Elusive Prey

The drive was long. And I’ve spent the last three days up in the Colorado high desert hills near Montrose. The first two days, we were up before dawn, climbing into extra layers and strapping on extra firearms in case we encountered bear or mountain lion (we didn’t, though I saw a coyote lope through). We wore gaiters, as the low-lying cacti have a habit of jamming needles through simple cloth (or leather) and hitching a ride you only realize when you’ve managed to jam a prickly pad into the meat of your other calf. The air that early in the morning is chill, but it’s not yet late enough in the year to be bitter about it. Still, we pushed a little as we hiked the slopes.

The trick was simple: get high enough to see the deer come up from the fields where they graze at night to predict where they’d head through the scrub pine and juniper. Sharp scents and welcome, usually, but for the arid climate and suddenly-different particulates sending my too-sensitive sinuses into overdrive. We were robbed, the first day, as a particularly large buck stood barely a hundred yards away, and we couldn’t see him because of the angle of the sun.

Still, we learned.

That’s what I’ve been doing. Learning, mostly. Learning that I really want to spend a lot more time in the uncomfortable altitudes of rural Colorado. Learning that all the worthwhile things require more than a little discomfort (my lungs are acclimated to sea level, not a mile and more up). Learning that death is still disquieting.

The area we hunted for the deer (we’re on to elk, now, the wily buggers) is quite close to civilization. From the point of the bench, we could watch cars drive up and down highway 50. We joked about not knowing exactly where the boundary between privately owned land and the BLM area was. Were we poachers accidentally?

We look at maps when we’re driving, and get the bird’s eye view. Add the satellite take, and the speeds at which we regularly travel, and it can easily seem like we know what we’re doing. Where we’re going.

Guess again.

It was easy to lose track of where I was in those hills. Every slope looks the same, from the ground. Each one was covered in scrub and cactus, and rocks. And each slope left me gasping. And getting turned around wasn’t going to be very hard. Sure, I could find my way out, again. The roads go everywhere, after all. But finding another person in square mile? Even seeing what the man a hundred yards upslope was desperately trying to show me?

It brought to mind the many books I’ve read wherein a character travels from Point A to Point B with relative ease. Even across land with few obvious marks. And I started to wonder how many other writers have tried to cross miles of empty (more or less) land. The land folds and curves in deceptive ways when you’re standing on it, in a way that isn’t clear when driving on a road. Roads are marvelous, and they have a way of ignoring everything that isn’t the road. They encourage us to ignore the rest of the world, too, except in perhaps a landscape, isn’t-that-pretty kind of way. I recommend getting out in the world, and finding out how it can fool you. Just take water, and a decent GPS.


  1. Apologies on the timing today, folks. I got up this morning to find out I had a flat tire to fix. At least arid, rural colorado got a whole mess of rain dumped on it, last night. Hopefully it drives the elk down to lower altitudes over the next few days.

  2. I am old, fat, and have unavoidable nerve damage from a major operation a few years back, so I am no longer able to hunt.
    What I can do is sit at my loading bench and craft custom ammunition for a few younger healthier friends use. It’s something I became good at, and do for the sheer joy of creating something useful with my own hands and brain.
    And every so often these friends stop by and hand me large sacks of processed game.
    I currently have a good supply of venison, elk, and bison in the freezer. All harvested with bullets from rounds that I assembled from component parts.

  3. I have once or twice, because whoever thought using little brown plastic stakes to show routes in brown grass and rock was better than the original rock cairns… A map and a compass were my friends, but even so, on the ground, one fold of arroyo looks a lot like another fold of arroyo.

    With mild apologies to Robert Frost. “Two streambeds diverged in tawny grassland… I took the one less traveled by/And it made all the difference.” Because it added an unplanned hour and a half to my hike and I was darn close to running out of water by the time I got back to the car.

  4. I didn’t take orienteering until NH, but I learned to mightily respect the wilderness in Alaska, where I spent time carefully venturing into the Boreal forest: miles and miles of skinny little spruce so close together you can barely see where you’ve been, much less where you are going, and there’s rarely a tree big enough where you might – possibly – be able to climb up and orient yourself by the sun or the mountains. And then there’s the tundra. Sigh. Now I’m really missing hunting and being out in God’s Country where men rarely step foot.

  5. Rounding up cows, on horse back, for my brother-in-law was a lot of fun. I didn’t know where I was at any time. So, I kept following the cows, chasing the occasional one that wanted to go someplace else. Eventually I met up with my B-I-L (who’d told me go downhill), and we brought the cows to the winter pasture several thousand feet lower in altitude.
    The only scary part was bringing them across a major highway. Sitting on a horse in the middle of a fairly busy highway to stop car to let cows cross is interesting to say the least. “Will that stupid SOB stop or is he going to hit me?”

  6. Back when I was young, my grandfather would often take me for walks in the mountains. When we’d gone as far he wanted to, he’d spin me around a couple of times, and ask me to lead the way back.
    It formed a lot of mental habits that have served me in good stead over the years.
    And it certainly makes orienteering much easier when you have a good handle on where you are and where you’ve been.

  7. I haven’t gotten to go hunting in about four years, due to work, but next year I’m going for Buff. Yes you’re right if you write about moving through country where you can plow both sides of the same acre and you’ve never done it, you’re gonna get it wrong.

  8. Of course, the people at the time had a better notion of how to travel at that tech level than we do.

    They would certainly be, barring disability, better walkers than the majority of people today.

    On the other hand, probably the uncanny elements of the crossroad started with the way that any crossroad could lead to disaster by choosing the wrong way.

    1. I think Tad Williams did really well in his Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy when he had his castle-raised protagonist end up having to run away and get so thoroughly lost that he would have died had he not run into a mentor type. I can follow a trail. I’d prefer to not have to find my way without a lot more training than I’ve got—and a lot of people consider me a wilderness expert by comparison.

  9. It took me about a year to acclimate to the altitude and dryness. I’ll still huff and puff in Summit county. The difference between 5300′ and 8000′ is noticeable. A-Basin, at over 10,000, is a great place for pseudo-back-country skiing, but hiking with skies at that altitude is unpleasant.

    Watch alcohol intake. I have no idea why, but one gets drunk really fast when going up in altitude and drunk-resistant going down.

  10. My brother and I grew up in the mountains of Colorado, west of Boulder. We spent a lot of time running around outside the house. Our mother’s rule was we had to carry a whistle and we had to stay in sight of the house. We were probably lucky we weren’t eaten by a mountain lion.

    But one thing relevant to the story is that both of us *knew* that square mile. We knew the shortcuts over the rocks and we knew the unusually low places where you could hide in the grass. And we knew how to get from anywhere to anywhere else.

    In story terms, a local resident with that kind of knowledge should have a huge advantage over a stranger passing through.

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