The reason why writers fail when they attempt to evoke horror is that horror is something invented after the fact, when one is re-creating the experience over again in the memory. Horror does not manifest itself in the world of reality.
-Antoine de Saint-Exupery, Wind, Sand and Stars
The wind came out of the north, rattling what aspen leaves were left, tin rigid, along the creek down the hill. It had grown dark, and if I couldn’t see the deer they couldn’t see me, so I moved quickly uphill to build heat, settling on the flat knuckle of a nub in the middle of the hill to pitch my tarp. With the forecast good and in the middle of a long island of autumnal high pressure I had brought a small one, along with a light sleeping bag, to make for a small pack that would let me go far and fast for three days at the beginning of the general rifle season, for deer and elk and maybe a bear.
How do deer experience cold? We know they get cold, though they have a range of physiological and structural tools to fight it, which are quite beyond us as humans to comprehend. In some years, in some places, winter can take a third of the herd in a given place, though is that due to cold, or thick snow covering what little is around to eat, or both? I did wonder what the deer I had watched last night were now doing as I woke shivering at 4 am, the distraction of a blindingly full moon still above the horizon. Sit ups gave me only temporary reprieve in my sleeping bag, rated for easily 10 degrees above what the air now was, so I made the adult choice and walked over to pull my bear bag, heat 20 ounces of water, and bury that bottle in a sock between my thighs. Warm blood quickly took comfort throughout my body, and I easily went back to sleep, waking too late.
The next day I was making my way south and out, sweating along flat and now windless sage flats, bright sun pushing 70 degrees hard into my early afternoon face, a boned out deer in my pack. Knowing the area well, but having never hunted there, in this season, I had walked in with four separate plans. The first, combined with my difficulty in not shooting the first legal animal, had worked out well, but I couldn’t help but give in to temptation, and shade, by dropping down into the willow and pine flats to hunt along the abandoned meanders and river bends. I passed several past camps, observed the river level, and was into new territory, thick woods stratified into swampy gaps between old gravel bars, when I spooked the bull. Eight yards away it rose like a leviathan, snapping deadfall like wooden ships, stopping at thirty deep behind a juniper to stare at me. Tines stood clear, and very tall, against harsh light that shone full at me. Glare in the scope made a direct view impossible, but I could extrapolate off straight antlers and curved branches and seemingly snake one in to the shoulder.
All for naught, as this unit was antlerless elk only. I experimented with hypotheticals for another minute until the elk grew bored with ambiguity and crashed off. I followed him through 8 foot brush to the water, where he stood on the far bank, broadside, dripping and magnificent and 40 yards away. Where did the bull go after his stiff-walk disappearance through the sage? The tall hill behind rose carpeted in evergreen, a couple thousand feet, before sighing into swales and valleys whose very tops had been eroded into bare limestone, now dusted with snow, mountain teeth just clearing the gums after 20 million years of infancy. How many trees could I see, behind me and across the valley? How many just between one small draw and another, and only as far up as the bull could doubtless walk in 3 minutes?
That seething green monolithic was broken once, every 40 acres or so, regularly but at random, by a single western larch, which at three miles was always taller than the sea of fir and pine, and in October fitting into a riot of pure yellow, just the near and precious side of golden. I’d have had more time to question yet again the low country, dry side distribution of this tree, which 50 miles west and on the Pacific side is at the same altitude so numerous as to form it’s own marching majority, if it weren’t so damn hot. This creek has some old and gnarled representatives of my other first choice for favorite tree, aspens, growing just along the ditch, which is itself woven over with willows that make it hard to reach the water. The evening before I had slowly danced down the bank, heavy legs carrying 15 urgent miles, almost sitting down in panic when a ruffed grouse burst away. Even on this, what is 30 minutes short of being the last hot afternoon of the year, the water is bitingly cold, and lets the aura of the previous night suffuse out for yards right, left, and up. I drink, lots, and as fast as aching teeth will allow, and sit on the shady side against the largest aspen, while the illuminated fingers either side grow hotter. My meat bags hang at head height in branches, the wind drying last vestiges of their past bloody life.
