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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?

“Why don’t you put one in the chamber,” Jennifer said. “We’ll be ready next time.”

I loaded a bullet and we kept walking, a little quieter now. All we could hear was the sound of wheat stalks crunching under our boots. Then I spotted them. One deer. No, two.

Then I saw all six, browsing in a wheat pocket below us.

I glanced at Jennifer. She and I slowly backed away from the edge of the bluff, erasing our bodies from the herd’s sight. We crouched and glassed them. “Muleys,” Jennifer whispered.

Mule deer are less skittish than whitetail deer. A whitetail will be in the next county by the time a muley starts thinking about trotting away.

At least one of the deer looked legal: Three points on each side of his rack. I belly-crawled to the lip of the bluff. Grass tickled my cheek. The buck stood broadside, offering a perfect target. The others were bedded down. I glanced at Jennifer.

“The one standing,” I whispered. “Is he legal?”

“Yes.”

I looked through the scope and confirmed it.

And here we came to the point of decision. “You can’t call a bullet back” is a common saying among hunters. At this moment, I can take my finger off the trigger and walk away. But I don’t. Neither my head nor my heart feels the flutter of any last-second moral qualms. Instead, I find myself thinking about bringing food home to my family. Ridiculous? Maybe. But that’s what’s in my head when I pull the trigger.

BOOM.

Though I’d fired it a couple of dozen times, the .270 still rattles me to the core. The calm, clear-eyed world seen through the riflescope goes herky-jerky. For a full second, all six deer freeze.

“Is he hit?” I ask.

“Yep,” says Jennifer. “You got him.”

Five of the deer scatter. They hop over the bluff and tear east for the Snake River. The sixth deer doesn’t get that far. He takes one full step, then bucks high into the air and collapses on his side. He kicks once more before lying still. He’s dead.

“Wow,” I say. “My god.”

Jennifer and I stand and watch the herd disappear over the ridge.

“So how did it feel?” she asks.

“Amazing,” I say, and can’t find words after that. Here’s what I feel, and it’s not going to make me popular among my vegetarian friends. I feel happy. Proud. Fulfilled. The two minutes and 10 seconds that elapsed between the time we spotted the deer and when I pulled the trigger (I kept my tape recorder running, and timed it later) were among the most intense, primal, and profound moments I’ve ever spent in the outdoors. I can’t explain those feelings. But I can’t deny them, either.

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