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The afternoon is chilly, verging on frosty. I’ll leave work soon and head home to cook dinner. On the menu are sauteed mushrooms, mashed cauliflower — my latest drug of choice — and a green salad.
And there will be steak, meat that’s been soaking in secret sauce for the day. I’ll sizzle it in a little olive oil and a dash of this and that, plate it up piping hot.
Pardon me as I wipe drool off my lower lip.
Since Camo Man and I became a family, we get protein for our tribe in several ways. We buy a 4-H pig in the spring, pleased a local kid raised the animal right here in our Valley. Those youngsters fill feeders and waterers, and muck out pens for weeks so their little piggy can go to market. In turn, young farmers use their profit to pay for college, a first car, next year’s pig.
We get excellent product while lending a helping hand to an upcoming generation. That’s called gravy.
Sometimes we buy poultry from the store, ignoring the horror stories of chicken abuse and disease laid like rotten eggs through the media. We have no defense for our irresponsible poultry consumption other than roasted chicken makes our mouths water.
We fish from Uncle Jerry’s pond for deliciously tender trout. From the same 600 Dayton acres we are generously gifted with lovely beef by Uncle Jerry.
Steaks, burger and more from free-range, grass-fed, hormone-free, happy cows that haven’t stood in their own manure for months as they wait for death.
If you’re a practicing vegetarian, you have a right to wince and turn away. But if you eat meat of any kind, it’s difficult to avoid the distasteful truth. In society’s demand for cheaper and more food, we’ve moved farther away from understanding how the animals we eat come to us. Chickens squashed into tiny cages in the dark for their short lives. Pigs raised to 250 pounds in less than 8 square feet of space.
The exhausted cattle fatted up on subsidized corn and wheat — so foreign to their digestive systems — to add fatty weight.
Just so we can have burgers on the grill when we want them.
It’s a little crazy-making some days.
Moving on, there’s also hunting for our brood. Camo Man hunts deer and elk every year to fill our freezer. He practices the creed of worthy hunters everywhere: Take care of the land you hunt on; pay for the conservation of wildlife and public lands through hunting fees; and eat what you kill. He provides well for our family this way.
Except … not this year. Please excuse me while a belly laugh rolls up my chest and bursts forth in joyous guffaws from having excellent bragging rights over my husband.
The idea of hunting once made me queasy. Couldn’t bear the vision of violence or thoughts of rifles in my house. And all that camouflage-and-testosterone crap? Please. Get a real job.
That was before I began learning where the problem with meat really lies. After watching documentaries and voraciously reading about the subject, the thought of an animal born into and living in freedom, eating the food God intended for the species, undergoing no injections for anything until its last breath was far easier to stomach than the alternative.
Still, I wasn’t jumping up and down to be the one bringing home the bacon. Watching Camo Man layer up and lade himself with gear to spend hours in the wet and cold made me all too happy to stay behind with book, heater and hot coffee.
This fall I was informed I would be obtaining a hunting license and a “tag” for elk. Meaning I was giving the government money for the privilege of a big, fat failure. For starters, I had never once managed to spot an elk on my own — how could I hope to bag an animal for our family?
Nonetheless I practiced with “my” rifle and loaded the RV with coffee accouterments, movies and fuzzy blankets. At the least, I figured, hunting would take me away from housework for a weekend and give me a date with a book I wanted to read. And I didn’t need to worry, since Camo Man would take care of getting elk in the first hunting season the weekend before.
That said, guess what happened? The man whose image is in the dictionary under “hunter” did not, actually, get an elk this year. He’ll tell you he was busy helping a grandson with his hunt, but you believe what you want. I do. Thus the pressure was on.
Not that we really expected I would do this thing. I might shoot the gravel out of a boulder at 200 yards standing still, but hone in on a moving animal while hoisting a big ol’ .270 short mag? Right.
Yet there I was in early November, shivering on one ridge of the Blue Mountains while waiting for enough light to see over to another. My husband, acting as expert guide, had four-wheeled us close, and we hiked the rest of the way in.
He whispered, “Sit right here. Get your gun ready.”
Say what? This ground was cold and damp. I was bundled up like Randy in “Christmas Story,” but I didn’t feel particularly waterproof.
