In a previous column, I mentioned that most men eventually walk away from killing and whiskey if they live long enough. But as a kid growing up in Woody Creek, such philosophical meanderings never crossed my mind. We didn’t drink whiskey but sucked up the occasional beer, and when it came to hunting, we killed with stunning accuracy. Hunting was ingrained in us from an early age, not so much because it was a great sport but more as a necessity to keep food on the table, and if you were male, it was just another rite of passage.
Autumn brings many fine things: lower temperatures, the changing of the leaves, cattle moseying home from the range, apple and plum trees hung ripe with fruit, the first frost and myriad other things, but always there was the exciting knowledge that hunting season was coming up. Logistics were important, for as kids we had to shoehorn our hunts in between football games, school plays and other social activities such as girlfriends.
In the beginning and on a purely visceral level, it was about the killing, and that’s good, I think. For me, as a young man, it got that instinctual desire out of my system so I didn’t end up shooting some poor bastard in a bar fight later in life. Or, as Johnny Cash said in one of his songs, “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
My first hunt was exceptional, exciting and unforgettable. I was 12 years old, the minimum age at the time for such activities, and my dad and Uncle Victor took me on a jaunt up the mountain above our house. Riding such steep terrain in the pitch black of night was dangerous but necessary for a timely start, and it gave me a rush.
“So this is how it’s done,” I thought to myself as I brought up the rear. I’d heard the stories, and now I was living it. No one talked above a whisper, if at all, even though our destination was a long way ahead and minor complaints such as cold feet and hands were suffered in silence.
The gray light of early morning caught us in a grove of lodgepole pine, and as we finally topped out on the main ridge, I spotted some elk about 50 yards in front of us. I naturally figured my dad had seen them, so I did nothing, wondering just exactly when we were going to dismount and shoot an elk. My uncle hadn’t seen them either, not until they spooked, and then my mentors were off in a flash, tossing hurried lead in the direction of the fleeing wapiti.
Not knowing the rules of the hunt, I had my gun at the ready, finally asking, “Can I shoot?”
“Goddammit, hurry up and shoot,” came the reply, and I knocked down a nice five-point bull. My dad and uncle looked at me as though I’d done the impossible or something, and I’ll always cherish that moment. “Tony shot an elk,” echoed throughout the Woody Creek Canyon for at least the next month.
I would have quit hunting right then, had I known it’d never be that good again, but that one experience drew me in for the next 40 years or so. The hunting was so good that year my dad decided the following year to act as an official commercial guide and take hunters out. Being capable, I became one of the workhorses in that endeavor, although I always got in plenty of time for my own hunting. My buddy, Roy Holloway, and I had many excellent excursions following game all over the mountains behind our ranch.
It’s not clear when my ambition turned, but I increasingly found myself giving others the good shots or offering to beat the dark timber after posting others on the best ridges for a stand. It wasn’t like I was missing anything and packing meat out for friends and family didn’t bother me. I still buy a license and carry a gun, just in case, but I know I’ll never shoot another elk.
Today, the smell of campfire smoke wafting through the yellow aspen leaves, thin, clear ice on small gurgling streams, cold early-morning fog, and the sound of something big moving through the forest, just out of sight, is enough for me. I walked away from the rest of it a long time ago.
Tony Vagneur writes here on Saturdays and welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column is dedicated to Stanley Lauriski (RIP) and Max Vaughn, two good Aspen hunters.