Certain locations seem to provoke a sense of ancestral memory, awakening something old that did not consciously register before. A vast landscape unfolds before the eyes and it seems to rekindle some glimpse from another lifetime, an archetype burned on the brain from the deep past, perhaps even another millennium. Snowcapped peaks above golden valleys, wind moaning animal-like through stands of dead trees; it all seemed like it had happened before. Maybe not for me, but most certainly for someone, and it had inexplicably worked its way into my consciousness. That we were hunting an ancient and storied North American mammal likely added to the sensation; it was easy to imagine my companions outfitted not with modern packs and gear but with skins and lances, engaged in something pre-dating any names or maps we would recognize.
That the beast we sought would be killed with a modern firearm does not change the fact that it still takes a small clan to hunt a bison, especially under human power alone. We were in pursuit on foot, forgoing pack animals or ATVs, and this added a great sense of both weight and adventure. Every step further into the backcountry would be a step that would have to be retraced, and when successful, retraced under a significant load. It would increase the time we would have to spend out, magnifying potential for encounters with other predators as well as weather, heightening the seriousness of the situation. But to go in the confidence that one is capable and is a member of a capable crew is a sweet space to occupy. There will come a day when my friends and I are no longer able to consider such feats, the later the better, but that we are able-bodied here and now should be an imperative to try to maintain an ethic of meeting challenges head-on and under our own power.
A rifle crack echoed through the valley and the bison was soon sprawled in a meadow, dead. What follows becomes a blur of cooperation and work, first by fire and moonlight, soon extending into days. Skinning, butchering, fetching water, feeding the flames, patrolling for bears. Hoisting meat bags into the trees and hauling. There was too much work to be done to process what had happened in the moment; that would come later.
In three days the bison would revisit me, bringing with him a deep sadness and wellspring of conflicting emotions through a flood of lucid dream-images while lying in bed. I try to embrace all that comes with it, to embrace the sadness. The day that I no longer feel it will likely mark the day that I too lay dead in some meadow. We can live a life of avoidance or we can charge into it headlong.
In the meantime, there is so much to be grateful for, a point which we are reminded of through every great trip. I’m grateful for the sound of wind and spray on my shelter while in a warm bag, for the graupel blowing through golden trees as I walked a stretch alone. I am grateful the food now in my freezer and the thousands of miles of thoughts and sights and sounds while driving to Montana and back. I am grateful for the laughter in morning camp over steaming coffee, the time shared with really good people, and most especially the hugs and cheers as the last loads were un-shouldered at the trucks and the trip had officially come to an end.
Rejoicing that it’s over…and not a moment after getting warm and comfortable, wanting to be back out there again. So it always seems to go.