But I sat as instructed, scooched when my guide tilted his head to the left, raised my binoculars to stare at the land, praying I would be able to recognize an animal.
Up out of the bottom came a herd, slowly, eating a breakfast of moss, grass and twigs. My tag was for a “spike” elk, meaning a young male in his second year. This herd, however, consisted of a beautifully blond older bull with “branch” antlers and a posse of cows. I watched in awe as the group moved like a majestic blanket of muscle and grace up the ridge.
Camo Man and I absorbed for a bit in reverent silence. It looked, however, like we’d need to move along and search elsewhere. My guide was ready to get to his feet when I whispered as loud as I dared — “Look! Right there! Coming through those two trees RIGHT THERE! Do you see it?”
Another elk the color of wheat had emerged from the forest. It seemed to be a loner, unconcerned with catching up to the others. There, through the binoculars, was the glint of horn we were waiting for.
Despite Camo Man’s frenzied urging in sotto voce, I prepared like I was going on stage. I lowered my face to the gun’s scope, lining up the cross hairs like I was moving underwater. I knew two things: There would be no end to the teasing if I missed, and it was my duty to spare this fine animal unnecessary pain.
On what seemed the perfect spot, I froze for a microsecond, wondering if the gun’s kick was going to pay me back for what I was about to do. Then Camo Man’s ongoing training kicked in and I squeezed the trigger.
The first bullet went into the lung, we would learn later. My second and third shots went home, as well, before the elk buckled and rolled to his death. Just as my own legs turned to jelly.
Like hunters before me, I thanked the Creator for giving me this animal to feed our family. Then I turned to my guide and planted sloppy kisses on his smiling lips.
Almost immediately I felt my head begin to swell. “Well,” I said, my delight rising like helium, “it’s a good thing I’m able to provide for our kids.”
Yeah, that hasn’t really stopped, either. I love to hear my man on the phone, telling others of my hunt with notes of pride beneath bemoaning his own bad luck. He tells me “shaddup” with a huge grin, tipping me off that he’s as surprised as me this came to pass.
And, perhaps most importantly, I finally “get” hunting. I understand the faraway look in Camo Man’s eyes when he talks with other hunters — he’s viewing distant ridges and roads as he considers what course to take next year. I see why those white-paper packages in the freezer are such a gift to our family’s health. It’s hard work getting a 250-pound elk from mountain to table, all done by our own hands.
Tonight we’ll taste the bounty from the land. I may wish, for a second, that I didn’t like meat so much. But I do, and I’ll tuck in just like everyone else. Then I’ll raise my head, smile at my husband and ask those at the table, “Hey, how does the elk taste this year? The one Mom got?”
I don’t even know your name. Doesn’t matter, you’re just one of dozens.
But I know you’ve been sleeping with my husband for the past two weeks. Yeah, I know just what you are.
You think, because it’s Elk Camp, it’s OK. Just the two of you, no one is really getting hurt. What happens in Elk Camp … Right?
I see it all in my mind. You wake up in the dark, both chilly and eager to be together. He makes the coffee while you wait. I suppose you might smile, like I do, when he does his little hop to get his pants on. You stand by the door as he finds the truck keys and turns off the generator.
You don’t mind, because you know what’s next. Yep, the whole day in the same truck, you snuggled by his leg.
I know he takes you in his hand, caressing your neck, smoothing your butt, talking quietly to you. Ignoring my cell phone number coming up on his. And you can’t help but think this is how it will always be.
Girlfriend, I hate to bust your bubble, but your days are numbered. Elk Camp ends Sunday, and guess what? You go right back into the dark gun cabinet, under lock and key. Hanging with the others who are just like you, just waiting for his call. For months and months.
And when that happens, he’s mine again. My husband, and I have the ring to prove it. You got nothing, Sister. Heck, you might get traded or sold, you can’t really know how loyal he is. He’s been with so many others, as pretty and powerful as you. Your shine, your sleek looks matter not, little girl. You’re only as sweet as last hunting season.
If there’s not a reality show based on “elk camp,” my first question is why not. Oh, wait, I know the answer … “What happens in elk camp stays in elk camp.”
In my past life, I had absolutely no association with hunting. Sure, I was sometimes behind men at the grocery store (you know its true, even if women do hunt) who were clearly on their way to hunting grounds.
