Hd: Elk hunting, Part I
What am I doing out here in the middle of the night?This is how these stories start. Out on the hunt, time forgotten because lodgepoles and spruce trees have blocked the sun for hours, and there’s no way to know exactly which drainage I’m following or when I’ll strike up the path again. Patchy snow crunches under my feet and the shadows begin to dance. Nothing is flat. Everything is a side hill. I’m surrounded by stacks of deadfall, the light is past fading and off in the distance is the sound of a tiny creek.Hopefully it’s the right creek, and I’m going west, not south, and warm soup is waiting for me at camp. The temperature has plummeted tonight. Looking up toward a rocky pinnacle in the distance I think of how close I am to outer space. And that’s the kind of cold it is outer-space cold.Astronaut cold.Where’s my spacesuit cold.No clouds, just a vacuum where air used to be. It doesn’t hit me that I might truly be lost until one leg drops into a boggy hole. My body jerks to the left and I drop an elbow into frozen mud, gun tangled. Where the hell am I, and (again) what am I doing out here in the middle of the night?Stuck in the mud, cold and lost, I have the irresistible urge to laugh.This always happens.Without fail, some new strategy has me exploring new terrain, tracking animals on their home turf until late evening. When shooting light begins to fade I look up, theorize on where I am, and strike out confidently in the wrong direction.I have survival gear, but I know I’ll hardly need it: waterproof matches, rock-hard Power Bars, a few useless maps, my knife and headlamp.There are bears about, and mountain lions, too. I’ve crossed their tracks several times. During the daytime the tracks give me a sense of predatory brotherhood. During the night the tracks loom I think of the clawmarks in the snow, several inches long. The bear is burly. The cat is stealthy. No surprises.I forego the headlamp. Lost in the darkness, I know my pupils have been dilating with the twilight. Nothing would be better warning to my fellow predators that I was on my way (clear out!), but electric light is limiting. It will only give about five meters of good vision and leave me in a sea of blackness. I need distance vision to gauge my location.And the moon is coming out.And the stars.Here they come and this is what I’ve been waiting for.I’m thinking of Moby Dick, of Shackleton, of the Essex and all the hosts of seamen who found their way by starlight on the otherwise unmarked sea. Despite my shiver I grin, check my course from the relative open space of a pocket meadow, and sail onward: west it is (not south), and the trail is only minutes away.On the edge of camp I wait a bit just out of range of the lantern light where I can hear low murmurs of conversation. Above me is the open night sky autumn constellations in the Northern Hemisphere upturned and hanging, all of outer space above, a universe of mystery with only one known useful, identifiable purpose: to help us navigate through darkness.Now the soup.Tom Boyd is a lifelong Vail resident and freelance writer. His work appears regularly in the Vail Trail and the Rocky Mountain News, among other publications. He can be reached at email@example.com or (970) 390-1585.
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