While hunting alone on the last day of antlered deer season, I sat hidden — haunted by memories of words best left unsaid.
It took nearly an hour before I managed to get the thoughts out of my fat head. Nothing new; I say a lot of stupid things.
After overthinking the issue and attempting to rationalize my words — all the while scanning the horizon for antlers and watching the warm light of the lowering sun grace tall grasses — I decided I would apologize for what I’d said. With that decision made, I thought I’d be able to start enjoying the hunt — my last chance to score a mature buck.
However, the smell of freshly cut fields, the bite of cold on my face and the ancient chortling of cranes suddenly triggered recollections of recent losses. I was flooded with memories of loved ones I’ll never see again.
Like coarse gray hair, death is something to be dealt with increasing frequency as we grow old. I had yet to take time to mourn the passing of my father before more tragic news came. It’s one thing to lose an elder: It’s expected and often well-telegraphed; my father had been sick for a long time.
But loss of loved ones who passed too soon has shaken me — stubbornly unyielding to those who remain. Some take it well. I don’t.
This year has been filled with one loss after another. Father passed in May. And friends — better men and women than I’ll ever be — have recently died at young ages. Left behind were shattered families with small children.
I was at rock bottom just in time for my inaugural Wyoming resident hunt. Finally finding time to hunt — the sound of red-shafted northern flickers chattering and the Shoshone rushing by — sorrow welled at the bottom of my eyes and anger grew with the sting of each tear drop on my exposed cheeks.
I missed last season after failing to draw a tag. At the time I was too new to the state to qualify as a resident and a general tag. This year was much anticipated. My dream hunt was finally here and I was sitting in the snow getting emotional.
Suddenly, the sounds of dried leaves underfoot broke the silence. Three steps; then a long pause before repeating — growing louder as the yet-to-be-seen critter neared. In my mind’s eye, I could see a proud buck led by his nose in rut, but cautiously guided by experience. I imagined I would remain hidden until he took one step too many from the river valley. He would never see it coming.
The steps became more distinct as they grew near — they seemed to have some weight. Sunset was near and I took inventory of my tools: Freshly sharpened knife; check. Flashlight with new batteries; check. A roll of paper towels; check. I was already counting on my shot finding its mark.
Then I realized day was quickly giving way to the night — the end of buck season. I may have whispered “hurry up” as my heart rate increased in anticipation. Before sneaking into the wooded corner of the field I had set my phone alarm to go off one minute before legal shooting hour ended to ensure I wasn’t tempted to extend the hunt. I knew it was close to chiming when what I hoped would be a majestic buck turned out to be a yearling doe. Stepping from behind a cottonwood, she looked directly at me. I could have taken the shot, but I hesitated. Then the alarm sounded — like a disaster warning on a submarine — sending her back from where she came with her tail in the air. Oddly, it made me laugh.
It’s hard to explain, but I felt lighter for days following the hunt. John Muir, one of the great outdoorsmen in American history, often wrote of the benefits of time alone immersed in the outdoors. “Nature’s peace will flow into you as sunshine flows into trees. The winds will blow their own freshness into you and the storms their energy, while cares will drop off like autumn leaves. As age comes on, one source of enjoyment after another is closed, but nature’s sources never fail,” he wrote in his book, Our National Parks.
I’m far more likely to think of my words before I launch them after spending time outdoors. I should do it more often. And there are few places better to spend time with your memories. Deer don’t make fun of puffy eyes. That is, if you’re lucky enough to see them.