I don’t get up at 6:00am. I never get up at 6:00am. I make software for a living and one of the reasons I chose that career was because it never ever requires me to get up at 6:00am. But there I was rubbing my eyes and envying my still-snoozing wife. Dressing in the near dark, layering fleece over flannel over cotton and hoping that it would be enough in the frigid November air, I fought against the bulk as I stretched to tie my shoes.
My uncle-in-law lives in northern Washington alongside a slow, chilly creek. The steep-sided valley of scattered lodgepole and aspen was covered in shallow fog and mile upon mile of tawny dry grass as I slipped from the guesthouse and headed for Dave’s front door. A tiny wisp of smoke rising from his chimney told me the coffee was ready and Dave was probably struggling to tie his own oversized shoes. Dave had drawn a late-season tag in a unit adjacent to his own property. It was his first yard in three years and by inviting his inexperienced, suburban nephew along he was taking a certain risk. Nobody ever said so in as many words but it was implicit that my role was to carry binoculars, stay behind the rifle and not ask too many questions.
While I’d grown up in a rural setting, there were no hunters in my family. I was familiar enough with deer but only as highway hazards and I couldn’t tell you if we were dodging whitetail, mulies, or rabid saber-tooth deer on Hwy 18 near Big Bear. I didn’t grow up with any aversion to hunting, no moral conflict over the steaks I ate, but neither did I understand the motivation to hunt. There was a stereotype in my mind, born no doubt of Southern California politics, that hunters were Bud-pounding, monosyllabic Neanderthals. But in fact, that’s a more accurate description of surfers.
By 6:45 Dave and I were climbing a steep dirt road in his Silverado. The rising sun lit the western ridge with brilliant hues of gold and rust while most of the valley still slept in the shadows of the eastern peaks. When we stopped the truck and stepped out into the stiff breeze, I felt as if I’d never seen this country before. Adding to the otherness of it all I stood not in soil but in several inches of fine powder. Fire tore across this slope fifty years ago, thinning the thick pines, making room for the newer aspens, and covering everything in a deep blanket of ash.
With a silent nod toward a distant shape, Dave shouldered his 30-06 and headed north. He’d spotted a doe and she was patiently waiting for her sisters to climb the steep gully she had surmounted. With no pretense of stealth, Dave and I approached to within a quarter-mile before the group of females casually sought higher ground. For the next half-hour we continued in this way, following one group of females or another at a good distance, looking intently for their mates. At the time I was so intent on the next moment and not screwing up Dave’s hunt that I was both hyper-vigalent to everything he was saying but somehow also disconnected – only dimly aware that each lesson, each pointer was more than just casual information – he was also making a deposit into my soul. Dave was giving me a crash course in outdoorsmanship by pointing out details I should notice: the wind, the clouds, the faint deer trails. He would periodically raise his binoculars and survey the sprawling hillside while I dutifully copied his actions, trying to see what he saw. By the time the sun had climbed high enough to light the valley floor, we were approaching a thinly wooded saddle with sunlight streaming through the trees in long, dusty blades. “Look for the sunlight glinting off an antler,” Dave instructed. “That’s the easiest way to spot a buck.”
I was fascinated with the trees, with the light, and with the tracks we found. “See how the toes are splayed out, and the impression of the dew claw?” To me it looked like a pair of quotation marks but I nodded respectfully. “That shows the animal had to be carrying a lot of weight. Probably a buck and a good-sized one too.”
From the driver’s side window woods are just woods and they all look about the same. Sure I could identify a half-dozen varieties of trees, recognize the major geological formations but here I was getting a glimpse of something far more, far deeper. This wasn’t calculated environmental science but wood-wisdom. A druidic knowing of the land and its inhabitants that could only come from sharing the space with fir and fox and the day’s first breath. As much as I was being instructed, I was being mentored.
More than that, I was being initiated.
As I’ve grown and learned and watched my son grow and learn I’m increasingly convinced of something I first read in Wild at Heart: masculinity cannot be learned, it can only be bestowed. And it can’t come from the world of women, no matter how well-intentioned or equipped, it comes only as a kind of substance that a young man eats, almost like a food, from the willing hands of older, more experienced men. It’s an inheritance, a gift and while that could sound exclusive or sexist in the wrong setting, it’s actually healthy.
