Only yesterday we’d been close. Somewhere in these mountains, up above us on the brushy web of trails, lumbering below us through the dark timber, they were there, we knew it. Bands of two or five or twenty elk, big-eared and wallowing, stinking of their own piss. Trying to outwit them, we’d risen before light and guzzled black coffee and clambered down to the valley floor carrying our bows and daypacks, then fanned out across the woods. When the sun finally cleared Mount Daly, it strafed the yellowing aspens, baking them until their dry leaves sizzled. Elk shit everywhere, chalky brown nubs piled on the trails like mounds of Cocoa Puffs, so thick in places that we couldn’t move without stepping in it. From the next ridge came a bull elk’s deranged bugle, like a subway train screeching to a stop. It wouldn’t be long now. Any moment they’d be stringing into the open, surfacing in the tall grass where we sat with our arrows nocked and hearts pounding.
But that was yesterday. Today it was hailing in the Rockies. The sky was a river of inky granite, the sloping lodgepole forest a treacherous, rain-slick waterslide that was hell on the knees. Most distressingly, the elk had vanished. Where had they gone? Back the way we’d come, toward Nickelson Creek? Or clear across the valley, bedded down on the north-facing benches of Willoughby Mountain? Maybe the bugling we’d heard wasn’t an elk at all, but another hunter. Maybe we’d imagined it. Maybe, we eventually had to admit, the elk had lit out of here long ago.
“There’s a lot of shit, but it’s not super fresh shit,” Nate said. Fresh elk shit is mossy, diarrheal, not this days-old breakfast-cereal stuff. I recalled the little buttes of it strewn across the trails. All week, we’d been haunted by shit. The forest was perfumed with it. And not just elk shit. Coyote shit, moose shit, fox shit, mountain lion shit, bear shit, baby bear shit. An outdoor museum of desiccated mammal shit. I could’ve started a collection. Nate toed a dried clump, an elk’s. What he would’ve given for a steaming, swampy puddle of the stuff.
Five of us had ridden into the Maroon Bells-Snowmass Wilderness near Aspen, Colorado, with four days’ worth of provisions strapped to horses and mules. Our tactical plan, so far as we had one, was to look for elk until we found them, following their sign each day as far as our legs would take us, from our camp on the northern slope of Haystack Mountain to the farthest boundaries of West Snowmass Valley, where hardly anyone ever walked. Off-trail, the routes were heavily mined with stones, thorns, thistle and platters of cow manure. On-trail, it was one long trench, deeply furrowed and granular, with every step producing a hammer strike to the meniscal cartilage.
Nate, Sung and I huffed upstream in a vapor of hail while Tyler and Sloane prowled the pine thickets a mile north. We tried to stave a rising doubt, knowing our failure might be swept away in a moment. But the weather and time were against us. Strange to think we were in the Elk Mountains — a west-central range of the Rockies and, as the name suggests, one of the elkiest places in all of Colorado, a state with more elk than any other in the country, somewhere in the neighborhood of 276,000 — and that we hadn’t seen a single one.
“We couldn’t be in a more elky spot,” Nate said as we stopped to rest on an outcrop with enormous views. To our left, we could see Snowmass Village; to our right, the imposing lavender scarps of the Maroon Bells. Normally the proud holder of a restless and unshakable optimism, Nate sounded flustered. “I mean, besides the fact that there are no elk,” he said.
A fairly sizable part of me was relieved. I’d come 2,000 miles from my home in Massachusetts to kill an elk in Colorado more or less on a whim, a decision made out of boredom with my housebound life, morbid curiosity and the supposition that it sounded like a good story. I’d never hunted before; not like this, anyway. Upland birds, sure, from a quadrunner in farm-flat Michigan. But ungulates at 11,000 feet were a whole other deal. Ditto bowhunting, which sanctioned no lapses of nerve.
Tyler, a former investment banker who’d chucked the money for a more wandering existence, and Sloane, a Texan of indomitable good cheer, sold me on a backcountry elk hunt one evening over the phone. There was no rousing pitch, no guarantees made. But I sensed in their voices the fire of the devout and the suggestion of a world rarely glimpsed by flabby, espresso-sipping milksops like me. I’d become drawn to difficulty of late. Life had gone soft in its margins, the entropy of middle age beginning to dull my basic inborn desires. It wasn’t a lost vitality I craved so much as a corrective to an abiding sense that, pleasantly settled among my possessions, I was becoming redundant. The very idea of Colorado held evocative powers. It’s not often you feel the enlargement of your world is at your fingertips, proffered solely by the generosity of others. These guys were opening a door.
