The cranks turn, over and over, and my mind wanders as I pick a line through ruts and rocks and drifts.
Picking a line.
Perhaps this is the crux of the issue, of why I am never quite certain that cycling or bikepacking is as therapeutic as walking. The background energy needed to operate a machine at speed seems to dictate a different sort of thought, a different mental pace.
Not better, not worse. Different.
On the climbs I am certainly drawn into a smaller sphere; attention is required to watch the line, getting lost in breath, watching sweat drip on the top tube. But it doesn’t seem to allow for watching the birds or scanning a treeline or wondering about cloud formations. Walking is slow enough that attention to foot placement requires less conscious attention. Walking thoughts are expansive, with space for the external world should you allow it to enter. The bike tends to draw me into an inward space, an experiential sphere existing in a small radius extending from my front wheel, all else a relative blur.
And then there is the descent, often with little time for thought at all; maintaining the line reigns supreme. To think is to hesitate, to hesitate is to find oneself laid out in the rocks. A flow takes hold, very akin to the experience of surfing a wave, an everflowing present uncoiling beneath the wheels. While there is something to be said for 8 miles of downhill and being home for coffee by 9AM, a side of me always feels that the speed has robbed me of playing witness to the gray fox hidden in the chaparral or the tanager perched in the crook of an oak’s arm.
That we evolved on foot no doubt plays a role in the syncing of pace and thought, the bike a technological and comparatively obnoxious intrusion.
This weekend I’ll be walking overnight. But don’t get me wrong; there is something to be said, time and time again, for being home for coffee beside my wife by 9AM. Sometimes we simply have to cheat to fit it all in.
As wildflowers and sunshine give way to choked and cluttered canyons, I’m struck by the unique character of this mountain range, how the features almost force a certain mode of thought. Slopes too steep and thick with brush, much of this landscape is not made for seeking vistas and sunsets, instead funneling the wanderer into overgrown, tree-lined waterways.
I imagine this terrain would be claustrophobic for many, too closed-in, teeming and busy, the overlapping texture of plant and rock reaching in from all directions. At times it feels jungle-like. To the uninitiated, possibly messy and oppressive.
Growing up here, the character of these canyons has likely played a part in teaching me to appreciate the tiny gift, to be content in examining the details hidden in small spaces. What lies around the bend is very often no different from where one stands, unless a mindset is cultivated to approach the experience like one approaches a bonsai collection, looking for micro-environments and quietly hidden paradises. Roaring waterfalls are seldom found. Instead I find myself drawing in my knees and sitting close, watching a small stream flow over a rounded boulder into a sandy-bottomed pool.
Observing water striders dancing for position at the edge of an eddy replaces the trout-gazing of High Sierra alpine lakes. Stone-colored toads swim the breaststroke through slow moving pools no deeper than a shin. Wrens and dippers hunting insects flip in and out of undercut banks and rocks, disappearing into dark hollows. The stones here do not scream for attention, they do not tower and inspire awe through scale. It is a land of small, subtle happenings that require attention to understand, full of small creatures living small lives.
Fortunately this seems to have a way of thinning the crowds, warding off those seeking the spectacular. They congregate at the range’s peaks and waterfalls, leaving those of us happy to look for more humble treasures to do so in peace. I’m reminded of a whisper from Cold Mountain: If someone would poke out the eyes of the hawks, us sparrows could dance where we please…
Here’s to the joy of small things.
In my teenage years I trained a pair of scrub jays to eat from my hand and eventually perch on a shoulder to gingerly pluck breadcrumbs from my lips. While an “animal trick” that won praise and laughter from family and friends, conjuring images of some backyard teenage St. Francis of Assisi (my mother always said this), the whole act was partially a product of the emotional lows that left me sitting alone under the trees in the corner of our yard for who knows how many days throughout the years. The befriending of the birds took far more time, silence, and stillness than anyone was aware.
I strongly suspect that some form of depression is at the core of more animal whisperers and stream watchers than we can account for.
