Randy Udall: On living, and dying, among the elk herds
November 5, 2010
A carpenter disappeared in the mountains here a few months ago. A talented craftsman, longtime local, a gentle soul with a caring wife, a daughter just turned 18, and many loving friends, he parked his truck at a trailhead and vanished. Nobody knows whether he had an accident, suffered a heart attack, was attacked by a cougar or took his own life. A massive search by friends and family found nothing except a lot of fresh bear sign. A psychic suggested he had fallen from a cliff and then been buried in a mudslide. Maybe an elk hunter will find his body. In the meantime, his family has held a service, memorable and moving, if haunted by the unknown.
In my experience, the problem with elk hunting is the elk. Trailing them through snowy woods, watching them flow down a steep hillside, their exhalations smoky in the cold, you come to admire them. After a few seasons, you might begin to like elk more than you like elk hunters, which constrains the take. Passing up shots, you begin to wonder why you still carry a rifle. (If you were really hungry, of course, it wouldn’t be hard to pull the trigger, but that kind of hunger is mostly a memory now.)
Snow is an instructive canvas. Seeing a dusty animal track on a summer trail, lacking the ability to follow it further, we forget that up ahead there’s an animal standing on those feet right now. In November, elk probably wish they could stop making tracks through the snow, but they can’t so they ditch you in icy terrain, where four feet offer an advantage.
We humans leave tracks, too, of course, but today our footprints are interrupted by jet contrails and automobile journeys. The lost carpenter – his name was Willie – probably traveled a million miles in his lifetime. Our incessant motion can’t change the fundamental reality – that we are all snowflakes, just here for a season. Is it that knowledge that makes us so restless? Makes us drive the distance to the Moon every 20 years? If so, is there any cure?
Many wolves and some bears in the Rockies now wear radio collars that emit one beeping signal when the animal is moving and another if it dies. If humans wore similar “mortality devices,” would it change our behavior? Would it slow us down or speed us up? We could call them the Apple iAm, link them directly to your Facebook page. Volunteers, anyone?
I asked the most peaceful woman I’ve met recently what explained her calm aura. She explained that she had spent the last two years living within a 100-mile radius of her home in western Colorado. She was taking an airplane sabbatical. All her flights had been grounded. An athlete, in the winter she coaches a nordic ski team, skating long distances across Grand Mesa, but she is no longer trying to outrun herself.
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There are days in October when it seems a crime to be inside. On one of them I went walking up the rugged ridge behind where Willie presumably has been lost. I crossed Avalanche Creek on a log, then climbed game trails up a steep slope to the edge of an escarpment. From there I walked a long ridge above treeline, a tundra vagabond gazing into hanging basins on both sides. Blond grasses, crisp air, blue sky. I ate an apple at the pass, then dropped into Gift Creek to circle back around.
Lower down, some of the meadows were bordered by radiant aspen. In one, a group of hunters were gathered by wall tents. Their stocky buckskin horses were picketed nearby, pink flagging woven into their manes, to ward off incoming fire, presumably from errant Texans.
The sun had vanished behind the ridge, the air was cooling, and wildlife would soon be on the move, but these men were camped in the prettiest spot in Colorado and seemed in no rush to go hunting. We’re lucky to live in these mountains, I thought, and some of us to die here, too.