** This was a feature in , Jan-Feb 2019 issue of Bugle magazine, the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation's great publication. Enjoy it, and thank you. **
When I was a boy, growing up in Northern Vermont, I kept a “trout journal” chronicling my fishing adventures. It’s fun for me to read through it now, nearly 40 years after my first entries, reliving those days I spent pursuing brook trout with my father. The choppy, pencil-printed words detailing the things I found in the woods – rusted maple sap buckets peppered with birdshot scars, skunk cabbage plants bursting through stubborn snow drifts, or a mottled grouse feather – timestamp the very beginning of my love affair with the wilderness.
I pulled that journal out of my gun safe in Montana a few nights ago, almost 2000 miles from where I began it, and opened it to a random page. I read the last entry from the 1980 season when I was eight years old, a boy heartbroken by the notion that he couldn’t fish again for six months. It had been a cold, rainy day shortly before Halloween, with fallen maple and birch leaves spinning downstream, the naked limbs of their trees stretching into low clouds. My dad and I had spent the afternoon on the Barton River, where he had cast his royal coachman fly into riffles for two hours without a strike. I had watched him intently, knowing that if his rod bent with the pull of fish he would hand it to me, listening to strings of geese high overhead where their calls all seemed to be saying farewell to what I loved doing most.
As my eyes passed over the printed words, I could see the broken, 19th-Century gin bottle I’d found leaking from a sandbar, heard my father’s optimistic voice saying we’d try another bend in the river, and then later on our way home remembered how we’d stopped for Wise brand potato chips and an ice cream sandwich, an incongruous snack on a day when rain felt as if it could change to snow.
The journal entry, and the 1980 fishing season, ended with the simple sentence, “Goodbyes are very hard.”
They haven’t become any easier for me, though as I’ve grown older I’ve come to understand that they are a part of life, and I try to view them with less sadness than the boy who cried when his Vermont fishing season and summer days afield with his father ended.
Still, today is difficult. I’m sitting on a tiny patch of south-facing, glacial gravel in an oceanic expanse of snow toward the end of what’s been one hell of a long winter in Southwest Montana. Less than one hundred yards from me, a bull elk is doing the same thing. He’s been sleeping most of the morning, curled into a ball, his chin on his forelegs, lying in the sun like some type of antlered cat. But now he’s awake and looking at me, my scent no doubt stirring wisps of primordial fear, tempered I hope by the time of year and some understanding that my days as hunter ended months earlier. Either because he recognizes this or is simply too weak to care, he itches at his ear with a hind leg, a few feeble strokes with a well-worn hoof, then closes his eyes again. This bull is dying, and I’m spending a silent day here saying goodbye, tipping my hat to him and also to change.
On an early-June evening in 1995, also chronicled in my fishing journal, I was the one throwing a coachman while my father looked on from the riverbank in our hometown. I had taken a Payne bamboo rod, custom built for my grandfather when he was a young man, now reserved for special occasions. Bats swooped low over the water, feeding on a hatch, some cutting so close that I could see their clawed feet tucked under their leathery wings. As day gave up the ghost, fog forming over the water the way it does when night will be clear and chilly, I set up on a good fish. My dad watched silently as I played the trout, something he’d done thousands of times since he’d taught me to fish when I two years old, but then, when I lifted the big brown from the water by its tail, exclaimed, “Mister man, now that’s what I call a brown trout!”
It was the largest fish either of us had caught on a fly in a Vermont river, some over 20 inches and thick through. On any other night, it would have been headed to the taxidermist’s, but that evening I returned it to the river, a fitting goodbye from a boy striking out for Montana in the morning.
Less than ten hours later, my beat-up Ford Tempo loaded with most of my worldly possessions - notably a shotgun, rifle, and the Payne fly rod my father handed me in our driveway before hugging me goodbye, I began a 2000-mile journey toward a land that I was certain would become my home.
