Northwest Colorado’s regional thoroughfare, Highway 40, along the Yampa River, was once the main east-west way through the state. Several miles to the road’s north are craggy mountains, split by the Yampa; to the south, rolling hills and flash-flood wash-outs covered in patches of sage and buck brush. For a fifty-mile stretch, these rolling hills go to the horizon in three directions. The county’s landscape in the winter seems barren, post-apocalyptic. Precipitation is rare in the high desert, but after December or January, it’s covered in dirty, crunchy snow. In some places, a persistent, unsettling wind makes your soul feel empty, like you’re in a Stephen King novel. It’s nothing of the thick timber of the Flattops Wilderness, where a hunter can easily sneak up to prey, her footsteps muffled by the trees.
Hunters from Texas and California — marked by hunting rig license plates — were drawn with promises of large herds and easy kills. The wealthier ones would pay ranchers sometimes tens of thousands of dollars for trespassing waivers and there were rumors that landowners would employ ranch hands on ATVs to herd elk and deer from public to private land. This is called capitalism.
Those with less, a group I belonged to, was generally unable to pay such fees and was left to road hunting for the capitalists’s leftovers on public BLM ground, most of which was too vast to track fast-moving herds without a truck. This land is federally managed. Its use is called socialism.
In the pink flushes of daybreak, hunters in trucks would spot a herd by the dark patches its member bodies formed against the snow or by clouds of hot breath steaming to a brightening sky.
They would chase.
Other hunters would catch on.
Organic posses of ten or so pickups would bounce through ravines and over hill-crests on makeshift roads, and the elk would be corralled in terrified cell herds of between thirty and one hundred animals in gullies or box canyons.
These geological traps became shooting galleries. Flying bullets barred egress.
Some hunters were inexperienced, bad shots, prone to what Dad called “elk fever,” an excited, adrenaline-induced state that causes in a hunter blurred vision, bad judgment, and an itchy trigger finger. In many cases, this ailment was compounded by a bad hangover.
More than once, bullets from guns fired from opposing hilltops whizzed close to our group.
One bullet often ripped through the flesh of two or three animals.
Untargeted animals were hit and limped off after the massacre, separated from their group, and likely died scared, painful, lonely deaths.
Vulnerable yearlings were left motherless.
Every year, it seemed, the snow waned and the number of hunters grew. The land became less wild and the hunt more depraved.
This is probably how, when I was fourteen or fifteen, a certain spike bull elk met me. On this hunt, we ignored the practical challenges of hunting on foot in Northwest Colorado. My Uncle Rick (a pseudonym), a cult leader, and I walked through ravines in the area topped with cedar brakes, in search of elk.
In an arroyo, we encountered the spike bull, thirty feet away, sickly gazing at us. It was early in the season, still even a bit warm. The ungulate wobbled like a drunk. A sweet smell came from a gangrenous hind leg, which hung from a tangle of bone and hairy flesh, a shattered mess that could only have been caused by a hunter’s errant slug.
I shot the bull in the forehead. My bullet pushed its eyes grotesquely from its skull; one hung to the ground from a tattered nerve.
Likely, the bull had been among one of several big herds that roamed the area during hunting season, panicking between onslaughts by hunters in trucks who ran them down in sage valleys. He couldn’t stay with the herd because, shot in the leg, he was too slow. He’d probably been searching for it for days, as social animals do.
Dad, having heard the shot, came over a hill. He and Rick debated whether to field dress it. Dad looked at the corpse — a mad scene — grimaced and popped one of the eyeballs back in its socket with his shoe. His lip quivered. He steeled himself. It was no good, he said. The meat was ruined. Also, the kill was illegal, the bull too young.
Dad tried to comfort me; I had put the animal out of his misery. Rick still wanted to harvest the meat. More hunters in our group showed up and sided with Dad. We walked back to the truck, Rick staring the stony stare of a slighted religious leader.
A game warden stopped us after we turned some hills. He’d apparently found the body.
“You know anything about that carcass back there?”
Perhaps we could have saved it.
The warden let us go.
Note: This is part of my master’s thesis, which I’m slowly dissecting and publishing here.