I Love You and So Does the Lord

I love you and so does the Lord.  

This expression came to me from my best friend, who has been saying it to me for almost thirteen years now.  It started as a light-hearted way to end a phone conversation or to break the tension during a discussion of a serious topic.  It’s also something we both take very seriously because we know that both of these things are true, we love each other and God loves us.

However, this expression has become something more to me over the years. It’s become my verbal weapon of choice. Whenever someone says something mean or hurtful, I try to respond with, “I love you, and so does the Lord.”  Most of the time I even mean it, though I admit, not every time.  Sometimes it is simply a defense mechanism designed to keep me from losing it.  

It doesn’t always diffuse the situation, in fact, it has enraged one or two people through the years.  It does, however, make me feel better every single time.  Knowing that I responded to anger, or worse, hatred, with love, enlarges my heart and gives me peace of mind.  Not only can I not control other people’s actions, but I am not responsible for them.  I am only responsible for my own actions, I am completely in control of my actions, and therefore I have a duty to act in the most honorable way possible.

Do I sometimes fail?  Yes, I often fail.  It’s easy to make excuses for acting inappropriately when you’re angry, but there is nothing to really excuse failing to act in a way that is in alignment with what you know to be true.  

Whether it is hateful comments from animal rights activists, an angry political comment or simply a rude person at Walmart, “I love you and so does the Lord.”

The Elk Hunt Ruled by Murphy's Law

It all began innocently enough, with a boy in Southern Indiana watching Jeremiah Johnson on a cold winter’s day. However, twenty-three years later, attempting to make a Colorado mountain elk hunt a reality was getting more difficult by the day. I didn’t even know what I didn’t know.

I started from scratch. I didn’t start hunting until I was an adult and even then, it was Indiana and Kentucky white tail. I didn’t even own a rifle when I moved to Colorado last year. All I had was a desire to go hunt elk in the mountains and hours of time in the car spent listening to Randy Newberg’s podcasts. 

Over the last year I collected all the gear I would need. I began scouting using OnX maps online and a paper topo map of the Game Management Unit I planned to hunt that I picked up at Bass Pro Shop. I thought, with a few suggestions from a new friend, that I had a pretty solid game plan.  Between having a third rifle season bull tag and a fourth rifle season cow tag, I was planning on being successful in bringing home some meat. However, bringing meat home wasn’t going to be a requirement of having a great hunt. I was just happy I was going to be out there doing it after dreaming about it for all those years.

The first thing to go wrong was my friend telling me he was not going with me for third season.  So, I was elk hunting for the first time on my own. At this point, I decided I would just go for half the season, see what I could get into or learn and hang on until he got up there for fourth season.  Then, the night before I was to leave, he texted me new GPS coordinates and told me his buddies had just tagged out in this other location where there were a ton of elk and very few other hunters around. He asked me to go grab their campsite and hold it down for him. I reluctantly agreed.

It was a four-and-a-half-hour drive to northwest Colorado. I really enjoyed the drive through new country, listening to country music and a couple podcasts. It was without incident up until the last mile and a half where I got stuck in some nasty mud, on the side of a mountain. I had no cell service, but I had my Garmin InReach and I sent a text to my friend and my wife. I started up the mountain to hike the last mile and a half and try to reach the guys at camp, but I could not find them. I tried the truck again, but I just made it worse. So, I decided to hike back down the mountain towards one of the ranches I saw on the drive in.

After walking a couple miles, I came to the first ranch. I reluctantly climbed the fence and walked the half-mile driveway to the house. I yelled from the drive since I didn’t expect that they get too many drop-ins, but no one was home. I walked out and continued on. After a couple more miles, I came within sight of a house that had a truck in the drive and dogs running around outside. No sooner than I noticed this, a hunter in a side-by-side drove by and I filled him in on my predicament. His name was Dave and he drove me to the house, where he knew the owner, Jack, and Jack let me come inside to warm up and call AAA.  

The man at AAA said he could get someone out to me. Jack had to go to work, so I thanked him, and Dave drove me the five miles back to my truck. Not long after, the two guys I was supposed to meet, Bercerra and Julio, came down to see what was going on. I was blocking the road, so they had an incentive to help me get unstuck. I used my Garmin to text with my wife and have her call AAA and check on the status. The guy who they were going to send to help me flat out refused to go, so Bercerra, Julio and I began trying to dig me out.

It took almost three hours to dig me out, put the snow chains on the rear tires and get started trying to get me out. Thanks to Bercerra guiding me, I was able to get away from the ledge and up against the mountain on the other side of the road where there was a nice rut. Bercerra guided me as I drove in reverse about a quarter mile down the mountain until I got to a spot where I could get turned around. From there, I followed the guys down the muddy two-track and texted my wife who told me that AAA had called Search and Rescue. I had her call them back to cancel, assuring them that I was okay, and I was going to town to get a shower to wash the mud off of me.

I tried to regroup that night and planned to head up to my Plan A spot the next morning. I had a warm dinner, got an okay night’s sleep and got up before dawn to head to the campground.  When I got to the campground, I immediately slid off the road and had to have a couple of nearby hunters pull me out. I then found the first available campsite and began setting up. After a couple of hours, I was ready to hit the woods. However, as I was getting ready I had a chat with a hunter from Mississippi who had tagged out. He told me the elk were all heading down onto private land. I thanked him for the head’s up, but set out for the woods anyhow.  

Six hours of walking around in six- to eight-inches of snow and I saw mule deer sign and small game sign, but I did not see one piece of elk sign. I gave up for the day and went back to my tent to read my Bible and try to regain my composure. After some soul searching and contemplation, I thought the right thing to do was to go home, regroup and then come back for fourth season where I could hook up with my friend, so that’s what I planned to do. The next morning when I tore down camp, the campground that was full the day before was almost empty. I thought for sure that was a sign I was doing the right thing.

Of all the mistakes and all the bad luck, that was my biggest mistake. I should have stayed there, at least a couple more days. I should have continued exploring the area, especially since I was going to have the area to myself. But if I’m being honest, after being stranded on the side of a mountain alone and not knowing how I was going to get down for the better part of the day, I think I was ready for the safety of having other people around.  

During the three days I was home, I poured over OnX looking for places to go on public land at lower elevation where elk might be. I thought I had a spot found that had water, lower elevation and food, but I forgot to look for cover. The place I had picked, which I couldn’t really tell by the satellite view, was all sage brush. Ignorantly and excitedly, I packed up the truck again and headed up to northwest Colorado.  

When I was driving into the BLM land, I knew I had screwed up. Mule deer were everywhere and I saw a lot of pronghorn, but it didn’t look good for elk. I drove from hilltop to hilltop, stopping, getting out and glassing everywhere I could. In that territory, an elk herd would be easy to see. There were none. 

My friend, who all year I had thought I would be able to rely on, decided to go to the spot where I had gotten stuck and the road where he knew I had no interest in attempting again. So, I was on my own again. Perhaps the first mistake I’d made is assuming he would make the same decisions I would. He has meat in the freezer from last year and he shot a 6x6 bull during first rifle season. If the shoe was on the other foot, my priority would be to help the new hunter, not pursue a cow for myself when I have two elk in the freezer already. This is not to say he owes me anything, he does not; but I apparently did not make it clear to him that I needed his help. If I would have been more up front about expectations, he could have set me straight and I could have dealt with it beforehand, rather than on the fly.

Now I’ve spent the entire afternoon glassing this sagebrush area and there’s no elk to be found for miles. Once again, I feel defeated and demoralized. I feel like I can’t catch a break. I looked at OnX and couldn’t find any other place to go other than the places I’ve already been. In hindsight, I would go back to the campground that I had left a few days prior, but the non-stop bad luck and bonehead mistakes wore me down. I decided to make my way home again. Though the bad luck would continue as my truck was hit by a large mule deer on the way out and then I met one of Wyoming’s finest on I-80 just west of Laramie.  

I learned a lot over that week. I learned that although solitude is important, it’s much better to suffer with a friend or family member. I learned to not let doubt influence my decision making too much, and to have confidence in the abilities I know I have already, such as orienteering. Most importantly, I’ve learned that I have even more to learn than I already knew I did.  

Elk hunting is hard for anyone, let alone someone who has never done it before and is striking off on their own. In spite of everything, I’m more determined than ever to do it again next year but do it better. I knew I was going to learn a few lessons. I expected different lessons, but nonetheless, I gained a lot from the experience and I’m excited to start thinking about next year. 

 

 

Forgiveness in the Field

Inspired by this recent post by Brody Henderson as well as recent sermons from my church, Flatirons Community Church in Lafayette, CO available on YouTube here.

 

As hunters there is a lot of pressure on us to not make mistakes. Both self-imposed ethically and also, the consequences in the age of social media are serious, not just to us, but when one of us screws up, it affects all of us.  In spite of that pressure, and perhaps occasionally, because of that pressure, we all make mistakes. Some mistakes are bigger than others and some consequences are bigger than others, but we’re all going to fail at times.  

It’s also important to remember to forgive yourself, which is often more difficult than forgiving others.  