I’ve always liked being quiet, being left alone. That people elevate the “silent retreat” to something spiritual is quite obvious, yet it has simultaneously never made much sense to me, perhaps because it has come so easy and so often that it does not feel like it takes any particular discipline. When practice ceases to be practice and simply becomes life.
I eventually graduated from hiding in the trees in my backyard to driving and sitting alone in bigger spaces. The nights were particularly long and black then, sleep was always tortured with the sounds of the forest. I was still learning how to be in the woods, how to relax. My wife, who was not yet my wife, would sometimes walk to my camp to surprise me with breakfast in the morning. Those days were magic, intense in a reckless sort of way that comes only with youth, yet our bond survived.
I was diagnosed with a mood disorder at the age of 26, given a prescription and instructions to return every week for therapy. I never had the prescription filled and after my second therapy session, I never went back. To this day I’ve struggled with the accuracy of that diagnosis, and with the entire process of evaluating mental health, but that is not to say I haven’t struggled.
Despite the fact they’ve never gone away, something even then hinted at the idea that the highs and lows were a part of me that I had to learn to live with, perhaps even embrace, not squash with medication or overcomplicate with a stranger’s disinterested musings (that was my impression of therapy, anyway). I’ve largely learned to stop fighting with ideas about what behavior is “appropriate” in relation to “norms” and instead try to welcome the whole of my being. The thought of change is often more frightening than the thought of enduring the pain of swinging between the peaks and valleys. To change is to try and imagine who you would be without being who you are. Perhaps for some of us, life is the slow process of learning to live with ourselves.
Accepting your burden might just conserve energy that will be needed to carry it.
I am very fortunate to have found someone that understands me. When I throw a sleeping bag and some food in pack and head out the door, my wife has the trust to know that the escape is not about us or the life we’ve created together, but about allowing me to be the person that still needs to go sit with the birds.
So I go where the dark-eyed junco dwells. I walk until my feet hurt and I find a suitable patch of earth for my sleeping bag. If there is a good view, a trickle of water somewhere, the sound of the wind leaning into pine, sagebrush, or manzanita…even better.
But there are always birds.
I get lost in their calls, in trying to pick apart the trees to find them and figure out who is saying what to whom. Or there is simply drifting off into a hazy present underscored by the urgency of their conversations at dusk.
Triiit!! Triiit!! Teet-teet-teet-teet! Triiit!!
Tep! Tep! Tep! Twoooo-eee!!!
(I am working on achieving mastery in transcribing birdsong to English.)
Seeing and hearing birds consumed with the immediacy of their own lives helps bring me back, the feeling of not belonging in this time and place replaced by the warmth of understanding that this is the only time and place. A reminder to carry the presence of the birds.
Wild and lonely.
It’s hard to understand why that would be appealing right now, given the pervasive low-grade anxiety that seems to lurk beneath everything in these strange times. My feelings seem to oscillate by the day; on Friday this trip wasn’t going to happen. On Saturday morning I packed my bag and left. To seek out the wild and lonely felt wrong at first, but the moment I locked the car, swung a leg over my bike, and tasted some wind, it made sense. Some things don’t change. Perhaps we need those things more than ever right now.
I am so pleased with the bike as a tool, this bike in particular, but remain generally convinced a solid MTB should be an indispensable part any adventurer’s quiver. If not for mountain biking, which I have waning interest in as a discipline unto itself, for linking loops, shuttling to vehicles, and making other adventures happen. The bike made the 6 mile connection between the entry and exit points of my hiking loop, remaining hidden and locked to a tree until I returned. Its usefulness is a reminder to keep my cycling fitness up, even if only for trips like this.
The idea was a peak-bagging fest, exploring some ridge systems I already know more thoroughly. Winston Peak (above) and Winston Ridge (across the canyon), went down quickly and predictably as many a sunrise has been spent hunting them.
