steve. He earned it.
“Let’s get the hell out of here and go find us some hot springs to soak our bloodied and broken bodies in. Maybe we can find a couch on the way to light on fire.”
- If you like this story and want it in print, you can pick it up in Extreme Elk Magazine, Fall 2015.