After my elk hunt this year, I find myself forgiving my friend for not making the same decisions I would have made if roles were reversed.   Also, I’m trying to forgive myself for cutting out of my second camp earlier than I should. 

Even in forgiving my friend, I feel the need to forgive myself.  It was my assumptions and not his words that got me into the mess I was in.  He never committed to helping me, he only said I could tag along.  I should have known better.  I should have set clear expectations with him earlier so I could have made other arrangements.  It’s not fair to him to expect him to make the same decisions I would have made.  

Mostly though, I need to forgive myself for abandoning my second camp when I did.  I let the circumstances of attempting to get to my first camp irrationally influence my decision making regarding the second camp.  When all the hunters pulled out and left, when several of them told me the elk were doing the same, I allowed that to justify my fear of being out there alone and decided I too should pack up and leave.  I should have stayed there.  I should have trusted my ability to survive in the extreme cold.  I should have trusted my orienteering skills and my Garmin GPS as a back-up.  I should have spent at least a couple days wandering through the woods looking for elk.  

After getting stuck on the side of a mountain, miles from the next person the day before, my fear was understandable.  However, that fear was something to be conquered, not something to be conquered by.  That night was the first night I had ever spent alone camping and it got down to zero that night…

…and I was fine.  That should have buoyed my confidence.

This trip also finds me trying to forgive an unknown hunter.  While glassing some sagebrush I came across a dead 3x4 mule deer buck.  He hadn’t been dead long, there was steam coming from his body cavity and he was still in rigor.  The shot placement might have been a bit low, but it wasn’t that bad, he couldn’t have run that far after being shot.  However, there he laid, and there was not another hunter around me for twenty miles. If he’d been shot late the night before, he should have been tracked the next morning.  If the hunter had come upon him, already chewed up by coyotes, they still should have punched their tag.  Maybe this hunter couldn’t find him and did the right thing by punching their tag, but the feeling in my gut is this deer should have been found (you could have pulled your truck within 100 yards of it).  However, after a certain point, anger serves no purpose, I am choosing to give this hunter the benefit of the doubt and forgive them.

At the end of the day, forgiveness means you’ve learned a lesson.  One you hopefully won’t make again.  Whether it is forgiving yourself, or needing to forgive someone else, you’ve walked away from the situation wiser than you were before. This isn’t just good for you, it’s good for all of us.

Life is All About Conflict

Once upon a time, life was nothing but conflict and struggle. Struggle to keep yourself and your children alive, struggle to find food, struggle with disease, struggle to stay warm and dry in the winter, just struggle and more struggle.  In modern times, we’ve solved many of these issues that we dealt with for thousands of years but what we cannot solve is the fact that we’ve evolved to overcome adversity.  If there is no adversity to overcome, we need to create it.  This is why many people run marathons, do crossfit, take incredibly challenging jobs and this is why many people hunt.  These people have found healthy outlets for their need to struggle.  However, there is a growing segment in our society that wants to deny their nature. I won’t go into all the areas where this is happening, because you could write a book about it, but there is a general emptiness and unhappiness that resonates from people who deny their nature in the name of “progress” or modern times.  Sometimes their goals are well intended, but you don’t undo hundreds of thousands of years of evolution just by saying, “this isn’t the way it should be” and then getting mad at those who don’t comply and calling them nasty names.

There is infinitely more peace and freedom in accepting your nature than in trying to deny it.  

Paraphrasing John Lennon, peace is here if you want it.  I don’t mean it in the same way he did, I don’t have the same faith in human nature that I think we will end all wars, but I do think internal peace is here if you want it.  And who knows, maybe if more people find that internal peace, we can end all wars. But you have to have some peace in your own heart before you can make peace out in the world.

We crave that conflict and struggle.  But instead of looking inward for conflict, we glue our eyes to social media to find out what crazy thing Donald Trump or Maxine Waters has said today so that we can get outraged.  We crave those dopamine hits from the anticipation of our anger no differently than a drug addict or porn addict crave their next hit.  We focus on the brokenness of the world so that we don’t have to face the brokenness of our own hearts and lives.

Life is about conflict, but you have the choice of where to go to battle. You can go to war with the world and you will continue to struggle and never get ahead.  You will never find peace because you will never conquer the world, in fact you will only sew hatred and vitriol as you fail at saving the world.  Or, you can go to war with your own heart.  You can heal yourself, find your true nature and embrace it, becoming a happier, more loving and better human being.  Not only will your life improve, but you will improve the lives of the people around you.  

I cannot tell you what this looks like for you, only that I can easily tell the difference between those who go to war with the world and those that go to war with themselves.  I can tell you to look at biology, evolution and history for clues, but there are too many variables and one size does not fit all.  I can tell you that all human beings are spiritual creatures and you should pursue that, but, in spite of my own beliefs, I cannot tell you which path to take.  I can tell you that you should put down the phone and turn off the TV and the laptop every now and again.  It’s good to ingest as much knowledge as possible, but unless you spend some quiet time in reflection, your ideas are not truly your own, but rather a regurgitation of something you heard or read somewhere.  Go get quiet and make up your own damn mind.

I can also tell you that while you alone cannot change the world, you can change the world around you.  Redirect some of that energy you spend on politics or sports on your children, your spouse and your friends and family.  Your relationships will improve which will provide you with a happier and more emotionally stable life.  

Hunting is one way I exercise my true nature.

Hunting is as human as sex.  Those who would tell us to give up hunting are the same ones constantly pushing sex in our faces.  Sex is part of being human, it’s part of being a mammal, but so is hunting.  We are, thanks to technology, more often predators today than prey, but sometimes, we’re still prey.  I live in bear country, but every time I go off into the mountains and sleep in a tent, I inevitably hear from multiple people, “Aren’t you afraid of bears or wolves?”  Usually I answer, “no”, but this hunting trip I’m about to go on, I have to admit that I am a little afraid.  If all goes well, I will have an elk on the ground and I will be focusing on dressing and butchering it to pack out.  Bears are looking for one last meal before hibernation and it doesn’t get much better than a dead elk.

That fear makes me feel human.  And feeling human, truly human, is one of the most liberating feelings there is.  Rather than running from that fear, or letting that fear control my life, I am embracing that fear.  When I am in the mountains with bears and wolves, I am at the place in the food chain God intended me to be.  I am not in some high-rise apartment in New York protected by armed guards having my food delivered to me.  I am taking risks that others cannot or will not take and because of that, I will have rewards that others will not reap.  

I’m not really much of a 21st century man, but I’m trying to be where it makes sense.  My wife is currently the breadwinner in our family and I do my best to support her.  I usually am the one who quits work early to pick up our daughter and my ego is not bruised by any of this.  However, though I pray I never have a need to, I will not hesitate to resort to violence if necessary to protect my family.  I will leave my family for a period of time to go hunt.  I will be the Christian leader of the household God calls me to be.  Not everything that has been done for eons needs to be replaced.  In fact, I’d argue, we need to keep tweaking how we do things, but in America at least, I wouldn’t call for an overhaul of any institution or cultural more.  

Conflict is natural.  Conflict can be good.  Conflict, when handled properly, is how things grow.  So, the question you have to ask yourself is, “Am I engaging in conflict that is going to make me be a better person?  Or, is the conflict I’m engaged in really only designed to make me appear like I’m already a good person?”

Everyone Has Faith in Something, Even if That Something is Nothing

In my last post, I used a phrase I find myself using a lot these days, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.”  But what is evidence?  There’s empirical evidence and there’s spiritual evidence.  This is not to say that what I feel is scientific evidence, it is definitely not.  Feelings are not facts.  However, when there is a lack of empirical evidence and you’re putting your faith either in the existence of something greater or putting your faith in the presumption there isn’t something greater, what are you looking at to push you one direction or another?

Some people find it easier to believe in nothing because there is no evidence to show that there is something greater.  I get that, because “seeing is believing” is definitely easier.  We can’t see gravity itself, but we can see the effects of gravity, therefore we know it is real.  That is how I feel about the existence of God.  All the hard sciences are just studies of the universe God made and quite frankly, evolution is a much more powerful creation story than what you find in Genesis.  I know all the arguments, I love evolutionary biology, I find studying the way God made the world to be endlessly fascinating.  If Genesis was a biology text book, it’d be boring, but it’s a spiritual text book.  How God actually created the universe is such a wonderful example of what God is capable of that’s well beyond our human means of understanding.  

What I ask is, when you’re looking out onto a Pacific sunset, or watching the sun rise over the mountains, or see a baby calf nursing on her mother, when you look at your child, when you see all the beauty and love this world has to offer, don’t you feel something?  I know it’s easy to say that’s just an emotion, but why do you think you feel this way?  What is the evolutionary purpose for appreciating beauty and feeling connected to it?  Is it scary to think there may be something bigger behind your soul?

Forget Christianity for a minute.  Forget all organized religion.  Just walk into the woods, walk up a mountain, and look out on a magnificent vista.  Tell me we’re alone as intelligent, spiritual creatures.  I dare you.  I don’t think anyone being honest can do that.  You can believe in something greater or not, but every human is an agnostic because we don’t know, we believe in something or we believe in nothing, but not one of us, at least for the last 2,000 years knows scientifically.  This is the very purpose of faith.