A week later, on my first fishing trip in Montana – a day spent negotiating a maze of swollen beaver bogs at the foot of the Pintlar Mountains - I found four shed moose antlers, a mineral-stained, ancient buffalo skull, and I caught a better mess of brook trout than I had in New England in over a decade. Ecstatic, I called my dad that evening and told him that when he came to visit later that summer he’d better plan on staying a while and brining a whole bunch of grasshopper flies. I couldn’t have agreed more when he told me that it sounded as though I was in exactly the right place.
Butte, Montana may have been exactly the right place, but I didn’t think that using my journalism degree to get a straight news job at the local paper was at all the right thing to do. It wasn’t in keeping with the frontier existence I had envisioned, or with the secret plans I had to write novels the way my father did. I’d carve out a readership in the West the way he had in New England. So, instead of a cubicle, computer, and newsroom, I bought a chainsaw and interviewed for a job cutting timber. The only question my employer asked me was whether or not I’d cut my leg off, to which I fervently replied that I hoped not. He said that he hoped not, too, and with that I was hired.
My first day in the woods ended with my hands stained dark from lodgepole pitch that had leaked through the thin, cotton gloves I wore, my ears ringing from the roar of my saw, my back aching from bending over for more than 10 hours, and a new appreciation for the jaws of hungry horseflies. But my last thoughts that evening, lying in bed more exhausted than I’d been in years, were of the cow elk I’d seen on the way to the woodlot and how they’d simply vanished behind a billowing curtain of mountain fog – visible one second and so completely gone the next that I wondered if they’d really been standing there.
I wanted to hunt them. To shoot a great bull. To feel dried blood on my hands and the weight of what would surely be many heavy packs of meat. I wanted to hunt them with the same instinctive need that had drawn me to the sport even before I began keeping a fishing journal.
I was three years old when my dad took me to look at a couple of buck whitetails hanging from a neighbor’s tree in Vermont, admitting to me years later that he believed the sight might be too disconcerting for a boy my age.
“I was quickly disabused of any such notion,” he’d said, recounting how I’d walked up to the larger of the deer, wrapped my hands around his antlers and solemnly announced that I would shoot many of them.
My dad and I could never trace the lineage of my need to hunt. Everyone in his family, back as far as he could remember, was a fine fisherman but like him had too much empathy for other wild animals to pursue them with a gun. He owned a single-shot, 16-gauge shotgun and would, when I was ten or eleven, sometimes carry it when we walked in the woods, but if it hadn’t been for me pestering him night and day to hunt grouse I doubt it would have seen much use. I was a “throwback,” he often said, and while he fully supportedmy hunting it was never something we shared like our time on a trout stream. Thinking of those elk I’d seen on my first day as a logger, I figured some day maybe he’d join me on a Montana hunt, even if he didn’t do more than keep camp during the day.
I cut timber for almost ten years, rattling around nearly every corner of Montana in a 1983 Toyota pickup on my days off, happily living paycheck to paycheck, building a collection of Yellowstone River agates, moss-covered shed elk antlers, a prodigious stack of rejection notices from magazines where I submitted unsolicited short works of fiction, and a couple of letters from law schools where, during a moment of weakness, I’d applied, been accepted, then came to my senses before enrolling. The seasons rolled along like the Big Hole River at peak runoff, and my twenties passed in a blur of everything I loved doing outside, including many August afternoons in the Pioneer Mountains where my father joined me once a summer to catch brook trout.
Sitting here today, the elk now on unsteady feet, grubbing at the ground where he has already eaten every blade of grass longer than the whiskers on his muzzle, I have the odd sense that those early days in Montana occurred during an entirely different lifetime - a jetlag so severe that when I say it out loud, “Nearly a quarter century ago,” it simply doesn’t seem possible.
Through this bull’s antlers, I can see a horizon of deep snow on a distant ridgeline where the wind blows it in curly wisps, tendrils of white spiraling into the blue sky. I imagine that this bull knows that country and I wonder if he shares the same odd feeling that time runs as fast and straight as an arrow? Probably not, I decide, though when he lies down again and shifts toward the west wind blowing from that horizon, his nostrils flare. Perhaps the sun has warmed spruce in some high seep there enough to bring its scent this far. Perhaps with it come dim recollections of wallow mud and the crackle of dead limbs smashed from tree trunks by strong antlers during the rut.