Down into the canyons, somewhere off of Little Rock Creek I became sidetracked, roughly eight miles and many thousands of feet into the hike, lost in thought and wandering onto the wrong trail. The detour was worth it for the discovery of the above spring, which will be quite useful come hunting season.
Camp on Burkhart Saddle felt particularly lonely, nothing but a windswept bare spot on a ridge at 7000′. The lights of the desert cities could barely be seen in the distance to the north, bringing with them visions of families in quarantine and a general reminder of the heaviness that was waiting down below. The winds were whipping, trees moaning, temperatures dropping quickly. After ramen followed by half a pot of instant potatoes, I retreated to the back of the tarp and got in my bag, only 8PM, fully knowing I was in for a long night but unwilling to sit outside in the wind. The Seek Outside DST saw it’s inaugural night; spacious, versatile, the diamond fly pitch was excellent with the downward ridge pointed into the wind.
I boiled the coffee at 3:30AM, long awake but it was as long as I could wait, now biding my time so I wouldn’t burn out my headlamp navigating while hiking too early. The country on Pleasant View Ridge is steep enough that a headlamp hike could easily become a fiasco. I was trying to time it so I’d do the rather straightforward climb and arrive on Pallet Mountain at sunrise, facing the harder country and route finding on the other side with the aid of the sun. Timing was perfect; I topped out as magma flowed from an eastern sky, shedding jackets and hats and gloves as the light grew brighter.
Looking back on Pallet Mountain, first light barely touching it. I’m wise I camped in the saddle and resisted the strong urge to hike through the night. It would’ve been a steep route finding disaster in the dark. Winston Peak top left, where I started.
About 18 miles into the loop, I was very concerned I’d be stopped by snow and the lack of traction gear and an axe. More confirmation hiking at night would’ve been bad. It registered as much steeper than it appears here when I saw it in person, snow hard and crusted, and it looked like it only got worse. Without crampons the snow sections were too dangerous, the risk of a slide in many places too great. Skirting the edge of the snowline on the ridge proved safer, though it cliffed out in a few spots, forcing me back to kicking steps on snow.
Slow down. Calm down. One foot in front of the other. Check your footing, plant your poles. Don’t end up alone and broken in the bottom of a ravine.
The ridge soon gave way to Mount Williamson, fortunately more snow-free as the southern slopes became more gentle. Ultimately the ridge gave way to the descent back to the highway on part of the PCT I climbed 4 of the 7 peaks I was initially interested in, scrapping three simply becasue what I saw on the topo did not translate to the physicality of what I saw in person…Steep Country. A good reason to return.
By the numbers: 22 miles, +8000′. Home by 10:30AM, just in time for Second Breakfast and Coffee (a trick I learned from Hobbits).
Rambling the high country. Cool approaches and snow lingering on north slopes, escaping the heatwaves below. Walking beside my eldest child; large, man-like now, sharing a sip of whiskey after dinner, I’m flooded by strange memories of a small hands, treats, and children laughing in the woods. He spoke, I listened. We read. His favorite authors are my favorite authors. It was different and yet exactly the same.
I rounded the corner by bicycle and was hit with a sinking feeling; yellow caution tape strung across the trailhead entrance to my local stream, closure orders stapled to the signposts. My stream. The one I frequent nearly daily. That this is National Forest land makes no difference, it has become an extension of my backyard. I know the bends and the boulders, the most comfortable depressions nestled into oak roots, places for sitting and watching the water until the sun dips on a random Tuesday after work. This place is important to me, intertwined with my identity, but like so many front-country escapes, it has been overrun in the recent weeks as people turn from the bars and restaurants and malls to the outdoors. I cannot blame them, I will not begrudge a non-local family for driving out to take a walk…but it was as if all of Los Angeles did it at once. My quiet sanctuaries and hidden hermitages were suddenly overrun and the State stepped in. It was inevitable.
Thankfully, after reviewing local forest orders today, all is hardly lost; the high country is still open and I see nothing that would make solo backpacking against the law in certain watersheds or trail systems.