Almost everyone has faith (I’m allowing for a few poor souls who may not). Faith that the sun will come up tomorrow.  Faith that their spouse is being the person they claim to be.  Faith that our children will grow up to be good people. Sometimes that faith is not rewarded, but we still have it until we choose not to have it anymore.  Maybe one day science will be able to prove that God doesn’t exist.  If that’s the case, I’m sure there will be a lot of folks who lose faith, but until that day, we’ll keep it.  And I highly doubt that it will ever be able to be proven or disproven, but I have been wrong before and there’s a good chance I could be wrong again someday.

For several years, I tried to let my doubts take over.  I tried to let my logical, data driven mind rule my consciousness.  I really tried hard.  However, when I went into the mountains, when I got away from my fellow man in the urban centers and looked up at the stars in a clear sky, I knew in my heart I was wrong. I tried to block it out, but it was way more powerful than me.  I realized that the choice I was making was no choice at all, but simply trying to ignore what I knew to be true.  I think people do this every day, not just in regard to the existence of God, but people ignore all kinds of things they know to be true because they don’t want them to be true.  

Ultimately, faith is a choice and it’s one you have to make on your own.  No parent, no pastor, no astrophysicist, no blogger can make this decision for you.  I just implore you to go spend a couple days in the wilderness, turn off your phone, quiet your mind and see what you can connect to.  We spend our lives so connected to so much that sometimes the most important connection we can make gets crowded out by thousands of insignificant little things.  No matter what you choose, take a minute and reprioritize your connections, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain.

The Build Up - Dealing with Anxiety

There is a lot of media out there about preparing for hunting season. There are videos on gear, articles on techniques and podcasts on scouting.  The thing no one addresses, at least directly, is the anxiety.  

Anxiety over the fact that what you’ve waited for all year is finally coming. Anxiety about taking time off from work and away from your family.  Anxiety about the weather and what you’ll have to deal with.  Anxiety about if you’ll see any animals.  Anxiety about sleeping cold because the national forest still has a fire ban in effect.  Anxiety about finding a campsite because you hunt public lands.  Anxiety, anxiety, anxiety.

I am supposed to do a dry run this weekend with my buddy.  He has a first season rifle tag for elk and I was going to drive up, go along with him and help him out while getting outside for a couple of days to hunt.  The weather doesn’t look like it’s going to cooperate.  I drive a Ford Focus, I am afraid if I get in there, I won’t be able to get out.   This is driving me crazy.  I will call the rangers the day before and ask their opinion about this weekend, but as far as my hunting season coming up in November, I just broke down and rented a full-size pickup for twelve days.  I hated spending the money, but it’s now one less thing causing me anxiety.

My situation is exacerbated by the fact I am putting so much pressure on myself to come home with meat.  One, this is just my personality, I’m hard on myself.  Two, as I’ve written, this hunt is almost a lifetime in the making. Three, finally, I’ve spent a lot of time and money to do this and if I come home without meat, I’ll feel like I’m letting my family down.  That one is the one that drives me the most.

There are only two cures for anxiety: excitement and preparedness.

Of course, I’m excited.  I’m also thinking positive.  Much like Janis Putelis of the MeatEater crew who believes that a positive attitude will help you have a more successful hunt, I think staying positive will help you make better decisions, stay in the field longer, and most importantly, enjoy yourself while you’re out there no matter how difficult it is.  The flipside of looking forward to this for many years is I’m very, very excited and I can’t wait to get out there.

Being prepared takes a lot more work, but it too can be part of the excitement. Okay, so renting a truck is not that exciting, but I miss driving a truck and I’ve never owned a truck anywhere near brand new, so I’m looking forward to driving a new, full-size truck for a week or so.  I’ve been pouring over both paper maps and OnX Maps online getting a feel for where I’m going.  I’ve always loved maps, so this is fun for me.  Every minute I spend preparing causes me to mentally travel through time to the hunt and I’d rather be thinking about hunting than work or any other every day stress.

What’s not so fun is making a list of everything I’ll need for the trip and checking it three times.  Or planning all my meals out.  It’s annoying, but it is necessary and knowing that it’s done and correct puts some of my anxiety at ease.  

All you can do is all you can do.  At some point you have to let go.  I probably won’t reach that point until I’m up there and I have camp set up. Only then will I be able to take a deep breath and settle in for the adventure.  

I’ll post more on my process as the next few weeks go by.  I plan on filming my hunt, so there will be an added layer of pressure for me, but I have low expectations for myself.  It’s all about documenting my first elk hunt so that, just like this blog, I can share the experience with others who have never done it or who never had to figure it out on their own.  

Where It All Began & Where I Am Now

Since starting Mountain Climer, I have done my best to focus on spirituality and ethics, but those topics can bleed into a number of different areas. I have also tried not to make this all about me, though admittedly, these are my thoughts and opinions and I can only speak from my own experience.  But largely, I have tried to not make this blog self-centered.  

That’s going to change… a little bit.

I’m still going to keep focused on spirituality and ethics, however, I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t share my story.  Mountain Climer in and of itself represents a journey, but it’s also a part of my overall journey.

 

Where It All Began

 

I am an adult onset hunter.  I had interest in hunting, fishing and bush craft as a kid but I had no one to mentor me and show me the way.  I spent as much time as I could in the woods, even joining Boy Scouts when I was twelve and I enjoyed that for about a year before a new scoutmaster changed the direction of our troop from outdoors to indoors.  

I have always been a voracious reader, especially American history. When I roamed the woods with my BB gun and my dog, I pretended to be Daniel Boone or some other early American explorer.  I always dreamed of walking into the woods, building a crude shelter and living off of the land for a while.

Then, when I was in high school, I had gone on to other pursuits, including playing in bands.  However, there were two films that I saw during those years that really stuck with me and put a burning desire for the Rockies in my soul: A River Runs Through It and Jeremiah Johnson.

I really don’t remember how I came across A River Runs Through It, I believe it was when I was sixteen and working at Blockbuster and it just happened to be one of hundreds of movies I took home during the two stints I worked there.  The imagery and the story both captured my imagination.  Even now, twenty-two years or so later I can’t fully explain why it fascinated me so, but I longed of going to Montana and learning to fly fish and I have loved trout ever since.

The first time I saw Jeremiah Johnson though was unforgettable.  It was Christmas break of my sophomore year of high school, I was fifteen and there was a significant amount of snow on the ground for Indiana. I got into a fight with my dad, as teenage boys are known to do, and I decided to walk to my friends’ house across town.  At the time, especially in the snow, it seemed like a long trek, Google Maps now tell me it was 4.5 miles, but in the days before cell phones, I had no idea if my friends would even be home when I got there.  

About halfway to their house, I was cold and tired.  I decided to stop at this girl’s house that I knew from school. We weren’t particularly close, but we ran in the same circle and her house was convenient.  I rang her doorbell and her dad answered the door. He told me she wasn’t home, but he could see that I walked and invited me in to warm up.  He said he was just sitting down to watch Jeremiah Johnson and I was welcome to stay and watch it with him.  I told him I’d stay for a bit, but might not stay for the whole movie as I was anxious to get to my friends’ house.  

I stayed for the whole movie.

As has often been the case in my life, I wanted to go back in time and live in a different era.  I knew it was a hard life, but I wanted to test myself like those folks did.  I wanted to roam the Rockies in search of furs and meat and live off the hard land.  I knew one day, though I may not live off of it, I would live near the mountains and traipse through them with my rifle looking for meat and furs.  

 

Where I Am Today

 

I live in Colorado.  Over twenty years later and that’s as close as I’ve gotten.  I’ve hunted small game and I’ve hunted whitetails in Michigan, Indiana and Kentucky, but this coming year is my first year in the mountains. I’m still greatly handicapped by my lack of experience and my lack of funds.  I drive a Ford Focus and at this point, I have no idea when I am going to be able to afford a four-wheel drive vehicle so I am at the mercy of my friends when it comes to hunting in the mountains.  That’s okay, for now I’ll beg to tag along with folks or borrow a truck and someday, after we buy a house, I’ll buy a used four-wheel drive truck to get me up into the mountains.  Or more importantly, a truck to get me out of the mountains.

This life is a journey.  There are a lot of things I wish I was better at or farther along on, but I’ve made my own decisions and as Frank sang, “I did it my way.”  No excuses, no regrets.  

Most importantly, I’m excited for what’s next and what’s after that.  

Fathers in the Field

Somewhere around my mid-twenties, I started thinking about volunteering with Big Brothers and Big Sisters (BBBS).  I am not sure why I didn’t do it then, perhaps I was afraid, perhaps it was because we were still fairly nomadic or perhaps it was because I knew I wasn’t ready yet.  No matter the reason, by the time I hit my mid-thirties, I wanted to do it.  I went through the lengthy process to become a “Big” and the good folks at Big Brothers-Big Sisters, Los Angeles matched me up with A.J. and we’ve been friends ever since.  The two years we had together were one of the best things I’ve ever done and even though I moved away, we’re still in touch and I will always be a friend to him.

