Updated: Apr 26, 2022
It's black and silent. Deep in my subconscious something pulls me toward a light. A sound registers. Distant, but moving closer. Shuffled senses slowly awaken. One eye winks open. The scene becomes more clear. An alarm blares jarringly. Groggy hands manage to end the cacophony. A quick check of the clock: 4:32 AM, Thursday, November 25. Thanksgiving.
It's time to rekindle the wood stove and prepare for the day's hunt. Reluctantly leaving the warmth of my sleeping bag, I turn on a headlamp, gather my bearings, and locate the firewood. Warm breath reflects in glassy smokey sparkles as I breathe fresh life into dormant coals. A small flicker of light. Dry kindling catches. I add a few more pieces and soon it's crackling. Careful not to smother the fragile blaze, a log goes in and I step into the vestibule. Layers of frost coat the inside and find their way down the back of my shirt as I unzip the opening to step outside. Orion, the hunter, hangs low in the clear morning sky. I take it as a good omen. Returning to the now-warming tent, I start the coffee and boil water for oatmeal before waking the boys.
It's the seventh day of an eight-day Montana backcountry hunt with my two sons. I'm dirty and smell exactly like someone that drove 20 hours straight, grabbed a few hours sleep in the 4runner, and then spent the next seven days alternating between sweating and shivering without a shower. My 47-year-old body is stiff and sore and tired and cold. From long miles carrying heavy packs up and down hills. And then up and down more. And more. Averaging eight to nine miles a day. From constant exposure to the elements. From doing basically everything outside: hiking, glassing, stalking, cooking, eating, cleaning, shitting. From short bursts of deep but awkward sleep on the hard cold ground. From a diet that isn't keeping up with the calories we are burning. From belly crawling, hands-and-knees sagebrush dodging, side shuffling, sliding, contorting, squatting and hunching to chase our prey. From a sinus infection I can feel coming on.
It's exactly what I needed.
In fact I've been looking forward to it for the last 358 days. Making plans. Saving money. Buying gear. Scouting. Training. Dreaming.
Some may not understand; perhaps most. This is my vacation – a cold tent eating instant oatmeal while the rest of the country prepares to gorge on turkey and stuffing before watching some football. And with the costs of gear, licenses, gas, food, and supplies I could easily have been lounging on a beach in front of the Four Seasons, sipping little drinks with festive umbrellas, and being served the food of my choice – all the while trying not to burn my sensitive parts.
And don't let me misrepresent, I HAVE taken these types of vacations too. And I'm not trying to over-inflate my "mountain man" credentials. Yes, I spend a great deal of time outdoors hiking, hunting, and fishing. But I have an office job. A pretty damn cushy one at that. I wake up and take a hot shower before eating a full breakfast, drive to work with my heated seats blazing while sipping coffee, work all day in a warm office seated in an ergonomic chair, before traveling home again with my climate control set just so while choosing from an overwhelming selection of entertainment options on XM Radio. I end up in a warm house with good food and a comfy bed. Sometimes I'll flick a switch to turn on the gas fireplace while I contemplate a cocktail and peruse a book in my favorite leather chair after dinner.
My point is simply this: the majority of my life is very comfortable and safe and clean and sanitized. But there's something deep in my soul that pushes against it. That longs for the wild and dirty and risky and exposed. For something more primal. For something that shakes me from the numbing comfort of the everyday and reminds me that I'm still alive. That I'm still connected to the earth. It's always been there.
In his 1899 speech, The Strenuous Life, Teddy Roosevelt famously said: “I wish to preach, not the doctrine of ignoble ease, but the doctrine of the strenuous life, the life of toil and effort, of labor and strife; to preach that highest form of success which comes, not to the man who desires mere easy peace, but to the man who does not shrink from danger, from hardship, or from bitter toil, and who out of these wins the splendid ultimate triumph.”
Maybe this is my version.
On my drive out here, I listened to the book "The Comfort Crisis" by Michael Easter, a recent recommendation from my well-read friend, Mark Kenyon.
The book essentially preaches "embracing discomfort to reclaim your wild, happy, healthy self." It sounded Roosevelt-esque and certainly had my attention.
The Amazon book summary says this:
"In many ways, we’re more comfortable than ever before. But could our sheltered, temperature-controlled, overfed, underchallenged lives actually be the leading cause of many our most urgent physical and mental health issues? In this gripping investigation, award-winning journalist Michael Easter seeks out off-the-grid visionaries, disruptive genius researchers, and mind-body conditioning trailblazers who are unlocking the life-enhancing secrets of a counterintuitive solution: discomfort.