The shock of the entire quarantine situation has subsided some, shifting more into a state of low-grade background anxiety and simply worrying about this new face of suffering in the world. My family is, quite fortunately, safe and healthy at the moment. The initial instinct to hunker down and stay close has been blunted some with time; not out of restlessness or impatience, but out of actually seeing the situation for what it is. As my family and I settle into our respective routines, a solitary drive up the mountain and a night spent among juniper and sage no longer feels wholly inappropriate. It’s a relief, even if temporary. Here’s to going back out.
I sat beside the stream in selfsorrow
and it spoke:
“Did you expect the world to slow down?
Surely you understand that the seasons wait for nobody.”
Walking out I pondered this,
hand trailing in wet grasses beside the path,
savoring the odor of damp leaves on the wind;
Resolving to expand a few moments
of perfect awareness
into the feeling of a life well-lived.
A winding drive at 3AM, hot coffee, hot music, two coolers full of ice rattling in the back. I reached my glassing spot a full two hours before sunrise, sat in the cold and shivered until first light, dozing off in the needles and silence. Occasional lightning flashed from behind the range, hanging in thunderheads out in the deserts beyond. Sitting, listening, waiting for the sun.
In the pines, in the pines,
where the sun don’t ever shine,
I shivered the whole
And then golden light rising with birdsong; I sat long enough they payed me no mind and danced in the trees above me. I picked apart the hillsides with binoculars, memorizing every thicket and tangle of manzanita and pine and rock. Deer or not, I love this land and the early morning light, bearing quiet witness to the changing rhythm.
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.
Tracks and browse
trails winding through the thick;
Shadows, nothing but deer shadows
and high country sun.
We drove for 12 hours
trying to catch the tail end
of the goddamned thing,
walked salt flats and rolling grass hills
looking for it
-everything dried out and parched
and it’s not even
You can smell the coming fires
in a warm, straw-like scent
hanging on the breeze
and we all talk, only half-joking,
of giving up and just hitting the road
When the tires come to a halt
on another gravel turnout
and we stagger out
the cows look up slowly
from behind heat waves and wire fences
and it seems the cows know
that they, too, may have little choice,
and that the will of God cannot be accounted for:
You get what you get
and you don’t throw a fit.
I have to wonder if our children were born
as melancholy as she and I
or if we did this to them
as I stand back watching and find the pair drawn
to oil seeps and broken glass on the desert floor,
or staring into the light of the sun
struggling through a coastal fog
and meeting it all with sighs and a far off look
that seems to penetrate a future I cannot know.
They are content, just like us, to drive and think
and revel in places where we’re strangers
and people let us know it,
feeling outside of it all.
(perhaps to make us feel that much closer)
We drove for twelve hours
until we caught it again, if only for a day
sitting separate from the blur of the world,
safe behind the window glass
-singing, wondering, being together
knowing these actions, conversations, memories
are the only solid footing we have.
Photo Credits: My Son
by twilight demons-
rage and prayers
–prayers for the Angel of Sleep
to stave off another morning
of burning eyes
of ragged-toothed anxiety
beneath the ribs.
it’s not so bad
and shouldn’t feel so bad
I’m just so tired.
Seeking refuge by day
I have found
that hungry ghosts
cannot cross streams
and bare feet
in gravel and water
serve as protection
against a quivering heart.
Standing in a waterfall
I ask forgiveness.
Under an outcropping
of desert shade-
Ask on behalf of all beings,
ask it of salamander, cottonwood
frog, and rust-bellied towhee.
I ask forgiveness
and swear I’ll never
take it for granted
Lingering words from canyon wanderings. On a side note, I am quite pleased I can say that I have perfected cowboy coffee.
And then there is the Cycle of Things:
Seeing my son, so much older now
with The Burden in his eyes
and knowing all bets are off
as I’m not certain
I could save him
from the momentum
if I tried.
Confirming the level
of wine in my bottle
( 1/3 )
I deduce I ought
put another log
on the fire.
