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Call of the wild

By Mike Leggett
AMERICAN-STATESMAN STAFF



The old man chugged down the Wyoming gravel road in a decrepit old Scout so rust-worn it looked as if worms had been gnawing their way through the sides.

He coasted to a stop in a cloud of dust, removed an oxygen mask from his face and leaned across the decomposing front seat to speak out of the passenger-side window. "Could you boys help me?" he wheezed through a haze of cigarette smoke. "I've got a grouse back off the road that I can't reach." Since I was the oldest "boy" (I was in my early 40s), I agreed to help.

We had heard his gun go off and wondered who might be shooting along the forest road above Cottonwood Creek in far western Wyoming, about 120 miles south of Jackson Hole. Everybody was getting ready to hunt mule deer, so the boom of a 12 gauge didn't fit with the forest sounds.

Alternating between the oxygen mask and the unfiltered cigarette smoldering between his calloused thumb and forefinger, the old man explained that he had emphysema and couldn't really walk anymore, couldn't hunt the way he used to through the aspens and spruces of the Rocky Mountains. "The hose on this oxygen tank is only 30 feet long," he explained. "I still like to shoot grouse, but I have to kill them close enough to the truck that I can reach them with this hose."

I wondered why he hadn't chosen to quit smoking, but it wasn't my place to ask. Besides, maybe at that point he figured, "What the hell? I'm done for. May as well enjoy myself." He was doing that by smoking, and hunting and talking to other hunters.

I've often thought of that old man, who must be long since dead, when I think about hunting and why we do it. Most all other human pleasures having passed him by, he clung to the ones that meant the most. What is it about hunting that has such a grip on some of us that we can't squirm out of its grasp, or won't? Why will we keep going hunting, even when our bodies are failing us the way his was, when the only enjoyment we can gain is straining to fetch a grouse at the end of a plastic tether?

The best reason I can give is that we hunt because we must. There's a part of the hunter's soul that won't be filled in any other way than by sitting in a deer blind or a duck marsh and soaking in the sounds of the morning, a coyote's howl, a screech owl's wavering call, the rush of wings overhead as a flock off ducks drops into the decoys, and feeling the dull ache that grips cold, wet toes like a pair of pliers.

I assume there must be some pleasure when a kid gets the high score on Space Invaders on his Game Boy, but who would know, and even more, who would care? But stand next to a youngster who has just killed his first deer and try to imagine matching that smile with anything that comes out of a box.

And that kid is what hunting is really all about, the link that binds generations, even as the world tries to tear them apart. My grandfather and father are dead, just as I imagine that old man to be now. But they are still as real to me as ever. They are on every hunt, with my own kids and grandkids, a part of every outdoor activity. I just can't talk to them.

That brings us to the inevitable question from non-hunters, and especially anti-hunters, who can't imagine going hunting or choosing to shoot an animal or bird: Why do you have to kill something? Why can't you just hunt with a camera?

Well, because that's not hunting, it's photography. And because hunting does allow choosing whether to shoot or not to shoot. Most often, for me and for most, hunting is simply the vehicle for being a part of the outdoors. That we can choose to kill an animal and use it for food and honor it as a trophy is a part of the responsibility that goes with hunting.

There is considerable attention paid these days to the fact that the percentage of hunters in the population is declining. Depending on your point of view, that decline is either a sign of the continued enlightenment of the human race or a problem that hunters must overcome in order to survive.

To me, though, it's a loss for those who don't hunt and will never know the pleasures of hunting, like riding in a rickety old truck, shooting grouse out the window.




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