There’s something strikingly out of place about a day of bright sun with the infant stirrings of spring in the air when this bull grows weaker and weaker. I think he’s six – maybe seven years old – and while I don’t know what that translates into in elk years, I believe it’s a full life. He’s known what it means to be a herd bull, seen fear in the eyes of other bulls who backed down without a September fight, and, aware of it or not, has no doubt fathered bulls approaching their own time to claim a harem. A thousand years from now there may well be elk here who can trace their heritage directly back to him. There’s not much more for a bull to ask for, I think, as he opens his eyes and swivels his head to look at me again.
Yes, I’m still here, and I anthropomorphize too much. This bull probably has no interest in saying goodbye to anything, save perhaps his curious visitor he wishes would get the hell out of here.
In my early thirties, when I dropped my last lodgepole, landing it neatly between a pair of others I’d spared, I couldn’t wait to say goodbye to my logging career. I was ready to walk – no, to run- away from it and never look back. Ready to shuck off a starving artist’s lifestyle that, despite the publication of a couple of novels and a slightly higher acceptance rate for essays, had bankrupted me. I’d had more than a bellyful of sharing a three-room house with packrats, choosing between a gallon of milk for my fridge or a gallon of gas for my truck, and thinking up lame excuses for my increasingly-impatient landlord when my rent was invariably late.
On a February morning when my Butte thermometer showed eleven below zero, I gassed up my truck – thank you, Visa – and drove nearly 300 miles to the Clearwater River Drainage in Idaho. I spent the afternoon fishing for steelhead in a light sweater, soaking up 50-degree sunshine, feeling the pull of powerful fish that had come all the way from the Pacific Ocean to spawn. As the day faded, I drove back to Butte, and the following morning threw everything I owned into a small U-haul trailer and spent the next 700 miles on I-90 en route to Nashville, Tennessee.
The dogwoods and daffodils were in full bloom when I arrived, ready to give city living a shot for a few months while I helped my brother-in-law out with a construction project he was supervising.
There are worse things for a young man to do than spend a little time in a city like Nashville. I played on a heck of an adult baseball team, loved the anonymity that I found in nightlife crowds, didn’t object to being paid well – in cash – for a day’s work, and traveled throughout the South, a transplanted Yankee coming by way of Montana, which I quickly learned was a better place to introduce myself from.
Then, on a late summer day that arrived with just a touch of something other than sweltering heat and humidity, I rented another - even smaller U-haul trailer - and headed west. On the edge of the Missouri River outside Saint Louis, I stopped in a pull-out near the Arch and looked in my rearview mirror at a hazy horizon, saying a quiet goodbye to the South, uncertain what the future held for me, fully convinced that whatever it was lay back in Montana.
This elk seems more relaxed now, content to lie still as the sun cruises toward its zenith, opening his eyes occasionally without really focusing, lost in sleep and I hope dreams, too. He never doubted for a split second where he belonged, I bet, born in some of the best country to be an elk in, though I smile wondering what he thought when his first set of spike antlers dropped from his head on some late-spring day years earlier. I’ve seen animals stare at their reflections in water on more than one occasion, and I’m guessing there was some instinctual relief when this bull noticed larger, velvet-covered antlers growing back when he lowered his head to drink later that summer.
It’s got to be a rough and tumble existence for a bull during that second September. A freshman at homecoming, circling outside the glow of the bonfire, envious of everything going on closer, foolishly unafraid of the senior he picks a fight with. I’m sure that under this bull’s coat of thinning hair are the scars from those early brawls, hard lessons written in permanent, striated lines carved by the tines of larger elk.
In time, this bull taught the same lessons, I know. That’s the way it works in Nature - no malice, no revenge, only adherence to a blueprint thousands of years old, a perfect roadmap to the survival of a species.