As great as I think BBBS is, I found it limiting in some ways and also, there wasn’t great support.  I had some really great Match Support Specialists in our two years, but I had a couple crappy ones as well, fortunately A.J. and I connected and his mom was awesome in that she was supportive, helped when I needed it but otherwise left us to our own devices.  I also wasn’t sure I wanted to mentor another kid because I still wanted to be in A.J.’s life, even if one thousand miles away.

All that having been said, I will never stop believing that fathers are important and I will never stop fighting against this cultural attack on men and fatherhood.  As a society, we are focused on raising strong girls, which I not only support but am doing every single day (even if our more traditional values are at odds with society’s), but boys are getting left behind by being told they aren’t important, or that they’re “toxic” and that they don’t need a dad nor do they need to be one.  So, several months ago, I signed up with a wonderful program administered through our church called, Fathers in the Field.

Fathers in the Field is a faith-based mentoring program for fatherless boys and is much more intense than BBBS.  This is intentional.  BBBS required two contacts a month for a few hours at a time.  Fathers in the Field requires weekly contacts and requires two of those contacts be trips to church and one being a service project, preferably for an elderly woman (it has to be helping people, it can’t be highway cleanup). Unlike BBBS, these boys are not allowed in the program if they have a man in their life, meaning if their mom has a live-in boyfriend, they’re not allowed in the program.  While not all of these men are going to mentor the boy, the idea is that they should and the program doesn’t want to stand in the way of that.  

I’ve written about nature as a healer and I’ve written about the fact that while the outdoors is not a “male” space, it can be a great avenue for male bonding nonetheless.  There’s a lot of real-life knowledge that be gained from the outdoors, for both boys and girls, but the outdoors also provides opportunities for certain life lessons that boys need to receive from other men.  Fatherless boys are also in need of healing and sometimes being able to get away from other people and all the trappings of civilization allows those things to be brought to the surface so that they can let God into their hearts to heal them.  

This morning, after church, I’m going to meet my Field Buddy.  While this is a meet and greet and both he and I (and his mom) have the right to veto the pairing at this point, this is usually nothing more than a formality.  All I know is his name is Robert and he is 14.  I’m nervous, I don’t know anything about what this kid has been through, but I’m excited because I’m looking forward to being able to take this kid to the gun range, on hikes, fishing, small game hunting and eventually, big game hunting. I also know, for all my faults, I have a lot to give to a kid who doesn’t have anyone else to receive it from.

Wish me luck, and if you’re so inclined, say a prayer for us.  

 

Fathers in the Field is a nationwide program, if you’re interested in getting involved, please contact your church and/or the national Fathers in the Field office at www.fathersinthefield.com

Hillbilly Harvest - The Story of My First Kill

Recently, my buddy Sam posted to social media about his first game kill and only a few days later he got his first deer.  I was over-the-moon for him because he grew up in the city and found bowhunting as an adult and he has put his heart and soul into not only archery and hunting, but conservation as well.  While far from identical, our stories overlap enough that I feel invested in his success just by rooting for him and staying up to date with his journey.

Reading his thoughts about his first successes in hunting lead me to thinking about all the animals I’ve killed and how I felt about the two, less than normal, experiences I had with my first kills.

My first hunting experiences were coon hunting in the thumb of Michigan with my buddy Clark and his friend Blaine.  Blaine had two coon dogs which we’d let loose on some sugar beet farm and the three of us would traipse through the woods, in the dark, one of us carrying a .22 and the other two of us carrying beers.  The rule was every man got three shots, whether it was three misses or three kills, after three shots, you handed the rifle to the next man up. I killed dozens of raccoons on these trips to Michigan and to this day, I don’t think there’s a way to have more fun in the world than coon hunting like that.  

I have to admit, I didn’t feel a whole lot when I killed raccoons.  We were essentially performing pest control services for the local farmers and the pelts we brought in went in with the pelts Blaine got trapping and that supplemented his income in the middle of the recession.  The first one I killed, I felt something, but it was nothing more than a twinge of sadness.  Raccoons are nasty animals and after I saw them get tangled up with Blaine’s dogs, I had no regrets about putting them down.  

The first game animal I killed is a story my wife is fond of telling.  When we lived in Louisville we had a pretty productive garden but nothing I did kept the rabbits out.  I tried all kinds of things including fencing but those wily animals continued to eat our garden and I never could catch the thing.  

One morning, I woke up and, wearing only my underwear, walked into the kitchen to make coffee like I did every morning.  When I looked out the back window I saw the rabbit in the middle of the backyard.  I quickly grabbed my air rifle that I kept in the kitchen and loaded it with pointed pellets. I eased open the back door and pushed open the storm door that didn’t have a screen in the top.  Using the middle bar of the screen door as a rest, I positioned myself on the back porch and took aim at the small rabbit.  I fired one shot that severed the rabbit’s spine at the neck and he went down.  I then went to put on some gym shorts before I walked out into the backyard to retrieve him.  

While the emotions of that moment have dimmed with time, I still remember the mix of sadness, remorse and satisfaction I felt.  I remember saying to the rabbit when I walked up on him, “You son of a bitch, I didn’t want to kill you.  Why couldn’t you have just eaten out of someone else’s garden?”.  I was genuinely sad, but I knew I had done the right thing.  It’s a strange feeling and it’s one that I don’t think you can truly understand unless you’ve been there and done it.

In some ways, it’s strange what we do.  We willingly put ourselves through emotions that most people spend their whole lives trying to avoid.  I think we’re better for it though.  I think this world is a complex and contradictory place and knowing how to navigate how we feel about complicated things helps us better understand other people and the world that we live in.  You don't get better at things by avoiding them, you get better at things by enduring them.  Some people might find it strange that by harvesting my own meat I think I better understand the world, but I know in the deepest places of my soul that its true. 

Start 'em Young

Yesterday we took our daughter fishing for the first time.  It was a little bit of a mess but was still very much a success.  A lot of the frustration came from the inaccuracy of the Colorado Parks & Wildlife fishing app – neither of the first two spots I chose worked out.  The first was impossible to find and the second spot didn’t have any fish in the lake.  However, thanks to the kindness of a volunteer in Rocky Mountain National Park, we found someplace to go later in the afternoon.

Before we go any further, I should say again, I did not grow up fishing or hunting.  I’ve spent a lot of time educating myself on hunting, but I haven’t fished since I was twelve, and can probably count on my fingers how many times I’ve fished in my whole life.  I barely know what I am doing.  However, I’ve done a little research on trout and I bought some gear designed for fishing for trout with bait (I do aspire to learn to fly fish) and I got my little one set up on her Paw Patrol rod and reel I got her for Christmas last year.  

Initially I cast for her and taught her to be patient, watch the bobber and keep the line tight.  She, much like me at her age (and for most of my life), wasn’t very patient and kept reeling it in.  I spent some time teaching her to cast, and as expected, she struggled at first. After a little frustration, a few tears and a pep talk, she finally settled in to learn how to do it and within a few minutes, she was throwing the line pretty well, if not consistently. One of the things I told her was frustration is a part of fishing and hunting and they both required patience and perseverance to overcome it.  

So, at this point, she pretty much knows everything I know about fishing. 

The burden is now on me and my wife to learn more about fishing and to take her as often as possible.  I know it’s not rocket science, but it’s also not easy.  Neither of us had a fishing or hunting mentor to teach us how to do these things and now we have to mentor our daughter.  I have a lot of faith in my ability as a small game hunter, I’m by no means an expert, but I’ve had a fair amount of experience in this area in my adult years.  I also have faith in my ability to hunt big game in spite of my lack of experience because of my intellectual pursuit of hunting and my time with my rifle. Again, I’m no expert, but I believe in my ability to figure it out and bring home some meat.  These things I’ll be able to teach her as she gets older and by the time she’s ready for hunter’s education, I’ll have about four years or so behind me chasing elk, pronghorn and bear and I should be able to stay one step ahead of her for a while, but fishing?  She may pass me by before her sixth birthday.

I’m doing what I can not only for myself and my own love of hunting and fishing, but for the next generation.  But for every kid who doesn’t learn to hunt and who has the desire to hunt, like I did, it’s an uphill battle as an adult.  We have to start ‘em young.  We don’t have any other choice.

Preparing for the Hunt - Fall 2018

I am embarrassingly behind.

There are a lot of good reasons for this, but no excuses.  I’ve been dreaming of hunting the Rockies damn near my entire life, long before I ever sat in a tree stand in Indiana and now, my first year I get to do it, I am way behind.  Sure, we’ve not even lived in Colorado for a year, there’s lots of growing pains there, I was out of work for about seven months which limited my income and took a heavy toll on my mental state.  Lots of good reasons, but none of them are going to matter come November when I’m huffing and puffing up and down the mountain.