It’s actually holy.
As we crouched there over the tracks I caught a sudden movement out of the corner of my eye. Bringing the binoculars up, I scanned the hillside and spotted another doe lying in a patch of rabbit brush, twitching her ears and rolling her neck. Following her gaze I quickly spotted four other deer slowly moving up the slope.
“There’s a buck over there,” I whispered to Dave.
“Where?” he said.
“See the dead tree? Look just to the left.”
There was easily a quarter-mile between us, probably more and almost no cover. Longing to engage, I said, “If we get behind that knoll we can close in without any of them seeing us.”
Dave looked at me a long moment, his eyes squinting in an unreadable expression and in that silence I was certain I’d said something obviously stupid.
“We could do that,” he said, “But then we won’t be able to see them either. If they move we won’t know where they went.”
I nodded, just a little crestfallen. Of course – it was a dumb idea.
“Still,” Dave said, inhaling sharply, “it looks like our best chance of getting a clean shot. Let’s do it.”
Without another word he stood up and started toward the tree line. I was partly caught up in what had just happened. Really? You’re going to take my input? We’re going with my plan? But without a word to my insecurity Dave was walking calmly and deliberately while he stopped now and again to watch the distant deer. Trying not to rush, stopping whenever a head would turn or an ear would twitch, we moved behind a small hill. Quickly now we crept across its base toward the dead tree that had helped us spot the buck. Not quite sure how close this detour had brought us; we eased quietly to its crest and took a peek. No deer – just another, lower hill between the courting buck and us.
Faced with open ground and a possibly closing window of opportunity we had to move quickly. Darting between rocks and pines, painfully seeking to make each step on the dry pine needles as silent as possible, my heart was racing. Above us was a large outcropping of basalt and the point of no return. If we reached that rock and found the buck on the other side, the shot would be clean and short and simple. If we poked our heads out to find nothing but sage, the day would be over and Dave would try again tomorrow, without me.
Those last fifty yards seemed like a mile. Every twig that snapped sounded like thunder, every sniff of my nose seemed like a hurricane. I couldn’t believe that I could make such a racket; and it seemed impossible that the radar-dish ears of these animals could miss it. Step be step we closed the distance and I dared to glance around the crumbling stones and what I saw took my breath away. Our blind ascent had brought us up a bare 30 yards from our quarry. The whole group was still lounging around, completely unaware of our presence, and I literally gasped in surprise. In that instant ten gigantic ears swiveled to face me and again I was threatened with the possibility that I had just blown it. Dave’s rifle wasn’t ready and any motion on his part would undoubtedly be seen. So we froze – stock still, trying to stop our tired breath from coming at all and helpless to do anything else we waited for what seemed like an eternity.
Gradually, blessedly, the deer went back to their munching and Dave slowly lifted the Remington to his shoulder. A moment later a sharp crack echoed off the hillside and a four-point buck fell among his escorts. The does stood, bewildered at the sound and only moved off when we stood up and approached them.
I won’t deny that the process of cleaning the animal soured my stomach just a bit but in hindsight it’s the detail that I remember least. The impression of that extraordinary day continues to be the glory of an autumn morning, the wonder of sharing that hillside with wild animals, and the discovery (or re-discovery) that the wilderness is not the border that surrounds and threatens my home and my life, but rather an older, more patient home that has simply grown unfamiliar.
More than that I remember the sense that has stuck around for years after the event and that was the experience of being fathered. Dave’s willingness to invite me up into something that was important to him, something his father shared with him but something he was never able to share with his daughters, was a strong antidote to my own “orphan” wounds. But of course it wasn’t just Dave and I out there but our shared Father in heaven – who was teaching us both. I’d hate to leave the impression that this path of masculinity is somehow inextricably wrapped up in guns and trucks and the spilling of blood, that’s not it at all. But it wrapped up in the exploration of things we don’t know. It’s drawn from the power of learning from God’s creation instead of being constantly surrounded by the handiwork of man. And it’s forged in the bond of one man initiating another into the larger story that we all have to share.