(for my wife in a dream)
I see you stuck in a mire
and I can only scream
off from a distance
that you’re beautiful
and should be free
and then hope
it will be enough.
a pitted iron stovepipe
into the stars
snoring in the tent now
on the verge
of being set free.
I prefer pencil
as I know
when I’m running out.
I meet a lot of people who’s worst nightmare is being stuck deep in the woods alone at night. I slept better than I have in weeks.
Once upon a time I got out more often for overnights than most people I knew. Morning birdsong and coffee in the rain tell me that it’s high time to get back to work. My thesis nearly done and behind me, there now lies more important business to attend to- canyons and streams to be inventoried, desert washes requiring contemplation.
I was going to pack a journal. And my flute. Or a book. And possibly implements for tea.
I left it all at home.
My better mind reminded me of the importance of making space for nothing. Allowing time to let thoughts rise and fall, unclinging and unhindered. Not doing.
I have to confess that the world at large is moving far too fast for me, completely at odds with the stillness that I crave. I’m increasingly feeling like a stranger in a strange land.
Seeing an owl in flight brought me home. An hour of streamside sitting and the illusory city-self begins to slough off like an old skin. Pink sunlight on the peaks above and a cold wind snaking through the canyon brought me home.
Grasp the feeling. Protect it. Nurse it as if it were a tiny ember. Carry it in cupped hands through the coming days of traffic and crowds and noise until it can be brought back to life somewhere quiet and wild.
Hiking canyons, scouting deer country, filling in some blanks on the Angeles High Country map with Adan. ~7000 feet at the end of December and nothing but warm sun, clear skies, and a dry wind. It’s hard to complain. On the other hand, I can’t help but feel like things are really changing here; summers longer, winters later. Last year’s rainfall seems quite the anomaly contrasted with this year’s Christmas wildfires.
But it’s good country any way I look at it. And it’s my backyard. There was still a ton of deer sign, one sighting, and lots of beds, rubs, and browsing areas. Big cat shit, bear shit, coyote shit…wild shit. There has been a lot moving through these canyons.
Including ancient people.
Emerging from cool shade into a sun-warmed clearing, we both immediately commented that this would be a perfect place for a camp. Within moments of uttering this statement, I found one of the most perfect bedrock mortars I’ve seen to-date.
Carved into a boulder nestled beside an oak, I scooped out the debris gathered inside of it, running my fingers across the perfectly smooth surface at its bottom. Whatever ancient people left this, it was an amusing testament to the fact that yes, this has always been a great place to camp. Whoever they were, however distant, I felt a certain kinship. Despite the possibility of being separated by millennia (many estimates of people in this region tag them between 2000 BCE and 200 CE), we’re still Homo sapiens with the same sensibilities.
As I stood surveying the surrounding ridges and peaks, I could hear the children and smell the smoke. I wonder who was the last to grind acorns here and whether they knew they wouldn’t be coming back.
I have a week off from grad classes, affording me the luxury of reading something for myself for a change. This was my first foray into E.O. Wilson and I’m quite impressed. He articulates things I’ve intuited for some time and his background in entomology and ant behavior is an interestingly fitting backdrop to any conversation on social behavior. I read it in a mere two sessions while on an overnight with my son and a friend of his. Teenagers are nice; the boys took care of themselves while I broke off to read.
Sitting streamside by candlelight, equipped with a down poncho, pad, and backpacking chair, I was prepared for some serious backcountry leisure. Rocking back and staring at the stars while pondering a paragraph, there couldn’t have been a better setting.
I finished the final pages in my sleeping bag with coffee before the kids were up. A proper stretch of reading indeed.
My last day of hunting was over before it began. Not even 0430 and there were already 5 trucks parked at my spot, at least four hunters headed in by headlamp. They could’ve been going in many different directions, but combined with the occupants of the other trucks, it was safe to believe this spot was bust. Between the holiday weekend and the last days of deer season, the forest was overrun. Things were beginning to look complicated. I was content to let it go.