I can’t do much about the fact I can’t afford a truck at the moment, so I have to depend on the kindness of a friend who is hunting the same units.  I can’t do much about spending more time at the range and shooting through ammo I can’t afford at gun clubs I can’t afford. My family responsibilities have kept me from scouting as much as I’d like, not much I can do about that. However, there’s no excuse for not being in hunting shape.  I have over two more months to get better, but it won’t be enough.

I know this first year chasing elk and black bear is going to be a learning experience.  I’m not expecting to go out and get a Boone & Crockett bull, I really just want to be out there hunting and bring home some meat.  I have listened to endless podcasts, read articles and books and I feel like I have a lot of intellectual knowledge about these mountains and about these animals, but I have no experiential knowledge.  Am I going to be able to turn all that data about thermals and behavior into instinct right away?  Probably not.  Am I going to be able to stalk up on a big bull real close without spooking him?  I highly doubt it.  

I’m looking forward to screwing up.  Well, so long as I bring home meat I’ll appreciate the screw ups.  I don’t care if I come home with a raghorn bull or young cow, meat is meat and elk is good.  However, I know all those screw ups will not be in vain, I will learn from them and next year I’ll be a better hunter (and in better shape) and I’ll be even better the year after that.  Hunting for me is about the journey as much as it’s about the food on the plate.

So, having said all that, what am I going to do?  In the immortal words of the Gorilla Biscuits, I’m going to “start today”.  Well, I actually started a few days ago, but once you realized you’ve screwed up, all you can do is change course in the present.  You can’t fix yesterday, all you can do is learn from it so that you make better decisions today and tomorrow.

Backcountry Brotherhood - Alaskan Interior, September 2017

It’s a trip that almost didn’t happen.

Jeremy and I have been friends for going on 30 years now and although we act like an old married couple, we’ve had few actual arguments.  This one, like most arguments between old friends, was a nasty mess of little annoyances that we both tried to ignore until someone said something about one of them and then it all exploded.  In this case, I was concerned about going deep into the Alaskan interior with him because the previous fall he’d run off on me in Denali National Park.  I have more backcountry experience than he does and I had the perception that the .454 Casull he carries on his chest when we’re in Alaska was giving him a false sense of confidence in addition to leaving me vulnerable.  

I wasn’t sure how to address this with him, so I do what I always do when I don’t know what to say: I write it.  This was the wrong way to do it.  Absolutely, no question, I took the easy way out.

He called me the next day when we were both calmer and we talked it out.  I’d done some dick things to him unintentionally as well, so it was one of those good chats you have to have every now and again and it allowed us to carry on our annual trip and one that would be our most epic trip yet.  We moved onto logistics and we were ready to go.

Since Jeremy has family outside Anchorage, we always fly in and out of there and drive to wherever we’re going (so far, we’re already planning a future trip that’s going to include a bush pilot and a pack raft).  We arrived very early in the morning and grabbed breakfast before driving to Fairbanks where we needed bear spray and cooking fuel since we couldn’t fly with it.  We enjoyed a good conversation, interspersed with 90s alternative rock, the only music we can agree on more or less.  He’d doze off every now and again and I was able to play country music while he slept, but the deal we have is we stick to the common areas of our musical Venn diagram when we’re both awake.  

We had reservations for two nights in a cabin that was an eleven-mile hike from the trail head off of the Elliott Highway, almost 100 miles from Fairbanks.    The plan was to hike in about halfway, set up camp and then hike the rest of the way in the morning.  Our packs were incredibly heavy due to the fact we were in a cabin, we were hiking in with some real food and we were both carrying heavy firearms; him the .454 Casull and me a Remington 870 with slugs.  While we were not at high elevation, there was several thousand feet in elevation changes along the route, starting high, going low, climbing a hill, then going low again only to end high at camp.  

Once we reached about the halfway point, it was starting to get dark and we were looking for a place to set up camp.  There were some flat spots down below where we could have had a fire if it had not been flooded but we were stuck in the brush.  While we couldn’t make a fire, we were tired and the brush underneath our ground cloth actually made for a good mattress.  Once we got camp set up, we ate a couple protein bars and then hung our bear bag and went to sleep.  Next to the time he and I slept on the beach at Pismo Bay, this might have been one of the best night’s sleep I have ever had.

In the morning I awoke to see Jeremy all packed up and ready to go.  I informed him I was going to sit in my bag and make a cup of coffee before I went anywhere.  He was slightly agitated but afforded me this one luxury.  While I was making my coffee, he told me he hardly slept at all.  He was cold and he was afraid of bears and wolves.  I told him the fear was understandable but that we hadn’t seen any bear sign the day before and our human scent would put most of them off and I reminded him how rare bear attacks really are.  He also told me that I slept so still he put his hand over my mouth to make sure I was breathing.  I had been so tranquil and so quiet he had wondered if I’d died in my sleep.  This was in stark contrast to him complaining about my constant snoring a few years back on a trip to Death Valley.  I told him, I only snore when there’s 40 miles per hour gusts of wind blowing sand into our tent and we slept without the rain fly on.  That may not be one hundred percent true, but whether I snore or not, does depend on the conditions.  

After my coffee I packed up and we started off.  No more than a half mile later we found a camp.  It was some kind of plastic container with mats in it designed for folks camping halfway.  We had no idea it was there, but it would have kept the wind off of us if we’d have kept going the night before.  

A short while later we ran into four Scandinavian college kids who had our cabin before us.  We exchanged a few words and they let us know they’d seen a sow and her cubs right outside of camp on the way out.  We never saw her, but we did see a fresh pile of blueberry bear shit just at the entrance to the camp area.  That was the only bear sign we saw the whole trip.

The next two days were spent relaxing.  We had to chop a little wood to replace what we used, but other than that, it was peaceful.  It stormed awhile our first day and we read, took turns with the beat up old classical guitar that was up there and I played a lot of solitaire.  We went to the hot spring tubs twice a day, had great conversations on a lot of different topics and slept warm with the cast iron stove churning out heat all night.  

Hiking out however, was a total nightmare.  It was hard, not sure why it seemed so hard other than my feet just got annihilated by my boots but my whole body suffered.  I had a couple of small blisters from the hike in, but I nursed them the two days we were in the cabin and taped them up well with Leukotape before we took off.  It didn’t matter.  Just a few miles in those blisters got worse and I developed new ones (Red Head is not going to get an endorsement out of me anytime soon).  I walked over seven miles on blistered and bleeding feet to get back to the truck and my Crocs.  Somehow, I still managed a two mile per hour pace on the way out.  

My body felt like I’d gone five rounds with Georges St. Pierre.  I was beat to hell.  We stopped in Fairbanks for some food and beers and then headed back to Anchorage, getting in late and getting a room at a historic hotel before hitting another brewery for dinner and beers.  The next day was spent at the Alaska State Fair and then we headed back to the airport where we caught the red eye back to Los Angeles through Seattle.

This trip is something we look forward to every year.  In spite of our friendship going back as long as it does, these annual jaunts reinforce our bond and keep our friendship as healthy and vibrant as it has ever been.  When you’re in the backcountry with someone, you’re relying on each other for life and death.  Sure, there are little spats (old married couple, remember?), but outside my wife, there is no one on the face of this earth who knows me like he does and I trust him with my life.  While I often write of my personal connection to nature on this page, it is important to note the backcountry is also a fantastic place to build and maintain relationships and to create lifelong memories with your friends and family. Anyone who has been to hunting camp, hiked a trail with some friends or spent the day on the lake with someone knows exactly what I’m talking about.

So, if you have a friend or loved one that expresses some interest in the outdoors, make sure you take them somewhere and do something.  Not only will you get something out of being a mentor, but you’ll give someone else a new experience that will create a memory that will last a lifetime.  The future of the outdoors and our lifestyle depends on all of us sharing our love and passion with others.

God, Transcendentalism and Modern Conservation

In the woods is perpetual youth…In the woods we return to reason and faith… I am part or particle of God.

 Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Nature”

 

Almost every religious or philosophical tradition has at least a few stories of their heroes going into the wilderness to seek answers or to seek the truth.  Perhaps the most famous of these is the story of The Temptation of Jesus, and, according to Jeffrey Ryan Dickson in Deserts of Development: How God Shapes His Leaders in the Wilderness, “according to Jewish tradition, an entrance into a wilderness meant that God was preparing the individual for a new beginning.”  It should not be a surprise then that immediately following Jesus’ temptation he started his ministry (Matthew 4:12-17).  However, it is arguable that no school of thought lobbied more for the interaction of man and nature as a mechanism for communication with the divine, than Transcendentalism.  While its heyday might have come and gone a long time ago, I think there are some tenets that are more relevant today than ever.  

What is Transcendentalism?  

Roderick Nash, in his legendary book, Wilderness and the American Mind, wrote,

The core of Transcendentalism was the belief that a correspondence or parallelism existed between the higher realm of spiritual truth and the lower one of material objects… Transcendentalists had a definite conception of man’s place in a universe divided between object and essence.  His physical existence rooted him to the material portion, like all natural objects, but his soul gave him the potential to “transcend” this condition… he could discover his own correspondence with the divine being and appreciate his capacity for moral improvement.  Every individual, the Transcendentalists emphasized, possessed this ability, but the process of insight was so difficult and delicate that it was seldom exercised. The great majority was indifferent, yet even those who sought higher truths intuitively found them in frustratingly brief flashes (85).

