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Killer Hike

When a lifelong backpacker decides to shoot a deer, will he lose touch with the wilderness he loves--or get closer to it?

Hunting is the act of hiking with a bomb in your hands.

The thought runs through my head as I walk across a stubbled wheat field on a freezing October morning in eastern Washington. I’m in the Palouse, a land of gently rolling bluffs and prairies. The land here unfolds in sensuous dips and swirls, like the topography of a bell pepper. In farming circles, the topsoil under my boots is legendary. A good man with a tractor can grow 75 bushels of wheat an acre, twice what the dirt yields in Kansas. Nobody’s plowing or harvesting at the moment, though. It’s opening day of deer season. Every farmer in the county—or so it seems—is duded up in a blaze-orange vest, rifle in hand, looking to bag a buck.

I’m here on the same mission. I’m wearing the orange vest, the camo cap, and the two-day growth on my chin. I’m toting a Ruger .270, and in my pocket is a permission slip from the state of Washington that allows me to fire it at properly antlered ungulates. I am, for this day at least, and for the first time in my life, a hunter.

“We’ll check out this dry creekbed,” Jennifer says, whispering just loud enough to be heard over the sound of our boots crackling the wheat remnants. “But stay low on the hill. Be careful not to skyline.” Skyline, a verb: To allow one’s silhouette to appear over the crown of a ridge, spooking potential game.

Jennifer Brenner is my mentor. She’s a farm girl raised nearby, and a hunter since she could walk. Brenner, 42, is one part naturalist, one part park ranger (her day job), and two parts Gretchen Wilson. Deer hunting at dawn? Hell yeah!

Nothing flushes from the creek, so we raise our binoculars and glass the hillside across the valley. “I see three over by the eyebrow,” says Brenner. “They’re bucks.”

Eyebrow? I have no idea what she’s talking about. I scan until I see something vaguely deerlike. “By the clump of trees?” I ask.

There’s an uncomfortable pause.

“No,” she says. “Those are our horses.”

We keep walking. Brenner asks, cautiously, “Your rifle’s unloaded, right?”

I open the bolt. “Right.”

We head up a little rise and spot more deer. Six muleys, three bucks of legal size. Ever so slowly, I ease the rifle bolt forward and raise the scope to eye level. Brenner, looking at the deer through her binoculars, whispers the go-ahead. They’re legal. Through the crosshairs, I can see a clear shot. I can also see my point of decision: To take a life or let it go.

I’ve been walking with a deadly explosive. Now I’m aiming it.

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