I never thought I would kiss a gun with tears in my eyes, but I did. A few years ago I was out hunting elk. I had stopped for a snack in the tepee that three evergreens had created. After my break, I began to hunt again. About an hour had passed when I heard some crunching in the woods. Immediately, I reached for my rifle to realize…..it was not there. My heart stopped and my mind raced as I tried to recall when and where I had set it down. I remembered my little haven of a lunch spot being the last place I had it, so I looked down at my GPS for guidance. The path I travel when I hunt is not a straight one,though. It is a path that is guided by sounds and smells and intuition; therefore, it was not easy to determine the location of my gun from my GPS alone.
I started back in the general direction from which I had come. I looked for familiar signs in the landscape and eventually crossed some dog tracks that were hardened into the dried mud of the trail. I remembered looking at those perfect tracks right before my lunch break. I began to circle that location and spoke out from it. After another fifteen minutes of searching, I saw about four inches of muzzle in a small opening of an evergreen. I walked toward it, incredulous that I had found my gun. I stepped into the small haven where it leaned; waiting. I fell to my knees with very real tears in my eyes and kissed my gun.
I did not grow up around guns or hunting. I grew up the child of a single mother in the city. I subsisted on frozen dinners and fast food restaurants. I was quite fearful as a child; terrified of canoes, open water, being alone in the woods, getting hurt, getting lost, etc. If anyone had suggested to me or the people who knew me that I would become the passionate outdoors woman I have become, I do not think any of us would have believed it. Moving from Florida to Wyoming in my early twenties set me on a path that changed my life forever.
When I began to date my husband eight years ago he invited me to go hiking with him while he hunted. I followed him down some of the steepest terrain riddled with dead fall, across some of the highest and windiest buttes with only scraggly sage soldiers to hang on to when I lost my footing. Looking back now, I wonder if this were a test to see what I was capable of or simply what I was willing to put up with. When he began to suggest that we separate during his hunt so that I might drive some animals or simply cover more terrain, I will admit I was scared. One would think that after this initiation, or hazing, I would have left the hunting to the men. But, the next year I decided to give it a try for myself at my husband’s suggestion. If he had known what was in the works he might never have suggested it at all.
My first year hunting I set out in the woods with a borrowed gun. I followed my husband step for step and I carried that gun with a heart full of fear, thinking it could explode at any moment. Nothing about it felt comfortable and I wondered if it ever would. I did finally harvest an animal that year, an antelope. It was after three missed attempts on the same day (I will save that for another story). The fourth time was the charm and I took it with one shot at about 60 yards. I was surprised at how calm I felt as I approached the doe and watched her take her final breaths. I was surprised I was not upset or full of regret. I was alone for a moment and I knelt by the doe as she passed. I placed my hand on her coarse fur and said a prayer that became the same prayer I say every time I harvest an animal.
After that first year of hunting, I bought my own gun. I took my first buck mule deer that season while I was 5 months pregnant. Not only has my own rifle become comfortable to me, it is often my only companion in the woods every fall. Most days I get out alone when my husband is at work and my daughters are at school. I can spend 9 hours in the woods alone and never once feel lonely. These hours fuel me. They fulfill me. They make me feel capable and alive.
I realize now with a certainty that can still stop me in my tracks, that losing my gun that day was not about the loss of an item or the financial burden it would mean to replace it. It was about the loss of a symbol; a symbol of my independence, my skill, my strength, and my pride. It brought home to me the truth of who I had become and how much that gun represented it.
Hunting has become more than a hobby, a sport, or an activity. It has become more than a way to fill my freezer and feed my family. It fills a need deep inside me.
Hunting is what connects me to everything around me; seen and unseen.