Our map is less defined, I think, smiling as I remember the eagerness with which I signed up with an explosives company servicing a gold mine upon my return to Montana. Might as well add miner to my resume of logger and writer and homebuilder, I thought. Anything that pays the bills and allows me time in Montana’s wilderness.
It wasn’t bad work and when, two years later, the company asked if I was up for running a large job in the eastern part of Montana, I jumped at the chance. I didn’t tell them that the sweetest part of the deal happened to be the fact that this job bordered the very ground where Chuck Adams had arrowed his largest bull elk, once the archery world record.
So, on my thirty-fifth birthday, I found myself working 18 hours in a coal mine owned by the Crow Indians, diving head-first into corporate America management in a part of Montana that didn’t feel anything like the mountains I’d called home. The summers were boiling hot, the winters cold and windy, but the pay was good, the benefits excellent, and once more time slid by on rails.
I didn’t have quite the time to fish, hunt, and explore Montana the way that I had when I was logging around Butte, but my father and I continued our annual August trips to the mountains for brook trout, returning year after year to the same streams where we often wondered if we were the only ones to ever cast to these voracious trout. They weren’t big – most under ten inches – but, as he said, were as pretty as the places they lived.
A few years ago, during one of Montana’s early fall days when the high country awakes to frost and the sky is as blue as the haze of color around a brook trout’s red spots, we fished several miles of tiny stream that flowed through patches of mature timber and meadows of blooming sage. We fished past a rusty, horse-drawn hay rake, its tines thrust into the air by alders which had taken root beneath it, the sagging timbers of a long-abandoned homestead, and a small series of tepee rings above a tight bend in the creek where I found a beautiful, red jasper hide scraper. That evening, as embers from our fire drifted skyward toward millions of stars and a lone elk bugled in the distance, I almost asked my dad to come back and join me in November for a few days. Instead, we talked about many of the places we’d fished together for the past forty years.
He asked me once, shortly before we retired to our tent, if I was as happy then as I’d been during my first few years in Montana when I would often call him up, as I’d done after my first fishing expedition, eager to recount some new adventure. I thought about it a long time and finally said that Montana was a great place to live.
My father headed back to Vermont a couple of days later, and on the day I was scheduled to return to work I woke up, looked in the mirror, and with dumbfounded disbelief, found myself smack in the middle of my life. Instead of driving to the mine, I rolled to the top of Beartooth Pass in the Absaroka Range, hiked to the edge of a no-name, alpine pond, and sat on a large boulder until a north wind that kept the mosquitos at bay had chilled me to the bone.
I watched clouded sulfur butterflies dancing with stunted, blue lupines, saw the shadow of a golden eagle zip across the water ten feet from shore, heard the whistles of hoary marmots, and caught a clump of winter mountain goat hair as it floated by like milkweed silk. As tiny waves distorted the tracks of a few elk who’d come to drink early that morning, erasing their hoof prints from mud specked with iron pyrite, nothing – literally nothing – in the entire universe seemed as important to me as spending more time in places exactly like this. When I climbed down from that oblong hunk of granite, I knew my days bound to a desk where I worried about profits and loss, regulatory reporting, engineering design, and a 401K were as numbered as the remaining ice-free days on that pond. With a mindset equal parts fear and determination, I said goodbye to it all in an instant.
No worries about retirement for this bull elk, I think as I watch him shift in his bed as the wind swings out of the south. Here in the wild, old age is a rarely-afforded luxury. Animals often see their lives fade from the peak of physical fitness to the very end in the matter of just a few months. A tiny bit more snow than usual in February, a spring that breaks just a week or two late, or an unusually heavy snowstorm in April are all that separate the living from the dead.
I’m not going to sit here much longer, I decide. As much as I might like to think it, I’ve got no part in this bull’s world. Mine may not lie among production reports and quarterly sales projections, but at best it runs only along the periphery of his. I look at my camera, motionless on its tripod, the tool I’ve chosen now to help show parts of the natural world as only I see them, then peer through its viewfinder at the bull. His eyes are closed, and while I’ll leave soon I won’t move quite yet.