For starters, they’re buzzing with adrenaline as they cover the checkout counter with crinkly packages of pepperoni sticks, candy bars the size of bricks and cases of beverages – some loaded with sugar, others loaded with alcohol.
Second, they have the obligatory camouflage gear on. And third, they sound like excited schoolboys headed to a fight at recess – lotta rapid chatter, knuckles-to-knuckles bumping and raucous laughter.
That was the sum total of what I knew about hunting, other than the deeply-satisfying venison jerky my neighbor sometimes gives us as a result of a successful hunt. Any sort of personal participation in the – Sport? Hobby? Obsession? – never crossed my mind.
That was before I started dating Camo Man way, way back in June.
My first hint of this was his Facebook profile picture. He was framed against a wall of turquoise and ram’s head. A ram head the size of a Little Tyke Cozy Coupe – second largest taken in the “Lower 48″ states at the time and the largest in Oregon, I was to later learn.
Naturally this hanging head repulsed me (I’m officially split in personality now. Half of me abhors the taking of living creatures, the other half really, really likes meat) but not enough to stop peeking at Camo Man’s brown eyes.
Eventually it was overwhelmingly clear this man was a hunter. He did, however, skip antelope season this year to get engaged, he’s pretty fond of telling people and I’m pretty fond of hearing.
Then came the hunter safety lessons for my daughters. Which, in my naiveté, I thought of as a wonderful, confidence-boosting exercise. My brain still hadn’t quite grasped that there would be any actual hunting in the picture, aside from Camo Man’s participation.
I mean, he kidded about getting me up to elk camp from time to time, and I laughed. I can take a good joke.
The earth continued to orbit the sun as our relationship progressed from crazy coincidences to crazy passion. From me navigating life by myself with my kiddos to Camo Man and me walking hand-in-hand, with assorted family members getting pulled along.
As the leaves turned color, talk of hunting racheted up. In one sudden day, camouflage clothing was getting stored at my house in preparation for the eventual combining of households.
Author’s note: I’ve heard you, dear readers, and I’ll be dishing out these details as soon as I can.
After that came more paraphernalia, stuff I never dreamed existed. I felt like I had stepped onto the movie set of a film about the CIA. There were spotting scopes and binoculars (“Mom, they’re called ‘binos,'” my youngest informed me. Like she’s been hunting forever) and those strap thingies that cross the chest and hold ammunition. Lots of ammunition.
Before I knew it, I was at elk camp during “second season” of what the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife terms a “controlled hunt.” With the guys in my new family who got “tags.”
The lingo is like “Hunting as a Second Language,” I might add.
In addition to trying to tough out the cold with a blanket instead of turning up the trailer’s furnace, being bored with my book and mildly annoying Camo Man with my whining, I went spotting.
Wearing insulated pants, a very roomy Columbia coat and knit face mask, under which my lips froze anyway, I was on the back of a four-wheeler, tooling around the mountain and looking for elk. Elk legs, anyway, because I was told that would be all I was likely to see through all the brush and trees. Not that I knew anything about what to focus on, so I settled for any moving brown spot.
It was while doing this the tutoring began. “Now, if anyone asks you if you saw anything, you tell ‘em ‘no,'” Camo Man said. “Or you say you saw something ‘over there.’ They’ll know you’re lying, because ‘over there’ isn’t even in the same unit.”
It wasn’t long before I heard this sort of storytelling with my own ears. When we stopped to visit with another hunter, he claimed he had camped out overnight at his spot, using space blankets and lots of foot stomping to stay warm. Camo Man grilled him. “You see anything?”
On cue, the other hunter lied. “Nothing. It wasn’t worth it.” He practically winked while shaking his head sadly.
And, of course, never am I to actually speak of a success story. The answer is “no” for anything asked – see, shoot, hear about. “No. Nothing. Never. Nada.”
What happens in elk camp stays in elk camp. Which is perfect, since the whole adventure is a Vegas-like gamble, as far as I can see.
But I got the message on the morning I’m writing this – elk camp is over for another year. Does that mean elk meat is going to appear in my freezer in individually-wrapped packages?
“No. Nothing. Never. Nada.”
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