I found a ridge and this sunrise instead.
Rifled cleaned, oiled, and locked away. I’ve now got ten months to think about what I was intending to do out there and why.
I look forward to these ruminations over a fire at my hermitage, unarmed and at ease. Time to let it rest, for both man and deer.
Another sunrise, moon sinking, the wind impossibly sharp and clean.
Fresh tracks but no blood on my hands, the deer nowhere to be seen.
Walking in darkness, then early morning light, the sun’s first rays warming a hillside. We found a few great glassing spots, a canyon holding good potential- if not for hunting, for simple solitude. It looked remote and wild and lonely, flocks of dove circling about the trees. I can’t help but imagine myself sleeping down there, wildness and sky boxing me in. No deer this time, just fresh tracks, hiking, talk. Next weekend.
I’ve always wondered if the practice of meditation has evolutionary origins in hunting. For what other reason would an early Homo intentionally sit for hours on end, still and silent? And then perhaps we realized that with stillness, silence, and mindfulness come existential rewards, now practicing sitting without hunting.
The alarm went off at 4AM but I was already awake. Whipped and pummeled by gusts throughout the night, my bivy sack ballooned in the wind. I was shivering with Orion looking down on me. And then there was coffee, more shivering, and finally a heated drive further up the mountain before the sun would rise.
Our initial spot was immediately busted. There was the snap of my magazine and the shouldering of my pack and then three trucks pulled into our turnout. Eight men got out. Headlamp beams cutting through the sky, they started straight for our trailhead, rifles in hand. We watched in disbelief.
There’s no room on that ridge for ten of us. What the hell are they doing with eight? New spot. Quick.
I mentioned another area I knew from backpacking. There was a spring and the topography seemed right in my memory. We could glass from the trail into many different drainages and cut out cross country if something looked promising.
And then there they were, materialized from darkness. B was walking ahead, going a little faster than I felt necessary. I hung back, stopping to glass more frequently. The sun had just begun to break. And behold: two black shapes bedded beside some manzanita on a hillside. Across the drainage, maybe 300 yards. I dropped behind some brush and held, made a couple clicks to motion B back. The light was too low for me to make out antlers at this distance. They looked big, but I wasn’t sure yet. As B made his way back he immediately understood. I chambered a round and looked for a shooting position as he put a more powerful lens on them. “Left deer, antlers…” he whispered. “He’s big.”
The deer held. Interested, but not afraid. They stayed down but were watching.
“278 yards” B whispered from behind a rangefinder.
I can’t see.
My scope produced nothing but a hazy dark shape with a head. And there was a significant crosswind. It was more of a shot than I felt capable of in the moment. It all felt very vague. I wasn’t even sure what the animal I was about to shoot at looked like.
I backed off. “If you can do it, take it” I told B. When I whispered this it ended as quickly as it began. As B went prone with his rifle the deer on the right casually stood and walked behind a bush. And then the buck on the left followed. And now I could see the horns.
Shit. Shit. Shit.
But they weren’t busted, just a soft push up and out of sight behind some cover. A spike walked out and followed. They didn’t look too concerned with us and I was certain we’d have another chance. B went ahead, I backtracked to get a different angle.
And after thirty minutes of looking, there he was. Again. This time bedded under a low tree with his back to me. Nothing but a big black mass that I first thought was a log. Until the head shifted and I saw the antlers in the rising sunlight. At least 3×3. The neck was thick. The spike appeared from the left, calmly browsing into view.
I felt stuck. I wanted options that didn’t exist.
He was still almost 300 yards out and there was a little bit of cover in front of him. And there was the wind, gusting and dying. I had a stable rest and I thought I might be able to make the shot, but he was on the ground and quartering away. I could make out the front left shoulder but the angle was steep. An inch left would’ve taken his shoulder off, a few inches right would be through the guts. Shit. I backed out slowly, left my gear, and brought B over. He was comfortable with the wind and distance, but only if the buck would stand and turn a bit. We decided to split the difference; I’d sneak in and try and get a shot from its ridge while B would watch from here. If it stood before I got within 100 yards, he would do his best to follow it. Or shoot.