As clouds stream fast overhead, joining and rolling like the surf of an inverted sea, I think about my fishing journal that I read from the other night. Before I returned it to my safe, I thumbed through the couple of hundred pages between 1980 and its last entry, one I made years after I stopped catching Vermont brook trout, and again I’m struck by both the pervasive nature of goodbyes in life and also the difficulty with which I confront them.
The learning curve for me and hunting elk in Montana approximates the curvature of our Earth. Each time I believe I’ve got something figured out, I’m proven so wrong that I wonder if I’ll ever master more than a few general principles. It’s with growing suspicion that I view the bulls on my wall as examples of elk which, like some of the Crow Indians who worked for me said, “gave themselves to me.”
Still, I was determined to invite my dad along for a hunt. We’d do it once, completing one of my bucket-list wishes, and I might even go out of my way to see our week conclude without a bull on the ground. I had a general game plan for how I’d ease into the proposition over Christmas that winter, sitting around a lit tree in a world full of snow, strangely optimistic that he would agree.
Instead, while the smell of balsam fir filled the house where I grew up and a pair of wood stoves strained to keep us warm against a biting cold front straight down out of the Arctic, we talked fishing and baseball. A couple of weeks earlier, during a trip to the local doctor’s office for some antibiotics to kick a stubborn chest infection, Xrays revealed that my father had advanced lung cancer, the result of the massive radiation he’d used to treat prostate cancer nine years earlier.
We talked about writing – about how a life lived on the fringe of comfort but close to dreams often lends itself to stories. We talked about hunting some, too, once more perplexed by how the need to do so had reared its head so strong in me. I showed my father photos from that elk season, pausing to let him study the bull that I’d killed. He did so for a long time before smiling and saying, “What a beautiful animal.”
I was able to spend almost three weeks at home with my parents. During that time, while I filled the side porch with split firewood, helped my dad to and from various appointments with oncologists, and made sure he had a steady of supply of popsicles and ice cream to ease the ever-present pain in his throat, I watched cancer take his voice, his ability to walk without a walker and to write with a pen, and some of the light from his eyes. I hated it with a vitriol unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, frustrated that we – cancer and I – couldn’t meet in some dark alley where I could cut its head off and hack it apart with a hunting knife.
It was snowing hard on the morning I had to return to Montana, still near enough the winter solstice that at 7am there was no hint of light. I stoked the wood stoves, touched base with my sister, en route to Vermont from her home in Nashville, then watched my dad rise from the living room couch where he was sitting, shove his walker to the side, and take three steady steps toward me to give me a hug.
“Down the road,” I said before walking out the door.
“Down the road,” he whispered as loudly as he could.
I was on the upper Missouri River, tied up with a big, male rainbow that was hanging stubbornly in deep water, when my cell phone buzzed in my pocket two weeks later. I wouldn’t have had it with me if I hadn’t been expecting the call, but I let it ring without answering. On the other end of the country, as tiny snowflakes fell from a sky that smelled like wood smoke, my dad lost his short battle with cancer. I wrote about it that evening in my journal, and the large rainbow that I eventually landed and, in his honor, released. Unaccustomed to writing more than my name in longhand, the letters weren’t as neat as the ones beside them from thirty years ago, but in a short passage describing how, when a five-pound rainbow strikes, I can feel heft and power and disdain for all on the other end of the line, I said goodbye as best I could.
It’s time for me to say it again, this time to this bull elk, and once more the exact words to use elude me. A picture then, I suppose, something entirely beyond his realm of comprehension but meaningful to me. I don’t allow my eye to focus on the elk’s ribs, etched against his coat, or the lack of grass on the ground where he lies, seeing only the larger picture of a great animal in great country, frozen for a split second, not at the end of life but in the here and now. Then, just as I begin to press the shutter release, he tips his chin back, closes his eyes, and bugles a single time. It’s not the powerful voice of a bull in September proclaiming his dominance, but a more airy, hollow song that quickly gets caught in the wind, blowing north over my head, sound waves dissipating like the ripples on the surface of a river as a large trout propels itself back to the deep.