Science recognizes two species of common, or medium sized, deer in North America, though hunters in their hair splitting like to talk about at least two more sub-species. One cannot blame them, or us, as from my perch halfway up the hill, 10 feet from my tarp, wrapped in my sleeping bag and all my clothes as light comes to the valley I’d be hard pressed to design better deer habitat. White-tail habitat, specifically. Steep mountains behind me, whose taller, steeper, balder, rockier, and more jagged fangs contrast uneasily with their just western cousins, put lots of water down into the valley, with little creeks every mile or so adding up to the perennial river I can hear hidden off a ways in the final treed gorge. The lesser of these creeks, due to circumstance, dry up by autumn and maintain a healthy aspen and brush population, with a few islands of ponderosa (my other other favorite tree) at a respectful distance. The greater of the creeks stay cold and full even in this, the shortest unfrozen month, and this pays for a band of pine and spruce which varies between 50 and 200 yards thick, and in flatter stretches hides willow bogs which will, in 20 minutes, threaten to overtop my boots as I let deer tracking take me to places previous experience ought to have well warned off.
This should be mule deer country. It is big and wild, almost 20 trail miles and 10 straight line miles from the nearest road. But white-tails like edge habitat and mixed terrain, and the creek bands and sage flats I’m glassing are the wild, 5000 foot functional answer to 20 acre, landscaped mcMansions. I’ve spent some magical days past in almost this exact spot, the same number of weeks out of winter as I am now preceeding it, when grouse and elk were dense enough that dreams heavy and light could jump from back to back the whole breadth of the valley, never sullied in snow or mud.
I could hear some faint bugels last night, as first the moon and then the grasping cold woke me up, but no elk are visible, and I walked in here yesterday with deer on the mind. I glassed a wandering trio last night, for over an hour, as they fed and bedded and fed again, and I watched and lost and then found them again. This morning the trio isn’t here yet, or they picked up a fourth, and are feeding up towards the edge of the thicker creek-spawned spruce. By rights I ought to wait, as the odds of getting within rifle range across the flats before I’m seen is small, but my hands and feet and mind are blurred by cold, lagging between past and present like an LCD out below zero.
An hour later I’m caught in the fog of the moment, two deer canted away on the next side of a draw, cutting between two creeks. Their feet are virtually brushed by the pines which crowd the bottom, hidden in its transversity by steeply rising hillsides. The deer see me and bound off, a sense of urgency which barely respects the essence of white-tails, stopping at 70 yards for an extended stare. Tracks had led through swamp into the short band of old growth along the creek, a hidden low cathedral with blank needle floors and foot ceilings. A skiff of 3 day old snow, unviolate with wind, circumscribed the halo of each spruce, and let me string together the deers path. It went back out into the swamp, twin slashes filling with water, and cutting frost from matted grass. Springs ago I’d see deer there, up right in the meadow where I ought to be for dry boots, blue grouse thumping out their April of sexual frenzy up on that hillside, and elk back there, behind the wall of spruce.
The wind again came out of the north, wrapping around the hill we knew by proxy as it rose off to our left, through the trees. Aspens stood stripped, all traces of leaves buried in eight inches of snow. It had taken an hour to go from almost to fully light, gradations I had been prepped to appreciate by a long drive and hefty walk uphill, all in the dark, all places I had never before been. What would in summer have been a mere breeze cut, and I pulled on a second hood. With the forecast cold, yet mild for November, I had dressed lightly for the long walk in, and now, as our paced slowed to trace elk tracks, I had only just the layers to stay in that narrow period between safe and warm.
I know how elk stay warm, even if the evidence is more spiritual than physiological. I’ve plucked their hollow, stiff hairs from hostile trees and barbed wire, impressed by something closer to a porcupine quill than what is left behind inside my toque. I’ve cut through the same fur, and the mass of leather armor behind it, opening one along the backbone from tail to neck to get the meat out at take it home. That meat is compelling of itself, and trying to wrestle single, slippery muscle groups, made boneless by my knife and still bigger than my thigh, solidifies distant and furtive glimpses which had over the years made elk seem very large indeed, first in the imagination and now in fact. Their relationship with the land and the weather plays by rules which I, as a human, cannot at their base grasp.
