By Bruce A. Smith
Of all the things I did when I had a so-called mid-life crisis, the craziest according to my ex-wife was not leaving her, selling my business, nor relocating to Yelm, Washington to join Ramtha’s School of Enlightenment. For her, I truly went off the deep end when I bought a muzzle loading, black powder rifle and became a hunter.
Her consternation was understandable because when I lived with her on Long Island, New York, I too felt disgust seeing dead deer strapped to the hoods of pick-up trucks driving south from the Catskill Mountains.
But here in Yelm, which is halfway between the Seattle suburbs and Cascade Mountains, lots of people hunt. During the season, many of the pick-ups in my local Safeway parking lot have guns in their cab racks as hunters stop to buy groceries on the way home from a plinking session or a hunt.
But I didn’t just run out and buy a gun to join my new neighbors. My ex did sense something very powerful at work, something changing that was fundamental to me. What was truly new was deciding to take a greater responsibility for my life and become sovereign and self-reliant. This meant getting a hunting rifle, learning how to garden, and for the first time in my life wanting to bake an apple pie.
My muzzle loader is not some kind of Rambo-type machine gun. It’s an old-style 50-caliber Thompson-Center “Hawkins” percussion cap rifle, the kind where you ram black powder and lead shot down the barrel with a rod, just like Daniel Boone. In fact, my gun is a replica of the rifle preferred by the western Mountain Men of the 1840s and 50s—the guys who gave up on civilization in the east coast, came west and lived off the land, marrying local Indian women. My kind-of-guys, I guess, because in 1990 I began to live in a similar fashion.
For two years I let my hair grow long, and my beard got bodacious. I lived in the woods and used the sale of my business to pay bills. In season I hunted. In my third year I hooked up with several other muzzle loading hunters and together we hunted for a week on the western slopes of the Cascades near Mt. Rainier. Although I had opportunities, I did not get my deer.
But I had many wonderful experiences, the best of which was seeing elk in the wild for the first time in my life. While crossing a clear-cut in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest I felt the ground shake from the pounding hooves of twenty female elk stampeding behind us.It was like an earthquake. I turned and saw these massive animals, taller than me, galloping at thirty miles an hour across a huge clearing like they were on a joy ride with Mother Nature. Until they caught our scent and stopped— fearing us more than whatever had got them going in the first place. Moments later they drifted silently into the brush.
Daily, I lived the essence of nature. Up before dawn I saw the sun rise, or at least the sky getting lighter and the darkness leaving the woods. We hunted like a wolf pack, two or three guys flushing deer into clearing from their hiding places in “re-prod,” the tangle of cut-down saplings common to timber country where foresters plant “re-production,” or second-growth seedlings to jump-start the growth of new lumber. Our plan was to push deer into clearings, exposing them for the rest of us who were on the other side of pre-established firing zones.
We hunted with the weather and sought snow and tell-tale tracks. We always moved in accordance with air temperature and wind, and since most mornings the winds blew towards the vast upper slopes of a warming Rainier we hunted down-slope into the wind and away from our scent. In the afternoon, we reversed our movements as the wind did.
Daily snow squalls and bitter breezes usually gave way to warmth and rain, and I always saw the sun sometime during the day but I never knew in advance when ol’ sol was going to make an appearance. When we got hungry we stopped and ate sandwiches, wrist watches and time became superfluous. What mattered most was dry boots and always knowing where the rest of the guys were. I knew keenly that I had lethal, killing power at the flick of my finger. I wore “hunter orange” on my hat and vest, and I smiled knowingly when I glimpsed my buddy’s orange hat two-hundred yards away in a salal thicket.
On the next-to-last-day of the season we decided to bid good-bye to the daily rain, mud, and snow, and go back home to warm clothes and dry beds.
The following morning I awoke at 5 am, and while lying in bed I had a lucid vision. The walls of my room disappeared, yet I felt neither cold nor wind. From the horizon I saw a cloud come toward me. As it neared, I saw four deer standing upon the cloud, their legs wrapped by a mist. When the entourage got to within a few feet from me, the lead of the four asked, “Are you coming?”
“What do you mean?” I replied. “Coming where?”
“Are you going to hunt today?” the deer said.
“Me? Why do you ask? I’m a hunter, and yesterday I was trying to kill you,” I replied.
“Yes, we know. But it doesn’t matter. You are one of us. You are not a tourist or a backpacker. You leave the trail and walk where we walk. You step in the same brush that we do, the same puddles. The rain falls upon you like it falls upon us. The snow clings to your feet like it does to our hooves. You are one of us. Are you coming?”
I weighed the invitation, but moving my butt seemed too much of a task.
“No, not today,” I replied.
The leader looked straight at me, but did not speak or move in any acknowledgment. I sensed a profound neutrality, a blank response utterly devoid of any judgment on whether I stayed in bed or took up the gun. The cloud receded, taking the deer with it. When they reached the horizon my vision ended.
That was the last year I hunted with my mountain men, and other than one shot at a stump, I have not fired my Hawkins since. I have hunted with a modern rifle on occasion, and, although I feel my greatest intimacy with the natural world when I am walking in the woods with a loaded weapon—stunningly greater than any moment in the woods working for the Boy Scouts or the Appalachian Mountain Club—in season I have never seen a deer since.
1990, revised 2017
Bruce A. Smith