I didn’t take it lightly, killing an elk. There wasn’t romance in it for me. As a lapsed vegetarian who’d dabbled in the animal rights and environmental movements in his youth (albeit innocuously: I’d read maybe 30 pages of Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation — enough to assume an insufferable air at the dinner table — and had attended one Earth Day cleanup), it dredged up some thorny, if blurry, emotions. But even now that I was here, hard upon a snow-rimmed valley in head-to-heel pixilated camouflage, those remained abstract. Whatever I was feeling, or expecting to feel — including fear, perhaps, that I’d come to Colorado under false pretenses — I could hold it apart from myself with a practiced amnesia, a detachment that only occasionally cracked open, spilling forth my innermost dregs.
Leaving the outcrop, Nate led the way through dawn shadows, the wind pressing us back. Later, we ate lunch below a headwaters, waist-deep in scrub pines, with hailstones corralling in our bootprints. Though we couldn’t see them from that blind culvert, the mountains rose steeply around us.
And suddenly, as if out of a dream, elk. Two of them, inconceivably massive, their forked outlines sheer against the trees, then exploding away. Nate ran off in pursuit, hoping to flank and turn them back toward me. As I nocked an arrow, Sung crouched nearby, cameras clanking from every limb.
“This is it?” he said. Accustomed to photographing rally car races and surf competitions, he was piqued for drama.
I scanned the branches ahead, my terror suddenly razor sharp, not hypothetical any longer but lacerating and precise. I wondered if I might be hallucinating, if by contemplating the maidenhair ferns at my feet I could snap-to elsewhere — say, on my couch in Cambridge with a glass of white wine at hand. I’d been foolhardy and probably deluded in coming here. And yet here I was, waiting to find out if I could pierce the heart of a 1,000-pound mammal from 50 yards with a carbon-fiber arrow weighing less than a pencil, and positively shaking with fear.
I’d had all summer to prepare. Plenty of time. Ah, vast, glacially moving time! It spooled out infinitely toward the horizon.
Tyler had mailed a parade of gifts: broadhead arrows, camo, boots, gloves, wool socks, and on loan, a beautiful, pitch-black compound bow, plus arrow rest, stabilizer, bowsite, quiver, cables, and cams. Everything I needed to get started. He didn’t have to tell me that practice was imperative, competence if not mastery with a bow, nonnegotiable — that the worst outcome imaginable would be to fling an errant broadhead into an elk’s eye, a wound that would make tracking impossible and likely end in the elk’s agonizing death in a forsaken river bottom.
When we spoke in April, I guaranteed Tyler that I’d get to the archery range two or three times a week before September. But I hadn’t yet bothered to google “Boston archery range.” It turned out there weren’t any. Zero. The closest was in Foxboro, an hour’s drive away. What that amounted to — without going too deep into the logistical minutiae of finding a few maddeningly slim windows between work, caring for my infant daughter, and rudimentary self-care — was driving to and from Foxboro in grinding, wrist-slitting rush-hour traffic on the rare evenings I had free between May and September, which was four. That was it. Four trips to the archery range in four months.
All told, that came out to about five and a half hours of range time. Really it was more like three hours, because my first time there, I’d mostly paced around on the sidewalk while the shop guy assembled my bow. After he walked me through basic shooting mechanics, I lobbed arrows at paper targets 20 and 30 yards away. Upon inspection, my aim suggested blindness or severe cataracts. “You’re aiming for the center,” the shop guy said. I shot some more, before my arms turned to noodles. I hadn’t counted on this part, simple physical inadequacy. At full draw, I was holding 60 pounds of pressure — for me, a superhuman feat of strength — which further torpedoed my sight lines. Before I was done, I’d wrought irreparable damage to the wainscoting. An arrow lodged in the ceiling had to be abandoned.
It got better. I became a fair shot at 30 yards, drifting high right but mostly in the yellow kill zone, though it was always indoors and on a stationary target, the closest approximation to Colorado elk country in the Greater Boston area. I got winded going up the stairs to my apartment. My knees spoke to me at night, whispering of distant hillside calamities. I could feel something floating around my lower back, a phantom twelfth-vertebral throb that sharpened and dulled at intervals. When I could, I did push-ups, my wife cheering me on.