Nash also discusses, in the same chapter on Henry David Thoreau, Thoreau’s frustration with civilization.  “By mid-century American life had acquired a bustling tempo and materialistic tone that left Thoreau and many of his contemporaries vaguely disturbed and insecure (86).”  Walden was first published in 1854, and if that’s how Thoreau felt then, how do you imagine he’d feel about America in 2018? By any definition, we live in a more materialistic, more distracting and faster paced society today than ever before. 

It’s also true that society has never been more secular and an even greater majority is indifferent.  Although many people will say they are “spiritual” even if they’re not “religious”, very few people (whether they call themselves “religious” or “spiritual”) actually put in any spiritual work because spiritual work means a great amount of time and effort with intermittent tangible returns.  Deep, purposeful work on one’s self requires a lot of discipline and effort.  For a society constantly chasing the next, hippest, instantly gratifying, shortcut to happiness, making a trek into the wilderness, whatever that might mean for each person, is not a popular pastime.  

I Never Considered Myself a Transcendentalist Before

Wilderness, to me anyhow, always seemed like the closest I would ever come to the Garden of Eden.  Sin is something of man.  Man is in civilization.  Avoid civilization, avoid man, avoid sin, or at least that’s how I’ve always painted the picture even if that is not entirely true because my sin travels with me. God created Man after the Heavens and the Earth were complete.  It was perfect, at least until that fateful day at the forbidden tree.  

I’ve always imagined what life was like in the Garden prior to the Fall of Man.  Adam conversing with God like they were old pals.  I think that’s something every human being has been envious of since that time; we pray, but we really don’t hear that voice talking back to us, not like Adam did anyhow.  

So, what does God sound like today?  I can’t speak for anyone else but myself, but there are moments, as Nash said, “frustratingly brief flashes”, where I hear God loud and clear.  Right now, in my office with the window open, a swollen Coal Creek is carrying God’s voice to me.  The difficult part is interpreting it.  That’s why I’m envious of Adam’s conversations with God.  I really wish it was easier to understand what he was saying.

As frustrating as it is to have to decipher what God is saying to me sometimes, I take an immense amount of comfort in the fact that God talks to me. Me, an incredibly flawed mortal. No matter what, when the trail gets quiet and I can hear the creek, when I am out in the woods backpacking, hunting, fishing, or whatever I’m doing, if I’m out there, really out there, going places other people rarely or never go, I hear God loud and clear.  I just wish that was the case all the time, but either I am not able to drown out all the noise of humanity or perhaps the wilderness is just the place that God has chosen for the two of us to converse and it is up to me to get out there more often.  If nothing else, it is a good excuse to get into the mountains more.

I would never actually call myself a Transcendentalist because there’s a lot of things about the philosophy that don’t fit me (Indian religious influence, the idealism, etc.) but I believe they were pretty spot on in their belief in the possibility of transcendence through nature and the belief that institutions often corrupt the purity of the individual (as much as one can be pure).  In the wilderness we can take our place amongst all of God’s creation and, if we are alone, we can get a taste of what those first moments must have felt like before God gave Adam a partner.  In those moments, we can be alone with God.  

So, What Does This All Mean?

I believe that wilderness, those last refuges of land uncorrupted by man, are the closest that most of us will ever get to the Garden of Eden and that open conversation with God, at least in this life.  I believe that protecting these wild places are one of our most sacred duties.  In Genesis 1:26 God gives us this responsibility, “Then God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness.  And let him have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”  This is our sacred duty and it is entirely a self-serving one, as it is ourselves who most benefit from the places and things were entrusted to protect.  The land provides resources to make and heat our homes, the animals provide food to nurture our bodies and the places they come from nurture our souls.  

People always ask me why I go to such remote places, so far away from other people and it almost always ends with, “but what if you get hurt out there?” or “aren’t you scared of bears?”.  The truth is, our local parks are nice, but they don’t recharge me or fill me up with peace like the wild does.  In the parks, when I pass large groups on the trail, their stereos blasting, I always wonder why people are so afraid of the quiet?  Why can’t they leave the trappings of civilization behind for a few hours?  I wonder what it is that they think they’ll hear that fills them with fear?  Are they afraid of their own thoughts?  Or is it that when their mind is unoccupied for long enough they will start to dwell on their failures and shortcomings?  I don’t know, but I know for myself, I do often dwell on those things, but instead of fear, in the quiet, I find answers.  

We should always be searching for the truth, just know that it may come to you by the sound of the wind through the trees or of water coming down the mountain making its long journey to the ocean.  In this post-modern world, we hear more things than we can comprehend, but are we listening?  Our wild places are great places to go listen, whether it’s a small issue you’re struggling with, or you’re Thoreau venturing off into the wilderness multiple times to seek enlightenment, or you’re Cheryl Strayed trying to re-set your entire life on the Pacific Crest Trail.  What we have to ask ourselves is whether or not these spiritual journeys are important and whether or not it is important to still have wild places to run to for peace and quiet.  If the answer is yes, and I think it is, then there is nothing more human than protecting these places.  

The Best Shot I Never Took

I didn’t grow up hunting or fishing.  I was outside as often as possible, but I had no one in my family to take me hunting, though I always wished I had.  So, in addition to teaching myself how to shoot and learning the behaviors and habits of game animals I had to learn hunting ethics on my own as well.  Learning ethics, much like learning to shoot, is a process.

The first season I went deer hunting, I went without a license, in both Michigan and Indiana.  I was told by the folks I was with, “just shoot a doe and I will tag it for you” or “you can have my buck tag only if you shoot an eight point or bigger”.  At the time, I thought this was okay because the deer would still be tagged and I was not impeding the population studies of state wildlife agencies.  It didn’t seem to be unethical to the folks I was with and they’d been hunting for their whole lives, so who was I to question it?

On opening morning of gun season in Southern Indiana I was in the tree stand well before legal shooting light.  It was a crude, homemade platform that required me to stand.  I figured as the new guy, I got the shit end of the stick as far as stands went, there was no way I could stand there for hours not moving. I was armed with a simple, single shot, breech load, 12 gauge shotgun loaded with rifled slugs.  I had extra shells in my pockets, but I knew, if I was lucky, I’d get one shot.  In the Eastern forests, you’re not going to get much more than a 20 yard shot and I have always been a pretty good marksman, so I felt comfortable with this.  I just had to remember to be calm and not rush a shot out of the excitement of killing my first deer.

Where I was hunting was private land right across the road from public land and the whole area is heavily hunted.  Usually, after first light on opening day, it sounds like a morning in Fallujah.  Deer are pushed from place to place and move around a lot, I knew I was sure to see something.  And sure enough, I did.  

About five minutes after legal shooting light, I hear something coming from my left.  It was soft and slow, and I initially wrote it off as another damn squirrel playing tricks on me.  However, what came around the corner was a beautiful, two-and-a-half-year-old, eight-point buck.  He stopped right in front of my tree stand, broadside at about five yards.  He turned his head to look at me and I slowly raised my gun.  We made eye contact for what felt like five minutes but was more realistically about ten to fifteen seconds.  He then looked away and slowly walked off as I lowered my gun.

I told myself I was simply not being greedy and that it was mere minutes into opening day and I would see other deer and I wanted to keep hunting. I told myself all I wanted was a meat doe anyhow.  Even if I’d heard the expression “don’t pass up on your first day what you’d be happy to have on your last day” I think I still would have let him go.  Somehow, even though I wasn’t aware of it yet, I knew it was the right thing to do to walk out of those woods without a deer. I also think it’s possible that if I had taken that shot, I might have regretted it to the point that I never went hunting again, and that would have been a shame.

Not pulling the trigger on that buck is one of the best decisions I have ever made.  I never saw another deer that season and I’m glad I didn’t, but it was that deer season, being out there for several days without a license, that solidified my love of hunting.  Had I been wiser, I would have just walked out there and sat in the tree stand without a gun and I would have loved it every bit as much.  It was on those cold Indiana mornings in those tree stands that I realized I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.  It was on those mornings that I learned where I could go to feel completely at peace.  

I firmly believe, it was in that in that moment, when I couldn’t pull the trigger, that I became a hunter.

Why I Shoot a .30-06

If you’re here looking for the favorite argument of shooters, “what’s the best caliber for…?”, this isn’t it. This is more autobiography than anything else.

Let me begin by giving you a nickel’s worth of background.  The .30 caliber cartridge has been around since the 1890s and went through several refinements by several folks before Springfield made the final adjustments in 1906 (if you don’t know, the .30 is the caliber and the 06 is the year).  I won’t bore you with the ballistics history, but in 1906 the U.S. military, namely the Army, made it the primary caliber rifle cartridge and it remained the primary cartridge for over 80 years seeing combat in all of the wars and skirmishes the U.S. was involved in over that time as well as being a favorite of big game hunters throughout the 20th century.  

