I am walking the beige plains of Wyoming, bow in hand, scanning the horizon for mule deer. I hike up a mountain, sit on a big granite rock, and drink some water. Cacti pepper the harsh landscape. My lips are chapped and my eyes hurt, but I keep at it, because tomorrow will be my final shot at bagging some venison before I head back to California and swap my bow for a surfboard.
I’ve been on the road for four months. I drove up through Colorado, Wyoming and Montana backpacking, fly fishing, river surfing, and feeling so fucking lonely. Hunting season opened about a month ago and I’ve spent much of it traipsing south through the timbered public lands of Montana with my brow deeply furrowed, contemplating the meaning of life more than any human should.
I spent a week in Dillon, Montana (population 4,000), a town known for its annual rodeo. I arrived during a downpour and spent the afternoon huddled up at a spot called Badass Coffee. It was Hawaiian themed, had a pinball machine, and served coffee and pizza, both stale. I was the only customer on this gloomy day so I struck up a conversation with the barista, though I assume this man would fight me if I called him that.
“Know anywhere good to hunt around here?” I asked.
His eyes lit up. He too looked a little lonely. He pulled out his phone and showed me a map of a spot nearby that was supposedly filled with deer. Then he showed me a photo of a buck he’d harvested the week prior, clearly proud of his accomplishment.
He said, “Each morning they feed here before bedding down for the day,” and pointed at the map, whispering as if he were telling me the whereabouts of Jimmy Hoffa. I have no idea why this man was so generous, but I met lots of people in Montana just like him.
I stalked deer in that frost-bitten field for a week straight, sleeping just outside the hunting grounds. Each morning I woke up an hour before light, shivering cold, and sat quietly. And each morning a herd of deer appeared from the forest, just like he said, and exposed themselves, just out of range, staring at me the whole time as if to say, “You must be new here.”
I got skunked in Montana and never took a shot. Now I’m in Wyoming, sitting on a rock on top of a mountain and tomorrow is my last chance. After this, I can retreat to my comfortable little bubble in Santa Cruz, California, and I’m sure I’ll look back at this time with reverence and longing.
So why do I hunt? I feel obliged to answer this before I go on. After all, I’m a proud hippie who brews kombucha, wears Chacos and thinks Leonardo DiCaprio’s speech at the Academy Awards was pretty great.
I’ll start with the positive spin. I hunt because honesty is the antidote to delusion and knowing where your food comes from makes the world a better place. I also like spending time in the wilderness and noticing it with more acuity: fresh animal crap, the importance of wind direction, a patch of folded grass or bark rubbed off a tree. These details feed into an ever-growing body of knowledge that makes me feel more connected to nature. Sometimes when I’m out there alone I even feel the vibration of God.
My ugly side, the one I keep hidden through humble-brags and witticisms, doesn’t give a rat’s ass about spirituality. This side monopolizes conversations and yearns for legacy. This side wants to roll back into Santa Cruz after four months on the road with a new bicep vein and a rack of antlers strapped to the back of my RV. Hey everybody, look what I killed!
As I sit on the mountain watching the Wyoming sky dim from orange to blue-black, I think about the two possible versions of my story: Kyle, the boy who left home and returned a man. Or Kyle, the boy who left home … and then returned home.
I’m not alone on this hunt.With me is a friend from California named Paul, and his dad, Dave, who owns the ranch and is generously letting us hunt it. All he asks is that we help him build a small shed to store tools for the winter. The rest of the time we can walk the property. Paul and I hunt different areas of this vast landscape, so most of my time, like today, is spent in solitude.
That night the three of us go to a bar that is distinctly not for tourists. As we walk in, a group of cowboys grumbles something in my direction. I’m too tired to pay attention. The bar is dimly lit with a low wooden ceiling and a smell of history. A sign reads, Next Beer 27 Miles. Along the wall are rusted horseshoes and on a table sits a cattle-branding book as thick as an encyclopedia.
“What can I get you, hun?” the bartender asks.
I think I hear another grumble from the darkness.
Dave has some business to attend to. He’s meeting a man named Lee to inquire about fixing a fence on his property.
“Wyoming is what you call a fence-out state,” Dave explains. “This means that it’s not a rancher’s job to keep their cattle within the premises of their property, it’s your job to keep them off your land.”
Lee arrives and takes a seat with us. He’s a tall, wiry man with a jean jacket, wide brim hat and striking blue eyes. The bartender approaches us. Lee grabs her by the waist with confidence and pulls her close.
“Hey pretty lady,” he says.
She leans down and kisses her husband.
“Can I interest you boys in some goat milk fudge?” she asks Paul and me. “I made it myself.”
She brings out a plate of hand-wrapped fudge. It’s so rich I can only eat a little.
Wyoming is the least densely populated state in the United States with only six people per square mile. It takes grit to survive the winters. Many of the locals hunt not because it’s cool, badass, or because Joe Rogan does it, but because it’s the cheapest way to get meat. I ask Lee if he’s done much hunting this year, my shoulders back and voice artificially low. Lee tells me that he shot his first elk of the season the other day. He says it with a quotidian tone, like he went to the store to buy eggs.
The next day, we gear up for our last hunt of the trip. After this, Paul will fly home and I will begin my long drive back to the coast. We’ve been hunting in the afternoons, because Paul and I still need to do computer work in the mornings. As we pile into the car, I go through my checklist: camouflage, bow, knife, binoculars, water. I realize that I’ve forgotten my headlamp. I jump out of the car and grab it before we leave. I’d been developing a blister from all the hiking, so I decide to wear my sandals for the drive so my feet can breathe. I’ll put my boots on once we get to the hunting grounds.
Kyle, the boy who left home and returned a man. Or Kyle, the boy who left home … and then returned home.
As we approach the property, something catches Paul’s eye.
“There’s a buck up ahead,” he says.
A big male deer stands a few hundred yards ahead of us, halfway up a hill. He stops the car. I quietly step out with my bow in hand. Where are my boots? In a flash, I realize that I remembered my headlamp, but forgot my fucking boots.
“Where are your boots?” Dave whispers.
“I’m just gonna hunt in sandals,” I say, like this was my plan all along. “I’ll see you guys at dark.”
I slowly close the truck door and creep around the side of the hill, hoping that the buck hasn’t smelled me. My heart is pounding as I sneak up the mountain. Cacti are everywhere. The buck is 40 yards ahead and I’m hiding behind a big boulder. I slow my breath, nock an arrow, draw back, and stand up at full draw. The buck is running off into the distance. My heart sinks. I try to collect myself and feel my breath shaking like a rickety engine. This was my chance and I blew it.
Pull back the camera, and the whole scene is pretty comical. California surfer on top of Wyoming mountain. He’s decked out in camouflage and on a quest for manhood. The camera pans down to reveal that he’s wearing socks and sandals.
Kyle, the boy who left home and returned with no shoes.