Alison Berkley: The Princess’s Palate
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
There’s a sign outside of hunting camp that says “Van Horn Hilton.” It’s a nice sign, like someone had it professionally made. The guys at the Van Horn Motel 6 just made theirs with poster board and a black magic marker. I only got to see it because after weeks of elaborate preparation for this hunting trip, somehow no one remembered to bring coffee.
At like 6 a.m. the morning after Ryan left, I get a text message. I’m picturing him having to climb up some tree in order to get reception, with a wire hangar in one hand, thumb-typing with the other.
It says, “Baby. Can you bring some coffee up to camp? The biggest tin you can find.”
Hard to believe something so important was overlooked when this little hunting expedition involved as much planning as an Everest attempt. These boys have been hauling crap out to Van Horn for weeks, building camp and lugging all kinds of crazy equipment and stuff to chop up animals and do stuff I’d rather not think about.
Don’t get me wrong. I love eating elk just as much as the next gal. There’s definitely something inherently sexy about my man being this big hunter who puts food on the table between grunting and pounding his chest and hopping around the living room dressed in a loin cloth. But I don’t need to hear the whole story about how “I shot her in the gut,” or “we tracked her for two hours while she bled out.” I don’t need to know about chain saws and wheel barrels and buckets of blood. Medium rare and whatever ingredients went into the marinade is about as far as we need to go with the details.
When Ryan comes to pick me up at the airport after my dreadful return from New York last week, he’s already in full-on hunter mode. He cut all his hair off and grew a full beard. He looks like a loan shark or maybe a hit man, which I guess at the end of the day is what a hunter essentially is. I can’t even figure out where to kiss him, never mind find his lips among the horrific amount of hair that grows out of his face. We’re talking above-the-cheekbone growth. I’m guessing he’s going to blend in just fine up there in the woods, maybe even at the risk of being mistaken for a bear.
There are also all those trips to the firing range wherein he realizes he’s sort of a lousy shot. He comes home all frustrated because he blew through forty bucks worth of bullets without hitting the target.
“Don’t worry about it,” I tell him. “Just go with the Zen like you did last time.”
I’m pretty sure that the first time he ever went hunting, which was last year, he had beginner’s luck. From what I understand, a herd of elk stampeded by like five minutes after he arrived, so he shot one and hit it. “That never happens,” is how his friend Brad tells the story.
He’s also coming home with all these new clothes that Brad gave him, bright orange jackets with vest liners and pants with tree branches all over them that look like little boy’s pajamas. There’s also the gun that he got from his buddy Matt downvalley, a big fancy rifle that makes me nervous even when it’s sitting in the case without any bullets in it.
“Please be careful with that thing,” I tell him. “No one is like, gonna get all drunk and accidentally shoot each other in the neck are they?”
He’s kind of offended by that, so I stop asking questions.
So I’m a little surprised by my chance to go up to Man Camp and see what it’s all about. Ryan wants me to bring a friend since I’ll be driving out into the backcountry on some pretty gnarly Jeep roads. So I take Amanda, the hot yoga instructor who almost never wears regular clothes. She just cruises around town in whatever’s clean, usually a pair of leggings and a tight little hoodie. Today she’s got on these big tall Ugg-like boots and a little down vest with fur on the collar so she literally looks like a hunter’s centerfold.
I’m just in jeans with holes and flip-flops, but I still feel like I’m naked when I walk into the Dude Cave and it smells like testosterone, sort of a mix of booze and sweat and stale body odor. It’s like an army barracks, a cross between a tent and an airplane hangar, dark and dank with bunk beds in the back and a huge table covered in bags of chips and half empty bottles of booze. There’s a makeshift kitchen and all the old boys are sitting around the table eating pistachios and a few are in bed, taking their mid-day naps.
The old boys get very excited when they see us, though I’m not sure if it’s because we’re female or because we’re bringing the coffee.
“Hal here had the shakes this morning, his withdrawal was so bad,” one of them says.
“Never gone a day without my coffee, not even when I was in the Marines,” Hal says.
They start chatting us up, wanting to know where we’re from. Ryan gives us a tour and tells us what they do every minute of the day. Suddenly, even though I’m going to miss him and don’t like the idea that we won’t be in phone contact for a week, I’m really ready to leave.
I imagine it’s how men feel when they see tampons in the garbage. It’s an undeniable part of life, but you just don’t need to see it.
Ryan’s been gone five nights, which means he probably hasn’t killed anything yet. Enough already! At this point, the only piece of meat I’m interested in seeing is his.
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Though many are fatigued from the pandemic, rules for health and safety must be followed even more closely as winter approaches.