I grew up in the little town of Laramie, Wyoming. The Old Man had a wood-paneled study and on one wall was a gun rack. There was a hunting rifle, a 12-gauge shotgun, a four-ten shotgun, an antique lever-action rifle that had belonged to my Grandfather, and a twenty-two target shooting rifle. All of them were securely locked down. All four of his sons learned gun safety and protocol at a local range and when we went out hunting with him we were closely supervised. After firing any of the guns we were required to break them down and thoroughly clean them before they were locked up again. The smell of Hoppe’s gun-cleaning oil is one of those distinctive odors that you’ll never forget.
All of my friends’ fathers had similar gun racks on their walls and the fact was little mentioned or discussed. Or you might hear a conversation like this.
“We had Sage Chicken for dinner last night. The Old Man and a couple of his friends went hunting and got a few. ”
“What did it taste like?”
“Sorta like Chicken dark meat, I guess. But you had to eat carefully to keep from biting down on the buckshot. You know, like little black bb’s. We’d spit ’em out and line ’em up on our plate. Lewis got the most. Five, I think.”
“Dang. My Dad never goes Sage Chicken hunting.”
As for me, I’ve never liked hunting. I’d try to duck out on the periodic family hunting trips but if pressed, I’d trudge along. I shot and killed a rabbit once and then felt bad about it for a week afterward. But I am not against other people hunting, by any means. I have and have had friends who were avid hunters mostly because they liked venison and felt that killing and field-dressing a deer was no more of a barbaric act than buying a rump roast of beef at the supermarket. But they never had their pictures taken grinning in triumph next to the corpse of an animal, holding up its lifeless head.
Like I said, I don’t own a gun and I don’t hunt. But I am the exception rather than the rule in my home State and if there’s anything the natives enjoy more than going out and stalking the big animals that live in the Wyoming mountains, it’s telling stories about the non-natives who come there, armed to the teeth, ready and eager to kill something.
When I was a teen-ager, the story went around about a man from Texas who had won an Elk Hunting permit and showed up keen to bag a trophy. He had brought his own horse trailer, complete with horse and equipment. His hunting gear was so new the pieces of clothing practically had the L.L. Bean tags still hanging from them. He turned away all suggestions that he hire a guide service – “Those guides are for people who don’t know what they’re doing.”
So the fellow drove up into the Wind Rivers above Dubois, parked his pickup and trailer at a trailhead, saddled up, packed up, and rode off up into the mountains. On the second day he came upon a large stand of trees and was pretty certain he saw something moving up in there. He tied his horse up and slowly and silently began to circle the stand. Once he was near the top, he moved down in among the trees . Then some movement caught his eye. Downhill and between the branches he saw his elk. Taking careful aim, he squeezed the trigger, and shot his horse.
My old friend Kelly, when he was a teenager, pumped gas at a filling station on the edge of Evanston, Wyoming. During hunting season, hunters would periodically stop at the station to refuel on their way into or out of the Uinta Mountains.
One day a car with Pennsylvania plates pulled up to the pumps. Strapped to the front fender of the car was a large, dead animal. In those days, there was no “Self-Service.” Gas station attendants filled your car for you as well as washed the windows and even checked your oil. As Kelly approached, the driver, wearing a big, proud grin, got out of the vehicle.
Once the nozzle was in the tank and the gas was pumping, Kelly said, “Looks like you’ve been out hunting.”
“Yep,” the man said, preening. “I got a good one!”
Kelly looked once again at the animal on the fender. It was a mule. An old, gray mule complete with horseshoes on its hooves and a brand on its hip. The hunter had attached a Deer Tag to one of its legs.
As he washed the windshield, Kelly toyed with the thought of breaking the bad news to the guy, but decided that some law enforcement officer down the road between there and Pennsylvania should have the honor.
Instead, as he took the cash and handed over a receipt, Kelly casually asked, “So it’s a… mule deer, eh?”
“That’s right,” the hunter grinned. “A mule deer,” and with a jaunty wave, he drove away.
My Old Man grew up in Casper, Wyoming and about the time he was finishing High School, he went to a local MD that he liked and told him he wanted to become a Doctor. The older man became a kind of mentor for my Father and after College helped him to get into Medical School at the University of Chicago. Many years later, when my father was attending a medical convention near Jackson, he decided to take a day and go visit his old friend who had retired to a little village called Alta on the Western side of the Teton Range.
When he arrived, the older man greeted him warmly and asked him if he’d like to take a drive up into the high country.
“There’s an old hermit who lives way up there by himself,” he said. “The only time anybody ever sees him is on the tenth of the month when he comes down here to buy supplies. If he’s not snowed in, he’s pretty reliable. But now he’s several weeks overdue and the local sheriff figures he keeled over dead. He’s asked me to go up there and if he has indeed expired, to sign a Death Certificate and haul the old guy’s carcass out.”
My father agreed to go. It was a beautiful Fall day, the scenery was amazing, and he figured they’d have plenty of time to chat on the way. After about an hour’s drive, the last mile of which they’d had to put the pickup in four-wheel drive to navigate a little-used, rutted track, they came upon a small, handmade cabin. Inside, sprawled across the floor, was the dead body of the old hermit.
Judging by the odor, the body must have been there for quite some time. But the smell was not the most striking thing about the man, what amazed my father was that despite his advanced age, the hermit’s long hair and thick beard were a bright, flaming red.
My father and his friend quickly went back outside for some fresh air and a canvas tarp to wrap the body up in. Once it was loaded into the pickup, they turned around and headed back down the hill. Soon they were back on the highway talking about old times back in Casper. Then up ahead they saw a wide place in the road with a portable little shack and a “Hunter’s Checkpoint” sign. A young Forest Service Ranger was signaling for them to pull over.
The Ranger took a long look into the back of the truck as he walked to the driver’s window.
“I see you’ve been out hunting,” he said, “do you have a deer tag I can look at.”
“Nope, no tag. We haven’t been hunting. We were up there on County business.”
The Ranger looked at them, then at the two rifles hanging on a rack in the truck window, and pursed his lips. Clearly, he did not believe them.
“Mind if I look in the back?”
“No, no,” said my father’s friend. “Be my guest.”
The young Ranger leaned over the side of the truck bed, grabbed two folds of canvas, and snapped the tarp open. He was staring down into the gray, mottled face of a human corpse framed in bright red fur. He squealed, jumped back, and then just stood there, pale, dumbstruck, and gaping as the pickup rolled away and back out onto the highway.