Now, in 2018, the .30-06 isn’t sexy anymore.  There are newer cartridges such as the 700 Win Mag or 6.5 Creedmore. There is nothing wrong with any of them and all are great big game cartridges.  However, I think the choice of cartridge says a lot about a person. Perhaps you are a woman or have a smaller frame, you may feel more comfortable shooting a .270.  Perhaps you have to have the latest and greatest thing, whatever the hunting and gun magazines tell you is the sexy caliber of our time.   Perhaps you just shoot what your buddies shoot or what your dad shot.

Me?  I’m old school.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

I like wood stocks, classic calibers, using my backpack as a rest and you might even find me wearing red plaid.  I’m not totally against the 21st century, I have a scope on my rifle, I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro, I’m not a dinosaur, but I also don’t think that everything new is automatically better either.  I’d like to think that I share a lot of traits with the big game hunters that came before me when it comes to faith, family and conservation.  And, I’d like to think I share at least some qualities with those brave men in uniform from the 20th century who risked or gave their lives for our great nation.  My sense of bravery, duty, patriotism and honor may pale in comparison to theirs, but I’d like to think they serve as inspirations to me even if I’m not worthy of standing alongside them.  

As I knock upon the door of middle age, I know I’m becoming a relic, just like the .30-06.  I hope and pray that those coming behind me will take my generation and learn from us. That includes correcting our mistakes, but I hope they don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.  Not everything that has worked and worked well for a long time needs to be discarded just because it’s “the old way”. Some things are tried and true and battle tested.  

I’m not much one to judge, not about preferences anyhow, so go ahead and shoot whatever caliber you want, that you’re comfortable with and that works for you. But ask yourself, what does it say about you?  Maybe it says nothing, maybe I’m just a guy who looks for meaning in everything I do, down to the smallest of details and my affection for the .30-06 is nothing more than me paying tribute to many great men who came before me, hoping that a little of what they had rubs off on me.  

On the Emotional and Spiritual Aspects of Killing

I love reading David Petzal from Field & Stream.  I look forward to his column every month and I often re-read past columns online.  Recently, “Teaching Young Hunters to Cope with Killing” was shared on their Facebook page.  In spite of the fact I’ve been teaching my daughter about hunting and ethical meat procurement since she’s been born, I have to admit I still don’t know how to properly describe the issue to her.  Of course, she’s five as I write this, so it’s a slow process and I believe a slow process is a lot better than keeping her in the dark and then sitting her down when she’s 12 and explaining where her food comes from.  That’s how vegans are made.

Even at five my daughter understands certain aspects of fair chase. These things have been taught by conversation at the dinner table, lessons during playtime and during episodes of MeatEater and Fresh Tracks with Randy Newberg.  However, I still wonder how she is going to feel this fall when we go squirrel and rabbit hunting as a family.  Is she going to be as excited to see me clean and dress small game as she was last fall when she found a freshly killed elk femur in Wyoming?  Or is seeing an animal alive one moment and then hearing the crack of the rifle and seeing the squirrel fall from the tree going to make her sad?  Either way her reaction will be normal and I fully expect her to finish the process in the kitchen with her mother because she loves to cook with mommy.

The taking of a life is a complicated thing, even for an adult.  As hunters and anglers, we do so for a very good reason, sustenance.  Sure, there are many other parts of the hunt, but the bottom line for almost all of us is we are going to feed ourselves and our families with that animal.  The death of that animal is going to provide healthy protein and nutrients to our bodies and hunting and fishing is certainly as animal friendly as meat comes (no pens, no hormones, no anti-biotics, no food that they weren’t meant to eat, etc.).  Killing to eat is as natural as the sun rising in the morning, but as humans, we, unlike other animal species, have a consciousness about the process.

For me, personally, I feel the same emotions before I pull the trigger as I do after, but they come in very different ways, looking and feeling very different.  Even when I’m not hunting, but just out in the woods observing animals, I feel a great love and reverence for all living things.  At no point do I ever take those animals for granted.

The hunt is everything before the pull of the trigger to me.  It’s everything from looking at maps and scouting to setting up camp and traipsing through the woods stalking game.  This allows for the slow process of preparedness. You’re visualizing what is going to happen so that when you lock eyes on your game you can quickly put the excitement of having found it aside, calm yourself and take an ethical shot.  I have always said a little prayer to myself before pulling the trigger to steady my nerves and remember to be grateful to be in the position to take a shot.  You’re about to take the life of a beautiful animal and it’s hard not to appreciate that when you’re in the moment.

Emotionally, I think the toughest part of hunting are those moments between the shot and the field dressing.  Often hunters will become overwhelmed by their emotions even if they act stoically around their buddies.  Many mature hunters will admit that they have cried as they approach the fallen animal. While everyone handles their emotions differently, I love hearing those stories or seeing it with my own two eyes. At this point, all your hard work has paid off, there is a relief in your success as well as a pride for having put in the time and effort.  There is also a deep feeling of appreciation as well as a twinge of sadness.  Contrary to what some anti-hunters might think, or attempt to over-simplify, killing is never fun.  Hunting is fun and joyous, but unless you’ve hunted, I imagine it’s hard to understand the nuance between the hunt and the kill.  

It can be unnerving to have mixed emotions.  In life, one doesn’t usually experience gratitude, relief, joy, sadness and love all at once.  It happens, but not with the regularity that it happens to a hunter or fisherman.  It’s an uncomfortable feeling, but hunters especially, are comfortable in discomfort as we get up early in the morning and brave the cold, the wind, the rain, the snow and all the other elements (usually on vacation days from work mind you, this is how we choose to spend our free time) in pursuit of the hunt.  These mixed emotions and this discomfort, if you accept them, are powerful enough to transform you.  Unfortunately, many hunters choose to bury this instead, as if accepting the emotions somehow makes them less manly.  I believe, based on biology, evolution and my own anecdotal observations, that female hunters are much better at understanding this and accepting it and because of this, I believe that often times they have a deeper love of hunting than their male counterparts.  

I believe that one must accept all the emotional weight of the hunt before one can feel the spiritual connection of the hunt.  This does not mean you have to go around posting videos of you crying over your recently harvested elk on social media nor does it mean you need to start a blog and talk about these things all the time.  You can simply accept it in your heart and your mind.  I do think it’s helpful if you can talk about it, because those folks on the fence about hunting don’t often hear emotional or spiritual stories about hunting in the media.  We’re all painted with a broad brush and the many are convicted of the crimes of the few. 

Killing doesn’t have to be a cold-hearted endeavor.  Show the animal the proper love and respect, perhaps even participate in a ritual to connect yourself to nature in some way.  I once read where the Cherokee would bury tobacco before the hunt as a sacrifice.  I have a little Cherokee in my ancestry and I thought this would be a great way to connect with my ancestors as well as offer a token of love and respect to Mother Nature. Do I believe that the sacrifice actually helped my chances on the hunt?  No, but I do believe that it opened my mind and heart up to connect better with nature and perhaps that made for a better hunt.

What this looks like for you is probably different than it does for me. The only thing I hope is that more hunters are willing to dig a little deeper and then discuss those feelings with others.  It’s truly hard to understand unless you’ve done it, but I believe people, especially young people, are looking for meaning in their lives and hunting is a great way to find it.  Perhaps the person you share your hunting story with will be the next Theodore Roosevelt or George Bird Grinnell.  

Taking Comfort in Feeling Small

My family and I used to do a lot of car camping in the desert when we lived in California.  Our favorite spot was in Anza-Borrego State Park though we also enjoyed Death Valley National Park and Johnson Valley (BLM).  When we go camping, our daughter likes to go to bed as soon as the sun goes down (as opposed to a normal night at home when she wants to stay up all night watching MeatEater).  Usually when she goes to bed, my wife and I will enjoy the time to ourselves, talking quietly around the campfire and perhaps enjoying an adult beverage.  If any of you have ever camped in the desert, you know how impressive a clear night sky can be.

The one thing that always comes to my mind, always, is how massive our universe is.  You look out upon an infinite number of stars and know that they are so far away that it’s incredibly hard for most of us to fathom. Knowing that I am such a small part of the universe, especially given the history of time, is always oddly comforting.  

We humans like to pretend we’re important.  We like to pretend we’re special.  We shout our opinions into already loud echo chambers and feel validated when we hear our voice coming back to us in a slightly different tone. In today’s world, with social media so prevalent in everyone’s life, we know that we don’t even have to have talent to be famous, many people are famous just for being famous.  We crave that attention that will make us feel special and validate our insecurities. 

The truth is, we’re not special.  None of us are really.  Sure, there are those who make an impact that seems incredibly large to us in our time and place, but even the greatest of leaders are mere ripples on the ocean of time. The knowledge of this could be disheartening to some, they may view this as nihilistic, but nothing could be further from the truth.  

Another place that gives me great comfort in spite of making me feel so small is the Rocky Mountains.  When walking through some ancient canyon between mountains that are millions of years old I can see the layers of time on their faces.  I imagine the millions of stories those mountains have in their collective memory and if I get quiet enough and really listen hard, they will tell me some of those stories.  I also know that one day my time with the mountain will be a story it can tell to those still in the “womb of time” (stole that one from Theodore Roosevelt).  