As I took one last look to make sure I understood the approach, the buck calmly stood with its back to us and walked over the ridge without looking back. Gone in less than 10 steps. We had the wind and had been silent. He wasn’t watching us. His ears were calm. I’m still not sure if it was a bad move on our part that spooked him or just bad luck. Two times now he was in my scope but it didn’t feel quite right. This is ridiculous. And exciting. And frustrating. Second-guessing my second-guessing, knowing someone would’ve taken either shot. Knowing someone probably would’ve blown it bad and someone would’ve made it happen. Today I would be the someone that would do neither.
I surmise that the worst possible thing I can do is to not be realistic about my shooting abilities. Perhaps with more range time and more experience either of those shots would’ve felt much different. But I must acknowledge what I am and am not. As elusive as the concept of certainty is, I have too much respect for an animal to shoot if I’m not feeling something that at least resembles it.
But that’s also the catch, isn’t it? Certainty may stem from nothing but stories that we tell ourselves in the moment, stories crafted solely to justify an end. Perhaps it’s all more blurred around the edges than we admit. When we wait for certainty we may be waiting for something that will never come. Perhaps degrees are all that exist, endless shades, one blending into another.
All this and it wasn’t over. The buck didn’t have many options, didn’t seem too nervous, and could only be in the valley on the other side of the ridge. We could circle around, descend the side opposite his, crest it, and hunt him again.
This we did.
B spotted the spike below us under a tree, only 100 yards out, its back to us. The buck was here somewhere but this approach was no good, the little one would spook and alert him. We backtracked and climbed a steep rise to our left to be well out of sight and circle back in from the opposite direction. This would take over an hour. B caught a glimpse of him in the scrub oak and manzanita below, slipping into cover. We circled in, posted on an adjacent ridge under cover, and waited to see if he’d come out. And we waited. And waited. Nothing. We decided to push down the ridge, staying just below its top and out of sight on the far side, looking for a view from a new angle.
The wind shifted hard, carrying our scent in the entirely wrong direction.
I spotted a run of tracks, funneling through the brush, and whispered to B pointing it out. As he looked at it and down the side of the ridge he froze and tried to drop for cover, holding his hand up and telling me to freeze.
“3 deer, right there…All looking at me.”
I caught a glimpse from over the brush. The buck was laying down in a clearing, completely broadside, facing our direction. But they weren’t panicked and we had some time.
B crouched and quickly put his pack down for a rifle rest. I stretched to get a glimpse through my scope over the brush in front of me. He was in my sights for the third time, but this time it was at 150-200 yards and I had no choice but to shoot offhand and off of my tiptoes. I watched my crosshairs drift and bounce over his vitals. It wasn’t going to happen. He was too beautiful for me to wing one out there and hope it hit; I think I owed him at least that much. B slid further down the game trail with his pack, trying to get a clearer sight on him. But he seriously rushed it. I saw the other two bolt into the trees, the buck soon to follow.
It would be the last we would see of them.
I remain convinced that if we had backed out, waited, and relocated, we would’ve stood a better chance. I’m not thrilled by his rush.
I’ve been replaying the morning in my head for days, trying to figure out where I messed up. Was I being too indecisive? Or did I play it right? I wish I could share the replay with someone more experienced, but even then these things are so subjective and circumstantial I suppose it wouldn’t matter. But all in all, I felt my instincts that day were good. I’m proud of the hunting grounds I selected and the spots I made. I’m not sure I could’ve done much better.
I also know that for the entire morning, from well before sunrise and into the afternoon, the only things that existed in my world were deer, sunlight, wind, and a little thirst. Watching a crisp breeze carry some scattered dust to read the wind, bluejays flicking about during the silence of sitting. All the abstractions of daily life and my overactive mind gave way to something ancient, quiet, and seemingly timeless.
