Back in season - Part II

One of the unplanned side-effects of my adolescence was a strong desire to hunt. Naturally, I looked to my father for guidance on satisfying the urge, but his neo-Buddhist beliefs and fairly strict vegetarian palette didn't mesh with killing.

Still, he respected my needs and the value of the rite of passage and enrolled me in a three-week hunter's safety course. When my appetite wasn't diminished by countless hours of buck fever and hypothermia videos, he reluctantly took the next step and made a phone call.

John was a co-worker of my dad's who commuted from Norwood to Telluride for a maintenance job at the ski resort. He was passionate about hunting, trustworthy enough and, I assume, the only option. I say "only" because I still remember the ashen almost nauseous look on my dad's face as I climbed into the passenger side of the F-150.

"Don't worry, Bill," John chuckled through the open window. "I'll take good care of him." Seconds later we were en route to western San Miguel County, and I had an ice cold Budweiser in my hand.

It didn't take long to realize that the lesson plan was on hold. Our car-ride discussion had nothing to do with stalking, aiming or cleaning. Instead, John enlisted my help in solving the age-old dilemma of whether the Broncos or Raiders had better looking cheerleaders. He also told me why Budweiser is superior to Coors and Ford is better than Chevy. We stopped only once to pick up another six pack and a plastic orange vest and foam orange hat. Hunting would wait until early that next morning.

"You'll want to use this," John told me as he handed me the .270 Magnum through the haze of too much domestic beer and a dawn beginning to break.

With 15-some-odd hunting seasons under his belt, John was experienced and able, but not above cheating a little. With a total of 15 seasons under my belt, I was an impressionable student. Surprisingly early into the lesson, we were roadside and eyeballing a small herd of deer on private property. "I help irrigate this piece every summer," John assured me, and I gratefully swapped out my lever-action pea-shooter for the Cadillac El Dorado of deer rifles. Raising the scope for a look, my pulse quickened as I spied two sets of antlers cross the rise.

John's voice dropped to a whisper as he suggested, "Open that door a little wider so you can rest the rifle on it."

My mouth grew dry as the moment slid by and finally, I got the go-ahead from my "mentor."

"Take your pick, and let it fly."

I clenched my teeth, squinted my eyes and stretched for the trigger. In place of triumph, there was nothing but a humiliating flinch as the anticipated recoil never came. Face red with fury, John uttered through clenched teeth, "And don't forget to turn off the god-damned safety."

I clicked the safety off and sighted in again.

Clench. Squeeze. Blam!

Time slowed to a grinding halt, and John's mouth opened wide in slow motion.

"S-H-O-O-T A-G-A-I-N!!!"

Blam! Blam!

The sudden silence resembled waking from a deep and heavy dream, and it broke when my only audience went wild. "All right! You nailed 'em. Probably ruined the meat, but tagged 'em. Now close the door. We gotta hustle."

"What's the rush?" I asked.

"Don't ask questions."

It was clearly no trophy buck, but with three definite points, it was legal. Anxiety quickly translated into victory as the floodgates on my adrenals flew even further open. The kill was doing strange things to my mind and body, and I was enjoying it.

With no remorse and concern, I dragged the buck across the field and under the fence and cleaned the animal on the side of the road. A half an hour later, I had submitted my trophy to the processing plant.

My dad looked even more ashen and a bit nauseous when I returned home 48 hours later with two boxes filled with 80 pounds of venison. He was particularly unsettled when minutes later I had venison burgers sizzling in the stir-fry pan.

The reality of my first season hunting didn't hit until later that month. One morning I looked over my homemade mount and felt haunted. Something had clearly gone wrong. My rite of passage had been a tragic short cut. I could have easily blamed my feelings of guilt on too much Budweiser or a lousy mentor, but instead felt like turning myself in.

Fearing laws man-made and natural, I opted for another route. I put my trophies in the dumpster and cashed my new .270 Magnum in for a fly rod. Barbless hooks and Adams Irresistables became my arsenal of choice. And after years of catch and release on remote streams and rivers, the guilt faded.

But lately I've felt that justice may still be coming, and I've had a distinct premonition of myself roughly 14 years from now. I'm standing curbside and watching ashen faced as my daughter, Skyler, unloads five boxes filled with 300 pounds of elk meat. "Don't worry about it Dad," she tells me. "He took good care of me."

- Will Sands




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