Our goal in life should not be to aspire to be the brightest star in the sky, but to be the Sun in our own solar system.  We should give light and warmth to those in our orbit; our families, friends, co-workers and neighbors.  We are all important in a very real and impactful way, but not in the superficial way that our televisions and iPhones tell us we should be.  Man’s desire to be immortal is as old as man himself, but I challenge us all to be better building blocks of life, rather than aspire to conquer death.  Even Marcus Aurelius once said that even the greatest Roman Emperor will be forgotten in but a few generations.  

There is power in feeling small.  Once you view yourself in the proper context to the universe, your purpose becomes crystal clear.  You know what things you can change and what things you must accept that you cannot change. In feeling small, you become aware of how important you really are.

And the next time you have a clear, dark night, or the next time you’re standing alone next to a mountain, take a moment and listen closely.  You never know what wisdom might be bestowed upon you.

The Power of Unplugging

Every time I travel, especially without my family, I get anxiety.  This is even more true if I’m going off into the woods and I will have no way to know if something happens back home. Sure, there are people who are constantly looking for cell service in the mountains, but I typically shut off my phone when I go in and save the battery for an emergency.  

The first day, I’m a nervous wreck thinking about all the things that couldgo wrong in my absence.  This is partly me and my own anxieties and it’s also partly the world that has taught me to be attached to my damn phone.  As a salesman, my phone is rarely out of reach, and even though that is out of necessity, rather than desire, it has become the new norm and it’s difficult to separate myself from it sometimes.  However, by Day Two, I’m a new man.

Beginning at Day Two, I don’t even remember I have a phone.  Of course, I think about my wife and daughter often, but I know they’re okay and I know my wife can handle any situation that might come up in my absence.  The truth is, there’s too much going on in my immediate situation to think about the trivial things that go on in the world.  Sure, there are serious things going on in the world, poverty, war, etc. but that’s not what most of us are inundated with on a day to day basis; we ignore those things mostly because they’re difficult to think about.  As I write this, outdoors people are arguing over whether or not to buy Yeti products.  I don’t see anything wrong with either the NRA or Yeti, they’re both organizations made up of people with good intentions who sometimes make mistakes. Take a side or don’t, but is something of that sort really worth getting upset about?  I don’t think so.

While we obsess about such nonsense on a day to day basis, when you’re hiking, hunting, fishing, etc., you have real concerns to occupy your brain; the weather, predators, finding game or fish, and perhaps just navigation and not rolling your ankle in a scree field.  Focusing on these immediate issues allows our brains to put the bullshit of civilization away for a while.  No longer are we concerned about pleasing our boss or what our neighbors think of us – they cannot see what we’re up to.  The media, social media, the political conversations at the water cooler are all distant memories for a few days.  

At the very least wilderness is escapism, no different than a comedic movie or a concert or any other form of entertainment.  The wilderness, if you pay attention, is endlessly entertaining. However, I think it’s so much more than that.  Unplugging from the world gives you the time to think about the important stuff in your life uninterrupted.  Maybe you’re struggling in some area (most of us are struggling with something at any given time, no matter how “together” we may have it) and getting away from the noise allows you to meditate or pray on your marriage, your career, your parenting or some other issue.  In the world there is always someone telling you what you should do, but in the wilderness, you get to figure out what is best for you.  That can be daunting, many people prefer to let others make their decisions for them, therefore they have no responsibility or blame if things fail, but that is not a way to live life if you ask me.  Sure, it’s good to seek advice, you’ll already have that in your head when you’re out there and that’s part of the evidence you can examine when making a decision.  However, there’s a greater sense of accomplishment if you solve your own problems.  

If you’re prepared, the wilderness provides all that you need to push the reset button, no matter who you are and what kinds of things you need to do it.  Need action? Go hunting, fishing, climbing, etc. Need peace and quiet?  Sit beside a river under a tree.  Need comfort?  Boil up some tea and sit beside the campfire.  Humans have been going to the wilderness for solace and answers ever since we became civilized enough to separate wilderness from civilization. Wilderness is a part of who we are and I believe if we accept that, it will make us better people and therefore better to each other.

Thoughts from Boise – Backcountry Hunters and Anglers Rendezvous 2018

Every time I am in the woods I am reborn.  Cleansed by campfire smoke and baptized by the rivers and streams. Heaven is America’s wild places and I’m never turned away at her Pearly Gates.  

There is a deep spiritual difference between watching nature through the lens of a camera and watching it from between the pins of your bow or through your rifle scope.  It’s the difference between watching your kids play and playing with your kids.  It’s about participation.  It’s about being engaged.  It’s about being present.

All those who criticize do so because they don’t understand.  Those who say, “you think that makes you a tough guy?” don’t understand the vulnerability it takes to emotionally lay yourself bare to nature, to failure, to rejection and to the cold and frustration.  They don’t understand the internal conversation you have when you decide to take a life, that the life you take is so you and your family can live.  People like simple feelings, but hunting is a complicated mix of responsibility, sadness, thankfulness, appreciation, frustration, joy, calm, peace, relief and more frustration.  

That having been said, it takes a certain fortitude to endure the elements, gain the skills to succeed, get blood on your hands and turn all of that into food. However, I don’t view that as some machismo based in insecurity, I see it as becoming fully human and not being afraid to fully engage in the natural world.  I choose not to delegate the dirty work in life to others.  I don’t see that as being “tough” or “manly”, I see that acquiring basic human skills, skills that are quickly disappearing from our species.

The modern world is supposed to be connecting us, but is it?  We’re quicker to judge, quicker to hate others different than us and quicker to hole up in our bubbles.  Whereas the natural world, when you engage it, connects you to all of creation including other humans.  When I return from the woods, I’m less concerned with the worries of the day, such as politics, money, etc. and more concerned with the overall well-being of my fellow man and our world.  Things become clearer, priorities readjust themselves to their proper places and what was dark all of a sudden has a beam of light in the distance.

In short, time in the woods makes me a better man, a man searching for meaning and a man who carries a little peace in my heart.  As the time in between my trips to the wild grows longer I become more of a man of the modern world; angry and empty.  The time in the woods calms me and fills me to the brim with goodness.  

Nature as Healer

 

In the introduction to Wilderness and the American Mind, Roderick Nash states, “…civilization created wilderness. For nomadic hunters and gatherers, who represented our species for most of its existence, ‘wilderness’ had no meaning.” He later discusses how as soon as we as a species separated civilization from wilderness, we romanticized and sought out the wilderness for our spiritual needs. The wilderness was a place where Biblical figures went to talk to God or have an epiphany. Thousands of years later, many of us still desire to escape civilization to recharge, mull over a tough situation or heal ourselves emotionally and spiritually. Just think of Cheryl Strayed and Wild. Obviously now, “wilderness” doesn’t just have meaning, it is where we go to find meaning.

I am certainly no exception to this human trait. Even just a walk outside amongst the trees, prairie dogs and mallards in my neighborhood can significantly change my mood. The bigger the issue, the deeper into the woods I need to go. As I write this, I am preparing for my fourth attempt at my first solo overnight trip (first three I had to turn around for various reasons, more on that in another post). We recently moved to Colorado and only six weeks in, I quit my new job. It was the absolute right thing to do and it allows me to focus on what I want to be doing, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t scared shitless. So, I’m going into the wilderness to clear my head, get my mind right and in the process, face my fears. Because make no mistake, though I have spent many, many nights out in the woods, doing it by myself for the first time is going to be a little bit scary. However, everything is going to be fine and when you conquer one fear, it gives you the confidence that you can conquer others as well. 

You don’t have to go into the woods alone to have this experience. I take two trips every year with old friends and it just so happened that in 2017, both of these guys got married. Jeff and I went to the Wind River Range in Wyoming and had a great week-long trip where we mixed backpacking and car camping all across the Northern Rockies. Jeremy and I went to Alaska as usual and spent four days northwest of Fairbanks in the bush and also in a cabin near some hot springs. While I enjoy the trips I take with these fellas every year, last year’s trips were special.  We had lots of heart-to-heart talks about serious topics such as marriage, family and work. We had lots of laughs, both at situations and ourselves. We also had long periods of silence where we worked through our own thoughts. Though perhaps some of the obstacles we overcame provided the most amount of personal growth, whether that was roping up and crossing ice cold rivers, holding each other’s life in our hands or simply me walking eleven miles with fifty pounds on my back, feet bleeding, and deciding not to complain about it. 

Ultimately, whether alone or with a loved one, time in the wild, if you’re open to it, will improve you. Maybe you need a little peace and quiet to deal with a tough situation or maybe you need to challenge yourself in some way because you feel hindered in your everyday life. For whatever reason, until you cut the cord with the civilized world for at least a short time, you’ll never know what you’re capable of. The world is there to fill us with information and noise. In order to know what you have to give to the world, you have to take the time to dig down deep inside yourself.  Wilderness has been there for us since the dawn of civilization and it’s still there for us now if we need it.