If only for a day.
I’ll be out there alone this weekend, sleeping under Orion, seeing if I can’t pick up the trail and feel that silence once again.
rain chased back by a full moon
-visions of a bear in the same silver light
weaving shadow, becoming shadow
rooting in fragrant earth
lakes cold, mercurial
echoing owl calls
with sweet indifference
And suddenly we find ourselves out, sagebrush speeding beside the highway, disoriented as if waking from a dream. Lights and computer screens add to the seeming implausibility of the wind still blowing cool through the pines. At this very moment.
What else is there to say?
I didn’t know the names of many mountains or rivers then. The winding drive seemed impossibly long and cold in the darkness. The heater of dad’s Datsun 210 struggling to keep up, frozen vinyl of the seats sticking to any exposed skin. I’d stay with him on some weekends, staying up and eating Fritos and cheese dip, the occasional can of Vienna Sausages thrown in for good measure. Dad’s culinary tastes were not very sophisticated. We’d wake early with junk-food and video game hangovers, make lunch, and pack our gear. Matching fishing vests (which I still own) were pulled out of the closet, accompanied by ultralight Daiwa spinning rods that broke down to only a foot long. I remember being very proud that I carried the same rod as my dad, that I didn’t have some cheap kid’s version.
Bologna, cheese, and mustard sandwiches on white bread and cans of RC Cola tucked into our pockets, we’d come to the river in search of trout. My father could pull fish after fish out of a hole, working the current, drifting a salmon egg and tiny split-shot exactly where he wanted it. I don’t remember ever catching any fish myself, but he’d hand over his rod to let me land some of his. It took many years of fishing on my own after dad died before I realized what was happening; that he simply knew how to read things and be silent whereas I was charging through the river like a drunken buffalo and casting as if my rod were a bull whip.
Dad relished fried trout, filleted and coated in flour, crisped and finished with salt and pepper. We’d savor the day’s catch that evening before retiring to the latest chapter in our quest to beat The Legend of Zelda.
Decades later, I’m still sneaking out of the house silently at 4am, my own family asleep, making the drive up the cold mountain. Bluegrass on the radio, heater working, I can now name all the surrounding peaks, rivers, and forks…
I moved away from spinning rods to fly fishing, self-taught on the same river I fished with my dad, standing thigh deep in a cold December pool. His ghost stands at my side, reading the current with me, trying to drift our line just so, easing it into a dark undercut on the opposite side…
I know how to catch fish now, probably better than he did. But in my mind, dad remains a legendary fisherman on account of the magic I watched him work as a child.
It’s probably been over twenty five years since our last fishing trip together. I’m out in the garage today, preparing for a week in the High Sierra, piecing together an ultralight Tenkara fishing kit, selecting and putting the finishing touches on a few hand-tied flies.
The last trout I caught brought tears to my eyes, summoning back the connection to my father, our time on the river together. There’s a part of me that would rather not kill them; images of blood in the grass surrounding colorful scales haunt my dreams. But I push it down.
Because I know he would’ve loved this, finishing a beautiful day over the hiss of a fry pan beside a stream. I do it as much for him. My father was a fisherman and I’m my father’s son, roll casting to a ripple in the shade.
It’s tempting to liken distance running to asceticism, especially when temps are over 90 degrees and climbs are approaching 1000 feet per mile. The Desert Fathers parched their tongues under a Middle Eastern sun; I’m in the San Gabriel mountains with my head low, dizzy and grinding out the grade.
Somewhere beneath the heat and sweat a silence takes over, a purity of being. My body doing what it was built to do; blood pumping, muscles contracting, lungs filling and expelling air. This is right. And it’s not always a struggle; I had miles and miles of smooth, quiet running yesterday, everything clicking, everything steady. No turbulence, just a mirror-like mind reflecting the world around me. Silence and solitude and breath.
I want to see the world before I’m gone. I want fresh trails rolling out before me, new vistas around each bend.