Along the way, Easter uncovers a blueprint for leveraging the power of discomfort that will dramatically improve our health and happiness, and perhaps even help us understand what it means to be human. The Comfort Crisis is a bold call to break out of your comfort zone and explore the wild within yourself."
It was a great book. Well researched, thought provoking, and framed through the larger narrative of a 33-day Caribou hunt in Alaska's unforgiving Brooks Range.
But this isn't a book review. And by no means can I compare our seven days hunting Montana from the relative comfort of a wall tent to the experience of the author. This outing did, however, significantly move me out of my typical daily comfort and closer to the wild. And, perhaps more than anything, helped me better understand that inner primal voice always pulling me back to the rawness of the outdoors. Toward the splendid ultimate triumph of Roosevelt's speech.
Back to our lukewarm oatmeal and, if I'm honest, I'm starting to get a little worried. We are getting down to the wire to fill the tags and have already blown a few of our earlier chances. This is, after all, public land hunting, and the meat doesn't come in neat white packages; it comes with four legs, highly-developed eyesight, hearing, and smell, not to mention years and years of evolutionary survival instincts. I knew it wasn't going to be easy. I didn't want it to be, but thoughts of enduring another season of all the prep and work and money and not meeting my goal hang heavy in the back of my mind.
The plan is to hunt a nearby drainage with several draws where, the evening before, Kyle glassed a number of deer, though no shots were taken. A couple meat doe for the freezer is all we want at this point. An acknowledgement of our efforts.
We take a more aggressive approach this time, electing to ease slowly from draw to draw, ridge to ridge, hoping to catch something moving through, or perhaps bump one that will give us an opportunity. It's a perfect morning, crisp with the slightest sagebrush-tinted wind hitting us in the face. We work it all, for hours, and come up completely blank. Not a single deer. The panic notches up another level.
We head back to basecamp and regroup. Something needs to change. The call is made, we are moving. Packing up camp and heading to "the cliffs" the following day (our last), an area that has been known to produce in the past. It's a bit of a desperate play but we are, at this point, desperate men.
The plus side is that this spot tends to hold deer and their patterns are relatively predictable. The downside is that it doesn't typically hold many bucks and, in this unit, we can't take a doe. If we intend to fill a tag here, the quarry needs to have headgear.
The cliffs derives the slang title we’ve given it from the sheer rock face that presents the first, nearly completely vertical, obstacle to entering this hunting ground. Only if you are familiar with the area will you be able to locate the narrow and barely traversable game trail that leads up the precipitous wall. Upon conquering the cliff itself, a deep draw appears as a jagged wrinkled gash in front of you. The hillside across rises up steeply in a mix of rock, sagebrush and a few evergreens. Behind, the land gives rise to a false summit and then another and another before cresting.
With substantial leg-and-lung-burning effort and more than a little sweat, we make it past the cliff, slowly approach the first rise, and peer across the bottom of the drainage. Immediately we are into deer; a group of six doe. The wind is pressing hard against our backs, the hillside offering little protection, but the animals seem unaware of our presence despite it.
We glass further but our time is growing short so we move on - we need to find the bucks. Packs are reloaded and we work up the series of false summits and over the rocky terrain to glass the back bowl sometimes known to hold game. Above the crest, the wind is furious, delivering a never-wavering frontal attack. We pull up the hoods and push on.
Like the front, the back holds deer as we expected. Several actually – probably numbering close to 50, with a few good bucks in the group. But they are all safely 100 yards beyond the fence designating private property. We glass for a while hoping they will come our way, but eventually decide "hope" is not a great last-day strategy. We need to keep moving.
We head to a draw that we've never explored before. New to both of us. Cresting a rise after another few miles, Kyle motions for me to get down. There are deer just over the lip about 200 yards off. Maybe 10-15 of them, including at least two legal bucks. We stay low and watch, soon realizing just to their right a large group of antelope are bedded, ever alert. And just farther right of that, another group of mule deer mingle in a thick tangled wrinkle; we count at least seven but can't be sure if any are bucks. Just behind and above us, four more doe work across the skyline. We are pinned.
We glass for a while as the sun continues to move further down the horizon. There's maybe three hours of shooting light. Enough, but we need to make our move soon. We've lost sight of the first group but suspect they've worked farther up into the drainage we can't see from this vantage point. Our wind is good but the cover is scarce – scant clumps of sagebrush and the occasional rock. But, given the hour, we decide to make our move. It's now or never. Slowly creeping, crawling, sliding and scooting to get a better view. We spot them now, but the antelope are alert and standing. We hold, hoping they will settle back down. After a bit they seem to, and we continue to slowly crawl. We need to close another 200 yards. But the pronghorn don't like something and, just like that, bolt off. We're blown. Luckily the deer seem un-phased by the departure.