I read a little. I found out that elk are one of the only North American animals that have ivory — their top two canines, thought to be holdovers from the tusks ancient elk used in combat; that elk antlers are true bone that can grow an inch a day, and that the custom of combing the woods for shed antlers is called “pickin’ bone”; that in Norse mythology, Freyr, the god of virility and prosperity and lord of the light elves, used an elk antler in battle instead of a sword; that to Vikings, elk antlers symbolized masculine prowess; that American bull elks can weigh 1,000 pounds, but can also lose up to 23 percent of their body weight during a rut, being so occupied with mating that they plumb forget to eat; that elk self-segregate, splitting between male and cow-and-calf herds; that mature bulls try to infiltrate cow herds during the fall rut, and when successful must defend their “harem” against challengers; that adolescent bulls form bachelor clubs of sorts, carousing the hills together and, one imagines, gazing longingly at cows; that elk are excellent swimmers; that they can run up to 45 mph; that cows are unusually bonded to their calves and will eat the evidence of a birth, including placentas, to hide the presence of a newborn, and will also ingest calves’ feces and urine to obscure their scent from predators; that when protecting their young, cows will sometimes attack small predators like coyotes and wolves, and have even been known to stand off grizzlies; that only 12 percent of Colorado elk hunters are successful with a bow; that wounding elk is not uncommon, because ungulates are known to “jump the string” upon hearing the release of an arrow, which partly accounts for a sobering cripple-to-kill ratio among bowhunters; that the Department of Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks found that during one season in that state, only about half of the 2,370 bowhunters who hit an elk with an arrow retrieved their kills.
Which is all to say that by the time I boarded my flight to Aspen, I was a wreck, emotionally and physically, and pretty much resigned to maiming an elk. I didn’t put it that way at the time. I told people I’d be okay with just seeing an elk, and that mostly I was looking forward to the sidebar attractions: riding horseback through leafy crowns of aspen, camping in unfettered darkness, trekking a wild landscape that stretched all the way down to the Rio Grande and beyond. But what I really felt was a constant waking terror, right down to a pronounced puckering of my asshole. The odds seemed overwhelming that I was headed to a very intimate and avoidable tragedy.
We’d been sitting there, Sung and I, long enough to grow drowsy and complacent, when into the clearing behind us, shaking his head, stepped Nate.
“Mule deer,” he said. Not elk. The flash of khaki-colored rumps had fooled even him. I was filled with a weird mix of relief and disappointment.
We moved on to where granite peaks climbed and canted backwards, spilling Hummer-sized boulders across a grassy bowl. By late morning, we’d hiked most of Daly Basin, gaining and losing 2,000 feet of elevation, and I felt like I’d fallen down a flight of stairs. Sung, too, had a whiskey-stumble to his gait, though Nate, the oldest by years, lunged on tirelessly.
Late that afternoon, the sun broke out with miraculous resolve. We found a lawn-like bench and fell asleep gazing up at mountain goats huffing the grass across the valley. At 1,000 yards, they were mere specks of brilliant white. Clouds streaked across the sky. Two golden eagles, an adult trailed by a juvenile, chirped back and forth over the treetops.
I had in my pack a copy of Olaus and Margaret Murie’s Wapiti Wilderness, about their 37 years in the Grand Teton outback, where Olaus, a wildlife biologist, studied elk (wapiti is a Shawnee-Cree word for elk). There had once been 10 million elk in North America, but by the Muries’ day, due to overhunting and habitat destruction, they had dwindled to 100,000 (two subspecies, the eastern and Merriam’s elk, were already extinct). Amid concern of a wholesale die-off, the National Elk Refuge was established outside Jackson Hole, and Olaus was hired in 1927 to evaluate its welfare. He became a midcentury John Muir, a crusader for wilderness preservation at a time when the idea was still catching on. An elk hunter himself, Olaus believed in fair play, and he comes down hard on the sport in Wapiti Wilderness, particularly on what he calls “lazy auto-hunters” who rarely stray far from their cars to shoot elk. “It has became a dilettante thing,” he writes, “to be accomplished with as little exertion as possible and in the shortest possible time.”
He also bemoans the free-for-all approach to elk hunting that prevailed in many states, and which, as Olaus tells it, culminated in a kind of seasonal battlefield carnage: men in red caps with high-powered rifles, who weren’t very good shots, spraying the hillsides with lead until elk started dropping. “Everywhere in the hills lie the feet and heads of slaughtered elk, the entrails and the lungs,” he writes, with a gift for melodrama. “The coyotes and the ravens flock to the feast . . . Thus the wapiti, by devious routes, returns to Mother Earth.”
Olaus’s research spurred a movement to reshape elk management in the U.S., and over the next half century, their numbers rebounded. Today there are about a million. In the 300 square miles surrounding our tent were 60,000, the remnants of a population introduced from Yellowstone in the 1920s after Colorado’s native herds were nearly extirpated by unregulated hunting. A few hours north of us, in the town of Estes Park, elk sometimes stopped traffic and grazed among golfers on the greens. Even in Pennsylvania and Michigan, which lost their herds in the 1800s, reintroduced western elk are thriving.
