An unlikely hunter’s respect for the season.
The emotions that good hunters need to cultivate are love and service more than courage. The sentiments of the hunt then become translated into art. —James Swan
Like any time-honored stereotype, the public image of a serious hunter is deeply ingrained: steely eyes peering out between wild whiskers and a weathered hat brim; a camouflaged shadow moving stealthily among the boulders and trees before dropping to one knee, lever-action rifle cradled expertly in capable, work-hardened hands; a sure squeeze and a clean kill followed by emotionless, efficient butchery. In a word: burly. In two words: not me.
But I hunt. It surprises my crunchier granola-type friends when I mention the mule deer I shot last year, or the antelope tenderloins in my freezer. I guess I’m more of a backcountry skier, climber, mountain-biker dude than hunter badass. I’m certainly not burly. And yet I value the hunt—not simply as a source of meat, but as a cultural necessity, shared experience, and damn good time.
Meat, of course, is my ultimate goal. There’s nothing sweeter than just-killed tenderloin, and nothing more satisfying than fresh-ground sausage. I challenge anyone who disagrees to a BB-gun duel. But there’s so much more.
Two years ago I hunted a patch of ground east of Livingston with an old-timer named Harry. He grew up there, on an enormous ranch of the sort that only the Hollywood ultra-wealthy own any more, and he recalled a history of the land that no hobby rancher could ever hope to simulate. There was the abandoned homestead of a king of rodeo bulls, who died in a tragic car wreck long ago. There was the hand-hewn one-room schoolhouse where he went to school, and from which graduated an eventual NFL player. That ridge over yonder? That was the beginnings of the badlands where the antelope hid after opening day. That ranch over there, well, it’s managed by a cousin, or second cousin, or something like that, who works for an Italian multi-millionaire. How crazy is that?
I could listen to Harry’s stories and never fire a shot, and I’d be happy. But Harry knows, among other things, where the game lies down. And he’s a generous soul, who also values all that goes into a hunt. He values the time spent waiting for the fog to lift in the morning, with thick black coffee and quiet, sparse conversation. He values the singular competency of a clean shot, and the bloody, metallic ritual of cleaning the carcass, and the tradition of a long pull of Jeremiah Weed upon hoisting the animal into the truck. He values the late breakfast at a small-town café, where bullshit flows like gravy over biscuits, and strangers admire animals laid out in truck beds. And as it turns out, I value these things too.
I’m not burly. I’m not a hunter, in the stereotypical sense, at least. I’m a Montanan who loves good meat and good company, and as long as that’s good enough for Harry, it’s good enough for me.