On hands and knees through the sagebrush and cactus plants we inch closer and closer. My fingers are bleeding, my back is sore, my legs are bruised, but we are in range. We see the bucks nosing the doe. Doing buck stuff. Pushing, sniffing, scrambling. I pull up on the first one, but he won't give me a clean shot. He's constantly moving in and out of the other deer. Back and forth. My arms are getting tired and my eyes are getting blurry.
Suddenly half the group breaks off to the right and towards us, while the two bucks and remaining doe work left. It's at least a few less moving pieces. The sun continues to drop. The deer to the right are alert and watchful, but I need to make another 20 yards to get into a better shooting location. We manage it.
My target is still pushing the doe, but his counterpart is now alone and broadside at just over a hundred. It's a smaller deer, but a much safer shot. I swing the scope in his direction, settle on the front shoulder, take a breath in and slowly out while gently squeezing the trigger. I watch through the glass and inexplicably he's still standing there, untouched. I can't fucking believe it. I'm caught in an exhaustion-fueled state of anger, frustration, sadness, disbelief and embarrassment. I can feel Kyle's anxiety. His goal on this trip, more than anything, was to have me wrap a tag on my first mule deer and he has been working his ass off to get me opportunities. And now I've blown it. In the last hours on our last day. I rack the bolt, pull up slowly again on the front shoulder and release another round. Before the sound even registers, I see him drop. I fall to my back in elation and gratitude. Hands over my face. Stealing a glance at Kyle I see the smile but also the relief. We've pulled off an 11th hour miracle after so many days of work.
We find the animal where he fell. Walking up, I pay my quiet respects and give thanks for the blessing of his life before we begin the quartering, as the sun continues to dip lower. We make quick work of the field dressing; two quarters, the backstraps, tenderloins and head go in my pack (I need to earn my harvest) and Kyle takes the other two quarters. We have a long hike back, but gratefully many of the miles are on level ground across the plateau before we make our way down, down, down to the cliff. The pack is heavy but I enjoy the weight.
As we work our way back, Kyle spots another group of deer in a draw and wants to make a move. I stay near the top and watch through the binos as he slowly creeps into position. I scan as the three deer work into range. He sits motionless. The standoff seems to last an eternity and the pack is cutting into my shoulders. I readjust and shift my weight and then see him drop into the drainage and out of sight.
I'm left on my own, unsure of how to proceed. After waiting a while longer, I decide I need to keep moving. There's still a long trek in front of me, including several steep downhills and, my most worrisome, the game trail down the final cliff. A pitch at this point I will be making in the dark. I labor on, taking a long, circuitous route in order to stay safely out of wind and potential shooting.
And then the backbreaking descent begins. Now feeling the true weight of the pack on my back and shoulders and knees. Each step slow, cautious, and strenuous. Ever winding down until the last of it comes into view. The final test. I grip the trekking poles tightly, adjust the pack one final time and sidehill down the perilous path by headlamp. More than once I lose my footing, feeling the weight on my back pushing me awkwardly. But I manage to recover, eventually making it down to the truck; drenched in sweat but thoroughly relieved. I drop the pack and wait, now seeing a lone headlamp cut through the dark, following the path I took earlier. And soon I'm joined by my son. Words aren't there, but we share a high-five that I pull into a hug and a thank you, before we head home.
Teddy Roosevelt went on to say this: "No man who, for his good fortune, has at times in his life endured toil and hardship, ever fails to appreciate the strong elemental pleasures of rest after labor, food after hunger, warmth and shelter after bitter cold."
I'm ready for the elemental pleasures of a cold beer and a hot shower.
In the moment I'm reminded that so many of my most cherished (or at least most memorable) adventures have included at least some level of danger, fear, or misery. The panic of being lost, sleepless freezing-cold nights, being wet for days on end, biting insects that made me question my sanity, physical exhaustion, blisters, bruises, sickness, pain, gnawing hunger, unquenchable thirst, wild animals, questionable weather and even more questionable choices all have played a role.
But these experiences nudge me out of my comfort zone. Cause me to push a little harder. Pay attention a little closer. Breathe a little deeper. Relish those daily comforts a little more.
They remind me that I'm alive, and leave me longing for the next one.