Deer cling to the landscape like fleas, bounding away at the first sign of trouble, or like ticks, burrowing into promising pockets and not moving unless obliged. Elk move from one place to another in clean arcs, stately in their efficiency, and hold the particulars and preferences as equally self-evident and removed from human contemplation. Knowing the mind of an elk is precious, fleeting, and perhaps illusory. In good moments hunters like to see coincidence as less weighty than skill.
And this is why snow is such a blessing, and tracking fresh sign the most indulgent form of hunting, with gratification masking the need to evaluate probability. Our plan had been to sneak meadows at dawn, a project made possible by a long walk and early start. Shooting light didn’t find us elk, but it did find stripes of sign, horizontally and every 40 yards. With the meadows cleared we traced strings of sign back, a few hundred yards higher than our furtive path in. For a half hour sign led in irregular rombi up and across and back again, fresh beds melted icey interspersed with patched of beargrass, swept clear to the ground, the best parts nibbled. Further on our group consolidated, and seemed to become four animals moving in a line, with little doubt or shortage of purpose. Occasionally one would divert 10 yards further down hill and pause, before inevitably rejoining its fellows. Occasionally the tracks would lead under the through a downed tree whose sticky jagged branches ill fit our human dimensions, and we would loop around.
The wind stayed in our face as we swung 180 degrees, ambulating the hillside whose summit was less ethereal, now that we were lower and on a steep slope. The elk did not pause, and followed a steep game trail through several small side drainages, not yet cut headward enough to be flat, and then down a gentler ridge towards a side drainage mature enough to be a stable creek of its own, yet still steep and lively enough to have no trace of freezing. I filled my bottle from a foot deep pool that could be crossed in one step. 5 minutes from then we’d crest a small ridge and I’d see two elk backs at 70 yards, 5 quarter second flits between trees all the evidence between me and their disappearance. 30 more minutes and we’d follow them, and eventually one of them, uphill through doghair regrowth, the kind of lodgepole thicket that takes fur from elk at 20 second intervals, and whose track revealed no routine path of travel.
We were pushing the elk now, and could in the snow plainly see it pause, look back, revaluate, and continue in an adjusted direction. Where previous the psychic string between hunter and prey had been flacid, with us reeling from one direction only, it was now a livened band whose modest elastic threatened to burst minute to minute, but from which end first? When the tracks led out across a shoulder whose floor of embedded granite spaced trees into elegant halls the stride opened, and my mind tugged me forward roughly. The elk was pushing, and it was making mistakes, peeling down off the ridge, connecting islands of trees and soil before ending at the top of a steep talus field, slick and hidden by snow, and more than longer enough in each direction to argue against turning back. As I approached the lip I kept eyes up and slowed my breathing anticipating a quick shot on a bull, struggling against fate and bad footing to make the shelter of trees.
The two deer, uphill and across a bit of rough terrain, didn’t see fleeing me with catastrophic urgency, even though I had bumped them twice in the last 25 minutes. I loved them for their wilderness naivete, cursed the sun for glaring into my scope, and sent two offhand shots through the ribs of the larger animal. It did not as expected roll, and instead settled at once in the shade of a small tree, limp as a burnt pancake dropped on the floor.
The shot down the talus never came, and in binoculars I could see tracks skidding from block to block and then taking a straight line away. We retreated, found flat ground, ate something, and looked at maps to figure exactly how far and in what direction from the truck we had gone. 90 minutes from when we decided on a direction we’d be low enough for the snow to fade into a matter of inches, at which point I saw a snowshoe hair under a spruce and shot its head off. A task, which was never anything but unlikely but which we had gotten acceptably close to, kept us warm on the long walk, along with the promise of hare stew.
There is a kind of law of the shortest distance to the image, a psychological law by which the event to which one is subjected is visualized in a symbol that represents its swiftest summing up: I was a man who, carrying a pile of plates, had slipped on a waxed floor and let his scaffolding of porcelain crash.
-Wind, Sand and Stars