In bowhunting, tracking and patterning an elk over miles of rough country till you get close enough for a shot — 40 to 60 yards, depending — then field dressing and packing it out, potentially in the dead of night, requires a multifaceted skill set. Most obviously, you must be competent in the backcountry, attentive to the faint shifts of perspective, from the clarity of the peaks to the claustrophobia of the colonnaded aspens. You must know how to read elk sign, wind and weather patterns and your own fatigue, when to sit at a water hole and when to herd-dog, and how to coax lovesick bulls into range with lifelike bugles on latex reeds. After a kill, you must be surgeon-quick with a knife, unsqueamish with viscera, sound of limb (a 600-pound bull might yield 300 pounds of meat) and ready to deal with what comes next, even if what comes next is in the form of a bear or mountain lion drawn to your kill. Ten days before our trip, Nate had been charged by a female black bear while hunting not far from where we were. Having suddenly found himself between her and her cubs, he had to unload a can of pepper spray from his belt.
A far more likely scenario, however, is stupefying boredom. Before coming to Aspen, I had talked to Andy Holland, a big-game manager for Colorado Parks & Wildlife, who’d braced me for a major nonevent. “You can get into elk everyday for a week and still not kill one,” he’d said. Elk are extrasensory savants able to perceive the vaguest human presence. “They know where you’ve walked and where you’ve peed,” he said. “If you spook one — and in bowhunting that’s inevitable — you’ve spooked a hundred. Then they’re gone. And no longer huntable from your campsite.” A 20-year-old cow elk, he said, has a mental blueprint of its home range, including private lands and refuges where she’s safe from hunters. Once she whiffs a predator, she knows exactly where to find safety.
In other words, bowhunting for elk is a game of grandiose ambition requiring daunting psychic and physical resilience, and which can, and almost certainly will, go wrong in the end.
“Bowhunting’s hard,” is how Tyler had put it. He’d been on elk hunts where he couldn’t sleep for all the nighttime bugling. All we could hear, settled in our sleeping bags each night, was the rattle of hail over our heads. “I just don’t know where the elk are,” Tyler said. “But not here.”
In camp that night we warmed ourselves around a wood-burning stove with the last of the bourbon. Our tent was a canvas four-corner deal, WWII vintage, with a battery-powered electrified fence for bears and cattle and a rear flap you could raise to ventilate the prevailing murk of B.O. and woodsmoke. Cots were laid side by side. At least two of us were grand-mal, Richter-scale snorers.
After inhaling some bourbon, I collapsed in my sleeping bag, the last three days running together in my thoughts.
“There’s still tomorrow morning,” Nate said hopefully. But I don’t think anyone bought it. We’d had a good look at the valley, had skirted nearly the entire ring of it, and seen squat. The door, it seemed, had closed.
As I began to drift off, Sung started lacing up his boots. He was headed back down to the valley floor, he announced, to take photos. With no elk to speak of, he was at a loss. We’d let him down, I knew. He had a thousand photos of us staring pensively at mountains. He needed more. But it was dark, with a biblical stew of hail and wind. The trails — in daylight a confounding, hardscrabble labyrinth — were greased chutes.
We were quiet.
It occurred to me, and probably to everyone, that I owed it to Sung to join him. He was my partner in a way. I couldn’t abandon him to the freezing wild. Besides, it’d be a better story: a pair of citified pussies giving the middle finger to their physical constraints, grappling head-on with Mother Nature, meeting Her on Her own terms. Unless that was the bourbon talking? The heroic fantasy of a hidebound amateur? Whichever, I stuck to my insulated sleeping bag, left my rain gear drying over the stove as an awkward gnawing — cowardice? — bored into me. The memory of Sung’s smiling, defiant eyes as he plunged into the darkness gave me a start I won’t soon forget.
Sloane broke the silence, declaring Sung “the badass of the trip.”
Nate seconded: “Impressive.”
“Huge balls,” Tyler piled on.
I thought, “But I’m the one who drove to fucking Foxboro! Ignored his wife and child, bankrupted his sanity in merciless, apocalyptic gridlock, ratcheted up his blood pressure and anxiety to catastrophic heights at no small forfeiture of spousal adoration!”
I should’ve gone with him, is what it boiled down to. But the moment passed. It was all rather pathetic. I yanked my sleeping bag over my head, guilt tightening in my chest. Fucking Sung!
