On a road trip coming straight off of an unsuccessful sheep hunt with our mom, my brother stopped to visit my family and I in Colorado. Although my parents certainly did enough to get us passionate about hunting as we were growing up, my brother has been the only one to really follow in their footsteps. He is an accomplished archer and marksman, and has made hunting more of a priority in his life than my sister and I. You need to go hunting with mom and dad before they can’t hunt anymore. My little brother has never told me I needed to do anything, so while his words gave me pause, I valued his continued emphasis: you should see the sparkle in their eyes—see who they become, when they are hunting...
For 18 years, my mother has been putting in for a sheep permit. This fall, (not a year too soon), her name was pulled from other various hopefuls gambling for a chance to grip the horns of one of Wyoming’s greatest regal and elusive kings reigning over some of the most beautiful and formidable backcountry of northern Wyoming. The initial week-long trip with my brother, who was along to photograph, videotape and help out if need be, turned into a journey of touch and go. The two of them were led by a guy named Griz who can saddle a packhorse faster than you can say Snuffelupagus, and whose wife turns hunting camp into a makeshift home—complete with hot water to wash your face and warm meals better than most can conjure given twice the accoutrements. The four of them rode horses through dense foliage and lingering summer heat just below tree-line. They led their horses while sliding down shaky scree fields, and at one point, my mother got whipped in the face by a surprisingly buoyant tree branch, the result of which might be a jaw that is able to predict the weather for years to come.
For months prior to this trip, my mother (who can smell seventy just around the corner), hiked up and down the hill near her and my dad’s ranch, getting her lungs ready to be pushed above 10,000 feet. Knowing what I know of her, she packed and repacked the right clothes for subzero mornings, tepid mid-mornings, hot afternoons, and bone-chilling evenings. She prepared to wake up and hike when most of us have only been asleep for a few hours. And rightly so. When the first week of rigorous hiking, riding and camping yielded only some spooked sheep who knew just where to go so as to be unreachable even by a long-range firearm, my mother went home and prepared herself to return to the unpredictable backcountry and try again.
The second trip (a series of day-trips) proved to be even colder without the reprieve of the warmer afternoons. Breakfast well before the sun has come up, exhaustive hiking and riding, and then dinner well after the sun has gone down. Only to repeat the process for several days in a row and depending on only a few hours of sleep. And she held up well, my mother did—preparing herself for round three.
My mother knows her scree fields; she can post-hole through snow, warm her bitter-cold hands enough to use them while pulling herself up from numerous falls—exhausted and spent on the frozen ground. She knows her valleys—she is not fooled by the gentle meadows that lead towards the treachery of their ascent and onto the tops of their breath-taking ridges. She knows that the mountains of Wyoming go deep, and that within their layers exist the secret migrating patterns of elk and mule deer. She can promote and ensure first-hand, the next generation of offspring so that her grandchildren can feel the same healthy flush of spotting a 10-year old ram imperially perched high on a cliff in the mountain sun. She knows how to calm her shaking fingers to take the one shot that will end it for one, but carry it forward for many. And as my mother gets to meet her sheep for the first time, (after giving much of her blood and sweat to the land where they both live), she knows a respect that exists no where else.
So in the dark, after what has been one of my mother’s most trying journeys (compared even, to hunting in some of our world’s most challenging climates and terrain) my mother and Griz manage to pack out over three hundred pounds of meat, get marked again by an angry, errant tree branch and insurmountable weakening falls to the ground, and arrive back home after having been transformed again, by the experience of this chosen way of life.
I may have missed a few hunting seasons in the past (well, about 22 of them since my parents moved to Wyoming), but I will not let the legacy of that sparkle in my mom and dad’s eyes fail to live on. My children will know their grandparents not just through passing the sweet potatoes around the Thanksgiving table, but they will hear about and see for themselves the images of the parents of their parents with rifle in hand and a redness to their cheeks; they will understand that a shoulder-mount of a large ram on the wall means so much more than a trip to the taxidermist or chagrin from their non-hunting friends. And while I yearn for the day we can all go hunting together, the transformation that happens out in the wilds of Wyoming will definitely play a part in the lives of my children and me for a long time to come.