It is the hunt we had been waiting for.
The last year alone together before we handed the guns over to our kids to fill their tags first. Our anniversary. The kids were with grandparents and we were loaded and ready to go. There was no question this would be a hunt to remember.
After hours of glassing the immense country I would temporarily call home, I was feeling a bit intimidated by the vast terrain.
The hours went by and just as I decided to take a snack break and let my eyes rest, I heard “There he is!”
I quickly jumped over to the spotting scope.
The one in your dreams that takes your breath away.
The one you are mentally clearing your living room wall for.
Exactly what we were after.
I sat, staring, in awe. Chills ran through my body as I could see the elk throw its head back and I knew if I were closer the sound of its call would shake everything inside me.
It was like he was calling us…and nothing but vertical feet stood in our way.
We mapped our route, tightened down our gear and started the ascent; my husband Jesse just a few feet ahead of me breaking trail in the snow. The entire way the plan was being made, down to the very last detail. My pack was getting heavy, my body slowing down and the mountain was taunting me, reminding me how small I was.
I trudged behind my husband, in awe of his knowledge, ability and drive, which in turn drove me up that hill. “Keep your eye on the prize,” I was prodded.
The snow was littered with tracks. The smell of elk so intense it pushed us on. Our bodies and minds labored to place us where that bull was roaming free; where it was unknowingly waiting for us. We were in its world now, on its turf.
Jesse’s hand gently crossed my body. It was time to rest.
He lifted my pack from my aching shoulders.
We were right where we needed to be.
As we sat under a tree, we drew in the view.
This was the place we roamed together the first summer we met almost 20 years earlier. Below us I could see the lake we stood in front of so many years ago when we said “I Do”; the same lake our children were baptized in years later.
I turned to look at this man beside me as he grabbed my hand to pray. What a blessing to be in this moment together; to share in this adventure.
That elk would be ours. It would represent this place that held so much for us. It would be our “gift” and a symbol of the time and memories we had here. I felt so much thankfulness, anticipation and excitement for what was obviously about to happen. I knew how this story was going to end.
The sun moved with time, as it always does. Steady. Predictable. Constant.
And with it, the animals started stirring.
“It’s time to move,” I was told. “They are going the other way. We need to hustle.”
I imagined the end to this incredible story to motivate me in the climb.
With every beat of my heart the distance between the elk and I shrank.
The smell grew stronger.
Everything went silent, and then I heard it.
Right under me.
This was it, the last chapter; the culmination of it all. Suddenly I felt the weight of a hand pinning me still.
There, 20 yards in front of me, standing broadside, feeding, was a small rag-horn bull.
The perfect shot.
I glanced at Jesse. His eyes questioned: “What are you going to do?”
I looked back: “What should I do?”
His response wasn’t audible, but I heard it all the same. “It’s up to you. Just don’t do something you will regret.”
What does that mean? Regret what? Taking him or not taking him?
This would be a sure thing. Tag filled. Freezer full. Twenty yards! Perfect shot!
But would I be compromising what I set out for?
This was not the animal that was at the end of my story.
I closed my eyes. I prayed. What do I do?
In that moment I heard the loudest, closest bugle I had ever heard.
I lowered my gun. I knew what I had come for and this one was not it.
Next to me, a huge breath of relief was let out as the young animal walked off.
Jesse gave me a squeeze as he told me with pride, “You have made it. When you can pass on an animal you know you have arrived. Now, let’s move!”
We heard “our” bull right under the cliff we are on, louder than ever.
Trying to get our bearings again, we moved quickly, eyes darting for a visual.
There they were. Cows racing to our right. Spooked.
I grabbed my gun and went.
Where is he? Did he go the other way? Everything is spinning now. I was out of breath, my heart pumping.
There! I spotted him running on the path that, in a few yards would put him beyond my reach.
If he got there, it would be over.
“STOP!” My mind screamed as I tried to find a rest for my gun.
Then he locked eyes with me; deep, dark eyes.
Everything went still.
“You are mine” I whispered.
As I pulled up my gun, he stared, as though he was waiting for me to land my finger on the trigger.
Right as I began to squeeze, he bolted into the world that he reigns.
The trees swallowed him up into a thousand acres of wilderness.
I fell to the ground. Pain. Physical pain inside me. My chest burned. I couldn’t breathe.
What was it? What had just happened? My head spun.
I turned. There stood my partner, a look of disbelief on his face. He had no words that could alter what had just happened.
He walked down the steep slide and started searching with desperation.
Searching for what? He knew that elk had never been hit.
It was almost as though he was searching for its ghost.
Perhaps, in his determination, he thought could change reality.
The tears finally came.
I slowly made my way down and positioned myself in the place my elk had stood, looking up to where we had locked eyes.
This was a different ending to my story. Not the ending I had written, and yet, I could not re-write it.
After a moment I felt his arm around me. “You do this long enough and it’s bound to happen. Sometimes you walk away empty-handed. This is hunting.”
I felt frozen in that space. I didn’t want to leave. I couldn’t bring myself to walk down that mountain and out of that country, leaving it behind. And so we stayed. We sat in silence until the sun beckoned us to move on.
As we descended, the story replayed over and over. Analyzing, second guessing. If only…
And I heard Jesse say under his breath, “This will haunt us forever.”
I couldn’t understand what he meant.
We looked down upon the lake once again.
As I looked upon that shore where we made our vows so many years ago I couldn’t help but think: for better and for worse; through thick and through thin. The ups and the downs.
Hunting is much like marriage: Hard work. Persistence. Tears of joy and tears of pain. Highs and lows. But, just like hunting, you don’t give up. You don’t walk down the hill and say “never again.”
There may be times you feel defeated, broken and worked over, but you look back up at that mountain peak and say “I’m not done. I’ll be back, for the win!”
Weeks turned into months and I still see that bull looking back at me. I can smell him in the air. Those eyes, locked with mine. I wake up from dreams where I almost touch him…and then….gone.
“You have to let it go” I try to convince myself.
But, really, I don’t believe you do.
I think it becomes a part of you, those that get away.
The times when you walk away empty-handed are as much a part of the sport as the times that we harvest.
And now I understand: They will haunt you.