He was supposed to check in by radio every hour. In between, I couldn’t sleep. We heard from him at 10 p.m., when he called to say there was a bunch of cows on the trail. We heard from him again at 11:15 p.m., when he called to say he’d made it down the valley, but that it was raining too hard to take any photos. Then, nothing. Midnight sailed silently by. Tyler tried reaching him at 1 a.m.: static. Ten minutes later: zilch. Two more hours and still no Sung. Oh god, I thought, he’s actually dead. Facedown in a ditch, gummed up in elk shit, gutted by a split branch, entrails open to the world, and it’s my fault!
Utter dread now at every blast of thunder, every whirring flash of lightning. The other guys, they had faith, they slept. I mourned Sung’s passing alone, snug in my bag with a pleasant bourbon sear in my throat. It seemed there were two worlds: a visible one inside where a fire hissed contentedly, and the invisible one outside, a void of predatory darkness that had consumed Sung.
I was left to my thoughts.
What had brought me to Colorado, I realized, was a desire to know my depths. There was a time when killing a wild animal, any wild animal, would’ve repulsed me. Little thought went into why. It was at root a knee-jerk, aesthetic objection, but also a moral one, and the same eminently reasonable one I would’ve made to clear-cutting redwoods: Natural beauty and unredeemed wildness, to paraphrase John Muir, can remind us of what it means to be human. But the argument was perhaps tainted, as under-informed value judgments tend to be, with sanctimony and presumption. Elk hunters? Heathens! Like the hide hunters of old. Cast out these blasphemers from nature’s cathedral!
I felt differently now, though it was hard to say why, and whether my moral high horse had merely been quashed by Olaus Murie’s enlightened management legacy. Death is an intimate part of the mountains. There’s a case to be made, of course, against wanton slaughter. But this wasn’t that. And it troubled me that I couldn’t think of a persuasive counterargument to elk hunting when for much of my life I’d staked my entire worldview on there being one.
It was probably dilettantish of me, too, hunting elk mainly out of curiosity, to see what, if anything, killing one made me feel. But I also knew the killing was only the beginning. Whether or not I killed an elk, I’d been expecting Colorado to give me catharsis, for it to reveal something about myself. But it was never going to be that way. This kind of thing isn’t hand-delivered. It’s on you to change. The call always comes from inside the house.
Around 3 a.m., Sung waltzed in and kicked off his boots, as if he’d just stepped out to take a leak.
“You’re alive,” I said.
“How’d it go?”
“Eh.” Within seconds, he was snoring away like a walrus.
We woke late, with snow on the tent and in the ruffled spurs of Mount Daly. While the boys broke camp, Nate and I hiked up Haystack Mountain, where earlier in the week he’d seen fresher elk sign. At the summit, in a clearing of blue spruce, he said, was a lone lodgepole pine, stripped bare and bird-pecked with a fringe of lichen at its base. Nate had been struck by its fugitive, needle-like appearance. Silhouetted against the sky, it seemed an inexorable sentry to the entire western range we’d been fruitlessly hunting.
As was the rule, the going was uphill, up and under the trees, until the path at last flattened. The weather was breathtaking, blue all over, the sun cascading in. We flushed a dusky grouse, which squawked maniacally away. A cache of aspens we passed were perhaps tens of thousands of years old, potentially dating back to the last ice age, and put me in mind of the giant beavers and dire wolves that had once roamed these woods.
We didn’t make it to the summit. Nate thought he heard an elk thrashing nearby and scrambled off, leaving me in a patch of knotted trees. My heart was oddly calm. Any self-respecting huntsman would’ve been near a coronary with joy. But I had no thoughts of elk, only of the path that stretched away on either side of me into the wreckage of branches, to where it was too dark to see.
A pine marten came loping up to within three feet of where I sat, twitching its rusty charcoal tail. In my camouflage, I managed to avoid detection as it hopped and skipped about, paused to tongue the breeze, elbowed around in a stump, swayed quietly on its hind legs with an unblinking glare. I saw why pine martens almost went extinct during the fur-trapping era: a profoundly beautiful member of the weasel family, with darkly polished reddish-brown ears, creamy throat, comically oversized paws, and light-filled black eyes, it looked like a velour-coated kitten bred with a dachshund. Temperamentally, they’re far more vicious, for pine martens are animals that spread murder far and wide, laying waste to entire colonies of voles, shrews, squirrels, rabbits, even robbing songbirds of their young.
This one, however, after finally discerning my pale face within its camouflage halo, seemed as nervous and baffled as I was. A stalemate prevailed, each of us having stumbled upon the other’s hunting grounds. Neither one of us was giving an inch. The silence in that moment was abounding, the midday air gauzy and museum-like, as if we might remain frozen there in the flattened grass, looking lost.