"A'hunting we will go, a'hunting we will go...."
Raised by a British mother, hunting meant silly people dressing up in very expensive clothes, riding on more expensive horses while half drunk, chasing some poor fox with hounds baying loudly.
It's a bit different in Montana. I wouldn't get into the multitude of laws and regulations even if I understood them. This is about people, more men than women, who can feel happy "taking their guns for a walk", quietly through the woods doing something they are experts at, and feeling something ancient and essential coursing through their veins. You can't get the same feeling buying filet mignon at the supermarket. No way.
The camo clothes have to be free of human scent, including detergents. The gun sights have to be checked, guns cleaned, and the pickup bed has to be swept and hosed off. The beloved border collie has to be left home. He sulks and looks deeply wounded, from pre-dawn to mid day when The Boss comes home for lunch and ranch chores. Then the dog goes into a funk again when it's time to go out again at dusk. The look of betrayal on his face is priceless.
The Boss and his friend look more like themselves in camo outfits than I have ever seen them. Men in camo are really hot!
After a few days of spotting elk here and there, The Boss went off alone one evening. I had a feeling that this would be the day. He was usually home by nine, and this time he wasn't. The Boss Lady knew he had finally got his one elk for the season. Sure enough, he finally got home exhausted. The elk was a 6X7 buck, large enough that it had to be cut in half just to haul him out. To keep the meat from spoiling, all internal organs have to be removed immediately. Then, believe it or not, the meat is left there over night, and remains unmolested by preditors. Early the next morning, the two men went to retrieve the buck, in pieces, and bring it home.
I watched a hunter's show on TV last Sunday a.m. during which the hunter bragged that his shot had been 270 yards. The Boss shot this elk, a clean shot at 540 yards.
When the truck drove up, I grabbed a camera and ran out to take pictures of the happy hunters with the buck peeking over their shoulders, his huge antlers sticking way up above the pickup cab. Then it was time to hang the meat in the big barn across from my cabin.
Unexpected sun beat down on the metal roof the next day, raising the temperature inside. Suddenly, The Boss realized that the meat had to be cut up and wrapped for the freezer fast, or we would lose it. My phone rang at 6:30 a.m., catching me in my PJ's. It was his voice asking, "Do you have a spare cutting board we can borrow?"
"Sure, I think so," I said half asleep. "I'll be right over with it." It's about 50 yards to their back door, so I grabbed the cutting board, put on slippers, and walked over. There were cutting up a quarter of the buck on a big table in the utility porch. I walked in, in my turquoise and white PJ's from Walmart and offered to help. The Boss Lady quickly showed me how to freezer wrap cuts of meat for the freezer. Steaks, backstrap, roasts, and later ground meat. The first packages I did were an embarassment, but I got better at it after a couple of hours. Buster the dog, lay quietly at the end of the room, knowing he would get awesome bones at the end of the process.
I asked the Boss how much this elk had cost him this season. "Well, there's the cost of the Tag from the government, then the gas to and from the land... about $10 each way, each day. If you're a decent shot, the rounds expense is negligible. One year I blew a tire, had to buy four new tires, so that buck was pretty expensive." Basically, it's about the quality of elk meat. There's nothing like it. You'll see. You would give up the finest beef in favor of elk if you had your choice. And whatever the cost, we eat all year on it; on our limited budget, it's a bargain."
The cutting got to the neck muscles. The Boss said, "Damn, this meat is going off already. I smelled it, and it seemed fine. I've smelled worse coming out of the packages at the supermarket. But some of the meat went into the trimmings bucket. I asked what happens to the trimmings. "We haul them, and the bones, out to another piece of property, and dump it out at the edge of the woods. It's a party for coyotes and wolves that night. That way, the whole food chain is happy."
"May I watch you take it all out there?" I was wrapping burger, still in slippers and PJ's after four hours.
"Sure, I'll take you."
I continued to work on burger wrapping, grabbing big handfulls out of a five gallon bucket. I was almost down to the bottom, when The Boss told me I better come now, he was ready to dump bones. So I washed my hands off, and climbed into his Dodge Ram in my dirty PJ's and slippers.
We went across the river to their other acreage, up dirt roads, into some hay fields surrounded by pines and firs. He pointed out different trees he had refrained from cutting because they were unusual or beautiful and he was fond of them.
We finally reached the edge of a clearing, from which thick forest rose up toward the mountains. We got out and hauled big bones and trimmings off the truck bed onto the dry grass. He told me that in a day or so there would be no evidence that the meat had ever been there.
I imagined the predators peeking out of the woods, planning the biggest party ever, on their cell phones telling relatives to fly in quick before it was all gone.
I'm a product of suburbia. This life in Montana is as alien to me as if I had gone to Siberia. I carried with me pre-concieved notions and prejudices when I arrived, and of course was sure I was right in my beliefs. Well, I have a lot to learn, and my landlords are kind, patient, and willing to share their lives with me.
When they go out on an annual hunt for food for the freezer, it means they survive the rotten economy a bit better. There is no waste. Even the ranch dog gets small bones to bury. Yes he digs them up later. Ugh!
I come from civilised people who think the words "hunter and hunting" are obscene. They shop at Costco meat department, thank you very much. Kill nice furry animals?! Appalling! I remind myself that "dominion over all" means stewardship and responsible management, which the hunters here all do. Human beings have been hunting for millions of years. It's what we do if we are to survive. Let us not forget as we walk down the market aisles that we are all hunters of one sort or another. Remember these animals lived as they were meant to, no factories, no cement floors, no hormones. They were happy as long as they lived.