Outside the lodge that night, as a full moon rises over the aspens, we gather around a bonfire and talk turns, inevitably, to hunting. Between gulps of beer and good-natured insults from Becky, Jeff recalls the time a cornered mountain lion killed one of his hound dogs and wounded another. Billy describes how his father felled an elk with a bow and arrow across an impossible gorge. Sam turns to me. “You don’t hunt at all?”
I don’t. Back home in coastal California, that’s hardly unusual. Mention the buck you shot at a dinner party in San Francisco or Los Angeles, and I promise you a shroud of silence will fall about the room. But the table will be set with meat, and guests will soon be gushing over the paté. It’s not killing per se that bothers backpackers like me; we know we’re part of an ecosystem predicated on our staying at the top of the food chain. Rather, I think most of us are perplexed that so many of our fellow citizens would choose to experience nature through blood sport.
In the lodge behind me, elk heads line the walls of our meeting room. Once, Jeff recalls, at a New Year’s Eve party, someone decorated a mounted moose head with a party hat and poked a cigar in its mouth. Jeff was horrified. “I have nothing but respect for those animals,” he says, “and I’ve never seen one walking around with a cigar.” As Jeff sees it, hunters like this are hacks, imposters, identifiable by a criminal, beer-soaked obliviousness to the sacredness of the wild.
“For a client to come in and take his first elk, to harvest an animal, that’s as touching for me as anything,” he says. “You know, American outfitters need to learn as much as we can from African game hunters. It’s an incredible thing to be hoisted up and carried around after you’ve killed your first mature lion. We don’t do that in this culture.”
When, I find myself wondering, could a hiker be similarly celebrated? After he has walked the Appalachian Trail in sandals? Made it across Death Valley with a cracked Nalgene bottle?
With the exception of Becky and myself, everyone around this fire hunts. And when I tell them I do not, I see something unexpected on their faces: pity.